Keith Pearl was with three friends when one of them allegedly stole two pairs of gym shoes, two T-shirts, and six pairs of socks from a classmate. He claims he had nothing to do with the robbery, but was just there when it happened. Still, under Illinois's accountability law, Keith was charged with two counts of armed robbery and put in the Cook County Jail. That's because the high school senior was 17, considered an adult by Illinois law. After serving several weeks in the adult facility, he was given probation and released.
Keith is one of an estimated 200,000 US juveniles under the age of 18 who ended up in the adult criminal justice system in 2006. That's an increase of more than 200 percent since the 1990s, when states around the country began passing laws that required some juvenile offenders to be treated as adults.
The goal of such legislation was to ensure that the most egregious offenders – young murderers and rapists – were not released back into society when they aged out of the juvenile justice system at 18. But a report released Wednesday by the Campaign for Youth Justice, a nonprofit group advocating system reform, found that the majority of juveniles who are now being tried and jailed in the adult system are not violent offenders. A handful of states are reconsidering their laws on juvenile offenders, and others expect to this year.
"We now have children as young as 14 and 15, in their formative years, who are being housed with hardened criminals," says Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators in Braintree, Mass. "And unless the youth has a life sentence, they're going to be coming out sooner rather than later, and they're going to be more of a threat to our public safety than if they'd been in the juvenile system where they can get services."
Currently, 40 states have laws that allow juvenile offenders to be tried and sentenced as adults. In a few, including Connecticut, anyone over 15 is automatically treated as an adult, no matter what the offense. In other states, like Illinois, judges can decide whether to try juveniles as adults, although some violent offenses are automatically tried as adult crimes.
Many of these laws were passed when crime had ticked up to record highs in the early 1990s and conservative criminologists were talking about a new breed of "superpredator" youths. In most cases, legislatures acted after a particularly sensational case, such the attack on a Central Park jogger in 1989, when police said that a gang of roving kids raped and beat a woman almost to death. But in the ensuing years, crime has dropped significantly, and the superpredator theory has been discounted. And 13 years after five youths were convicted in the Central Park attack, an older serial rapist confessed to the crime.
New research has also shown that juveniles serving in adult facilities are at a much higher risk of being assaulted or abused. They also have significantly higher rates of recidivism compared with similar kids in the juvenile system.
"In fairness to the legislators, when they passed these laws, sometimes in haste, they didn't have all the information that we have now," says Liz Ryan, executive director of the Campaign for Youth Justice.
A handful of states have already revised some of their legislation. Others have set up commissions to study the issue. Ms. Ryan and other youth advocates are also pressing for Congress to amend legislation so that states are forbidden from housing any juvenile in an adult jail before trial.
But some conservative criminologists say the changes in the law in the 1990s have helped bring about the drop in crime. The laws are working as they should, they believe. "Usually, when a child is moved to the adult system, it's a case where they have a long history of crime," says David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
For his part, Keith went to night school to make up for the time he was in jail. He graduated and now intends to go to college. But because he has an adult felony conviction, his ability to get college loans will be limited.