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.