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August 26, 2009

Law School and LBJ collaboration results in national study on juvenile offenders

From Time Out to Hard Time
Read the report: “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System” [PDF]

Photo of Michele Deitch
Michele Deitch

A national report on juvenile offenders—the result of a unique collaboration in 2007–2008 between the Law School’s Supreme Court Clinic and a team of Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs policy students—is receiving prominent attention, including a recent endorsement in the New York Times.

The policy research report, “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System,” was released by the LBJ School in July and its policy recommendations were endorsed in the lead editorial, “12 and in Prison,” in the New York Times on July 28, 2009.  The report’s lead author was Michele Deitch, an attorney who teaches juvenile-justice and criminal-justice policy at both the LBJ School and the Law School.

The study provides the first-ever comprehensive look at how the nation treats preadolescent children (primarily those age twelve and under) who commit serious crimes. It also analyzes the available data on the transfer of young children to adult criminal court; documents the extremely harsh and tragic consequences that follow when young children go into the adult criminal justice system; profiles practices in states with particularly severe outcomes for these young children; looks at international practices; and offers policy recommendations.

The report finds that more than half the states permit children age twelve and under to be treated as adults for criminal-justice purposes. In twenty-two states, plus the District of Columbia, children as young as seven can be prosecuted and tried in adult court where they would be subject to harsh adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences, and placement in adult prisons.*

Four states stand out as providing the worst possible outcomes for preadolescent offenders, given the combination of transfer policies and adult sentencing laws and practices in those states: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

The research also revealed that every year, nearly eighty children aged thirteen and younger are judicially transferred to adult court, many of them for relatively minor offenses.

The report has its roots in the policy research Deitch and her LBJ students conducted in conjunction with the case of Pittman v. South Carolina, which was handled by the School of Law’s Supreme Court Clinic in 2007–2008. (Articles about this were published at “Law School Clinic Asks U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Major Juvenile Justice Case” on the University of Texas at Austin website, and at “Professor Michele Deitch Leads LBJ Student Team in Policy Work Surrounding Major Juvenile Justice Case” on the LBJ School website.)

The Pittman case challenged the constitutionality of a thirty-year-without-parole sentence imposed on a twelve-year-old boy charged with murder. Professors Michael Sturley and Lynn Blais, codirectors of the Supreme Court Clinic, asked Deitch and her LBJ School team to research the literature on juveniles tried as adults as well as national and international juvenile-justice sentencing practices. The Clinic filed a petition for certiorari from the United States Supreme Court in 2008 drawing on much of this research.

When the Supreme Court denied the cert petition, Deitch and her students decided to turn their research into a report that could be of use to policy-makers and advocates.

Deitch emphasized the national significance of the report and its findings. “State policies allowing for the prosecution of children in adult court contradict the consensus of the most up-to-date scientific research,” Deitch said. “The adult criminal-justice system is a poor and dangerous fit in every way for these young kids. Children should be handled in the juvenile justice system, where they can obtain the rehabilitative services and programs necessary to help them become productive adults. Lawmakers must reconsider and reverse these punitive laws.”

The report also calls on Congress and state lawmakers to disallow mandatory sentencing of young children in adult criminal court, and to always provide parole opportunities for young children transferred to the adult system. The authors also urge that young children in the adult criminal-justice system be housed in juvenile facilities.

Not only did the New York Times back these proposals, but the president of the American Bar Association wrote a letter to the editor supporting the report. The report has generated significant publicity in regional media around the country as well, including editorials in various state newspapers such as the one in Florida Today calling on local lawmakers to address the issue.

* The twenty-two states (plus the District of Columbia) where children as young as seven can be treated as adults are: Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In addition, Kansas and Vermont set the age at ten, and Colorado, Missouri, and Montana allow twelve-year-olds to be transferred to adult court.

Related links:

LBJ School news release with links to press coverage of the national study

LBJ School Alumni Discuss Work on Newly Published Nation-Wide Policy Research Report Focusing on Juvenile Transfer to Adult Court

LBJ Student Team Under Leadership of LBJ Professor Michele Deitch to Prepare Policy Report on Juvenile Sentencing Practices in Aftermath of U.S. Supreme Court Decision; Legislative Reform Sought

Professor Deitch conducted an in-depth interview about the report that aired on KUT in early August: http://kut.org/items/show/17683

Contacts:

Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or kfortune@law.utexas.edu.

Professor Michele Deitch, UT School of Law and LBJ School of Public Affairs, 512-328-8330, mydeitch@aol.com.