Friday, January 18, 2008


Posted on Fri, Jan. 18, 2008
Kids killing kids tests justice system

He stands 4-feet-11 and weighs 90 pounds. He reads Hardy Boys mystery novels. He watches TV cartoons.
Depending on an upcoming decision by Broward prosecutors, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
A 12-year-old Lauderhill boy, who has been charged with killing his 17-month-old cousin Jan. 4 with a wooden baseball bat, is the latest preteen who may face adult time with grown-up prisoners. The state's juvenile justice system provides few other options.
''This type of case challenges all of us -- prosecutors, public defenders and judges,'' said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is defending the boy.
Said Frank Orlando, a retired Broward juvenile judge who now heads the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at Nova Southeastern University's law school: ``This isn't the last time this is going to happen. There are a number of states that have so advanced the issue of how you deal with these kids that it makes Florida look silly.''
The 12-year-old was arrested by Lauderhill police one day after he called emergency dispatchers to report that a toddler he was baby-sitting apparently had stopped breathing. He was charged with first-degree murder, and Broward prosecutors have yet to decide whether he will be tried as an adult or remain in juvenile court.
If he is indicted as an adult, and convicted of first-degree murder, a judge may have no choice but to sentence him to life imprisonment. Another Broward youth, Lionel Tate, received such punishment until then-Gov. Jeb Bush commuted his sentence, partly in response to widespread condemnation.
A Miami-Dade boy, Michael Hernandez, was arrested in 2004, one day after his 14th birthday, and charged with killing his best friend with a knife in a restroom at Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay. Hernandez will be tried as an adult and faces a life sentence.
Dan Mears, who worked for about three years with delinquent youths in Texas, and now teaches criminology at Florida State University, said such cases are ''outliers,'' and present far greater challenges to judges, prosecutors and youth corrections administrators than most youthful crime.
''These are just hard cases,'' Mears said. ``The public wants punishment. But these kids don't fit in the adult world, in an adult prison. They don't fit really well in the juvenile system, either.''
The public, Mears said, wants children who kill to have their lives ``deep-sixed for a while -- and it's hard to generate sympathy. No matter how much the kid is a kid -- no matter how much they can be rehabilitated -- people want 10 or 15 years out of the kid's life, maybe more.''
Children's advocates, and even some lawmakers and youth program administrators, shudder at the prospect of a prepubescent child never seeing life outside of prison.
The Broward boy's alleged crime, said former state Rep. Gus Barreiro, ``is horrific for the family of the baby, and horrific for this 12-year-old boy.''
''But we have to have a threshold, as a society, where we will not make a decision to throw away the key on a 12-year-old,'' said Barreiro, who now runs a treatment program for young offenders in North Miami.
The parents of 17-month-old Shaloh Joseph have asked that the boy not be prosecuted, or that he remain in the juvenile system.
Orlando, who served as a juvenile judge for more than 20 years, said Florida has been slow to embrace new policies or sentencing options that have been successful elsewhere.
One program, sometimes referred to as blended sentencing, allows judges to send young offenders to juvenile camps to serve their sentence until juvenile court jurisdiction expires -- at age 21 in Florida. Then, if the crime was particularly egregious, the offender can either serve additional time, or a long probation, in the adult corrections system.
A 2001 study of youths given extended sentences or probation in the adult system in Minnesota found that most offenders had committed violent crimes, such as second-degree assault or aggravated robbery.
Mears said such sentencing protocols often are ``attempts to create laws that provide middle ground.''
In general, Mears said, juvenile justice systems provide more rehabilitative and treatment options than adult prisons do, and some scholars and policy analysts regard them as more likely to turn a child around.
Attorney and children's advocate Levi Williams said he has followed the 12-year-old's case with mixed emotions.
After the Lionel Tate case, Williams said activists and legislators had the perfect opportunity to push for changes in the law. But it didn't happen.
''After the cameras fade and the sound bites are done, we lower ourselves into apathy,'' Williams said. ``And we don't follow through with activism.
''I think it's unconscionable to put a 12-year-old child in adult prison,'' said Williams, who has gotten several calls from civic groups for advice on how to rally on behalf of the child.
Some states do not permit the transfer of young children into adult court, even for premeditated murder.
In New Mexico, a child must be at least 15 to be tried as an adult, and even children who commit atrocious crimes remain in juvenile court, where they are released no later than age 21.
''We would not prosecute a juvenile at 12 years old in adult court,'' said Tom Swisstack, a state representative from Rio Rancho who also is director of Albuquerque's juvenile detention center. New Mexico's juvenile justice laws ''are geared toward rehabilitation,'' Swisstack said.
Swisstack said that, to date, no kid released at 21 after a murder conviction has been rearrested for a similar offense.
''We are a poor state, but we try to intensify services for kids,'' Swisstack said. ``We don't just open the door and say goodbye.''
Miami Herald staff writer Natalie P. McNeal contributed to this report.

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