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States reconsidering approaches to juvenile justice

Editor's Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of stories by the Associated Press on ways in which America is reconsidering its get-tough approach to juvenile justice. Please see Tuesday's Citizen for part two.

A generation after America decided to get tough on kids who commit crimes - sometimes locking them up for life - the tide may be turning.

States are rethinking and, in some cases, retooling juvenile sentencing laws. They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

"It's really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy," says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. "People didn't know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it."

Juvenile crime is down, in contrast to the turbulent days of the 1990s when politicians vied to pass laws to get violent kids off the streets. Now, in calmer times, some champion community programs for young offenders to replace punitive measures they say went too far.

"The net was thrown too broadly," says Howard Snyder, director of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. "When you make these general laws ... a lot of people believe they made it too easy for kids to go into the adult system and it's not a good place to be."

Some states are reconsidering life without parole for teens. Some are focusing on raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, while others are exploring ways to offer kids a second chance, once they're locked up - or even before.

"There has been a huge sea change ... it's across the country," says Laurie Garduque, program director at the MacArthur Foundation, which has worked extensively on juvenile justice reform. "It certainly helps that there has been a decline in juvenile crime and delinquency."

Not everyone, though, believes there's reason to roll back harsher penalties adopted in the 1990s.

"The laws that were changed were appropriate and necessary," says Minnesota prosecutor James Backstrom. "We need to focus on protecting the public - that's number one. Then we can address the needs of the juvenile offenders."

Each year, about 200,000 defendants under 18 are sent directly or transferred to the adult system, known as criminal court, according to rough estimates.

Most end up there because of state laws that automatically define them as adults, due to their age or offense. Their ranks rose in the 1990s as juvenile crime soared and legislators responded; 48 states made it easier to transfer kids into criminal court, according to the juvenile justice center.

These changes gave prosecutors greater latitude - they could transfer kids without a judge's permission - and lowered the age or expanded the list of crimes that would make it mandatory for a case to be tried there.

Some states also adopted blended sentences in which two sanctions could be imposed simultaneously; if the teen follows the terms of the juvenile sentence, the adult sentence is revoked.

The changes were ushered in to curb an explosion in violent crime - the teen murder arrest rate doubled from 1987 to 1993 as the crack trade and guns flourished - and to address mounting frustrations with the juvenile justice system.

A series of horrific crimes by kids rattled the nation:

· In Michigan, a baby-faced sixth grader, Nathaniel Abraham, shot and killed a stranger who was leaving a convenience store. When he was arrested in his classroom, his face was painted for Halloween.

· In Florida, Lionel Tate was 12 when he beat and stomped to death a playmate half his age.

· In Chicago, two boys, then 10 and 11, dangled, then dropped 5-year-old Eric Morse to his death from a 14th-story vacant public housing apartment. His terrified brother raced down the stairs, hoping he could somehow catch Eric.

Some politicians began using the phrase "adult crime, adult time." There were predictions of even bleaker days ahead.

Some warned that by the end of the century, thousands of remorseless kids - a new generation of "superpredators" - would be committing murder, rape or robbery, joining gangs and dealing drugs.

"There was an organized effort to label kids and make people afraid of juveniles," Snyder says. "People were saying their mothers had smoked crack, their DNA had changed. ... they were no longer the same people. They tried to make it seem these kids are different from your kids and that you need to do something."

But the super-vicious breed of criminal never emerged. (The professor who coined the term "superpredator" later expressed regret.) Drug trafficking declined. An improved economy produced more jobs. And the rate of juvenile violent crime arrests plummeted 46 percent from 1994 to 2005, according to federal figures.

"When crime goes down, people have an opportunity to be more reflective than crisis-oriented and ask, "Was this policy a good policy?"' Bilchik says.