Juvenile Justice: Too Young for Life in Prison?

Opponents of trying juveniles in adult courts say more needs to be done for the nation's young criminals, and that the law needs to take into account their psychological development and maturity.

The current system is "so at odds with what the research tells us about the kids," said Marsha Levick, deputy director and co-founder of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. "We're deciding at a point in his life when we simply don't have the ability to know who he'll be in 10 or 15 or 20 years."

"It's equal to sentencing someone to die in prison," she said. "It's making these irrevocable decisions about kids under circumstances where the research doesn't support making those kinds of decisions."

But prosecutors say they only consider this scenario if the juvenile is deemed too dangerous for society.

"We do consider all the options for a juvenile court if they don't have a record. Based on the nature of the offence, we automatically send them to juvenile," Beadle said. "There are several layers you go through before you try individuals as an adult."

If the judges are lenient, Williams may still be able to walk free after serving half his sentence -- which could amount to a couple of decades -- but there are many more young offenders that may never experience life outside of prison.

In the same county as Williams, two other teens, Juan Castaneda and Eric Ramirez, are charged for first-degree murder in a 2008 crime spree that killed multiple people.

There are similar cases around the country of juvenile offenders that have committed violent crime. Just last week, a 12-year-old boy in Missouri was charged with two counts of first-degree murder for killing his mother and stepfather. In Pennsylvania, another 12-year-old boy is charged with murdering his father's pregnant fiance.

Meanwhile, juvenile courts are also seeing more cases of non-violent crime.

In 2007, courts with juvenile jurisdiction handled an estimated 1.7 million delinquency cases, up 44 percent from 1985, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Williams' attorney says it is difficult to predict whether the young offender would commit another violent crime in the future, but that he should have gone through all other court-ordered programs available to teenagers before being charged as an adult.

"We can never predict the future. I'm guessing this is a tough lesson he's learned in life and it will hopefully keep him from the streets and gangs," said Williams' attorney, Glenn Shapiro. "He literally just got his life back, and then lost it."

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