"He's lost … his future is gone."
Fifteen-year-old Charles "Andy" Williams' mother uttered those words after she learned about her son's arrest for a fatal shooting spree in Santana High School.
Some say those words also apply to Lionel Tate, 14, who has been sentenced to life in prison without parole in the wrestling death of his 6-year-old playmate. Under Florida law, Tate faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole for his conviction on first-degree murder charges.
Both Tate, who was 12 when he killed 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick, and Williams, who faces an adult trial under California's Proposition 21, are being punished under strong laws designed to deter other juveniles from committing similar crimes.
However, critics find reasons in both these cases to question the appropriateness of such laws, and whether they have any impact on children.
"There's no question that they don't stop school shootings," said Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that seeks alternatives to incarceration for underage offenders. "I don't think anybody would agree that a change in state policy is going to deter an adolescent — a child — from doing anything. What the laws have done is substitute a broad statement of policy for individualized justice."
Tate: Case Study Of A Failing System?
Tate was tried as an adult under a 1981 Florida statute that gives prosecutors discretion as to whether to charge juveniles as adults. Florida is one of 15 states that grant prosecutors this power.
While a report by the Justice Department last year said that juvenile murder arrests had reached a 33-year low, falling 68 percent between 1994 and 1999, some critics pointed to a study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that found Florida still had the second-highest overall violent crime rate among juveniles in the country — a rate that is 48 percent higher than the rest of the country.
Critics say this, and Tate's imminent sentence, show that laws such as Florida's need to be reconsidered.
"Lionel Tate is an example of the inappropriateness of the charges a prosecutor can bring against a juvenile in these situations," said Soler. "No one really believes that he should have been charged with first-degree murder, as an adult no less."
An adult prison sentence will not likely help Tate, critics argue. Studies published in the journal Crime & Delinquency have said that juveniles in the adult prison system are approximately 33 percent more likely to continue committing crimes than those who have gone through the juvenile system.
One expert says the approach to juvenile justice must change. Despite the seriousness of school shootings and homicide, juvenile offenders are not little adult criminals.
"The laws presume that juveniles are rational beings who weigh the costs and benefits of things before doing them," said Jeffrey Fagan, professor of law at Columbia University and director of its Center for Violence Research and Prevention.
"Well, nothing could be further from the truth. They're kids and that's what makes them kids. I don't think any of the people in the school shootings weighed costs and benefits before they did what they did, and they had plenty of time to think about it. I don't think anything was going to deter them. … they were driven by emotional and psychological factors."
Adult Time For Adult Crime