Juvenile Justice: Too Young for Life in Prison?

Numerous juveniles face lengthy sentences in adult courts.

July 9, 2010, 6:11 PM

July 12, 2010— -- At the age of 16, Cameron Williams lives a life far removed from the world of other teenagers.

Williams, who celebrated his sixteenth birthday in jail, faces up to 110 years behind bars for second-degree attempted murder and use of a weapon to commit a felony.

In November, Williams shot at a police officer in Omaha, Nebraska as he was being chased after being pulled over in a car with two other men.

He's also charged with robbery and assault in another county.

Even though he is a minor, Williams was charged in an adult court because of his troublesome history and the "serious nature of the crime," the county attorney's office said.

"Anybody who pulls a gun and aims it at a police officer is a very serious threat and I would consider him a very dangerous individual," chief deputy Brenda Beadle told ABC News.

Williams is one of many young adults facing the prospect of life in prison as the debate over whether juveniles should be tried as adults rages on.

The Justice Department estimates that about 10 percent of all homicides are committed by juveniles under the age of 18. Nearly every year, the FBI arrests more than 33,000 young adults under the age of 18 for offenses.

The number of violent crimes committed by young people declined substantially from the 1990s to 2003, but then surged again that year, with the estimated number of juvenile murder offenders increasing 30 percent, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Juvenile Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich, one of five judges in Douglas County's juvenile courts -- a system Williams has been through in the past -- says there is a disturbing trend of increasing violence among young people.

"Uniformly in our communities, more and more young people are engaging in more and more dangerous and serious behavior. And I see as a result of that, more prosecutors and the citizens generally seem to be exerting more pressure to charge these youths as adults, as opposed to having them processed through the juvenile justice system," she said.

Juvenile courts focus on rehabilitation, unlike adult jails and prisons, where criminals are subject to incarceration and much harsher sentences. Today, virtually every juvenile offender who has a past criminal history, or is arrested for a violent crime like rape or murder, is tried in an adult court.

Should Juvenile Offenders be Charged in Adult Courts?

The trend began in the 1990s, when virtually every state expanded the rules under which juvenile offenders could be charged as adults.

"The juvenile justice system has been 'reinvented' in the image of the adult criminal justice system," Robert Schwartz, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, and Thomas Grisso, a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, wrote in an executive summary for their book, "Youth on Trial." "In the words of one 'get-tough' advocate, juvenile offenders 'are criminals who happen to be young, not children who happen to be criminal."

In May, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that will soften sentences against some juveniles. The nation's highest court ruled that juvenile offenders who haven't been convicted of murder cannot be sentenced to life in prison without any chance of parole. The United States was the only country, prior to the ruling, that did not have a such a law.

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."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events