2 Teens At Center Of Juvenile Crime Debate

ByBryan Robinson

March 9, 2001 -- "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

Still, advocates of California's Proposition 21 and other laws that favor trying and sentencing juveniles as adults, argue that strong juvenile justice laws are needed because previous laws were just too lenient. The fact that juveniles are continuing to commit certain crimes ignores the point of these laws, they say.

"No law will completely eradicate any crime," said Matt Ross, who led a campaign to pass Proposition 21 last year. "Proposition 21 was designed to deter those who would commit violent crimes from doing so and set up a just punishment for those who commit violent crimes. Before, if a juvenile killed someone, the worst punishment he would face is incarceration in a youth facility until he was 25. After that he could go on with the rest of his life and his criminal record would remain sealed. Meanwhile, the victim is still dead … well, we didn't think that was right."

Ross said that contrary to critics' charges, Proposition 21 does not merely throw juveniles in jail and give up on their future. He said it formalizes the rehabilitation and probation process, requiring juveniles to participate in rehab programs, giving juvenile probation the same standards as adult probation. And he noted that Proposition 21 is not a blanket measure that covers all juvenile offenders — it focuses on violent offenders.

Reaching Out And Not Giving Up

However, some say they are not ready to protect the public by trying the Santana High School shooting suspect as an adult, despite the charges against him.

"Just from hearing interviews with people who knew this child, those who knew him back [in his former home] in Maryland, it seems like there were some pretty harsh, relentless things, some relentless teasing, going on," said Soler. "There are some things I'd like to know before deciding to try this kid as an adult."

Soler said he still believed Tate and Williams should be punished, but their cases have to be considered individually. They should not be judged by the same standards as the most hardened criminals because the circumstances surrounding their alleged crimes are different.

"Anybody who's a parent of a child in these situations believes their child should be punished," Soler said. "But they also want every circumstance considered." If not, Soler argues, no one gets everything they want out of the justice system.

Despite his opposing views on how to combat juvenile crime, Ross pointed out that something must be done to stop children from getting to the point where they feel the need to start shooting people at their schools or go on violent crime sprees.

"We have to start reaching out to these kids, talking to them, whether it be at the home or at school, looking for signs before they even get to that point," said Ross. "We have to figure out some way to reach these kids."

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