Is a child still a child if he is also a felon?

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 26, 2009 - 7:14 PM

Montez wants a future. He wants to attend community college, study nursing and be a good role model for his little brother and sister. He doesn't want to end up like his father, "in and out of jail."

The 19-year-old shared his hopes over pizza and lemonade Friday inside the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing. The facility, whose facade resembles a tony private college save for the intimidating security fences, houses up to 175 of the state's most violent and chronic juvenile offenders.

Montez was sentenced to Red Wing 13 months ago for burglary and drug offenses. Now he attends high school on campus, sings in a choir and volunteers. He also gets round-the-clock observance, counseling, life skills training and tough love from a staff trained in adolescent development.

He likely has no idea how lucky he is.

More than 2,000 young offenders nationwide never had a Red Wing option. Instead, they landed immediately in adult prisons. In Minnesota, 33 offenders serving life sentences in adult prisons were under 18 at the time of commitment.

Whether this is best for the offender or society is a question re-emerging on Minnesota's and the nation's radar. We should all pay attention.

In a few weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether sending a juvenile in non-homicide cases to life in adult prison, with no chance of parole, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. This comes on the heels of a comprehensive study from the University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs that reviewed juvenile conviction practices across the country.

Author Michele Deitch found that 27 states allow children ages 12 and under to be prosecuted as adults. In 22 of those states, children as young as 7 can face adult punishment.

In Minnesota, a child must be 14, but some lawmakers keep working to make it 13 in the most egregious cases. Their mantra: Adult crime, adult time.

Here's the problem: If the goal is keeping kids from becoming career criminals and increasing public safety, adult lock-ups typically are counterproductive. Young offenders face increased risks of physical and sexual assault in adult settings. If they don't commit suicide (the rates are high) many adolescents are released more wounded and angry than when they went in. Deitch also is alarmed that determinations about whether a child is tried as an adult are marked "by extreme arbitrariness, unpredictability and racial disparities."

Perhaps most compelling is a growing body of research showing that the brain is not fully developed until age 25, leading to more risk-taking and less understanding of consequences, but also more hope for rehabilitation.

"There are exceptions, but public safety is best served by not making adult sentencing the rule," said Josh Milow, chair of the Minnesota Corrections Association Legislative Committee, which vigorously opposes lowering the age at which a child can be tried as an adult.

Not everybody buys it.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, has tried three times to pass legislation to lower the age of adult certification to 13, after a boy that age killed the little girl of a family in his district. Suffering the worse loss imaginable, "they felt that this was one way to get through this, which is pretty impossible to do," Nornes said. "It's not dramatically changing state law."

He's adamant that 13-year-olds "know the difference between right and wrong. I have grandkids that age. A 13-year-old is able to do a lot of things, including drive a four-wheeler and hunt with Dad. It takes judgment, and I think a 13-year-old has some."

Those on the other side respect the pain of crime victims.

"When I go to Capitol hearings, my God, the scenarios you hear are just horrendous. ... But reducing public policy to emotion-level decision-making is never good public policy," said Curt Peterson, director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition of Minnesota.

At Red Wing, which houses sexual offenders, gang members and some teenagers there for murder, the rehabilitation rate is 65 percent. Warden Otis Zanders, who spent 20 years in adult facilities before coming to Red Wing 13 years ago, calls those results "extremely good."

Could those young men have been rehabilitated in adult prison? He's seen it happen. But he believes good outcomes are far more likely at a place like Red Wing, which zeroes in on impulse and anger control, moral reasoning and basic skills training.

"Our job is to repair kids," Zanders said.

The fully supervised youth eat meals together and visit a senior center to dance with residents. Many sing in a choir directed by Metropolitan Boys Choir director Bea Hasselmann. Music, said Hasselmann, who has made a weekly trek to Red Wing for eight years, reaches them in powerful ways. One perplexed inmate told her: "When I sing, my eyes water."

Seventeen-year-old Marvin, in for first-degree assault, sang in Hasselmann's choir during Friday's quarterly graduation, and won the campus-wide Peacemaker Award. "I don't think it will be tricky at all to stay on track," said Marvin, who departs next month on parole. Time will tell.

Ultimately, said MCA's Milow, "95 percent of offenders who go into prison are going to come out. We really have to look at what they're going to be."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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