A push to try preteens as adults

  • Article by: BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 10, 2011 - 9:22 PM

An "unspeakable" crime in 2006 triggered a bill that would move the most violent young offenders out of juvenile court. It has a key GOP lawmaker's support.

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Lynn, front, and Travis Johnson told the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee about their 2-year-old daughter’s death at the hands of a 13-year-old.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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Should a 10-year-old be considered an adult?

Minnesota children that young who have been charged with violent crimes could be certified as adults, under a bill that is moving through the House. Under current law, children have to be at least 14 before they can be charged as adults.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, has been dubbed "Emily's Law," named for 2-year-old Emily Johnson, who was killed in 2006 by the 13-year-old son of her day-care provider in Fergus Falls.

Her parents, Lynn and Travis Johnson, testified about their loss, the fifth time they have done so in as many years. "This is our fifth year," Lynn Johnson said. "We have asked for people to work with us. The system has failed miserably."

She asked why the age of 14 is a "magical age" and why "our daughter is lying in the ground" when her killer is free.

"These kids are not kids anymore when they commit intentional murder," Travis Johnson told a packed House committee on Thursday. "They need to be punished."

Members of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee took no action on Thursday, but Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, its chairman, made it clear he plans to push for the bill's passage.

"My intention is to move forward and not let it die again," Cornish said, admonishing members to "keep in mind little Emily" instead of a young offender he dubbed "little Johnny."

The bill would allow a judge to certify children as young as 10 if they are accused of murder, manslaughter, assault, aggravated robbery or sexual conduct.

Minors between the ages of 14 and 17 can already be certified as adults. According to the bill's supporters, 13 states allow violent offenders to be certified at ages younger than 14. In Kansas and Vermont, the youngest age is 10.

Westrom said that Colorado also allows 10-year-olds to be tried as adults if they're facing murder charges. "The whole basis is what's been used elsewhere," he said, noting that he'd be willing to negotiate for a certification age between 10 and 13. No one, he said, "can argue that the system doesn't need to be improved."

But representatives of the state's county attorneys, the public defender's office, community corrections officials and the association representing corrections officers all spoke out against the bill.

"It does not deter crime; it aggravates recidivism and jeopardizes public safety," said Michael Belton, deputy director of juvenile corrections for Ramsey County.

While empathizing with the Johnsons' pain -- as did all of those who testified against the bill -- Belton said that such "unspeakable acts" are still rare in Minnesota and no change in the law is necessary.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, differed. "Heinous crimes seem to be [committed by] lower and lower [age] levels of our children," he said.

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said 10-year-olds should not be treated as adults because "they don't have the capacity to think and function as an adult. Seeing a child as an adult is a failure on our part."

Most of the 50 spectators at the hearing were black and alarmed, they said, that the bill could exacerbate existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system -- a point also made by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

"As an African-American, I'm afraid the law would impact racial disparities," Minneapolis resident Al Flowers said. "Don't use this law to have an impact on our community."

Bob von Sternberg • 612-518-3182

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