Wednesday, March 2, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hardened Kids Doing Harder Time For Crimes

Sitting quietly between his attorneys and his parents, the teenage boy alternately sobs and stares without blinking at a box of Kleenex in front of him as a King County detective recites the facts for Juvenile Court Judge Bobbe Bridge:

During a busy shopping weekend just before Christmas at a Federal Way mall, two groups of young people exchanged looks, words and gang signs. Shots rang out, and 16-year-old Zac Spears lay dying in a pool of blood in front of a movie theater at SeaTac Mall. The alleged gunman turned to his comrades as they fled across the parking lot, yelling, "Did I get him? Did I get him?"

Looking at this just-turned-15-year-old kid with slicked-back hair and trembling lips, it's easier to see him playing with Legos, as his mother says he still does, than it is to picture him aiming to kill.

But increasingly, judges are treating these accused child-felons the same way Bridge did with Cory Charleston last month - sending them to be tried in adult courts.

In Charleston's case, it's the difference between a maximum six years in the juvenile system and 16 years in the adult system if he is convicted.

We used to view them as children first, too young to face adult penalties for their crimes. Now society is seeing them primarily as felons, unredeemable and hardened despite their youth.

What's changed is the nature of their crimes and the feeling that there's not much, if anything, we can do to help them.

"We're not talking about Beaver Cleaver who took a wrong turn. We're talking about kids with nine or 10 felony convictions," said Nelson Hunt, Lewis County prosecutor and head of the juvenile committee for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Last year, 157 children were tried as adults in Washington, up from 101 in 1992. More telling, juvenile-court judges last year decided almost twice as often to remand children to adult court as they did in 1992.

Nationally, the number of children waived into adult courts increased 39 percent between 1987 and 1991, the most recent year figures are available, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Several proposals in front of lawmakers in Olympia this legislative session would annually send between 40 and 100 more children accused of murder, rape and other serious crimes to the adult system automatically.

But are we giving up too soon on the ones who most need help? Or does being tough on crime also require us to be tough on kids? The criminal-justice system and children's advocates are struggling to answer those questions.

Judges call it the most critical decision they make in criminal cases involving children - whether to keep them in the juvenile system or "decline" them, meaning to decline jurisdiction and send them to an adult court.

"I think we tend to be extremely conservative about it," said Judge Kathryn Trumbull of Snohomish County Superior Court, who recently completed a six-month stint at juvenile court. "If we err, it's perhaps on the side of keeping them for longer than we should in the juvenile system."

The difference is as much a matter of philosophy as it is of time behind bars. In the juvenile system, where the state's authority to hold the offender expires on his or her 21st birthday, the focus is on rehabilitation. The statute books refer to sentences in terms of days or weeks. In the adult system, the point is punishment and the sentences are significantly longer.

State law requires a judge to hold a hearing for all juveniles accused of violent offenses or serious repeat offenses to determine whether the offender belongs in juvenile or adult court.

The judge must consider seven criteria in making the decision, including the seriousness of the crime, the sophistication of the child and public safety.

These days, the faces of criminals accused of some of the most heinous crimes seem just as likely to have peach fuzz as full beards. To put it in perspective, violent crimes account for only a small fraction of all crimes committed by minors. But they are increasing. More and more, prosecutors and judges are looking at these kids as lost causes and treating them accordingly.

"The old days of Father Flanagan saying there's no such thing as a bad boy are gone," said Newman Flanagan, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va.

Prosecutors argue the state's juvenile-justice system, created in 1913, was built for kids whose most serious crime was joy-riding in a stolen car, not killing a member of an opposing gang.

"Once they reach 16 or 17 and they're committing these kinds of crimes, they're already lost," said Jim Townsend, Snohomish County's chief criminal deputy prosecutor. "Considering the scarce resources available, it makes sense not to waste time on a lost cause."

But defense attorneys, children's advocates and others call that a cop-out. If the juvenile system is broken - and most agree it is - money should be spent to fix it rather than giving up on the children who most need help.

"It's one thing to say a kid can't be rehabilitated. It's another to say that when there hasn't been a concerted effort made," said Christie Hedman, executive director of the Washington Defender Association, representing the state's public defenders.

Money that could be spent building up treatment programs, hiring more probation officers and increasing the efficiency of the juvenile system instead will be spent later to build more prison cells to warehouse children serving adult sentences, she said.

Crime school?

Sending kids to adult prisons is like enrolling them in "crime school," some say - they come out hard and well-taught by older felons in criminal technique.

"Why would you want to use a broken solution to deal with juvenile crime?" asked John Henry Hingson III, an Oregon City, Ore., attorney and president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Sending them to adult prisons hardly seems to be in the best interests of anyone."

A group of inmates at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe agrees. Eight of them wrote a letter to the sentencing judge on behalf of 16-year-old Jeremiah Bourgeois, sentenced to life without possibility of parole last year for murdering a witness to a crime committed by his older brother.

" . . . this would be the worst thing in the world for a kid to be placed in. This environment is hard on men, but sir, a boy in this environment would ruin him for the rest of his life. . . . Please do not send him here," they wrote.

As of Feb. 1, there were 30 children under 18 sentenced to adult prisons. Four of them - including the youngest, 14 - are serving the first years of their sentences in juvenile facilities until they are considered able to survive in the adult system.

They must be transferred to adult prisons by their 18th birthdays.

Legislative proposals that would increase the number of children sent to adult courts concern social workers and others, who say the mechanism already is in place to do that with children accused of the most serious crimes.

The new laws automatically would send 16- and 17-year-olds accused of the most serious crimes, or repeat offenses on lesser crimes, into the adult courts without a hearing. Another bill would automatically transfer anyone 14 or older who commits a violent offense while armed with a firearm into adult court.

Prosecutors and lawmakers say the idea is simple - lock up the worst juvenile offenders and watch the crime rate drop. Others say it is too simple.

"The motivation isn't decreasing juvenile violence. It has more to do with politics and saving time and money," said Ned Dolejsi, director of the Washington State Catholic Conference.

Voters and politicians may want to believe that harsher punishment has a deterrent effect, but there's no evidence to support that, said University of Washington law professor Jane Ellis, who is teaching a first-ever juvenile-justice seminar this semester.

"Society is wrestling on a deep level with when we think kids become responsible for themselves," she said. "Instead of taking care of kids and adolescents more, we're just trying to force them to grow up faster so we don't have to worry about them."

Locking up kids longer might serve a short-term public-safety purpose, but those offenders will get out one day - uneducated, untrained and untreated.

"There's nothing changing anybody's attitude about life," said George Mattson, a King County Superior Court judge who just finished serving two years in juvenile court. "I'm not convinced the public would necessarily be better served by that."

One solution most everyone agrees on: putting more money into helping kids early, through their families, schools, prenatal care and social programs to prevent them from reaching the juvenile justice system at all.

Statistics also seem to show that better treatment programs for first-time or minor offenders would make a difference.

A state study of the "class of '82," juvenile offenders released from juvenile facilities in 1982, showed 43 percent reoffended within the first six months and 80 percent reoffended within two years. The recidivism rate for the "class of '92" dropped to 33 percent in the first six months.

Sid Sidorowicz, acting director of the Division of Juvenile Rehabilitation, said part of the difference in those 10 years was that lawmakers started investing more in treatment programs for substance abusers, sex offenders and others.

If anyone made an investment in helping Cory Charleston, it didn't appear to take. Charleston's criminal history began at age 10 and includes four charges ranging from criminal trespassing to reckless endangerment for throwing a cup at the windshield of a passing car. He received probation for each.

Charges are pending in three other incidents, including assault and carrying a concealed weapon.

Despite strong appeals from his attorneys, his parents, probation counselors and a psychologist to keep him in juvenile court, Judge Bridge said both Charleston and the public would be better served if he went to trial as an adult.

She called the crime he allegedly committed "willful, aggressive and violent." Bridge said that in a statement to police, Charleston allegedly indicated his only regrets seemed to be in "shooting the wrong guy . . . and worrying about going to prison and hell."

Charleston let out a wail as corrections officers led him from the courtroom.

----------------------- Kids in court as adults -----------------------

Some notable crimes committed during the past two years in which juveniles have been accused of killing and ordered to stand trial as adults:

-- Cory Charleston, 15, faces a maximum of 16 years in prison if convicted of murdering another youth at the SeaTac Mall in December.

-- Aries Faletogo, 16, was convicted Feb. 2 of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder for an unprovoked attack on a couple sitting on a park bench at Alki Beach. He faces at least 35 years in prison.

-- Jeremiah Bourgeois, 16, is serving a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole for killing a High Point grocer who testified against his brother.

-- Miguel Gaitan, 14, of Granger, Yakima County, was sentenced to four consecutive life terms for the March 1993 beating and stabbing deaths of all four members of a family at their home in Outlook.

-- Joel Ramos, also 14, pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree murder in August in the same case and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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