Study: Incarcerating youths in adult prisons leads to abuse, higher costs

Chris Togneri
| Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A new study criticizes Pennsylvania for its treatment of juveniles charged with serious crimes.

Prosecuting juveniles in adult courts increases the odds of their abuse in jail or prison, and incarcerating them in adult prisons is more expensive than keeping young offenders in the juvenile system, according to a report released Tuesday by the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

The research examining more than two decades of juvenile prosecutions in adult courts suggests youths held in adult jails and prisons are five times more likely to be sexually or physically abused than adults, and 36 times more likely to commit suicide, said Michele Deitch, an adjunct professor at the university. It costs an average $100,000 per year to house a juvenile in an adult facility, but about $43,000 to house them in a juvenile facility, the report states.

Pennsylvania stood out in part because juveniles charged with criminal homicide start their cases in adult court. Killers convicted of first- and second-degree murder serve mandatory life sentences without parole, Deitch said.

Pennsylvania legislators pushed through a series of "get tough on crime" laws in the 1990s, said Al Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon University criminology professor who served as a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing for a dozen years until 1996.

"The public was concerned about crime and pounded on the Legislature, saying, 'Do something,' " Blumstein said. "So they passed tougher sentences, mandatory minimums; they expanded sentences and the population that falls into that realm. That was a politically satisfying approach."

Pennsylvania has more juveniles sentenced to life in prison than any other state. According to an unrelated 2008 study published by the University of San Francisco's Center for Law and Global Justice, nearly one-fifth of the nation's 2,381 juvenile lifers were sentenced in Pennsylvania.

The University of Texas study cites the high-profile case of Jordan Brown, 11, of Lawrence County as an example. Brown is charged with two counts of criminal homicide for the Feb. 20 slayings of his father's girlfriend, Kenzie Marie Houk, 26, and her unborn son. If convicted of murder, he could become the youngest person in U.S. history to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, Deitch said.

Lawrence County District Attorney John Bongivengo said he will fight any effort to move the case to juvenile court.

"Even though he's only 11, it's probably one of the more cold-blooded cases you'll see," Bongivengo said. "That raises a huge red flag in my mind."

But he said he wants state sentencing regulations to be changed to allow for more middle ground. A murder conviction would put Brown behind bars for the rest of his life in prison, Bongivengo said. But if the case moves to juvenile court, Brown could be free in as few as four years.

"I just wish I had more options," Bongivengo said.

Brown's lawyers, Dennis Elisco and David Acker, said juveniles should not be tried as adults. The human brain is not fully developed until age 25, Elisco said.

Brown will undergo a psychological evaluation Friday. When the results are available, Elisco and Acker will begin efforts to move the case to juvenile court.

Among other findings in the study:

• In Pennsylvania, youths transferred to adult court and later released are 77 percent more likely to be rearrested, compared to those who remained in the juvenile system.

• On a single day in 2008, more than 7,700 children under age 18 were being held in adult jails and 3,650 were being held in adult state prisons.

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