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Frontline

Juvenile Justice (#1908)

By the time he was seventeen, Manny was already a veteran San Jose gang member whose run-ins with the law included a juvenile court conviction for rape. In October 1999, five months before his eighteenth birthday, Manny was charged with the attempted murder of a pregnant woman and her family, and prosecutors said "Enough." After repeated contacts with the state's juvenile system, they say, Manny doesn't deserve any more chances. They want his case transferred to the adult courts, where a conviction will give him a permanent, adult criminal record and could mean an adult prison sentence of more than ten years. Should teenagers who commit serious crimes be tried as juveniles or adults? What happens to young offenders who reach the "end of the line" in the juvenile court system and can you rehabilitate such young people to prevent future criminal behavior? FRONTLINE explores these questions in "Juvenile Justice," a 90-minute documentary airing Tuesday, January 30, at 10 P.M. on PBS ( check local listings). With unprecedented access to juvenile court proceedings which are usually closed to the public and rarely seen on television "Juvenile Justice" follows four youth offenders through the Santa Clara County, California juvenile courts, observing how the criminal justice system treats their cases and determines their fates. In addition to Manny, viewers meet Jose, a 15-year-old gang member sentenced to Juvenile Hall for his role in the beating death of a 16-year-old; Shawn, a middle-class white teen who pleaded guilty to trying to murder his father; and Marquese, an African-American teen who in the past five years has been charged with numerous felonies and has spent nearly 900 days in juvenile detention. "While their crimes are different and they come from diverse backgrounds, these four teens are all united by the fact that they each have reached a crossroads in the criminal justice system," says FRONTLINE producer Janet Tobias. "One road leads to rehabilitation in the juvenile system; the other leads to punishment in the adult system." In the past decade, nearly every state in the union has passed laws or amended legislation to make it easier to prosecute and sentence children as adults. In March 2000, California followed the national trend by passing Proposition 21, which requires that juveniles who commit certain violent felonies be tried as adults. The law also increases the penalty for some crimes. Proposition 21's passage, proponents say, was fueled by a society fed up with a juvenile justice system that offers little more than a slap on the wrist to children who commit serious crimes. "Where there is...public outrage, is that with that small percentage of crime at the far end of the system, the juvenile justice response has remained inappropriate," Santa Clara County prosecutor Kurt Kumli tells FRONTLINE. "It is difficult for prosecutors, including myself, to see a kid who has had twelve contacts with the [criminal justice] system showing an escalating pattern of criminal sophistication, who has been everywhere in the juvenile court system, who if he were, say, two months older would be going to state prison get essentially a serious felony crime with no time and no consequences attached." Indeed, some question whether the system's repeated attempts to rehabilitate habitual youth offenders is serving the interests of overall justice. Gang unit probation officers Angel Mina and Raul Torres, for example, believe Jose who was convicted as an adult but served his time in a juvenile facility got off too lightly. "What really upset us was that [he] went to court and got 200 days in Juvenile Hall for killing somebody," Mina says. "You can call it involuntary manslaughter. But still, this kid died and his family had to go identify his body in the condition it was in. "And I think, `Yeah, rehabilitation. That's great. That's fine.' But where's the justice for the families?" That sentiment is echoed by Bob Riskin, whose home was burglarized by Marquese while the teen was on parole from the California Youth Authority (CYA) the state's juvenile prison system. "[Marquese] has visited the youth authority many times and the answer has still been the same," Riskin tells FRONTLINE. "He's come out and continued on doing what he does best. And for people like ourselves, the most important answer is that he doesn't do it anymore. And if that means putting him aside for a number of years that might be a better answer for society. All the other answers haven't worked." But others aren't so sure among them Joanne Riskin, Bob's wife. While she admits to feeling more fearful and less secure since the burglary, she doubts time spent in an adult prison would rehabilitate Marquese, who began stealing at age twelve under the tutelage of his mother, an admitted drug addict who has been in and out of jail herself. " Originally, I really felt that he should be tried as an adult," Joanne Riskin says. "The more I have read about it and the more we have talked about it, however, I'm not sure that would have been the right answer...What I feel most bad about is why didn't our system take him out of the environment completely when he was young to give him a different kind of life?" Critics of California's Proposition 21 include some juvenile court judges, who have lost much of their discretion in determining whether an offender stays within the juvenile system or moves on to the adult courts. The new law comes at a time, they say, when the juvenile system is already shifting away from its traditional focus on rehabilitation toward a "mini-adult" model that emphasizes punishment and stiffer sentencing. "The juvenile system is not set up, `You do the crime, you do the time,'" juvenile court Judge LaDoris Cordell tells FRONTLINE. "The juvenile system says, `You do the crime, you' re gonna do some time, but you're also going to get some help from us to figure out what's wrong, if we can, so that we don't see you anymore.' That's the whole notion of juvenile justice. "And my fear is [this] `you do the crime, you do the time' notion, it's beginning to take more and more of a foothold in the juvenile system. And when that happens...we will not have juvenile justice, ever." Prosecuting juvenile offenders as adults, Cordell contends, is tantamount to the system admitting defeat. "The problem is we're taking 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds and we're giving up on them," she says. "We're saying, `You've committed a crime and we're just going to give up on you'...we're throwing away these kids." Former public defender Bridgett Jones believes the criminal justicesystem needs to distinguish between juvenile and adult offenders. " Children are not little adults," she says. "They think differently. They respond and react to things differently than adults do_So why should the consequences be the same as for an adult?" Prosecutor David Soares disagrees. "The voters in this state and the legislature have decided that in fact there are many 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds who are as intellectually and criminally sophisticated as adult offenders," he says. "And the decisions that have been made by our lawmakers and by the voters are that we look at their actions and [determine] are they engaging in the actions of an adult." At issue is whether the juvenile justice system has been_or even can be successful in rehabilitating young criminals. And if they can be rehabilitated, will it be enough to regain society's trust? It's a question even some youth offenders have trouble answering. "Even if I want to change, people are still gonna look at me like I'm a gangster," says Manny, the teen charged with attempted murder. "Even with a high school diploma, all you are is a gangster with a high school diploma." Therein lies the problem, public defender Jones says: that ultimately, the power of rehabilitation and redemption lies not within the offenders, but with society. "The only thing that's going to work with kids like [these] is a willingness of the community to r
[86 minutes] Closed Captioning

This episode has not aired in the past few months on Iowa Public Television.

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