LOS ANGELES -- When Michigan prosecuters charged 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham with murder in 1997, the suspect's age was not the most sensational part of the xase -- it was the fact that Michigan law allowed him to be charged as an adult.
After a three-week trial ended in a conviction late last year, Abraham was sentenced to a juvenile facility until age 21, when he will be sent to an adult prison if still deemed a threat to society. Under Michigan law, there were two other options for the judge: sentence Abraham as a juvenile and set him free at age 21, or sentence him to up to life in prison as an adult.
The Abraham case encapsulated what has become a national debate on juvenile justice, and the next high-profile flashpoint appears to be a controversial California ballot measure that goes even farther than current Michigan law.
Proposition 21, to be decided by voters on March 7, requires adult trials for juveniles 14 or older charged with murder or specified sex crimes; eliminates informal probation for juveniles committing felonies; requires statewide reporting of felony juvenile records and increases punishments for gang-related felonies, including mandating the death penalty for gang-related murders.
The most controversial provision in the measure allows prosecutors, instead of judges, to determine whether juveniles accused of violent crimes should be tried as adults.
Supporters of the "Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act," including California Gov. Gray Davis and former governor Pete Wilson, say it is a measure of the public's willingness to follow a zero tolerance policy toward juvenile crime.
"Children who kill children should not be released in three years," said Jean Adenika-Morrow, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles whose son was killed by a 14-year-old. Adenika-Morrow was speaking to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who voted 3-2 on February 8 not to endorse the statewide ballot measure.
Opponents, including the California House Speaker and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, say the proposal would unfairly throw children into an adult justice system and give up on any hope of rehabilitating young offenders. In addition, they cite the state's estimate that the measure would result in costs of at least $37 million dollars annually.
"This is the absurd outer limit of the get-tough approach," said Franklin Zimrig, a criminologist at University of California at Berkeley.
The California debate over Proposition 21 mirrors a debate taking place in several other states over what to do with a perceived rise in juvenile violent crime. But there is disagreement over just whether juvenile crime is increasing or decreasing.
According to Professor Zimrig, per-capita arrests of offenders under age 18 dropped 60 percent from 1991 to 1998 in California. A similar trend can be seen nationally, but high profile juvenile crimes such as gang activity and school shooting incidents create the perception of an epidemic problem, he said.
But the National Conference of State Legislatures says juvenile crime has risen to disturbing rates. NCSL experts cite U.S. Department of Justice statistics showing juvenile violent crimes increased more than 50 percent between 1988 and 1994. Offenders under the age of 18 accounted for 19 percent of violent crime arrests while making up only 11 percent of the general population.
According to the NCSL, six states have held special sessions on juvenile crime in recent years. Their projections show that if violent crime rates for juveniles ages 10 to 17 continue the trend of the last ten years, the number of juvenile arrests will more than double by the year 2010.
While the practice of charging juveniles as adults in particularly heinous crimes is not a new concept, several moves have been made to reduce the minimum age at which offenders can be tried as adults and expand the list of crimes for which such trials are mandated.
The number of offenders sent to adult courts by juvenile court judges has nearly doubled in the past decade, according to research by the Justice Policy Institute, a San Francisco think-tank. But according to their analysts, that rise is more a result of political pressure to crack down on juvenile crime than an increase in crimes committed.
"The fact that violent crimes committed by youth are declining faster than those of adults proves Prop 21 is totally unnecessary. The youth population under the age of 24 has seen the most substantial decline of violent crimes in the state of California in the last five years. This initiative is being used by Pete Wilson to manufacture fear and scapegoat our youth," said Khaled Taqi-Eddin a Justice Policy Institute analyst.
According to Taqi-Eddin, the California vote will be used by legislators in other states as a bellweather indication of the public mood toward juvenile justice.
Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist has indicated that he will likely support a measure making it mandatory to charge as adults all juveniles accused of murder and other violent crimes.
The proposal, which would apply to juveniles 15 and older, is the result of a two year study commissioned by Sundquist because "present laws dealing with teens were written in more gentle times."
Under the guidelines of the proposed rules, juveniles 15 and older accused of certain violent crimes would go to adult criminal court without exception and without a hearing before a juvenile court judge. Those crimes would include first and second degree murder, rape, aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping.
Under current Tennessee law, when prosecutors decide they bring adult charges, they must first convince a juvenile judge at a transfer hearing.
"As a general rule, the Governor believes that juveniles who commit violent crimes should receive severe punishment," said Beth Fortune, Sundquists press secretary.
Legislators in Missouri passed a law creating dual jurisdiction for both criminal and juvenile courts for serious crimes. Texas toughened sentencing guidelines for violent offenders while creating first-offender programs and seven-step progressive sanctions for other offenders. Kentucky lawmakers approved legislation creating a new state agency for juvenile justice to identify "pre-delinquent" juveniles and prevent them from committing crimes in the future.
Several other states, including South Dakota and Maryland, are reassessing their "boot-camp" methods of juvenile detention after high profile revelations of abuse and mismanagement at the facilities.
And according to at least one study, all of this attention on juvenile crime should yield positive results. A new report issued by the RAND institute, a non-partisan research organization based in Santa Monica, California, finds that dollar for dollar, programs aimed at encouraging high-risk youth to stay out of trouble prevent five times as many crimes as "three strikes" sentencing laws.