Children Behind Bars
by Christopher Kellerman 12/1/98

Should child criminals be tried in courts of law as adults? A twelve-year-old Michigan boy, Nathaniel Abraham, will soon become the youngest child ever to be tried as an adult for murder in the United States. Psychiatrists say this short and frail boy functions at the level of a six-year-old, but could receive the same sentence for murder as an adult. Young Nathaniel is not alone. In the last twenty years, more than 150 children have been sentenced to death in the United States. Each year there are over 750,000 delinquency cases that go before judges in the United States. Tens of thousands of these children are tried as adults. (White)

Out of the few countries whose laws provide for execution for crimes that people commit as children, the United States has carried out more of these executions than any of the others. In the past ten years, juvenile cases that have been referred to adult courts have increased more than 70%. (White)

All states have provisions for prosecuting children as young as 14 in courts of law as adults. Many states are steadily lowering the age that children can be tried as adults. In some states this could be the case for children as young as 10 years old. As the penalties for juvenile crimes are toughened, the rate of crime for these young people continues to increase. (Levison) "I don't think any youth is old enough to be put in an adult facility with hardened criminals," said Frank Sanchez, director of delinquency prevention for Boys and Girls Club of America. Should we allow children to be thrown into adult prisons with role models who will teach them to be better criminals, where they will be subjected to physical and sexual assault, where they will face an increased risk of suicide? One seventeen-year-old boy held in an Idaho jail was tortured and murdered by adult prisoners. Another seventeen-year-old was murdered in an adult jail in Ohio. "Children in adult institutions are five times as likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by staff, and 50% more likely to be attacked by a weapon than children in a juvenile facility." (Brooks)

The enormity of the problem is obvious. What is not so clear is the cause. Possible reasons for the increase we see in juvenile crime, according so some, may include the increased availability of firearms, more families trying to survive at poverty level incomes, and children with a history of sexual abuse. One major factor that has not received the coverage it is due is this: A great number of children presently in the criminal justice system have suffered neurological damage due to prenatal exposure to alcohol. (Zakreski) According to studies of children who suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), there is a 60% risk of their being charged or convicted of a crime. (Streissguth)

The difficulties that lead to getting into trouble with the law for these children with FAS/FAE are believed to be largely preventable. The key lies in understanding the neurological origin of the disability, and moving from punishing these children to supporting them in structured, protective environments. (LaDue) The cost of punishing juvenile offenders is $450-$500 million per year, while funds for proposed prevention programs would only cost $50-$100 million. Prevention efforts are obviously more cost effective than punishment. The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act (Senate Bill 10) would spend megabucks on more punishment, but hardly anything on prevention. The passage of this bill would dangerously undermine the protections that now exist for children in the criminal justice system. (Liederman)

Considering the fact that many of the children in trouble with the law are victims of FAS/FAE, it would make sense to put prevention dollars into projects that would provide the intervention services needed by these troubled youths. The FAS Community Resource Center has been established to offer support and intervention to meet the needs of these children and their families in Arizona. Funding for the Center is so minimal that it must rely solely on volunteer efforts to provide the services needed, such as advocacy, consultation, counseling, and workshops. With the lack of financial support, the Center, which is operated by a handful of dedicated workers, cannot possibly provide services for the thousands of children who are in need of their support. How many of the children who are not getting the needed services this year will become next year's statistics?

The neurological disorder caused by mothers drinking during pregnancy, although well hidden, is not a rare occurrence. In fact, one out of every hundred children is born with enough brain damage from prenatal alcohol exposure to cause problems that will interfere with the child's ability to function successfully in life. (Streissguth) The neurological problems of these children include attention deficits, thought processing difficulties, memory deficits, poor impulse control, hyperactivity, poor judgment, and the ability to function at a level about half the child's chronological age. (Malbin) These children have trouble learning from the consequences of their behaviors; therefore repeated punishment is not an effective deterrent. The only way these children can be protected from their disorder is to provide constant supervision in a structured, low-key environment. The primary protective factors in preventing these problems include early identification of the disorder, intervention services, and stable environment. (Streissguth)

The disabilities caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol are so devastating to its victims. Children with FAE might be totally normal physically and have normal or above normal intelligence, but still suffer from damage to certain parts of the brain that affect the child's ability to function at age level. For instance, a child of twelve who has FAE might only have the skills to cope in life of a six-year-old. This is a similar description of Nathaniel, the boy convicted of murder and being tried as an adult.

The parts of the brain that are affected the most are the corpus callosum, which facilitates passing information between the two hemispheres of the brain, and the frontal lobes, which control inhibition and impulse. Although these disabilities are invisible to others, a neurologist can actually see the damage on brain scans like the MRI. Unfortunately, most children who suffer from this type of brain damage, known as "static encephalopathy," are not diagnosed with the disorder until they are already in the criminal justice system. An example is John Eastlack, the young man who was convicted of murdering an elderly couple in Tucson several years ago, and who was not diagnosed with FAS until after his arrest. If adequate intervention programs had been in place, this young man could have been protected from himself, and the loss of life and resources could have been avoided.

It is said that a civilized society can be judged by how it treats its children. While we incarcerate and execute more of our young, we expand our prison system, while decreasing spending on education and prevention programs. If a major contributing factor to the problem of juvenile crime can be traced to brain damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol, then the solution is clear. Prevention lies in providing intervention services and structured support systems for these children before they are led into a life of crime.

"It makes more sense to treat them with love and get them involved in something constructive and meaningful before they get into trouble." (Lewis) "Not only does imprisonment rob youth of a better life, but it also robs society of the benefit of their potential good." (Lewis) Studies done through Columbia University show that public housing projects that have Boys and Girls Clubs have fewer incidents of drug activity and a lower crime rate in general. In Phoenix, police reports show a drop in the rate of juvenile crime of more than 50% in neighborhoods where recreation facilities such as basketball courts, stay open until 2 a.m. Recommendations for youth with FAS and FAE include close supervision of social activities and structured programs for leisure time. Perhaps this is the reason for this success seen in the Boys and Girls Club projects.

Of all the statistics cited, perhaps a simple example makes the most accurate point: Children are one-third of our population, but the are 100% of our future. "While trying teens as adults and sending them to adult prison is a potential political sound bite, and 'midnight basketball' political poison, it's fascinating which approach gets the best results." (Louv) Prevention is the answer, but prevention programs cannot come about without the support of funding. Every $1,000 spent on crime prevention programs for youth saves $3,000 dollars that would be wasted on ineffective punishment. We owe it to our children. We owe it to our community. We owe it to our future.

Jail Baby

Works Cited


Hicks, Ana (1998). Juvenile Justice/Child Welfare Regs. Children's Defense Fund Action Alert.

laDue, Robin, PhD (1996). "Psychosocial Needs Associated With FAS/FAE." FAS Conference. Madison, WI, Feb, 1996

Leiderman, David (1998). Juvenile Justice. Children's Voice Magazine. Child Welfare League of America.

Levison, Arlene (1998). "States Lowering Age To Try Children As Adults." Seattle Times.

Lewis, Chuck (1997). "Serving the Community Instead of Time." CDF Reports.

Louv, Richard (1998). "Why Demonizing teens Dowsn't Pay." Kid's Campaign.

Malbin, Diane (1993) FAS/FAE Strategies For Professionals. Hazelden. 1993.

Streissguth, Ann PhD. (1998) "Understanding the Occurrence of Secondary Disabilities in Clients With FAS and FAE." Fetal Alcohol Drug Unit, University of Washington. 4 Nov, 1998 (30 Nov., 1998)

White, Jerry (1998). Tens of Thousands of Children Tried As Adults In US. International Committee of the Fourth International.

Zakreski, Dan (1998). "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Linked To Crime." Saskatoon Star Phoenix News. 10 Mar, 1998