A generation ago, Cambridge, Mass., high school student Gina Grant might have still been headed for Harvard College and toward an adult life in which she would never have to confront in public a crime she committed as a 14-year-old.
But Grant - whose case became painfully public last week, five years after she bludgeoned her mother to death - has found what thousands of other teenage offenders have discovered: that some protections once afforded juveniles in the criminal justice system have dissolved.A skyrocketing juvenile crime rate and public pressure for tougher sanctions on violent criminals has increased pressure to treat teenagers as adults. In 1992, the most recent year for which figures are available, more than 10,000 juveniles across the country were serving time in adult prisons, according to one national study.
In the case of Grant, the young girl's right to secrecy under the juvenile system was in effect overruled by a judge, who allowed media coverage of a case that gripped South Carolina. Though Grant was sentenced in juvenile court and her records were technically sealed, the case made headlines daily. The publicity would follow her to Massachusetts, where clippings from the case led Harvard to rescind a decision to admit Grant, an honors student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.
Public sympathy for young defendants who are portrayed as reacting to abuse is often contradicted by an increasing desire to turn a cold eye on teenage offenders, putting them behind bars.
"We are witnessing, if not the end, then maybe the beginning of the end of the juvenile court and the movement of the adultification of juvenile crime," said Paul Demuro, a former Massachusetts Department of Youth Services official who is now a child welfare consultant. "Now there's a movement that says these kids are adults, and should be treated like adults."
At the heart of the debate about the treatment of juvenile cases and sentencing are statistics demonstrating that minors are increasingly committing crimes that a generation ago were almost exclusively associated with adults.
"The rules of the violence game have changed in a dramatic way over the last 20 years," said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. "Two decades ago, these are kids who might have stolen hubcaps. They didn't kill one another."
Levin quoted FBI statistics that show that between 1976-82 the nationwide murder rate among 14- to 17-year-olds more than doubled, from 7.6 to 16.7 per 100,000. During the same period, the murder rate for youths 13 years and under almost doubled, he said.
During the same period, by contrast, the murder rate among persons 25 and older declined.
Similarly, Levin said arrest rates for 13- to 14-year-old males increased 140 percent between 1985-1991. The respective rate among 15-year-olds rose 217 percent.
In Massachusetts, the percentages of youths committed to the Department of Youth Services for serious crimes - everything from murder to assault - jumped from 31 to 43 percent between 1985-93.
For Bill Stewart, who has worked in Boston's Dorchester District Court for 19 years, the changing face of crime is brutally apparent on the streets. "When I started, the national sport of Dorchester was stolen cars and breaking and entering," he said.
But as drug use picked up in the 1970s, Stewart explained, more and more people got their hands on weapons to protect themselves. By the 1980s, he said, "It went from shooting to protect one's turf to `I've got a gun and therefore I'm bad.' All of a sudden you've got the gun fights."
Stewart estimated that he saw between 300 and 500 cases of assault and battery among juveniles last year. "Four years ago, it was a quarter of that," he said. "The absolute bottom line is that these kids in junior highs and high school are to the point now where if they say they're going to cut you, you better believe them."
As a result, more and more states are moving to have youths transferred automatically to adult court. Recently, Georgia passed a law that stipulated that youths as young as 13 could be sent to adult court for committing certain felonies, according to Ned Loughran, a former DYS commissioner. In 1994, Flordia waived almost 5,000 youths to adult court, Loughran said.
"As the punitive approach to juvenile offenders increases, the whole venue is moving to adult courts," Loughran said.
Although Massachusetts does not have a law that automatically waives juveniles to adult court, youths charged with murder automatically receive a split sentence, which means they can be transferred from a DYS lockup to an adult facility at age 18.
"There's a whole movement in this country to abolish juvenile court altogether," Loughran said.
Judge Francis G. Poitrast, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court, said: "The answer that we look at for increased crimes (among juveniles) is to punish them more and more and more. Yes, there are offenses being committed by kids today that would never have been thought of 30 years ago, but we respond by crashing down on" the minors.
According to DYS statistics, the number of juvenile cases in Massachusetts that were sent to adult court has increased in the last 6 years, though not dramatically. In 1989, 11 such cases were sent up, compared to 13 in 1994.
A new DYS lockup that opened last July in Plymouth for serious offenders currently holds 41 youths, 31 of whom are there for murder, said DYS spokeswoman Mary McGeown. Of those, 12 entered the system in 1993, she said.
For Levin and other advocates, the shift toward stiff sentencing - and the corresponding shift toward treating more and more minors as adults - is an error and a sharp break from the past. Demuro notes that the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts was created a century ago to separate children from adults, "to hold them accountable, but recognize that they're different."
Levin said he believes more attention needs to be focused on rehabilitation.