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New trend: adult prisons separating teen inmates

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INDIAN SPRINGS, Nev. — Shaun Miller was 15 in 1998 when he was arrested for robbing a convenience store in Pahrump, with three older teenagers. The oldest member of the group, who was 19, planned the crime and used a gun. Shaun, who was unarmed, took the money from the cash register.

Like dozens of other states in the 1990s, Nevada was part of a movement to crack down on juvenile crime by making it easier to punish teenagers as adults. So Shaun was sentenced to six to 15 years in prison and placed among inmates 10 and 20 years older than he was at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City.

"When I first got on the bus, I was scared," Miller said in an interview. "I thought I was going to be killed or raped. You've got to watch and adapt. You've got to have an image that no one can run over you."

Shaun Miller recently became part of another trend, one that is transforming prisons nationwide.

In response to the tens of thousands of offenders under 18 who have come under their supervision in the last decade, adult jails and prisons have quietly taken steps to cope with the special needs and dangers of adolescents in an adult correctional population.

Last November, Miller was transferred to a new unit at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs — one that segregates youthful offenders from adults.

"Who wants to put a 14- 15- or 16-year-old into an adult population?" asked Nevada's director of corrections, Jackie Crawford, who established the juvenile offender unit here. "It's not good for the juvenile or for the population."

Corrections officials not only in Nevada but also in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, Washington and other states have created special provisions for adolescents.

What these prisons are doing is segregating youthful inmates.

These officials are following recommendations made two years ago by the American Correctional Association, the organization that represents prison staffs.

At the core of their response is the realization that teenagers in adult prisons are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and physical assault, and that being around older inmates can turn youthful offenders into hardened criminals.

There's also the problem of creating repeat offenders. "People forget that even though they've done some heinous, violent crimes, they are still adolescents," said Barry Glick, a former New York state prison official who was chairman of the association's task force on youthful offenders, which drafted the recommendations. "If you are exposing them to models who are criminals, what are they learning?"

The move to punish youthful offenders as adults came in response to a steep rise in the juvenile homicide rate in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Forty-five states passed or amended legislation to send not only violent young offenders, but also teenagers convicted of burglary and drug offenses, into the adult system.

For his part, Miller worries about the day when he will return to the adult side of the prison.

"It's just a bunch of criminals inside a barbed-wire fence," he said. "The only thing you do is walk around and listen to everyone tell their criminal stories."