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Denying Kids Constitutional Protections Won't Reduce Violent Crime

By: Seth Chazin
Attorney at Law

"Johnny, I know you are only 13 years old, but since you have been tried as an adult and the jury has found you are guilty of murder and that the special circumstances alleged are true, I have no choice but to sentence you to death by lethal injection."

This scenario may sound a bit ridiculous, but Californians should not take it too lightly. After all, it would become a reality under Gov. Pete Wilson's 12-point plan to authorize district attorneys to file directly into adult court cases involving violent juvenile offenders.

Wilson also wants to remove discretion from juvenile judges and prosecutors and automatically transfer juvenile offenders to adult court if they are charged with first-degree murder with special circumstances or one-strike sex crimes.

There is currently a nationwide trend in our courts and legislatures to crack down on children. But is this approach the best way to curtail juvenile crimes? And are we dispensing with many of our children's basic constitutional rights in the process?

Of all the areas in which the rights of a particular sector of society have been attacked and diminished over the last decade, the rights of children in the criminal justice system have been the most susceptible. In fact, the rights of all minors have been steadily curtailed over the last 10 years.

One recent example is the precedent-setting opinion from the California Court of Appeal in In re Latasha W. 98 Daily Journal D.A.R. 931 (2nd Dist. Jan. 27.1998). Latasha was one of several students subjected to metal-detector searches upon entering the attendance office without a pass or upon showing up more than half an hour late for school. After the metal detector sounded, she opened her pocket and revealed a knife. Latasha appealed after being convicted of possession of a knife on school grounds and being placed on probation.

An appellate court held that random, hand-held metal-detector searches of students did not violate the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The court reasoned that the school's substantial governmental interest in keeping weapons off campuses justified the weapons-detection policy.

Latasha W. was the first appellate court in California to rule on that issue. As is often the case, it seems the court deemed that the constitutional rights of children do not carry the same weight as those decreed to adults.

The constitutional protections provided by the Fourth Amendment are apparently expendable in the eyes of authorities when minors are involved. Just as children have been found not to have the right to a jury trial in a criminal case, so are they not able to enjoy the same quality of Fourth Amendment rights guaranteed to adults.

There is no rational justification for this two-tiered system. One would think that these more immature and vulnerable members of society would enjoy greater constitutional protections, not fewer.

And the penal consequences to children have become more and more severe. This is occurring despite evidence that public perceptions about violent juvenile crime being out of control are erroneous. In fact, children have accounted for only a small percentage of violent crimes over the last century. Only a percent of all juveniles arrested are arrested for violent crimes.

According to a recent analysis by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, 82 percent of all counties in the United States had no known juvenile homicide offenders. Yet the most basic procedural protections and constitutional rights that are regularly conferred to adults are being stripped from children. One has to wonder why this is occurring. Perhaps the media's creation of public perception, which translates into public policy, is one reason. Although children account for only 19 percent of arrests for violent crimes, the public perceives that they account for almost half those crimes.

The crackdown on kids in the criminal justice system, including the revocation of many of their most basic constitutional rights, continues to grow despite convincing and powerful evidence that innovative and alternative methods of fighting juvenile crime are without question more effective. In Boston, city officials have teamed up with community leaders and youth advocates to drastically reduce juvenile crime by introducing an extensive anti-gang, anti-violence educational program in conjunction with many new recreational after-school opportunities.

Sociological studies have repeatedly shown that crime is directly linked to economic deprivation. Perhaps that is where the focus should lie.

It is time for our courts and legislatures to confer on children the legal support they deserve. Diminishing the basic rights of children only serves to foster distrust and rebellion. This will likely incite, not reduce violence. Perhaps opening our hearts and our arms is a more intelligent and effective approach to reducing juvenile crimes.


“The death penalty is a lie, a misguided mistake born of anger and frustration. Capital punishment has become a perverse monument to inequality, to how some lives matter and others do not. It is a violent example of how we protect and value the rich and abandon and devalue the poor. The death penalty is a grim, disturbing shadow formed by the legacy of racial apartheid and bias against the poor that condemns the disfavored among us, but corrupts us all. It’s the perverse symbol elected officials use to strengthen their ‘tough on crime’ reputations and distract us from confronting the causes of violence. It is finally the enemy of grace, redemption and all of us who recognize that each person is more than their worse act.”
- Bryan Stevenson