Getting Tough on Kids Under 13

During the last two decades of the 20th century, a turning point in the history of juvenile justice emerged.  Politicians, policy-makers and the general public began demanding that juveniles take responsibility for their actions and began to call for punishments typically reserved for adults.  The movement is toward allowing more and more juvenile offenders to be prosecuted in the adult criminal court.  Such a movement may eventually take us back to the kind of punishments that occurred before the end of the 19th century, when the “child saving movement” sought to soften the response to juvenile crime, ushering in an era of rehabilitation within the newly established juvenile court.  Court waivers (or “certification”) of juveniles to the adult system reflect, in our views, draconian policies that can only make matters worse.  Moreover, these policies have specifically targeted African-American and other minority youth, while more lenient policies have been reserved for their white middle class counterparts.  In growing numbers of states, a “zero tolerance” policy has widened the net to such an extent that even the most minor of offenses result in an arrest and jailing in already overcrowded detention centers.

Now comes a new study released by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.  The study illustrates once again the punitiveness that remains an essential feature of American society.  The title of the study is “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System.”  To see the complete study go to the following web site:

The study began when the University of Texas Law School Supreme Court Clinic agreed to represent Christopher Pittman, a 12-year old boy who had killed his grandparents, was tried as an adult and given a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years without possibility of parole. The Clinic undertook a comprehensive research project involving law students and graduate students.


The 134 page document is worthy of a careful review.  It contains the most up-to-date literature and facts from a variety of sources, along with excellent graphics.  Among the key findings include the following:



The researchers give a number of specific policy recommendations that should be given serious consideration by policy makers.  It is time for the United States to cease being mired in 19th century thinking and move into the 21st century. 


The report highlights some of the most extreme sentences given to children under 13 In addition to Christopher Pittman, where was Lionel Tate, a 12-year-old who got a life without parole sentence for killing a 6-year-old girl while trying out wrestling moves; Evan Savoie was a 12-year-old who received a 26-year sentence for killing a mentally disabled playmate; Ian Manuel, a 13-year-old with a traumatic life history who was sentenced to life without parole for inflicting a nonfatal gunshot wound during a robbery; 12-year-old Djinn Buckingham tried as an adult for arson murder of his 11-year-old cousin; and Latasha Armstead, a victim of gang rape at age 12, who received a life sentence for being a party to a murder committed by her much-older boyfriend when she was 13.


What’s next, sending 5 year olds to prison?


These examples and more are found in this excellent study.


© 2009 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.