Should Juvenile Offenders Be Tried as Adults

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Should we treat juvenile offenders as adults? When a teenager accused of a serious crime gets tried as an adult, the results are anything but predictable. A 14-year-old convicted in a robbery in which a man was brutally strangled gets sent to a juvenile facility. A 15-year-old convicted of robbing another teen at gunpoint heads straight to adult prison, though he caused no physical harm. More than a decade ago, with the intent of being tough on crime, Virginia lawmakers made it relatively easy to try a juvenile as an adult. In many instances, prosecutors can take a teen's case to adult court even if a juvenile judge rules that the case doesn't belong there. But as report after report have concluded that trying teens as adults does nothing to deter crime -- and that sending teens to adult prison makes them more likely to become repeat offenders -- a state commission is evaluating whether Virginia's approach needs to change. Roanoke lawyer Chris Kowalczuk, who has defended teenagers in high-profile murder cases, said the problem with putting teens in adult prison is obvious: "All you've succeeded in doing is permanently and irrevocably scarring them for life." It's difficult to judge how effective Virginia's system is when it comes to juveniles punished as adults, because no state agency keeps track of how these cases turn out. The Virginia State Crime Commission is trying to fill that knowledge gap. In its preliminary study, the commission found that most teenagers sent to adult prison in Virginia end up there because of robbery convictions. An earlier study conducted by an advocacy group asserts that a disproportionate number of those teens are black. One Virginia teenager who served adult time for a carjacking in which no one was injured -- and who spent most of his sentence in the Red Onion supermax prison in Wise County -- bucked the trend documented

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