Opponents call bid to try teens as adults a ‘terrible idea’

By Elizabeth Gudrais, Journal State House Bureau, June 12, 2007

PROVIDENCE — A proposal to try 17-year-olds accused of crimes as adults had some youth advocates in shock, others just furious, yesterday as they began digesting the proposal and devising a plan to persuade lawmakers to change their minds.

“This says to me that rehabilitation of children is not important, is not a priority,” Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr., chief justice of the state Family Court, said yesterday. “We’re giving up on children.”

Everyone from the attorney general to the state child advocate is watching the proposal, which emerged as part of the $7-billion state budget the House Finance Committee approved on Friday. This is just one issue that’s expected to bring people to the State House this week to implore lawmakers to make amendments on the House floor during budget debate this Friday.

House Finance Chairman Steven M. Costantino said the decision was driven by one thing, pure and simple: saving money. It costs an average of $98,000 a year to house one youth at the Rhode Island Training School; the average annual cost per inmate at the state’s adult prison is $39,000. Lawmakers are banking on saving $3.6 million.

“It is with a heavy heart that I do this,” Costantino said yesterday. “I can’t afford the existing system that’s in place.”

Costantino noted that his committee also approved more than $13 million in additional financing for the current fiscal year — on top of the $290-million operating budget — to cover higher-than-anticipated spending across the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

But if advocates present an alternative proposal to save the same amount of money, Costantino said, “I would be willing to entertain that.”

Governor Carcieri included a similar proposal in his budget, which he released in late January. Now that it’s clear lawmakers are also on board, state officials are beginning to analyze in earnest the impact of funneling additional people into a prison that’s already bursting at the seams.

There are about 80 17-year-olds, another 30 18-year-olds, and a handful of youths 19 and older at the Training School. Because of complexities in the proposed changes, the number of 17-year-olds who end up at the Adult Correctional Institutions would almost certainly be smaller than that. However, Department of Corrections Director A.T. Wall said it’s likely the changes would drive up the corrections budget and “put an additional strain on our already overburdened institutions.”

The ACI population reached an all-time high of 3,881 last month. A newly renovated building, expected to be fully operational with equipment and staff early next year, will add 175 beds to help ease that strain. But Wall said the department had eventually hoped to close a cell block elsewhere to save money. If the population increases, that may not be possible.

Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, called lawmakers’ proposal “a terrible idea.”

Gross’ organization employs street workers who try to keep people from committing crimes, and people who’ve been to prison from ending up back there. Even if a youth doesn’t end up serving time, a conviction in the adult system creates a record that follows a person for life, Gross said.

Jametta O. Alston, the state child advocate, said lowering the age for the adult criminal system is a step in the wrong direction, because young adults’ brains, and their capacity to link actions with consequences, aren’t fully developed until their 20s. “Just because they’re big and they’re tall and they look like adults doesn’t mean they’re reasoning and thinking like adults,” she said.

Shifting youths into the adult system deprives them of the Training School’s more rehabilitative approach, but it also means they lose out on Family Court programs that come from a different pot of financing altogether, Judge Jeremiah said. For instance, he said his court has a program that takes youths into a hospital emergency room on weekend nights to see firsthand the consequences of drinking and driving, and a program that takes them to the ACI to talk to prisoners.

Without such supportive programs, “the chances of them reoffending are just astronomically high,” Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch said yesterday.

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