Trying violent minors as adults a means for punishment, not rehab July 14, 2012 10:09 PM

: @jaredataylor Several recent high-profile federal crimes have left juvenile defendants caught in legal limbo.

The U.S. federal court system makes no distinction between adults and juveniles in criminal cases, and only rarely do its judges prosecute defendants younger than 18 years old.

That leaves the juvenile offender to face state charges — as a juvenile or as an adult. Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra has said he wants to “send a message” to criminals by punishing juvenile suspects in adult court. Guerra made that proclamation days after authorities arrested a 15-year-old boy accused of losing control of a van along Expressway 83 in Palmview in March.

The resulting rollover killed nine passengers — all illegal immigrants — and injured eight others. The boy faces nine counts of murder and 17 counts of human smuggling in the 449th state District Court — the only court in Hidalgo County that exclusively handles juvenile cases. Guerra has said he wants the teen — who has not been publicly identified — to face charges as an adult.

Judge Jesse Contreras’ decision on that matter could come by late summer or early fall, Guerra said. Should the young defendant’s adult certification go forward, he would be indicted on a capital murder charge for the nine deaths along with other adult felony charges. Trying minors as adults is not about how best to win a conviction, Guerra said. “It’s not a question of being more effective,” he said. “It’s a question of not allowing serious offenses to go unpunished. People have to be held accountable for their actions.” Texas state law automatically classifies anyone age 17 or older at the time of an alleged offense as an adult. The teenage driver may be charged with capital murder, but prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty against him — a Supreme Court decision in 2005 struck down states’ authority to send minors to the death chamber, saying it falls under constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The nonfatal shooting of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent on July 3 near Hargill raised new questions about whether the youngest suspect in that case — a 16-year-old boy — would be charged as an adult. The boy and his 18-year-old brother opened fire on the agent’s SUV as they pursued the agent in a vehicle driven by their father, the older brother told investigators after waiving his right to have an attorney present during questioning. The 16-year-old was armed with a .22-caliber rifle, and the older brother was toting a 9 mm pistol. Investigators have not publicly said who they believe fired the two shots that struck the agent. The 18-year-old and his father — Arnoldo and Pedro Alvarado — each face federal charges in the case. The juvenile currently faces charges in state juvenile court. Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño has said he wants to see the underage teen certified as an adult, given the magnitude of the violent crime. District Attorney Guerra, meanwhile, said he would have to review the evidence in the case before deciding whether the younger defendant should be tried as an adult. “Some people in rural communities, they shoot first and ask questions later because of pseudo-cops and home invasions,” Guerra said. “We have to look at it and see what justice demands.” But even if adult charges serve as deterrent to other criminals or possible offenders, statistics show they are not the best option for rehabilitating young convicts. A 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that within three years of release, 75 percent of incarcerated youths are rearrested and between 45 and 72 percent are convicted of a new offense. Cyn Yamashiro, director of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said children tried and convicted as adults are more likely to reoffend once they are released from prison. “The kids prosecuted as adults perform more offenses after the sentence with more frequency,” he said. “It has the exact opposite effect as what legislators intended when they drafted these laws. It actually makes it worse.” Yamashiro noted that in both the case of the Palmview rollover and the ICE agent shooting near Hargill, the juveniles were following directions given by adults. “It is a rare occasion where you have a crime being committed by a group of people and a juvenile is in the mix as an aider and abettor,” he said. “It is rarer when you see the juvenile as the leader and principal in the case.” Guerra said his interest in pursuing adult charges against juveniles is not to ensure they receive rehabilitation — it’s to ensure punishment. “Most of this is not a question of rehabilitation,” he said. “Most of what we do is punishment. “You can rehabilitate thieves, get them jobs and everything, but shooters and violent individuals? Don’t do it again. There’s no rehabilitation. It’s more punishment than anything else and to send a message to society.”


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