In the Spotlight

News & Features
More from MPR
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
What to do when children commit adult crimes
A Ramsey County judge holds a hearing Tuesday on whether a 14-year-old girl should stand trial as an adult on charges she strangled her newborn baby to death. Motions to try juveniles as adults are on the rise. Prosecutors say adult certification is a useful public safety tool, but critics say it should be used sparingly.

St. Paul, Minn. — About a month ago, St Paul police arrested a 14-year-old girl on charges she killed her newborn daughter by tying a sock around the baby's neck.

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner has motioned the court to certify the girl as an adult. Critics say the move is too severe, especially in a case where years of sexual abuse may have had an impact on the girl's state of mind. Gaertner calls the criticism premature. She says it's hard to imagine a situation where her office wouldn't certify a 14-year-old who's accused of an intentional killing. But she says the filing simply triggers a process that allows her office to begin getting in-depth information about the girl.

"They're psychological, their homelife, their history, any run-ins with the law, all kinds of very important info so that we can decide whether we think as prosecutors a child should go to adult court," says Gaertner.

Gaertner says normally only after a youth is found guilty in juvenile court can that in-depth information be obtained; too late, she says, to make a decision on whether the child belongs in juvenile or adult court in the first place.

But Hennepin County Juvenile Public Defender Lisa McNaughton says there is another way to get the background information.

"If a child came in on a serious offense, the attorneys could agree to do what's called a pre-plea investigation. Prior to doing any negotiation, we could have a psychologist look at the child and probation officer look at the child to make recommendations about what treatment or what assistance that child would need should he or she admit the charge," she says.

The main questions dogging researchers on juvenile crime are what do children know and when do they know it. Some argue that a person's brain may not be fully developed until around age 21, so a youth shouldn't face the same consequences as an adult for the same crime. Temple Psychology Professor Laurence Steinberg directs the MacArthur foundation research network on adolescent development and juvenile justice.

"Although we're very far away from having a definitive answer, it's fair to say that research and developmental psychology certainly would indicate that 14-year-olds lack some abilities that would bear on questions of culpability like their ability to resist peer pressure or like their ability to control their impulses,." says Steinberg.

A University of Minnesota Law professor says prosecutors are asking courts to certify children as adults more often than in the past. Barry Feld conducted a study in Hennepin County and says prosecutors there filed motions to transfer children into adult court about three times more often than before 1995. In that year, the state enacted a kind of middle ground between the juvenile and adult systems. "Extended Jurisdiction Juvenile" law hangs a stayed prison sentence over a teen's head as an incentive to follow juvenile court rules at least until age 21. Feld says prosecutors are now using adult certification as plea-bargaining chips.

"It was being used to impose a heavier sanction on juveniles who previously the system would've treated as ordinary delinquents, " he says. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner says she could imagine situations where adult certification could play a role in negotiations -- but rarely. She says her main concern is protecting the public.

"Our concern is does this child pose a public safety risk or can this child be rehabilitated before the court loses jurisdiction?" she says.

At least two other 14-year olds have been tried as adults in Ramsey County. The hearing on whether to certify the 14-year-old charged with killing her newborn baby will be closed to the public because the girl is younger than 16.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects