On November 17, 1999, a Michigan Circuit Court jury found thirteen-year-old Nathaniel Abraham guilty of second-degree murder.1 Abraham was convicted of killing Ronnie Greene Jr.—a crime he committed when he was only eleven years old.2 Although tried in an adult court, Abraham was sentenced by Judge Eugene Moore to juvenile detention until the age of twenty-one, at which point he automatically will be released.3
Abraham’s case illustrates the current controversy over the most effective way to deal with juvenile offenders.4 The arrest rate for vio[*PG392]lent crime among juveniles has risen 62% between 1988 and 1994.5 Although arrests of juveniles fell 9% between 1995 and 1999, 17% of all arrests in 1999 involved a juvenile.6In addition, the recent crimes committed by juveniles are “altogether more vicious” than those the juvenile court system was originally designed to face.7 The media’s involvement in publicizing many of the violent crimes committed by juveniles has sparked public demand for stricter penalties.8 In response, some politicians have promoted measures to “get tough” on juvenile crime.9 Indeed, United States Representative Bill McCollum went so far as to say that “[i]n America today, no population poses a greater threat to public safety than juvenile criminals.”10 Many state legislatures have therefore enacted laws making it easier to try juveniles as adults.11 For example, in Michigan, jurisdiction over Abraham was transferred from a juvenile court to an adult court under a 1997 statute allowing prosecutors to request that a juvenile be tried as an adult for certain offenses, regardless of his or her age.12 Before that statute was enacted, a juvenile had to be at least fourteen years old to be tried—at the judge’s discretion—as an adult.13
On the other side of the debate over juvenile justice, some feel that juvenile offenders still can be rehabilitated if treated as juveniles [*PG393]rather than as adults and that “getting tough” on juvenile crime does not provide the answer.14 For example, although Abraham was tried in an adult court, Judge Moore believed that Abraham should be sentenced as a juvenile.15 Affirming his faith in the ability of the juvenile justice system to reform delinquents, Judge Moore called the Michigan law authorizing transfer of juveniles to adult court “fundamentally flawed.”16 Similarly, Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III argued that it is unjust to sentence children as adults and organized a protest outside the Michigan courthouse where Abraham was being tried.17 Additionally, Amnesty International USA featured Abraham on the cover of its recent report on the juvenile justice system and maintained that trying him as an adult violated “international human rights standards for the protection of children.”18
The current controversy over juvenile justice results in part from the fact that many states have shifted the focus of the juvenile justice system from rehabilitation to punishment and deterrence.19 This Note maintains that in order to help reduce violent juvenile crime, states should continue to expand the focus of the juvenile justice system to include punishment and deterrence in addition to the original goal of rehabilitation. Thus, under certain circumstances, juvenile defendants should be treated more like adults.
Part I of this Note describes the history of the juvenile justice system, including the philosophy behind its formation and its similarities and differences with the adult criminal system.20 Part I also examines the general types of changes that many states have recently implemented to the juvenile justice system.21 Part II explores some alternatives for addressing the juvenile justice controversy.22 Part III advocates a system like that of Massachusetts, where certain juvenile [*PG394]defendants are automatically transferred to adult court, and where other juvenile defendants, who remain in juvenile court…