October 28, 2013
The New York Times
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
DENVER — James Stewart died alone.
The 17-year-old from Denver had committed a terrible act: while driving drunk, he slammed into another vehicle head on and killed its driver. Initially placed with other juvenile offenders, he was moved to the county lockup after the district attorney charged him as an adult. Left alone in his cell despite his frantic pleas to be with others, he tightened his bedsheets around his neck and killed himself.
His death, in 2008, was one of two suicides by young people in Colorado jails that helped spur a significant change in state law last year by narrowing the authority of prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults and to place them in adult jails, part of a wave of such laws nationwide.
In a reversal of the tough-on-crime legislation that swept the nation in the late 1980s and ’90s, nearly half of the states have now enacted one or more laws that nudge more young offenders into the juvenile justice system, divert them from being automatically tried as adults and keep them from being placed in adult jails and prisons.
Sarah Brown, a director of the criminal justice program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the shift stems from a decline in juvenile crime, concerns about the costs of adult prisons and a growing understanding of adolescent brain development showing that the young have a greater potential for rehabilitation.
The Supreme Court has increasingly taken neurological research into account on juvenile justice issues — most recently in a 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, which barred mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those who committed their crimes before they turned 18. Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion in the case cited adolescents’ “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.”