NEWS

Should teens accused of murder be tried as adults?

Norman Miller

About one year ago, 15-year-old James Alenson was killed, stabbed to death in a bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School.

The boy accused in his death, John Odgren of Princeton, Mass., 16 at the time of the slaying, sits in a cell at Middlesex Jail in Cambridge, Mass., awaiting trial.

He has been in custody since his arrest just minutes after the killing, and his time has been split among a juvenile facility in Plymouth, the Westborough State Hospital and now the county jail.

Odgren, now 17,  faces life in prison without the chance of parole if he is convicted of first-degree murder.

In Massachusetts, anyone 14 or older who is charged with first-degree murder faces trial as an adult and the prospect of the same mandatory sentences meted out to adults.

But some juvenile justice advocates say teens should not be treated as adults, even for the same crime.

"It's a mistake to envision children the same way we do adults," said Lael Chester, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice in Boston. "Children can commit horrible crimes, but do they have the same understanding of what they did? Do they have the understanding on how to follow the whole process afterwards? Where Massachusetts has failed the youth is they have failed to recognize these differences."

Teens do not make decisions the same way as adults, said John Dohan of the Committee for Public Council Service's Youth Advocacy Project. He said scientific studies have shown that a teenager's brain does not work the same way as an adult's brain.

"Teens are much more impulsive than adults, they're designed to be more impulsive," he said. "There's a horde of research that shows we shouldn't judge culpability the same away as adults."

Neither Dohan nor Chester said teens charged with serious crimes should escape punishment, but the justice system must have some leeway.

"Do you say you forfeit your right to freedom when you make a mistake at an age where you are wired to make a mistake?" Chester said. "To me, the problem with that reasoning is we know kids have terrible judgment. That's why you can't drop out of school until you're 16, and there's a major push to change that to 18. You can't drink until you're 21. Insurance companies won't let you rent a car until you're 25."

Rather, Chester said, minors should go through the juvenile court system, no matter what the crime.

Mandatory sentences for juveniles are unfair and judges should have options in sentencing, she said.

She said juvenile judges should be allowed to sentence offenders to either adult or juvenile punishments. If a person were convicted, he or she could be given a juvenile sentence and the judge could put a condition on it that would bump it up to an adult sentence under certain conditions.

"Judges have no discretion," Chester said. "You want to take into account the facts and circumstances of the crime and you craft a sentence. You give them a juvenile sentence with an adult sentence hanging over their head."

Rehabilitation is a key, Dohan said. Many juveniles sent to adult prisons never develop into good adults because they don't receive the right kind of counseling or services.

Teens should be nurtured and cared for in a facility that is designed for them, advocates said.

"When you put them (teens) in adult prison, they are treated badly, and they learn unproductive life skills," Dohan said. "I would not be somebody who would say to a kid, 'You shot somebody, no big deal, you're a kid.' No, you have to be punished for that, but if you only punish, you're not going to get what we want from them.

"We want them to be good neighbors," he said. "We want them to be good workers. Good taxpayers. The nature of the mistake is not a good indicator of the person's future dangerousness."

But victim advocate and former Middlesex County prosector Wendy Murphy said she believes trying a juvenile charged with a serious crime such as rape or murder in a juvenile court is too soft.

She said they should be tried as adults, but the judge in that court should have the ability to sentence them either as a juvenile or an adult.

"You get full accountability in an adult court," said Murphy, who just wrote a book "And Justice for Some," which has a chapter on juvenile offenders. "When I was a prosecutor, a kid could commit a murder, we could not transfer them to an adult court."

Tougher punishments work better than rehabilitation in some cases, she said.

Murphy, who works as an advocate for sex-crime victims, said people will often say a 15-year-old girl is old enough to know if she wants to have sex with an adult. But, she said, they will not use the same reasoning for an accused criminal.

"They're the same ones who say that a 15-year-old kid is not responsible because their brain is not fully developed," Murphy said. "Children can figure out the difference between right and wrong around the age of 7. My feeling is, you can't use a cookie-cutter approach, but the closer the kid is to maturity, 18, more likely the law can and should treat that crime as if it was committed by an adult."

Odgren is next due in court Feb. 11, and the Middlesex district attorney's office is in frequent contact with the victim's family on the status of the case, District Attorney Gerry Leone said.

There was no question Odgren would be charged as an adult because Leone said the law is clear.

"There is no option when you have this specific fact pattern," Leone said. "The facts of this case compelled him to be charged the way it is charged."

Norman Miller can be reached at 508-626-3823 or at nmiller@cnc.com