Is sending a 16-year-old boy to prison with men for up to 99 years really the way to address juvenile crime?

By Patrick Flanagan
Aug. 1, 2014

For teenagers, screw-ups are an inherent part of life’s transition into adulthood; whether it’s a bad decision or succumbing to the forces of peer-pressure, it happens. Of course, the severity of these screw-ups varies from teen to teen, but in the case of Dontrelon Thomas — a 16-year-old boy from one of Lafayette’s less affluent neighborhoods — the consequences of a bad decision made in 2013 could mean a majority of his growing-up years will be spent behind bars in an adult correctional center.

dontrelon1Thomas was arrested Oct. 22, 2013, for an alleged armed robbery. He was 15 at the time, and despite being a juvenile, prosecutors with the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s office decided to try his case in adult court.

Thomas went on trial last month, and was ultimately convicted July 18 by a Lafayette Parish jury on one count of armed robbery. For Thomas, that could mean anywhere from 10 to 99 years in prison.

According to Tommy Alonzo, Thomas’ court-appointed attorney from the 15th Judicial Public Defender’s Office, the jury’s decision to convict came as a surprise, especially considering what he describes as a weak and arguably flawed case presented by the prosecution.

“The jury deliberated for some time that day, and at one point it appeared they were deadlocked. They even came out and said they were deadlocked, but the judge gave them instructions and finally they came out with an 11-1 verdict to convict,” recalls Alonzo. “I was shocked they gave that verdict with the evidence they had to go on. I mean, this case was extremely weak.”

For Thomas, the circumstances surrounding his arrest on Oct. 22, 2013 largely centered on being at the wrong place at the right time, according to Alonzo. After playing basketball that day with several friends, Thomas was riding his bike down Sunset Street in a neighborhood along the east side of Moss Street near I-10 when he was approached by the Lafayette Police Department as a potential suspect for an armed robbery reported several blocks away. It was after 7 p.m., and the sun had already set.

The armed robbery had been reported 30 minutes earlier — about two blocks away from where police found Thomas riding his bike — after a group of about 12 or 13 teenagers surrounded a 12-year-old boy, with one member of the group allegedly pulling a gun and demanding the kid’s cell phone.  

“They find Dontrelon within two blocks of the alleged event. He hasn’t bothered to leave the area of the crime after allegedly committing this gross event,” explains Alonzo. “Now, he has no gun and no cell phone on him, but they take him to the victim and shine a flashlight in his face, and the 12-year-old, who’s obviously scared and crying, says right away, ‘Yes, that’s him.’”

Instead of showing the victim any additional photos of potential suspects, police saw the victim’s ID of the alleged assailant — despite the fact this happened using a flash flight in the dark of night — as enough evidence to make prosecutors happy, arrest Thomas and bring the case to a close.

dontrelon3“Again, there was no gun, no fingerprints, no cell phone, no other witnesses, and you even have the victim indicating that it was possibly someone else who did it,” says Alonzo. “When this went to trial, we had the young victim indicate there was possibly another suspect that he was never shown, and we had witnesses testify that it was another individual involved and not Dontrelon. I honestly thought that would’ve been sufficient for a not guilty verdict. But based on the proficiency of the evidence and several procedural errors of the court, I feel confident this decision will be reversed, and we’ll be filing an appeal immediately after his sentencing.”

Regardless whether Thomas is innocent, his case is representative of a bigger issue impacting the judicial and penal systems in America, and Louisiana in particular. Thomas’ case, in fact, reads like one of the many statistics used in a recent study by Neelum Areya and Ian Augarten of the Campaign for Youth Justice.

According to the study, titled “Critical Condition,” America’s correctional centers — for juveniles and adults — are disproportionately filled with black teenagers, with about 62 percent being tried, like Thomas’ case, as adult offenders; for black teens, this scenario plays out about nine times more than it does in cases involving white youth, who are more likely to be kept within the juvenile system, meaning softer sentencing terms and a better chance of avoiding a life of crime.

In Louisiana, which already is burdened with having one of the highest per-capita incarceration rates in the world, the growing number of juveniles being tried as adults is no doubt exacerbating the issue. Making this situation even more problematic is a complete absence of data collection — this is both an issue in Louisiana and on the national level — to track the number of juveniles being transferred into the adult court and correctional system.

The only relevant data collected by the state Department of Corrections is a demographic snapshot of the youthful offenders housed in the state’s correctional facilities.

That information, however, is also flawed, as it only includes youth-aged offenders between 16 and 19, despite Louisiana’s law allowing teens as young as 14 to be tried as adults. Yet, despite its limitations, the state’s data correlates with the Campaign for Youth Justice stats, showing that 80.9 percent of the 477 youth serving time in Louisiana’s adult prisons are black, with an overwhelming majority convicted as first-time offenders serving about 7.5 years on average.

On top of having one of the world’s highest adult incarceration rates, Louisiana was also determined to have one of the nation’s highest youth incarceration rates back in the early-90s, prompting federal oversight and an attempt at reforming the state’s juvenile system.

While some nominal changes were put into effect (mostly concerning operations and poor conditions at juvenile detention centers) over the last few decades, the state’s stance on juvenile justice is still far from reformed, says Josh Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a non-profit law office based in New Orleans that advocates for kids going through the state’s juvenile system.

For Perry, the issues surrounding Louisiana’s stance on juvenile justice are complex, starting with a flawed belief in the idea that youth are capable of the same understanding of right and wrong as adults.

Infographic1Perry points to countless scientific studies showing that the cognitive development of teenagers is an ongoing process through their mid-20s.

“When you’re talking about a 15-year-old, you’re talking about someone whose frontal lobe is not believed to be fully developed. It’s where the efficiency of the brain’s thinking is being improved, and it’s an ongoing process through the adolescent years that doesn’t stop until they’re in their mid-20s,” says Perry. “This is directly related to deficits in cognitive functioning, and in their decision-making ability and their ability to weigh risk and reward and to fully understand the likely consequences of behavior. So when talking about teenagers, you’re talking about people by and large who are physically less able than adults to weigh out the consequences of an action and restrain themselves from doing things an adult would know better to do. It’s a scientific truth and an intuitive truth for anyone who has been or known a teenager.”

Perry offers the example of a teenager being offered a ride from a friend in a shiny, brand new car. From an adult’s perspective, this scenario comes off as immediately suspicious. But for that 15 or 16 year old, the lure of jumping in for that joy ride far outweighs the obvious warning signs like the friend’s lack of a job or money to purchase such a vehicle. Potential consequences of their decision are an afterthought.

“The sum of all these things is that it’s wildly unfair to have the same set of expectations for children’s behavior and adult behavior. It’s just unfair to treat children as adults in the justice system,” argues Perry. “It doesn’t mean we throw personal responsibility out the window. It means we must think really hard about what our social response is. Is our response productive in the short and the long term? And we need to ask ourselves about what’s going on in that teen’s life. Because the real question for our society is how to make sure these troubled teens develop in the right way, so when they’re 30 years old they’re making the right decisions.”

The answer, says Perry, isn’t locking them away in adult-filled jails, which for most teenagers is a guaranteed path toward a criminal adulthood.

“Studies show that putting a child into adult custody actually increases rates of recidivism,” says Perry. “It’s a terrible thing when a child shoots or robs somebody. None of the science I gave you takes away the horror of that and the impact on the victim and the victim’s family and loved ones and community. That’s a horrific thing. But all the horror of that is not mitigated by responding improperly as a society. All we’re doing by putting that child in an adult criminal system is kicking the can down the road. We’re not fixing the problem, because those kids will come out of jail, and when they do what will happen? ”

For Louisiana, meaningful reform means targeting the state’s transfer laws, which gives state prosecutors and judges the discretion to try a juvenile offender in adult court.

Those transfer laws are found under the state’s Children’s Code, and allow for three methods for treating juvenile offenders as adults Infographic2known as waivers. The judicial waiver gives the powers of transfer (pending a hearing) to a judge, while a prosecutorial waiver also gives that authority to district attorneys. The third type of transfer waiver — known as legislative waiver — centers on the severity of the crime committed, and immediately applies to juveniles facing charges of first- or second-degree murder, aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping.

While armed robbery doesn’t fall under the scope of legislative waiver, Perry says it’s easily the crime most commonly transferred into adult court by prosecutors.

“Armed robbery is one of the more typical offenses, and it’s one that’s truly within the prosecutor’s discretion to either go in juvenile or adult court,” explains Perry.

In the case of Dontrelon Thomas, it was an armed robbery charge that caught the eye of prosecutor J.N. Prather, a longtime assistant district attorney with the 15th Judicial District, who made the decision to have the case tried in adult court.

“It depends on the crime and the factual scenario presented in their case. We also look at their prior juvenile record,” says Prather. “He had a pending charge for simple robbery, and I believe he was on probation for burglary at the time of the armed robbery arrest. All of that goes into our decision-making process on whether a juvenile of that age should be prosecuted as an adult.”

Responding to the claims by Thomas’ defense attorney about insufficient evidence linking him to the armed robbery last year, Prather says that’s not too uncommon.

“It really makes no difference if they have the evidence on them at the time,” says Prather. “As testified by a detective who worked homicides for a substantial amount of time, perps normally don’t keep possession of what they stole or their handguns. [Police will] find them on porches, under cars, in bushes, and that way they don’t get caught. What we had was a very, very sharp testifying victim who was extremely clear in what the guy was wearing that day, the color tone of his skin and was specific with the hair style.”

While Thomas’ guilt or innocence could ultimately be decided by an appeals court, Prather admits that juveniles are coming through the criminal justice system at an alarming rate. But unlike Perry’s call for reforming Louisiana’s juvenile sentencing laws, Prather’s answer to the problem is based more on a local, community-style approach.

“You’ve got juveniles committing major crimes out there, and incarceration is costing taxpayers a lot of money,” says Prather. “What does the justice system need to do to prevent that kind of stuff from happening out on our streets? One effort is a new criminal justice committee just put together by [Lafayette Parish] Sheriff [Mike] Neustrom. We’re trying to come up with ways to get ’em in and through the system, rehab ’em and get ’em back into society.”

For Dontrelon Thomas, who’s now 16, the next step is a sentencing hearing before Judge Edward Rubin, which is expected sometime in September. He’ll be facing a possible sentence of at least 10 years and up to 99, though if his attorney Tommy Alonzo’s right, it’ll be just a matter of time before his case is appealed, and possibly overturned. For Thomas’ sake, hopefully that happens before it’s too late, while he’s still a teenager with a chance to avoid becoming another statistic on recidivism.

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