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PSU study: mentally ill juvenile school shooters punished unconstitutionally in adult criminal justice system
Author: Katy Swordfisk
Posted: August 6, 2019

A number of juvenile school shooters in the U.S, including those suffering from serious mental illness, have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Regardless of their age- and mental-health- related competencies, these youth are virtually always transferred to adult court for prosecuting, instead of the juvenile criminal justice system. 

Based on several recent Supreme Court rulings, these lifetime punishments violate juveniles’ constitutional rights, according to the author of a Portland State University study.  

“Because of their young age, such harsh punishment violates the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment,” said Kathryn Farr, a PSU professor emerita of sociology, who conducted a study examining the role of age and mental health in the criminal processing of juvenile school shooters. “Yet appeals challenging these sentences on constitutional grounds have routinely failed.”

The study, “Lifetime Punishments for Mentally Ill Juvenile Rampage School Shooters: No Hope for the Future?”, confirmed that in most instances, the age and mental health status of juvenile school shooters are given little consideration as they are prosecuted in the criminal justice system as adults. 

“In the adult criminal justice system, prosecutors are inclined to paint these young kids as monsters, and the public has often bought into that image as well,” Farr said.

Farr examined the court processing of 10  juvenile school shooters who showed signs of severe mental instability prior to the incident and were tried and convicted as adults.  Farr’s study was recently published in the May issue of International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.

Her subjects included Kip Kinkel, of Springfield, Ore., who was 15 years old and sentenced to 111 years in prison for shooting both of his parents, along with 24 of his classmates and teachers in 1998. 

Farr also assessed the cases of other teenage school shooters such as Barry Loukaitis, 14, who’s serving 189 years in prison; Alvaro Castillo, 18, who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole; and Evan Ramsey, 16, who received 210 years in prison.

In the United States, Farr points out, there’s a preference to try juvenile school shooters as adults, regardless of their mental health status.

Further, she argues these mentally ill offenders would be better served by the juvenile justice system where the emphasis is more likely to be on treatment and rehabilitation than punishment.

In their recent rulings, the Supreme Court has argued that young offenders need to be processed differently because their brains are not fully developed and are more amenable to rehabilitation. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, which controls decision making, isn’t fully developed until about age 25.

In Oregon, the Legislature recently passed a new law that no longer requires juveniles who are being tried under Measure 11 to be tried as an adult. 

Measure 11 was approved by voters in 1994 and established mandatory minimum prison sentences without the possibility of sentence reduction. It also mandates juveniles more than 15 years old be tried as an adult for certain charges. The new law gives prosecutors discretion on how to prosecute school shooters. 

“To me, mandatory transfer of these kids is really unfair,” she said. “Having committed a serious criminal felony, in Oregon they have had no chance to be processed or treated in the juvenile justice system.”

Looking ahead, Farr said she believes young mentally ill offenders — including those who have committed violent crimes — would be better served by an expanded juvenile justice system “as opposed to turning them over to the much more punishment-oriented adult system,” she said.

“In other western countries, there’s a focus on expanding services in the juvenile justice system or expanding juvenile systems to include interim-age facilities,” Farr added. “The U.S. seems to be out of step with what’s happening in other countries in this regard.”