A new study has concluded that South Carolina has the worst record in the nation for sentencing children to long, mandatory prison terms, but the state attorney general's office is questioning the timing of the report's release.
South Carolina's laws make it too easy to try pre-adolescent children in adult courts, and harsh sentencing laws make it difficult for judges to spare "kid criminals" from long prison terms that rob them of a chance at productive lives, according the study by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
The study's "poster child" is Christopher Pittman, who killed his grandparents with a shotgun in Chester County in 2001 when he was 12. A Charleston County jury heard the case in 2005 and found Pittman guilty of murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The study, titled "From Time Out to Hard Time," states that Pittman holds the national record for the longest sentence currently being served by someone convicted of a crime committed at the age of 12. He is one of two 12-year-olds tried on murder charges in
South Carolina's adult courts in recent years, the study states.
South Carolina's laws would permit the transfer of even younger children to the adult criminal justice system; the state is one of 22 with no minimum age for transfer specified in its statutes, the study states.
Mark Plowden, public information officer for the S.C. Attorney General's Office, said the study reads more like an opinion piece tailored to attack South Carolina and other states "that treat violent, murderous young people as criminals."
Plowden questioned the timing of the study's release, which comes about a month before Pittman is scheduled in court for a post-conviction relief hearing. Michele Deitch, an adjunct professor and lead author of the study, led research efforts to assist advocacy lawyers from the University of Texas who worked on Pittman's unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The court refused to hear his case.
"It's beyond intriguing that a major hearing is a month away and the folks defending Pittman have gone to these lengths to sway opinion," Plowden said. "What we need to remember is that Pittman is a young man who murdered his family members in cold blood and then went to great lengths to blame it on fictitious people, drugs and what have you."
Deitch said she and her team no longer work on the Pittman case and she didn't know a hearing was coming up. She said the study's only goal is to create a system in which children are tried in juvenile courts, where they belong. More than half of the states permit children under the age of 13 to be tried as adults.
"State policies allowing for the prosecution of children in adult court contradict the consensus of the most up-to-date scientific research. The adult criminal justice system is a poor and dangerous fit in every way for these young kids," Deitch said "Children should be handled in the juvenile justice system, where they can obtain the rehabilitative services and programs necessary to help them become productive adults."
From time out to hard time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System, a Special Project Report from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. (134-page PDF)