Rally: Keep jobless benefits

Erin McKee of the Charleston Labor Council joined a group Thursday urging Congress to extend unemployment insurance benefits beyond Dec. 31, a move that she said will benefit about 31,400 South Carolinians.

North Charleston robber Eric Wigfall was 16 when he felt the "rush" of shooting two men to death on a payday in 2001. He was sentenced as an adult to two life terms in prison.

Now, more than a decade after state lawmakers sought to clamp down on violent juveniles, questions are being raised, more nationally than in the state, over whether continued adult prosecution of teens is best.

"At 15, they can't consent to sex but they can be waived to adult court on criminal charges, tried as an adult and sent to prison for years, even life," said Dale Davis, who has studied the state's trend and is in the minority of advocating a step back.

Wigfall's case is an exception. Very few 16-year-olds today are being arrested as accused killers. But hundreds more teens like him are finding themselves in adult prison every year.

South Carolina jumped into the national trend in the mid-1990s when lawmakers made it so that a 16-year-old charged with a crime that would draw a sentence of 15 years or more for adults automatically gets charged in adult court. Prosecutors have the option of trying to push the case back into Family Court if the facts warrant.

In some areas of the state, however, the adult court trend became the rule rather than the exception.

"Suddenly, 16-year-olds with no prior record were sent to adult court, which to me was a big step backwards because the adult system does not have the rehabilitation services like the juvenile system does," said Maryellen Rankin, assistant juvenile public defender in Charleston.

Another change was the dip in age, from 19 to 17, at which juveniles convicted of certain violent offenses can be shipped to the adult Department of Corrections. That meant more teens each year became eligible for an adult sentence.

Since 1998, the number of 17-year-olds being sentenced to the state prison system has fluctuated each year, from a high of 330 to 217 so far this year. Over time, the numbers show a statistical decrease, though. The 17-year-olds represent less than 3 percent of the jail admissions in 1998 and 1.6 percent of admissions so far this year.

Critics say the weakness of the heavy-handed approach goes beyond those sorts of numbers. Channeling teens into adult jail makes it more likely they will be exposed to predators and career criminals, potentially hardening them by the time they are released.

"Trying juveniles as adults appears to be more about politics than an answer to the prevention of juvenile crime," Davis said in her research.

William R. Byars Jr., director of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice, said the state has some good early intervention programs for youthful offenders. But he warned of the long-term dangers of exposing teens to adult prison at the expense of re-directing them earlier in life.

"All the kids who come from the juvenile justice system come from a community, and they are going back to a community," he said. "The only question out there is are they going to come back better or worse."

Very few voices in the Legislature are advocating a change back. Perhaps the most recent event that begged for a new look was the murder trial of Christopher Pittman, who was 12 years old when he killed his sleeping grandparents with a shotgun in their Chester County home.

Pittman's lawyers blamed the acts on the youth's prescribed antidepressants and the fact that as a 12-year-old, his adolescent brain was nowhere near being maturely developed.

The arguments failed to sway the Charleston County jury that heard the case. He was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to 30 years. The state Supreme Court let the conviction stand.

Pittman turned 18 in April and is being housed at Broad River state prison.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at skropf@postandcourier.com or 937-5551.