In a nationally televised ruling last month, Oakland County Probate Judge Eugene Moore did not just reject an adult prison sentence for a 13-year-old boy convicted of murder; he sounded an alarm for those concerned about the future of juvenile justice in the United States.
"Prevention and rehabilitation are the foundational elements of the juvenile justice system," Moore said during his 30-minute soliloquy at the sentencing of Nathaniel Abraham, who was 11 when he shot to death 18-year-old Ronnie Greene Jr. in an apparently random act. "If we prevent the criminal mindset from taking hold of our youth then we, in turn, prevent adult criminals from coming into existence. If we rehabilitate those youths who have committed criminal acts, we are making ourselves safe both now and in the future."
He was speaking from one of at least 44 states that have adopted laws over the past decade allowing more children to be tried as adults. And he was ruling in a case that had drawn national attention because Nathaniel is believed to be the youngest person in modern American history to face murder charges as an adult.
Under "get tough" juvenile justice legislation that took effect in 1997, the Michigan legislature gave prosecutors authority to charge alleged violent offenders as young as 14 in adult court with no hope of juvenile rehabilitation. The legislation also allows children of any age who are accused of certain serious crimes to be tried as adults in juvenile court, giving the juvenile court judge three options: immediate sentence in adult prison, juvenile rehabilitation until age 21, or a "blended sentence" in which the adult prison term is delayed pending juvenile rehabilitation efforts. Under the blended sentence a child's case is reviewed at age 21. If he is deemed rehabilitated he is let go; if not he goes on to adult prison.
In the blended sentence option, Moore said, "the danger is that we won't take rehabilitation seriously if we know we can utilize prison in the future.' He sentenced Nathaniel to juvenile rehabilitation until he is 21. The boy has spent more than two years in juvenile detention awaiting trial, so his total time will approach 10 years.
The judge blasted the 1997 legislation and called for a return to the practice of reserving adult trials and sentences to those who are at least 14. "The legislature," he said, "has responded to juvenile criminal activity not by helping to prevent and rehabilitate, but rather by treating juveniles more like adults."
To those who know Moore, the ruling was no surprise. Since he was first elected judge in 1966 (succeeding his father, Judge Arthur Eugene Moore, on the juvenile court bench) Moore has become a nationally recognized leader in juvenile justice issues.
"When I heard that Judge Moore had the case, I had to say that I felt confident that whatever was done would be done by somebody who knew what he was doing,' said James Toner, acting dean of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges based in Reno, Nev.
Moore was president of that organization in 1980; he dedicated his efforts to developing creative dispositions and finding resources for a wider range of dispositions for juveniles convicted of crimes.
"The thing that he seemed to push was different dispositions, sentences, a variety of things that are really important and kind of the heartbeat of juvenile court,' said fellow Michigan Probate Judge John Steketee, a juvenile court judge in Kent County, in western Michigan.
"That was a gutsy call,' said Steketee of the Nathaniel decision.
Moore, the senior probate judge in Michigan, sits in Oakland County, one of the richest counties in America. But, Moore said, the county can still do more to fund services for children who are at risk of turning to crime. "Instead of spending money building more prisons, we should be spending money preventing crime and rehabilitating youthful criminals,' he said in his statement.
Moore's father helped found Camp Oakland, a residential treatment facility for juvenile delinquents in 1951 and helped organize a Youth Assistance Program in the county that has become a national model to help troubled kids. The younger Moore, now 64, has continued to press wealthy Oakland County to fund even more youth programs.
Moore is an intensely private man who does not engage in a lot of socializing at NCJFCJ events or with members of the Oakland County bench or bar association. Edward Overstreet, associate director of Boysville of Michigan, the state's largest private provider of residential treatment services for delinquent youth, said the Nathaniel ruling showed that "here's a sitting judge who still believes that the juvenile justice system can work. ... It was a refreshing change from all the punitive, anti-rehabilitative measures that have been passed by the Michigan legislature over the past 10 to 12 years.'
The sentencing represents a "challenge to everybody in the child welfare field," Overstreet said. "We've got to do better with these kinds of kids, and it's a commitment on the part of the judge that he still has faith that the rehabilitation system can work.
"Actually, he's my new child welfare hero."