How young is too young to try a juvenile as an adult?
That question sparked an emotional debate before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday as Senator Fred Dyson (R-Eagle River/Butte) proposed a change in the law to change the state's sentencing laws for minors.
Under state law, a teenager 16 years of age or older must automatically be tried in an adult court if he or she is charged with serious crimes such as murder, arson, rape, or in some cases, assault.
Dyson’s proposal would allow judges to use discretion as to whether a juvenile would be tried as an adult.
But the unexpected appearance before the committee opened up old wounds for former lawmaker Ralph Samuels.
In October of 1989, his brother Duane was murdered by a 16-year-old boy during a botched robbery attempt. The tragic event compelled Samuels to run for office and craft the law that stands today, allowing juveniles 16 and over to be tried in adult court.
“On October the 6 of 1989, APD arrested the guy," Samuels recalled.
Samuels said it took six years for a judge to decide if his brother's murderer should be tried as an adult or juvenile. He says the law was written to define a narrow group of serious youth offenders, and he argued that there's a reason why they shouldn't serve time in a juvenile facility.
“You get these violent offenders that go into the system, like Mr. Norton, the man who killed Duane,” Samuels said. “He would be in the system, and he would be in there for so long, that he would be a role model for the guy who is selling weed or shoplifting."
Samuels said he didn't even know the amendment was being proposed until late Tuesday and felt compelled to testify
Dyson said there are times when the waiver would better serve the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
"A good example is, perhaps, a teenager is listening for the tenth time to his mother having the stuffings beat out of her by a boyfriend,” he postulated. “The kid gets up and shoots the guy."
Dyson's measure needed three yes votes to pass. But he decided to pull it from the committee. H said he hopes Wednesday’s dialogue will encourage the Department of Law to address overcrowding in Alaska's prisons, and take a closer look at how juvenile offenders are incarcerated in the state.