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Nowhere to run
How did an adolescent without a criminal record become the latest local poster boy for prosecuting youths as adults?

HE GOES BY Scotti, not Millinia, his Cambodian name. He is short and stocky, with a smattering of pimples, and if his life hadnít imploded 17 months ago, heíd be in the ninth grade at Samuel Bridgham Middle School in Providence.

But that was not Scotti Chhemís fate. Instead, after a shooting in the West End on September 9, 2002, that left a 16-year-old-boy dead, Chhem made headlines as the youngest defendant to get sent to the Adult Correctional Institutions in a very long time. He was 14 at the time, a pudgy adolescent who liked playing video games at Providence Place Mall, listening to rap music on the radio, and playing pickup football at Armory Park, before his life went south. He liked school, too, at least for a while, and hoped to be a cook someday.

But now a first-degree murder charge hangs over Chhemís head for the killing of Ricky Sok, a vocational student from Providenceís West End. And thanks to a change in state law that allows children under 16 to be waived from Family Court, Chhem, along with two other Providence teenagers ó Marvin Rubio, 16, and Raymond McCoy, 17 ó will be tried as an adult for the crime.

Thereís nothing new about trying juveniles as adults. This has been the trend for the past 15 or so years, as states sought to grapple with a deadly surge in youth crime triggered by the crack boom of the late í80s. Nationally, the issue is still present; the case of Lionel Tate, a 12-year-old Florida boy convicted of killing a younger companion, frequently makes the nightly news, as do other stories involving young criminals. In Rhode Island, the murderous rampage of 15-year-old Craig Price prompted the General Assembly in 1990 to expand the law that allows a Family Court judge to waive a juvenile into the more punitive adult system, broadening it to include defendants under the age of 16.

But usually when a juvenile is waived out of Family Court, he is the accused killer. This isnít the case with Chhem; heís charged with providing the gun that was used to fell Sok, but not pulling the trigger. This, apparently, is a first for Rhode Island. No one can recall a case, in which the state sought to waive a juvenile on a murder charge when he wasnít the accused murderer.

Another first for Rhode Island: Sending a defendant as young as Chhem to the Adult Correctional Institutions before trial. Bail was set for Chhem at $25,000 with surety in January 2003, one month after he was waived out of Family Court. But for many reasons, including the fact that Chhemís family is very poor, he didnít make bail until May 2003.

The upshot of all this?

A boy who should have been in the eighth grade and who had no prior juvenile record, according to his lawyer and police, spent six months in the ACI before he even went to trial. He spent three of those months in the prisonís punitive segregation unit for violating prison rules, among them trashing his cell and passing food to another inmate. In "seg," Chhem was alone in his cell for 23 hour a day, with no radio or TV.

Seeing the child-like Chhem for the first time behind the ACIís thick stone walls shocked veteran criminal-defense lawyer Gerard H. Donley, Chhemís court-appointed lawyer. Chhem is small for his age. "I donít think he was higher than the door handle," Donley says, recalling how the youth walked down a hallway from the segregation unit.

Donley calls Chhem a "sweetheart of a kid," who is sick about the trouble he is in.

His worst offense before Sokís murder involved skipping school and staying out later than he should. Calling Chhem a perfect candidate for the juvenile system, which stresses rehabilitation over punishment, Donley says he "respectfully disagreed" with the decision to try him as an adult.

Rhode Islandís waiver law, like many others, gives the state the right to seek waiver even if the youthful defendant has no criminal record. Prosecutors can request it if the crime is premeditated, "heinous," or if public safety requires it. Waiver is not a decision the state takes lightly, says Michael Healey, a spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch. "Itís a last resort to protect the public," Healey says. Each case is looked at carefully, he adds, and even then, the final decision rests with the Family Court, which sometimes doesnít grant the stateís request.

In addition to providing the gun used to kill Sok, Chhem, the state says, helped to plan his murder ó a charge that Chhem denies. But on December 11, 2002, after hearing the stateís evidence, the chief justice of the state Family Court, Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr., waived Chhem into the adult system. A status conference on his case is scheduled for March 1, and a trial in Providenceís gun court, a specially created tribunal within the criminal court system, could take place later that month or in April.

JEREMIAHíS DECISION ó and Chhemís subsequent incarceration at the ACI ó came as the issue of juvenile justice was again in the national spotlight. Cases like that of Tate and John Lee Malvo, the youthful accomplice of the Washington, DC, sniper, raise questions about the vulnerability of youth and to what extent this can be an ameliorating factor for committing a crime.

A Maryland jury convicted Malvo of murder, but declined to give him the death penalty. Similarly, Tate was recently granted a new trial, and ultimately a lighter sentence, because of his age. Does this represent a softening of societyís attitude towards young criminals? Jeff Fagan, director of the Center for Violence Research and Prevention at Columbia Universityís School of Public Health, thinks it might. "I think legislatures and the courts are beginning to recognize that these laws tend to have a very broad reach," Fagan says.

In many states, a waiver is automatic for certain crimes. But even when the process is discretionary, as in Rhode Island, Fagan calls the prosecution of juveniles as adults "[a] bad idea." Studies unanimously show that kids tried as adults are more likely to be rearrested, they are arrested more quickly and for more serious charges, and they are more likely to return to prison than defendants who stay in the juvenile system, Fagan says. Plus, he says, itís just not fair. "No wants to be judged by the way they were and the things they did when they were 14," Fagan says. "Would you?"

In a recent interview, the stateís child advocate, Laureen DíAmbra, who was nominated last week for a Family Court judgeship, notes that juveniles sent to adult prison are many times more likely than adult defendants to be sexually assaulted. For this and other reasons, she thinks the juvenile justice system is preferable for the vast majority of youthful offenders. "Most youths are still maturing mentally and emotionally [and] are more amenable to treatment than adults. This was the philosophy upon which the juvenile system was founded," DíAmbra wrote in a 1996 law review article about Rhode Islandís waiver law.

Chhemís case offers more than an opportunity to examine the stateís juvenile laws. It also begs the question of what went wrong in this young manís life. Within the span of a few short years, he went from being a polite boy, who did well in school and liked to help his mother cook and care for his younger brothers, to being an accused murderer. Why?

The answer lies in Providenceís gang culture, which, police say, lured Chhem, just as it has many other young teens. The Cambodian Nasty Boyz, Lao Pride, and a host of other street gangs have divided the cityís poorer neighborhoods into a Byzantine map of gang-related turf, making life a living hell for many disadvantaged teenagers. These gangs fight over girls, over who said what to whom, and, in the beginning, used sticks and fists to settle their beefs. Now, though, many gang members carry guns. Partially as a result in 2002, the year Ricky Sok in which died, there were four gang-related murders in Providence.

"Thatís four too many," observes Major Paul Kennedy, head of the Providence Police Departmentís Investigative Division, which includes the Juvenile Services Bureau.

To combat the gangs, the Providence police has beefed up its gang unit so that it now includes six officers, two of them detectives, says Kennedy. The unit keeps a database on gang activity, he says, and helps to mediate and resolve disputes before they erupt into violence. "Certainly, we continue to see gang activity in the city, but thereís no question weíve prevented violence on the street," says Kennedy, citing one Providence murder in 2003 that was attributed to gang violence.

A nonprofit program created by the South Providence-based Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, which hires "street workers" ó including two former gang members ó to counsel young people in poor neighborhoods, is also working to prevent violence in Providence (see "The peacemakers," News, September 5, 2003). "For us, a successful day is when something doesnít show up in the media," says Teny Gross, an Israeli native, by way of Harvard University, who directs the institute and helped to start the program.

Many kids in Providence have a tough time of it, said Gross. They live in a culture of fear, violence, and poverty, where just walking home can become an exercise in courage. In general, kids donít want to fight, but there is tremendous pressure on them not to look like cowards, Gross says. Thereís also tremendous grief when someone they know gets hurt or killed. "I havenít yet seen a happy funeral," he says.

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Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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