Should Juvenile Criminals Be Sentenced Like Adults?

Sean Shevlino was 16 when he robbed some local businesses. Sentenced as an adult, he’s serving 10 years. Is that better for anyone? Clark Merrefield reports.

Timothy A. Clary / AFP-Getty Images; (inset)

In August 2006, Sean Shevlino pulled on a hoodie, went to a Piggly Wiggly near his house, waited until the coast was clear, and hopped the counter.

Sean’s friend’s older brother worked at the Piggly Wiggly, and had told Sean that when the lady behind the service counter went for a smoke break, all Sean had to do was jump over and snag some cash from the safe. It wouldn’t be locked.

Sure enough, it wasn’t. Sean opened the safe, grabbed a Ziploc bag of cash, stuffed it under his hoodie, and ran to a friend’s house. He was 16.

Before then, Sean had seemed to be a typical American kid from Mount Pleasant, S.C., a politically conservative, affluent suburb outside Charleston. He was the quiet, introverted brother between Seamus and Alex. His mother, April, was a schoolteacher; his father, Peter, is a Navy veteran who leases shipping containers. Peter and April provided what they felt was a comfortable, college-bound track for the boys. Life seemed as normal as it gets.

But when Sean turned 15, “things quickly went downhill,” April said. “He started acting terrible to us. He just seemed very angry.”

Sean was couch surfing with friends before the robbery, and had been looking for a quick way to pay his friends back for their hospitality.

When Sean told them about the idea to rob the Piggly Wiggly, they told him he was crazy. But when Sean got an idea in his head, it stuck.

“When I got all the money, [my friends’] minds changed a little bit,” Sean said.

And then Sean and his buddies had another idea: if he could get that much money again, maybe even more, they could get their own apartment. A few of the friends were 18 and could sign a lease. Sean would still go to school and finish his education, but he’d live on his terms.

The Food Lion just off Highway 17 was bigger than the Piggly Wiggly. It would have more money. Easy money, part two.

But the boys soon realized that the Food Lion had more fail-safes; it wouldn’t be as simple as hopping a counter. Someone—Sean doesn’t remember who—suggested using a toy gun to stick up the place. Sean thought about it for half a second. “Yeah, why not?” he said. “We can do that.”

With the last of the Piggly Wiggly cash, the teens bought their supplies: an orange ski mask, a pair of motorcycle gloves, a pellet gun, four walkie talkies, and a pair of goggles.

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Just before 11 p.m. on Aug. 26, the plan coalesced.

Sean—whose code name was “Butch Cassidy”—crouched below a big window near the Food Lion’s entrance. Christopher Cousins, 16, who worked at the store, said over the radios, “Butch is about to do it.”

As the last customer left the store, Sean recalled, Chris said, “If you’re gonna do it, Sean, you gotta do it right now.”

Sean could hear doubt in Chris’s voice. “Nobody really thought we were going to go through with this thing,” Sean said. “I heard that and I had this thought—I didn’t really want to do it—but I had all these expectations riding on my shoulders. I had gotten them all involved in it up to this point.”

Nobody backed down.

Sean entered the Food Lion. He found a manager who was buying a package of Goldfish crackers and pulled the pellet gun on him.

“He was terrified,” Sean said. “And that’s when it hit me. Like, Oh my God, I just scared the crap out of this guy.”

With the pellet gun pointed at him the manager opened the safe. Sean packed a black gym bag with as much cash as he could grab, and then he and the lookouts bolted across the parking lot to the getaway car, a blue-green Toyota RAV4.

“Haul ass!” Sean told the driver, Graham Stolte.

Stolte pulled onto Highway 17 and blue lights appeared out of the darkness. The police were flying toward the Food Lion.

“Holy shit,” Sean thought as the cop cars streaked by in the opposite direction. “I just did something serious right here. I shouldn’t have done that.”

When the cash was counted there was nowhere near enough for Sean to get an apartment, and the money soon ran out. About a week later—after another robbery and a BMW joyride—the police caught up with Sean. Eleven teenagers in all, including the starting quarterback at the local high school, were involved to varying degrees with the two-week crime spree.

Sitting in an interrogation room, Peter Shevlino asked his son if he had really stolen a car. He knew Sean had been acting out, but he never expected anything like this.

“Yeah,” Sean said. “I did.”

Peter ran his hands through his hair and looked at Sean without speaking.

“When he didn’t yell at me that’s when I knew I had really messed up,” Sean said.

Sean, now 22, spoke to The Daily Beast by phone from MacDougall Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, S.C., five years into a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. Under South Carolina law, Sean, who was 16 at the time of his crimes, was charged as an adult.

Increasingly, social scientists, law-enforcement authorities, lawyers, and judges are questioning the wisdom of charging juveniles as adults.

It is only in the last few years that the law has begun to recognize what science has long known: that adolescent brain development takes more time than previously thought.

"While some teenagers can be astonishingly mature and others inconceivably childish, middle adolescence—roughly, ages 14 to 18—might be the worst time in a person’s life for rational decision making, says Laurence Steinberg, an adolescent psychologist at Temple University. Research has repeatedly shown that during these years, pleasure centers are at full throttle, and foresight is lacking, particularly in young men.

“Among all American boys, about 75 percent violate the law at some point,” Steinberg says. “For some it might be as minor as possession of marijuana and for others it could be as serious as armed robbery, but in either case they’re breaking the law. The question we ask is why some stop and others don’t. Our sense is most stop because they just grow up.”

During pre- and early-adolescence, the brain becomes more efficient and logical, and dopamine activity increases. Things like sex, drugs, and adrenaline thrills feel really good, and when teens are in groups they are even more likely to go for the thrill.

But as teens approach adulthood, the pathways between the brain’s CEO and the limbic system—the emotional center—increase substantially, allowing for greater impulse control. According to some studies, brain development is not complete until the mid-20s.

Steinberg is concerned that harsh punishment of juveniles often doesn’t fit the crime. “If it were just a process of normal maturation, then I think it’s important that we don’t sanction them in a way that’s going to mess up their lives.”

Sean’s original prosecutor offered him the 10-year sentence—in an adult prison—as part of a plea deal. But the Shevlinos resisted, hoping that if Sean could demonstrate an ability to change, maybe the new prosecutor, Scarlett Wilson, would reduce the charges and offer a youthful offender sentence.

The plan was that Sean would hold off on accepting the plea for as long as possible. In the meantime he would go to Three Springs, a now-defunct Outward Bound–style program in middle-of-nowhere Pittsboro, N.C. He’d learn how to control his anger and defiance. (After a battery of psychological tests, Sean had been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder.)

In early October 2006 Sean spent his first night at Three Springs. He had to prove that even though his actions belied a simmering anger, he wasn’t one of the violent ones. More than that, Sean had to show he could lead among his regiment of 12 boys.

Sean moved swiftly through the military-style hierarchy, and by the end of his time was performing the work of paid counselors. The Three Springs program certainly wasn’t a cure-all for every young man, but for some, like Sean, it seemed to work. It helped him learn to manage his ODD and prepare to reenter society.

But in the heart of tough-on-crime country, there was a public perception that an example had to be made. Wilson, the prosecutor, explained that she ultimately decided the 10-year plea deal was appropriate for Sean and one of the other teens—the two “ringleaders.”

Sean had to make a choice: go to trial and face decades in prison, or take the plea. Sean accepted the plea in January 2008. With good behavior he would be out of adult prison in eight and a half years.

According to one frequently quoted statistic, a quarter-million teenagers under 18 pass through the adult justice system each year. Howard Snyder, a researcher with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is developing a more statistically rigorous estimate using a sampling of court cases from 2012. But right now, even he isn’t exactly sure how many juveniles encounter the adult system each year.

What Snyder does know is that 40 percent of 17-year-olds in America do not have any chance to be tried as a juvenile, and the available research shows that prosecuting young people as adults does not rehabilitate them or deter future crimes. A U.S. Department of Justice review of several large-scale studies found that, excluding arrests for nonviolent property or drug offenses, young people tried in adult criminal court generally have greater recidivism rates than those tried in juvenile court.

However, recent Supreme Court cases and new state legislation indicate a changing attitude toward how we treat our youngest wrongdoers.

In 2005 the court outlawed the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes before the age of 18, relying in large part on the emerging science of brain development. The court went a step further last summer, prohibiting mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles. Also since 2005, several states have raised the adult criminal bar to age 18, either for some or all offenses. A state task force in North Carolina, one of two states where the age of criminal responsibility is 16, has recommended that for minor crimes, teens under 18 remain in the juvenile system.

The benefits of keeping juveniles out of the adult system are also financial. If the age were raised to 18 for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, North Carolina would net $52.3 million a year over the long run, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Sean Shevlino is now an adult, but he spent the last years of his youth in the same prison where he now sits. The experience has no doubt affected him deeply, and has changed his father’s views on criminal justice too.

“I never believed in my wildest dreams that children were treated like this in this country,” Peter Shevlino said. “You would have called me a hard-right, conservative Republican. The people in that camp—even after this, very good friends that we have—they still cling to the idea that this is sort of a one-off. It’s hard for people to accept that, no, it’s not, we have a severely broken system. It’s hard to accept that everything we’ve been doing for the past 40 to 50 years has been wrong.”

Even Scarlett Wilson explained by email that while she has no control over legislation, she believes “it is better when juveniles are housed in prison separately from adults.”

After Sean accepted his 10-year sentence, he was taken by bus to Kirkland maximum security prison in Columbia, S.C. He looked up at the sentry towers dotting the campus as the bus entered Kirkland. He couldn’t believe what was happening.

“You get to Kirkland and you get stripped naked and they wash you down and you’re with all these people—like 50 or 60 guys—and I’m the youngest one there by far,” Sean said. “I’m just looking around like, There’s no way I could ever do 10 years here in prison. That’s not going to happen.”

Sean had to fight other inmates, especially early on, but the work he did at Three Springs and consistent contact with his family have helped him maintain perspective and adapt to prison.

“I’ve seen a lot of young guys like me who didn’t have a head on their shoulders and didn’t know how to handle the pressure,” he said. “Back here it’s survival of the fittest.”