Face to Face: A Conversation with Bishop Thomas Masters

The Palm Beach County religious leader discusses his support of Nate Brazill Jr. and the wider cause of helping juveniles facing adult sentencing.

Q. Reverend, how did you get involved in the campaign to stop the practice of prosecuting children as adults?

A. I got involved by attending the trial of Nate Brazill Jr. and participating in prayer vigils, rallies, doing all that we could do to help turn things around for Nate during the trial, and actually before the trial. But what really got me involved is when I attended the trial and noticed something that I thought was so unfair. To me it was unfair seeing this child cross-examined, and impeached rather, by a skillful, trained attorney. What I thought about was a match between a giant vs. a midget. I don't know how many adults can stand the pressures of an intense cross-examination. And then you think of a child. So what I kept saying to myself was that there has to be a better way to prosecute this child rather than [as] an adult in an adult arena.

Q. How large an organization is Under Our Wings?

A. Well, it's a grassroots organization that was organized at the height of the King boys' trial [last year] in Pensacola.

Q. The boys who killed their father?

A. Yes, right, up north. It became apparent that we needed to have an umbrella organization to bring everyone in one organization nationally and develop some type of national strategy [to] address the issues of prosecuting and adjudicating children as adults.

Which brings us to the juvenile death penalty. I'm of the opinion that if we see this as a moral issue, the whole way that we treat children as adults in this country, if we see this as a moral issue and see something is morally wrong with prosecuting children as adults, then we will never adjudicate children as adults, which means we will never give them adult sentences, which means we would never have juvenile execution.

So let's back up and say the reason why we have the adjudication, adult sentences, the reason why we have the juvenile death penalty is because we are prosecuting children at 13 and 14 years of age as adults, which leads us into all the adult arenas.

Q. How does Florida compare with other states in terms of the percentage of juveniles who are prosecuted as adults?

A. According to the research and statistics it appears to me, from what I've seen, that Florida leads the nation in the prosecution of children as adults. Florida is one of the states that have prosecutorial discretion, which means that the prosecutors make the decision whether they're going to prosecute (a) as a juvenile or (b) as an adult. And when you give that kind of authority to a prosecutor rather than a judge, then nine out of 10, the decision's going to be "put them in jail as an adult," because prosecutors, that's what they do. They want to prosecute to the furthest extent of the law.

Q. I'm sure you're familiar with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Do you feel the practice of prosecuting children as adults violates that convention?

A. I think so, in principle. Let's look at three of the main ingredients. One of the ingredients says that you cannot put anyone under 18 in prison for life without parole. So, we're in violation of that if we give a 13-year-old kid, or a 14-year-old kid, a life sentence without parole, like Lionel Tate. We are definitely in violation of principle No. 1.

Principle No. 2 says you cannot execute anyone under 18 years of age. Now, we don't literally execute anyone under 18 years of age in this country, but we do execute offenders who committed crimes under 18, which is the same in principle. We're still executing a juvenile offender, so we're in violation.

The other part of it says, and I can't quote it verbatim, but in principle it says that you should give the child the benefit of the doubt, that you should give the child the shortest period of time of punishment, and take into consideration the age of the child, etc.

So it's clear to me that there is to be a separate set of rules for prosecuting children vs. adults.

Q. Some people say that in terms of culpability, adolescents are similar to the mentally retarded. The U.S. Supreme Court has said the mentally retarded cannot be executed. Have you tried to make the case that that ruling should apply to adolescents as well?

A. I do. And I'll tell you why, because recent research has shown that the brain of a child is not fully developed, the frontal lobes are not fully developed as an adolescent. So if we have an undeveloped brain, or we have a brain that is mentally incompetent, there's not much difference.

Now let me drive that point home. When John Hinckley almost killed former President Ronald Reagan, the court ruled that he had the mind of a child -- adult act, but the mind of a child -- so they transferred him into a mental facility for mental rehabilitation. However, if a child does the same thing, we don't have that same ruling. We have that this was an adult act, we're going to put this child in prison for life without parole.

Now, which one really has the mind of a child, which one has more of a right to have the mind of a child?

Q. In Florida, one factor used in determining whether a juvenile is prosecuted as an adult is the seriousness of the crime itself. Do you see anything wrong with that approach?

A. I do, for a couple of reasons. One is, in Florida, a lot of, if not most of, the cases that are being transferred to the adult system are for nonviolent offenses. Period. So we're not just transferring the violent cases, we're transferring the nonviolent cases to the adult system. Second thing is, we must be consistent as to [when] society has determined that child becomes an adult, not by what he does, but by the age. For an example, we have said that the legal age in this country to become an adult is 18 years of age. But now we say, oh, if you go out and rob somebody, break into a house, at 13 years of age, we're going to treat you as an adult. We're going to forget the fact that society has said 18 years of age, that's it, you become an adult.

If we're going to go that route, then I think that we need to be consistent. The flip side of the coin is, why don't we say the same thing to a 13-year-old child who's getting straight A's in school, who has no discipline problem? Why don't we say, oh, you can vote now. You're an "A" student, we'll let you vote for the president. Fourteen years of age, you're doing great in school, your grades are great, so we're going to let you go in the military at 13 or 14 years of age.

We don't say that, because we realize that regardless of the circumstances, we still feel that that child's brain is not fully developed, he's not mature enough to vote, to go into the military and do the other kinds of things, to buy liquor [and have a] driver's license, etc. So we must be consistent. We can't have it both ways.

Q. What about the issue of deterrence? People who support prosecuting juveniles in this way say it's the only way to deter them from committing violent or otherwise serious crimes. How do you respond to that?

A. Well, the statistics and the research show just the opposite. What it shows [is] that when a child is kept in the juvenile system, and is given all of the tools that the juvenile system has for the child -- education, counseling, rehabilitation tools, etc. -- that the chances are two- to four-times greater that that child will become a productive citizen in the community. Why? Because he has been given the tools for rehabilitation, which the juvenile system is designed for.

If he's transferred to the adult system, it's the opposite, because the adult system is not designed for rehabilitation, but is designed for punishment. We won't even talk about the hardened criminals that he's exposed to, who his role models are, the murderers and the rapists and all that. We won't talk about the sex abuse that goes on, the rapes of children in prison.

But, the fact is, once that child goes to the adult system and comes out, particularly in Florida, he can't vote, he's a convicted felon. He probably can't apply for any federal assistance for education, for higher learning, so he can't go to college. He probably can't get a good job, unless it's minimum wage. He probably can't apply for federal housing, particularly if it was a drug-related offense, and he's probably had little or no rehabilitation while he's there. So he's going to go right back on the streets and commit more crime.

So it's not even in the interests of public safety. So let's not get harder on crime for juveniles, but let's get smarter.

Q. Some people have suggested a hybrid system, in which convicted juveniles would be given juvenile sanctions until age 21, and then at that time their cases would be reviewed, and those deemed rehabilitated would be set free, and those who weren't would be transferred to the adult system to serve any additional sanctions that might be warranted. Would you support that kind of system?

A. Well, that's kind of what we call the blended sentence. In principle, it is an alternative. However, I'm an advocate of the juvenile justice system, and I think that if we keep kids in the juvenile justice system, we can turn things around for our children, with three keys of the juvenile justice system: prevention, diversion and treatment. And I think if we keep the focus there, that we can turn this thing around and it won't be necessary to blend in the adult part of it.

Q. Have you taken your campaign to the state Legislature, and if so, is there any support there for it?

A. Well, I think the pendulum is swinging our way, because it's an embarrassment to our state that we are putting kids in prison at 13 and 14 years of age, for life, especially for life, without parole. And what I really think is this. I think most people realize deep down within their souls and their conscience that something is wrong here when we start prosecuting children as adults. I think most people realize that when we start putting children in adult prisons, something is wrong. When we start executing children as adults, something is wrong. OK?

But I think what the problem may be is, how do we fix it? We don't want to just turn the child loose at 18. He's committed a serious act. So we've got to sit down at the table -- prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, juvenile justice experts and advocates -- and let's see how we can bring some sobriety and sanity to this issue, where everyone could be happier.

Q. If South Floridians want to become involved in Under Our Wings or in this campaign, what should they do?

A. They should go online and contact our Web site, at www.underourwings.org, or they could even just give me a call here at the church, at 561-842-8068. And they can always pray.

BACKGROUND

The Rev. Thomas Masters is founder and head of Under Our Wings, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the juvenile death penalty and the practice of prosecuting and adjudicating juveniles as adults. He has counseled convicted killers Lionel Tate and Nathaniel Brazill as well as others, and has twice brought his campaign to the Vatican, most recently accompanied by the mothers of Tate and Brazill.

He also has addressed the United Nations Human Rights Commission on the issue. Among the honors Masters has received for his work in the field of human rights are the Sargent Shriver and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. humanitarian awards. He was named the city of Riviera Beach's most outstanding citizen for 2001. He has preached in 45 states and seven countries. He is pastor of New Macedonia Baptist Church in Riviera Beach.

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