Boy's Future Decided after Murder Sentence

Monday, March 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI - What 14-year-old Lionel Tate will do with the rest of his life, now that he's been sentenced to life, depends on where he ends up after a 30-day assessment period.

If he's lucky, he'll head for one of the state's three maximum-security facilities for boys.

In announcing Friday that he'll consider a clemency request, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested that Tate belongs in a juvenile facility. If that doesn't happen, Tate will join about 460 inmates under 17 in Florida's 52-prison state system's jurisdiction. There, he'd probably be among the youngest prisoner.

There, he'd "become fodder,'' said Robert Udell, the Stuart lawyer who represents Nathaniel Brazill. Brazill, 13, goes to trial in Palm Beach County on April 30 for the May 2000 shooting death of teacher Barry Grunow.

According to the most current statistics that Florida Department of Corrections officials could easily provide, the state prison population ranged from 14-88 last June 30. Those incarcerated for crimes before they turned 18 constituted 8 percent of 71,233 state-prison inmates on that date, according to spokesperson JoEllyn Rackleff.

Like Tate, four were 12-year-olds when they committed their crimes, 21 were 13, and 91 were 14.

As part of the general population, Tate might work in a prison factory for 20 cents an hour. He might live in a dorm and exercise in a yard surrounded by grown men.

Likely as not, he would be sexually abused, say those who study the issue of children in adult lockups: a growing number fueled by 200,000 adult prosecutions nationally, the Justice Policy Institute's 1998 statistic.

Tate will spend the next month in administrative confinement at the South Florida Reception enter in Miami-Dade, living alone in an 8x6 cell with a bunk and a toilet next to officers' station.

"He'll be fairly busy the first couple of weeks being interviewed by staff, getting his uniform, having his picture taken, looked at by medical staff, completing a battery of tests to determine his educational level and needs, talking with psychologists who'll get a social history of the family and any hidden things we might not know of, like drug treatment.''

Tate will, she said, "be escorted by an officer anywhere he goes,'' including the exercise yard, she said. "He'll have no contact with the adult population.''

He'll get three meals a day, and three snacks: "Usually fruit or fruit juice,'' according to Rackleff.

Only his attorneys can visit. He won't have radio or television. He can read "approved literature in the library.''

At the end of this period, "if we determine he'd be better off in a juvenile facility, the Department of Juvenile Justice might take him,'' Rackleff said.

The juvenile system is much smaller: about 7,900 in residential commitment programs and 1,900 in holding facilities.

Catherine Arnold, the system's spokesperson, called the world of youth maximum security "highly structured,'' with heavy doors that shut and lock before the next door opens, electronically monitored gates and high, barbed-wire fences.

Inmates occupy concrete-block single cells with toilets and mattress-covered slabs behind solid doors with small windows.

They arise between 5:30 and 6 a.m., then shower in groups "under close supervision.'' They attend academic and vocational classes. They're counseled "based on their needs,'' Arnold said: self-esteem, self-awareness, perhaps anger management.

How self-esteem coaching might benefit someone jailed at 14 for life "is an issue that does present some difficulty,'' she acknowledged.

The juvenile system doesn't have to accept Tate, even if his assessment recommends it.

"If a juvenile does not fit the profile that would allow him to be successful in one of our facilities,'' if he becomes disruptive, then corrections officials meet to "discuss the next step,'' she said.

That would be an adult prison, where the average inmate is 35.7.