They're the faces of children: The 17-year-old sniper with the delicate features and sad, boyish look who took part in a deadly shooting spree that terrorized the nation's capital. The chubby-faced 14-year-old with tears streaming down his cheeks after he was sentenced to life in prison for stomping to death a 6-year-old girl when he was only 12.
As their crimes and their youth shocked the country, the cases of Lee Malvo and Lionel Tate also renewed a debate that for many years has been largely one-sided: how to understand and address the crimes of children. For the past 20 years, the American criminal justice system has dealt with juvenile offenders in a way it never did before: by treating them like adults who are responsible for their actions and must be isolated and punished for their crimes.
The result of that policy, says a growing chorus of psychologists, lawyers, and researchers, is record numbers of young people who are sentenced to juvenile detention facilities that have become warehouses for mentally disturbed youth. "Put bluntly, the juvenile-justice system has become the dumping ground for poor, minority youth with mental disorders and learning disabilities," said Laurence Steinberg, a juvenile-justice researcher and professor of psychology at Temple University, in a recent lecture.
The punitive trend began in the 1980s, in response to a sharp rise in the number of murders committed by juveniles, sensational TV coverage, and inflammatory…