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Imprisonment of Teen-Ager Raises Issues in Juvenile Justice

December 6, 1996

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Donna Ratliff was too young even to get a driver’s license when she was imprisoned with adult offenders for a double homicide.

At 14, she sloshed kerosene through her mother’s house and set a smoky fire that killed her mother and sister.

A justice system that regarded her as anything but childlike, despite a history of physical and sexual abuse, locked her up with hardened and hostile criminals at a maximum-security adult prison.

And she has been asked not to bring up her past during group therapy because it’s too upsetting to the other women, some of whom abused or killed their own children.

The case has raised questions about the coast-to-coast push to treat juveniles as adults under the law.

``The politicians think they’re under a lot of pressure to get tough with kids, and getting tough means locking them up and throwing away the key,″ said Larry Hayes, editorial page editor of The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne who has taken up Donna’s cause.

Correction Department spokeswoman Pam Pattison said Donna is getting appropriate treatment.

Donna said she had no intention of killing her mother, Glissie Ratliff, 37, and her older sister Jamie, 16, when she set the fire in 1995. She said she acted in a desperate attempt to escape an abusive home.

Court documents indicate that she was sexually abused at age 7 by an uncle and that her mother had repeatedly slapped and struck her. Her father, Perry Ratliff, says she was not abused.

Donna’s case was transferred from juvenile court to Circuit Court, and she pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and arson. Citing the evidence of abuse, Judge Mark McIntosh recommended she start serving her 25-year sentence in a secure juvenile center.

But Prisons Commissioner Christopher DeBruyn, who has since left his post, ordered her instead to adult prison, saying it would provide uninterrupted treatment. If Donna were assigned to a juvenile facility, she would have to be transferred to an adult prison between ages 18 and 21.

``Sexual abuse and neglect of our children is too often a fact of life for too many kids,″ DeBruyn wrote in his decision. ``It should not be a function of a state prison system to respond to such neglect.″

Hayes has visited Donna at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, where he said she has been threatened with assault by other inmates. Donna’s supporters also said she is not getting the treatment she needs because she is a child surrounded by hostile adults and because she can’t talk out her past in group therapy.

``She started the fire to get out of that life,″ said Ken Nicolai, a Salvation Army worker who befriended Donna and visits her. ``Now she’s being suppressed back into that life.″

Donna has always been free to talk about her past in private sessions with a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor, said Ms. Pattison. ``She is getting individualized treatment.″

The American Civil Liberties Union tried to win her a transfer to a juvenile center but failed. Thomas Quigley, the deputy attorney general who argued the case for the state, said: ``You can’t have judges making decisions about where prisoners go. You’d have chaos.″

Like most other states, Indiana has passed laws cracking down on youths who commit serious crimes. In the past four years:

_24 states have expanded the crimes for which juveniles can be prosecuted as adults.

_Six states have lowered the minimum age for offenders.

_10 states have opened formerly confidential hearings to the public.

_11 states have made the names of juvenile suspects public.

_21 states have made juveniles’ court records public.

Indiana has gotten too tough with many juvenile offenders, said state Rep. Dennis Avery. When teen-age criminals are locked up with hardened inmates, Avery said, ``Basically they’re fresh meat to these people.″

Avery drafted legislation giving judges the authority to send youngsters convicted in adult court to youth facilities. Prison officials objected, citing the cost, and lawmakers compromised, giving judges only the power to recommend where the juveniles should go, Avery said.

A Justice Department report released last year predicted the juvenile arrest rate for violent crime may double in the next 15 years. Nevertheless, Melissa Sickmund, a researcher for the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, said the get-tough response is misguided.

Placing even violent youngsters like Donna in adult prisons does her and the community little good in the long run, Ms. Sickmund said.

``It’s just hard to imagine her coming out any better than when she went in,″ she said. ``And she’s going to get out. What are her life chances?″

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