Advocates: Crain could face long recovery odds if sentenced to prison

— For young, violent, mentally ill inmates, Florida…s prisons can be unforgiving.

Alex Crain might soon find this out.

The 15-year-old, who is expected to accept a plea agreement this week for shooting and killing his parents, faces up to 60 years in prison — a place ill-equipped to deal with his psychological issues.

Mental health care is sparse for teens in prison, making it unlikely Crain could be rehabilitated if sentenced to a lengthy term, juvenile advocates said.

"Those kids tend to go further and deeper into the system," said Andrea Costello, an attorney with the nonprofit Florida Institutional Legal Services who focuses on juvenile cases. "For children that have more severe mental health needs, once they go into the Department of Corrections, unfortunately a lot of them tend to end up in the most restrictive prison settings."

Crain's lawyer, Brian Bieber, said he expects Crain to be sentenced to prison Thursday after his acceptance of a plea agreement. Crain is charged with two counts of manslaughter, accused of killing his parents, Kelly and Thomas Crain, at their Golden Gate Estates home in December 2010.

Bieber has previously said the "mental health aspect in his case is of epic proportion."

Bieber said he expects Crain family members to speak at Thursday's hearing.

Details of the plea agreement haven't been made public, though Collier Circuit Judge Fred Hardt has a sentencing scoresheet and psychological evaluation report in his hands. Bieber said he expects Crain will enter the Department of Corrections system, which houses about 200 juveniles.

"The judge has the full range of latitude and discretion to sentence Alex as he deems appropriate," Bieber said.

If he's sentenced to prison, Crain will be transferred from Naples Jail Center, where he's being held on $1 million bond, to an undetermined facility.

"We're trying to get them to mature, to accept responsibility for their actions," said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Before juveniles are assigned to a prison, corrections officials test their mental health and educational skills, in addition to teaching him about prison rules and expectations. In some cases, violent juveniles are placed in protective confinement. The same goes for vulnerable juveniles who are likely to be harmed by other inmates.

Where Crain would end up remains unknown. No juvenile is currently in the prison system on manslaughter charges. Five of the 12 juveniles incarcerated on murder or attempted murder charges are at Indian River Correctional Institution in Vero Beach, which will be closed by July 1. They are scheduled to be moved to Sumter Correctional Institution, located about 50 miles north of Tampa.

The availability of mental health care also remains unknown, but it's limited at the budget-strapped corrections department. Crain would, however, be able to work toward obtaining a General Educational Development diploma.

Bieber said Crain likely wouldn't receive youthful offender status, a designation typically reserved for juveniles who are first-time offenders with prison sentences of 10 years or fewer. The tag would give Crain better access to rehabilitation services.

"The mental health treatment in the adult system is minimal to nonexistent, which is less than he would have been getting in the juvenile system," Bieber said.

As a result, juveniles with deep mental health issues tend to emerge from the prison system unchanged, said three juvenile advocates. They were not familiar with Crain's case or mental health history.

The advocates said research shows prison settings tend to push juveniles into deeper depression and exacerbate their mental health issues.

"It's bad public policy," said David Utter, director of policy for the Southern Povery Law Center's Florida office. "The goal here is to make sure the public is safe, and what we can say without any question is that putting any kid in the adult system makes for less public safety, not more."

Ilona Vila, director of the Orlando-based Juvenile Life Without Parole Defense Resource Center, said long prison sentences for juveniles often make the youth despondent, reducing the chance of rehabilitation.

"There's a lot of research that doesn't surprise anyone that shows kids will actually withdraw because their sense of time is very different," Vila said. "Five years could seem like a very distant time for a child. A young person going into the system having no hope, they really have no incentive to do anything well."

The downside of placing an inmate in the juvenile justice system, where mental health and educational help is more readily available, is that inmates can only be held until age 21. As a result, prosecutors must consider the possibility of a convict being released — and possibly committing another violent crime — so soon after his or her initial charge.

Those not placed in the juvenile system, however, face long odds of recovery while serving sentences for violent crimes.

"I don't know if you can prepare any 15-year-old for going into the adult prison system," Costello, the nonprofit lawyer, said. "They're going to come out much worse off than when they started."

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