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Youth detention: care, compassion needed

At every stage the American judicial system should take great care to weigh the rights of society to be protected from criminals against the civil rights of individuals accused of crime. The principle holds both for adults or juveniles.

In its decision this week that it is constitutional for accused juveniles to be detained to prevent additional crimes, the US Supreme Court has thrown its weight on the side of the status quo. Most states have laws that permit such preventive detention; juveniles sometimes are not granted bail when a judge concludes they might commit further crimes.

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Yet carrying out such laws requires great care, and compassion for all involved. The statutes need to be applied equally to all groups of youth: Neither affluence nor social status is relevant. There should be national standards which states could adopt as their own, to provide uniformity across the United States.

Further, it is important that no judge overuse juvenile detention, applying it routinely to youth to ''teach them a lesson.'' This is the greatest concern of civil libertarians, who had hoped the Supreme Court would rule the other way. Also, when judges ponder whether to invoke preventive-detention statutes, they are put in the position of forecasting future crime, which many criminologists say is not feasible.

Although juveniles are supposed to be held in separate jail facilities from adults, in practice they are often locked up together in areas of overcrowding. This can result in harmful effects on the youth. It is important that states and municipalities obtain sufficient facilities to enable them to keep juveniles separate.

Whether accused youths are released on bail or locked up in preventive detention, it is important that the entire judicial system - from court to warden - put its emphasis on rehabilitating them. Compassion and help for their victims should always be provided. Yet it is counterproductive to treat juveniles accused or convicted of crimes merely in punitive terms, incarcerating them for a number of years only to release them as more highly skilled criminals.

Besides, no one ever should give up on the young.

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