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As Youth Crime Rises, so Do Reform Ideas

SIGNS of strain are showing up in the juvenile-justice system of the United States. At the Charles Denney Youth Center just north of Seattle, for example, young offenders must wait a month before they start to serve a sentence.

``We're typically over-capacity just on holding kids waiting for trials,'' says Steven Markussen, a probation counselor. At crunch periods, mattresses are laid out in the hallway outside the cells to provide extra beds for youths.

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This is one face of a growing problem in youth crime, which has surged even as adult crime shows modest declines.

Some observers say an overburdened justice system is causing lax punishment, so first-time young offenders don't get a clear message not to act up again. Others counter that this is a small part of the problem - that the largest issue is supervising kids before they get into trouble.

Catch kids early

Detention centers like this one are ``full because we're getting [to] the kids too late,'' says Mike Rustigan, a criminologist at San Jose State University in California.

He says youths who are veering toward antisocial behavior can be identified and helped through special programs. He adds that, unlike time in lockups, ``a lot of these programs don't cost a lot of money.'' He cites one example of providing criminal youth a ``mentor relationship'' with college students training for careers in social work or law enforcement.

At the same time, experts say the alarming rise in youth crimes means punishment cannot be ignored:

* The rate of murders by white youths has doubled since 1986, and the rate by black youths has tripled, says James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

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* In Washington State, juveniles accounted for 1.5 percent of all murder convictions in 1984 and 5.4 percent in 1992.

* Here in Snohomish County, serious violent offenses by youth have risen 86 percent in the last decade.

Moreover, Mr. Fox says: ``This is nothing compared to what we'll see for the next 10 years.'' He says the number of teens in America will climb by 23 percent by 2005, including a 28 percent rise among blacks and 46 percent among Hispanics. Kids in those fast-growing minority groups are more likely to grow up in poverty and with disrupted neighborhoods or families.

Fox and Mr. Rustigan each worry that the politically expedient solution is simply tougher punishment. Of particular concern, they say, is the growing tendency to try juveniles as adults when the crimes are particularly serious, such as murder.

In some cases, when the youth has become a hardened criminal, this is appropriate, Rustigan says. But in most cases, ``They're not psychotic.... They just need structure in their lives. They just need one adult that cares.''

Rustigan laments that, amid the tide of concern about crime, Americans appear to be backing away from their long-held faith that criminals have the potential to reform.

``If we give up hope with our violent teenagers, with kids, to me it's a direct contradiction of our Judeo-Christian tradition,'' Rustigan says.

Fox says violence-prevention efforts focus too heavily on teenagers, rather than including younger children. ``Too many kids are undersocialized and undersupervised,'' he says. They are inundated with messages about what not to do - with guns, drugs, and sex - but, meanwhile, their options for positive activities are often dwindling, with community parks, pools, and recreation centers often in disrepair. A crime bill in the US Senate includes $100 million for recreation programs, but Fox notes that this is less than 1 percent of the $23 billion package.

A `youth agenda'

At the state level, Washington Gov. Mike Lowry (D) has proposed a $13 million ``youth agenda'' that would balance tougher sentencing with spending on anger-management education, teen employment, recreation, and mentor programs.

To get at the disturbing rise in gun use by minors, Governor Lowry wants to ban handgun possession by juveniles - unless under supervision - and enable judges to give bigger sentences when guns were used in a crime.

Meanwhile, the burden of juvenile cases here in Snohomish County should be eased somewhat by a recently approved bond issued to finance construction of a facility with 60 beds instead of 35 and three courtrooms instead of one.

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