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Juvenile Justice

RESPONDING to the National League of Cities' 12th annual "The State of America's Cities" survey last month, city leaders said youth crime was one of their greatest concerns. That's not surprising: Based on current trends, the number of juvenile arrests for violent crimes could double in the next two decades, while the juvenile murder rate may increase by as much as 150 percent, according to some researchers' predictions.

It's also not surprising, therefore, that lawmakers around the country are taking radical steps to revamp their troubled juvenile-justice systems:

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*In Florida and 17 other states, legislators have passed laws making it easier to transfer young murder suspects into the adult system.

*In Tennessee, offenders who have been transferred to criminal court in the past are automatically considered adults if they are arrested again.

*In Massachusetts, Gov. William Weld (R) wants juvenile defendants who are convicted of serious charges to face long sentences in adult prisons - up to life without parole for murderers, for example.

*And, under a bipartisan reform package introduced last month in Virginia, children aged 14 and older who commit crimes such as murder and rape would automatically be tried as adults.

The impetus for these changes is strong. Juveniles must recognize that if they commit a violent crime, there will be serious consequences. Rehabilitation efforts alone have not stemmed the rise in violent crimes. In certain cases, adult-level sentences may be the only viable option.

But there should be options.

Automatic transfer of youths into the adult system eliminates flexibility. It denies juvenile-court judges the kind of discretion in sentencing that widely differing circumstances demand. It also places the emphasis on locking up troubled youths in record numbers rather than on designing treatment programs for these young offenders. As some juvenile-court judges and child advocates have argued, imprisoning these children without adequate treatment will likely only succeed in creating bigger and better criminals.

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A few states have recognized the need for a wider range of penalties. Last year Minnesota passed a dual-sentencing law that gives young criminals one last chance in juvenile court but sets up lengthy, adult-tailored prison sentences if they fail to fulfill the conditions of the juvenile sentence (by violating probation or running away from a group home, for example). In Minnesota, dual sentencing is used on a case-by-case basis and doesn't preclude juveniles being tried as adults. Other states such as Kansas are considering similar legislation.

Getting tough on crime has become a political rallying cry with good reason: Changes are sorely needed. It's true that the traditional juvenile-court approach has not made a dent in the growing number of young, violent offenders.

But to argue that the adult system is the only answer for every young violent offender is too easy. States need more sentencing options to go with their get-tough deterrence, to take into account those who should be treated as children, as well as those who should be tried as adults.

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