The extended climb of juvenile crime rates has finally put it at the top of the national agenda. With the ascent, a remarkable general consensus is emerging among liberals and conservatives on how best to combat it.
The formula is simple: Get tougher on repeat, violent offenders and pay more attention to those in trouble for the first time. Both parties on Capitol Hill are pushing legislation to accomplish that. President Clinton announced his proposals yesterday in Boston.
Still, within the bipartisan agreement on goals, a host of devilish details portend a contentious fight in Congress.
The grounds for consensus are easy to find. While the overall crime rate has been declining for the last decade, juvenile crime has skyrocketed. It accounted for 26 percent of the growth in violent crime between 1985 and 1994, according to Department of Justice figures. In 1991, 1.7 million persons under the age of 18 were arrested. By 1994, that number had jumped to 2.7 million, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. One third of those were under the age of 15.
In 1995, for the first time in seven years, the juvenile crime rate dipped, but by only three percentage points.
Experts attribute the slight decline to primarily a temporary demographic drop in the numbers of young people coming of age and to aggressive crime fighting techniques in large cities.
In Boston, police are working hand in hand with probation officers to keep offenders on parole under tight supervision, while schools coordinate with neighborhood and youth organizations to give kids an alternative to guns, drugs and gangs (see related story, at right). The effort helped the city beat back its juvenile-crime rate. Between 1993 and 1995, aggravated assaults with a firearm by juveniles dropped 65 percent. The youth homicide rate dropped 80 percent between 1990 and 1995, according to city officials.
"Boston proves that we can take the streets back ... from murder, from lost lives," Mr. Clinton said yesterday, "and that we can give our children back their childhood." Clinton touted the city's success as a model for his national proposals, which include:
* $50 million for special courts geared to dealing with violent youths and probation officer initiatives.
* Funding for 1,000 after-school programs to keep kids off the streets.
* $200 million for 1,000 state and local antigang prosecution initiatives.
* $75 million for antitruancy, school violence, and intervention programs.
* Federal power to prosecute more juveniles as adults for violent offenses.
* Requiring safety locks on handguns to reduce accidents and gun theft.
While many Republicans applaud the administration's goal of cracking down on repeat offenders and tightening up the juvenile courts, their tactics differ. Instead of focusing on prevention, they stress accountability.
"Only 10 percent of all violent offenders are placed in detention facilities," says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, chair of the House subcommittee on crime. "Most youthful offenders commit many crimes before any meaningful punishment is imposed."
Representative McCollum has introduced a bill that would require adult prosecution for all juveniles 14 or older who commit federal violent crimes or drug trafficking offenses, and optional adult prosecution for juveniles 13 or older who commit any other federal felony. It also calls for greater flexibility for pre- and post-conviction confinement. Instead of funding prevention programs, McCollum would provide $1.5 million over three years in the form of block grants as incentives to develop "accountability-based reforms and sanctions" within each state's juvenile-justice system.
Both Democrats and Republicans favor the lifting of secrecy around certain elements of the juvenile-justice system. Republican McCollum favors fingerprinting and public access to juvenile criminal records. The Senate Democrats' proposal also would make juvenile criminal records available, but only to police, judges, and prosecutors. The president proposes that the court records of violent juveniles be included in the background checks in the purchase of handguns.
Democrats would allow victims of juvenile crime to be present at juvenile-court hearings and to speak out, as would the Republican proposal in the Senate. (In most states, all juvenile proceedings are confidential. Victims often aren't informed if the accused are punished.) "Our bill would also double the penalty for using physical violence or threatening physical violence against witnesses, victims, or informants," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, a co-sponsor of the Democratic bill.
Experts on juvenile crime from both liberal and conservative vantage points welcome the attention the juvenile-justice system is getting on Capitol Hill, but both also view it with caution.
"Washington tends to mix apples and oranges and bananas; it tends to mix programs that are effective with others that aren't," says William Bennett, former drug czar under President Bush and co-chairman of the Council on Crime in America, a policy research group. This week the council released a report touting "mentoring, ministering, and monitoring" as the most cost-effective way to combat youth crime.
For many at the more liberal end of the political spectrum, moves to try more youths as adults are raising alarms. "Nobody thinks the adult courts or jails are wonderful for crime control until you're talking about kids, then all of the sudden they're the best of all places," says Kim Wade at the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group. "It's not good for the kids to end up with hardened criminals, and there is no measurable crime-control benefit."