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Justice for Juveniles

Punish crime, but don't disregard prevention and investment in kids

For several years, I have been sounding the alarm about rising levels of murder and mayhem among our nation's youth. Even as overall crime rates have plummeted - fueled by the maturing of the baby boomers into their middle-age years, as well as by advances in community policing - youth crime rates have soared.

From 1985 to 1995, the rate of murder committed by adults dropped 22 percent, while the rate of killing at the hands of teenagers escalated 141 percent. And the prospects for higher levels of youth violence loom large as the population of teens - comprised of the so-called "baby boomerang" generation - begins to expand.

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The good news is that Congress has responded aggressively to the growing crisis, holding hearings in the House and Senate concerning the problem of youth violence and fashioning new and expansive juvenile crime bills.

The sad news is that Congress is responding in predictable but ineffective ways, favoring punishment over prevention. In keeping with the popular Three R's of punishment - retribution, revenge, and retaliation - some of our political leaders may be focusing too much on their own fourth R, reelection.

The latest drafts of the House and Senate juvenile crime bills feature adult prosecutions for juvenile violent offenders. But the federal criminal-justice system, which deals heavily with such crimes as racketeering, embezzlement, and espionage, processes very few juveniles. In this sense, the move is symbolic. Yet, the legislation also offers compelling financial incentives - a form of federal bribe - for states to follow suit by trying large numbers of juveniles in adult courts where punishment will presumably be harsh.

It has been the practice across the country for certain juveniles to be transferred to adult court. On a case-by-case basis, with proper judicial discretion, youths with long criminal records can and should be tried as adults. Through their persistent recidivism, some hoodlums have demonstrated their resistance to the treatment opportunities within juvenile correction facilities.

The transfer decision should be made on the basis of offender characteristics, including prior record, rather than just offense characteristics - even murder. There are many violent juveniles who can be salvaged within the juvenile system. Unfortunately, the congressional proposal for increased adult prosecution of juveniles is one more example of legislative overreaction and interference with jurisprudence.

Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida and many of his colleagues seem to prefer allowing prosecutors, rather than judges, to make the critical decision of whether to transfer a juvenile to adult court. Borrowing on the "three strikes" metaphor, this is like having the pitcher, rather than the umpire, call balls and strikes.

No one can debate the need to punish juvenile offenders adequately. Youth crime must carry appropriate sanctions. Yet the need to prevent juvenile crime and to invest in kids is equally real. Does it take a whole village or just a set of parents to raise a child? Who can say for sure? But if no one takes responsibility, then we all suffer.

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As parents struggle to shuffle increased demands on their time, and as youth programs of all sorts are cut to the bone, our children lack structure and supervision from quality role models. Bored and idle, they have far too much time on their hands - literally too much time to kill.

In worthy amendments, Sens. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware and Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania propose funding for after-school programs, including athletics, drama, and music. In the short term, these programs can help fill the afternoon void - the statistical prime-time for juvenile crime. In the long term, a variety of family and school-enrichment programs for younger children have had proven success as a form of "prehabilitation."

The pending legislation anticipates, but does not prevent, the juvenile crime storm that may lie ahead.

Given the expected growth in the teen population, the worsening conditions in which children are being raised, the breakdown of institutions and cultural norms, and our wholesale disinvestment in youth, we face the prospect of a future wave of juvenile violence that could make the 1990s look like the good old days. Despite Congress's good intentions, adult penalties for juvenile offenders will fail to deter increasing numbers of young predators who don't think twice about the consequences of their acts.

Attorney General Janet Reno remarked last December that "demographics do not have to be destiny," and she is absolutely correct. Although we will see more at-risk kids in the years ahead, it is up to all of us to determine if the next generation of teens will be any more or less violent than "the young and the ruthless" of recent years.

In the 1989 film "Batman," the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, repeatedly warned his rivals, "Think about the future." If we don't think about the future and prepare for it now, then the joke will be on us.

* James Alan Fox is dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

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