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Easing get-tough approach on juveniles

Chicago, bucking the national trend, stresses rehabilitation over punishment for the very young.

One year ago this month, Chicago police detectives made a big mistake: They wrongly accused two young boys - ages 7 and 8 - of murder.

The boys, police said, had confessed to the killing, making them the youngest murder suspects in US history. But lab tests soon proved the detectives wrong.

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The case has come to symbolize how poorly the justice system handles kids. And it - along with Chicago's 100th-anniversary celebration of America's first juvenile court - is sparking a wholesale rethink on juvenile justice.

In fact, some observers say Chicago is at the leading edge of a national backlash against a decade of "get tough" policies aimed at children who commit crimes. For instance, a commission appointed by Cook County's prosecutor in the wake of last summer's case has just recommended sending all children under age 10 into "civil prosecution," not the juvenile justice system.

This would establish rehabilitation, not punishment, as the solution for troubled young children.

And it would confirm that "there is an age below which people are willing to recognize that a kid - to use an old Chicago symbol - is no John Dillinger," says Robert Schwartz, head of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, referring to the notorious bank robber killed in 1934 by Chicago police.

In moving toward walling off young children from the justice system, Cook County "has probably gone as far as any jurisdiction in the country," says Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, a public-interest law firm in Washington.

It also harks back to the original ideals of the juvenile court and highlights how today's juvenile system has become more punitive than the original.

For children ages 10 to 12, the commission recommends that the prosecutor decide whether they are prosecuted under juvenile or civil codes. The civil route would mean a judge could impose treatment plans and some restrictions - but not all-out punishment. The Cook County prosecutor, known for his toughness on juveniles, has said he supports the outlines of the plan.

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Commission members, like a growing number of people in the field, are making a distinction between older and younger juveniles based on academic research. They say young kids can't understand elements of due process, such as Miranda warnings.

"A nine-year-old might think 'You have the right to remain silent' means he can be silent until an adult asks him a question," says Michael Howlett, chairman of the commission.

Cook County, which encompasses Chicago, isn't likely to be the last jurisdiction to do such a reevaluation, says Mr. Soler: "I expect other counties and states will think about this, too."

Indeed, there are hints of a backlash bubbling elsewhere.

*In Detroit, lawyers for three convicted teenagers are arguing against a law that automatically assigns adult sentences to juveniles. They say it's unconstitutional. The case is pending before the Michigan Court of Appeals.

*In Florida, there's the controversial case of a girl named Rebecca Falcon who was recently sentenced to life in prison after a robbery in which her accomplice killed a cab driver. She was 15 at the time. Critics say it shows the system has gone overboard on punishment.

*In Dalton, Ga., a group of citizens - including the owner of an asphalt-paving business, a doctor's wife, and a bank president - filed a federal lawsuit against the local juvenile detention center for poor treatment of young inmates. Using $100,000 of their own money, they forced the state to settle and start improving conditions at the center.

These cases come after a "get tough" decade in which, among other things, 40 states lowered the ages at which children can be tried as adults. But this movement is by no means over. States are passing laws that allow more children to be charged as adults - or do things such as open juvenile records to the public.

Yet ground zero for the countertrend appears to be Illinois. In the wake of last summer's murder case - and a number of other charges of police coercion or brutality - lawmakers are pushing hard to have state law enforcers videotape all interrogations, including those of minors.

"It's a question of how, not if," says state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a sponsor of the videotape legislation. Because of last summer's case, the Cook County prosecutor has just begun taping of adult confessions - and says juvenile taping will be phased in.

Another lawmaker, citing last summer's case, is pushing a bill that would require lawyers to be present when minors are questioned by police.

So in the beginning, the killing of Ryan Harris - the girl whom the two boys were accused of murdering last summer - brought great embarrassment to Chicago police, who have since charged an adult in the crime.

But in the end, it may turn out to be the catalyst for the reform of much of the juvenile-justice system.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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