Judging from recent developments, one might conclude that the American justice system has junked its 100-year-old assumption that children should be treated differently from adults.
The juvenile-justice bill before Congress would give federal prosecutors wide discretion to try minors as adults. That reflects a national consensus. Forty states now allow children to be tried in adult courts.
Highly publicized cases like one under way in Pontiac, Mich., create the perception that today's kids are more violent at a younger age. In that case, a 13-year-old is charged with first-degree murder. The defense argues the shooting was accidental. But the youngster had a long record of run-ins with the police, and allegedly had bragged about killing someone.
Such minors increasingly wind up in adult court, though not usually at the tender age of the Michigan defendant. At least three things can be said about this turn of events:
*It is not symptomatic of an "epidemic" of youthful crime. Violent crime by people younger than 18 has declined in recent years. But a small minority of young repeat criminals, around 10 percent of those who get in trouble, drive the public perception of a wave of such crime.
*For this violent core, trial in adult court, and longer sentences, may make sense. The more lenient treatment traditionally handed out by juvenile courts wouldn't adequately protect society.
*Rehabilitation of problem youths is not out the window. The juvenile-justice system is still up and running in the states, and important reforms are in progress. Among the most important reforms are efforts to redirect juvenile justice toward earlier, more intensive efforts to prevent youth crime. This can mean closer attention to first-time offenders to see if they can be kept from becoming repeat offenders. It can also mean working closely with families to build economic stability and prevent abusive behavior.
This preventive approach to juvenile crime, which rallies various social service agencies as well as schools and churches, promises a much bigger payoff, long-term, than simply sending more juveniles to adult court.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society