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Is THIS Justice for our Children?

By Paul Lewin, External Relations Associate, Common Sense for Drug Policy

Juvenile criminal justice has been a source of debate for American society at least since the 1920's, when the Progressive Era ushered in the concept of a dual justice system­­one for adult criminals and one for juveniles. It was predicated on the idea that juveniles should receive rehabilitation along with punishment, so that the cycle of criminality could be broken before it was too late. It was hoped that the twin goals of crime reduction and protection of juveniles could be accomplished. Much of the Progressive Movement's support came from the high rates of victimization, murder and suicide which occurred when juveniles were introduced to adult criminal populations.(1)

Since the 1920's, American society has become increasingly aware of crime and in modern times, sensationalized crime stories are major components of virtually all news services, from newspapers and magazines, to the nightly news and weekly "docudramas" on the major networks. Increasing coverage of sensational stories has given Americans a heightened fear of crime, even when crime rates drop. In the case of violent criminal acts by juveniles, the fact that their crime rate is declining, and that more than 50% of the decline has come from juveniles under the age of 15 has done little, if anything, to stem the calls for harsher treatment of juveniles who commit crimes.(2)

Actual studies of juvenile crime indicate that less than one-half of 1% of juveniles commit serious violent crime such as rape and murder. Indeed, murders only account for less than two-tenths of 1% of all juvenile arrests. Moreover, most juveniles who are arrested only come into contact with the justice system once.(3)

The Juvenile Crime Bill of 1997 (HR. 1818 and S.10) is the latest congressional response to America's demand for our lawmakers to be "tough on crime." The Senate version of the bill would provide $3.25 billion over five years for states to rewrite their legal codes with regard to juveniles to emulate the changes advocated by the Federal government. Among the many significant changes required by this bill, is a redefinition of what constitutes adequate separation of minors from adult populations. The traditional "sight and sound" separation would no longer be required; it would be replaced by language prohibiting "clear visual contact" and "direct oral communication." Furthermore, S.10 would greatly relax reporting requirements in the event of such contacts " contacts which are characterized as "brief and inadvertent or accidental" would no longer require reporting. The bill also permits the sharing of common use non-residential areas between juvenile and adult populations, which when combined with a more lax reporting requirement, could allow significant contact to remain unacknowledged throughout the country.

Ultimately more harmful, though, is the redefinition of the age at which children could be prosecuted as adults. Under this new bill, children as young as 14 years of age could be prosecuted in Federal courts as adults. Moreover, it directs states to remove a judge's ability to decide which juveniles can be tried as adults, leaving the decision up to the prosecuting attorney. Under these new laws, children will receive harsh mandatory minimum sentences for narcotics offenses, which have no opportunity for parole and no release upon attaining the age of 18. These same laws have been continually criticized by analysts, judges, parents and community leaders for their often senseless over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders. A recent study by the RAND corporation has found that mandatory minimum sentences are the least cost-effective approach to crime reduction, and are not as effective as alternative approaches.(4)

While many Americans feel that the juvenile justice system is a failure, studies indicate that juveniles are far less likely to recidivate if they are kept within the juvenile court and detention system, than when they are transferred to adult courts and facilities.(5) Moreover, children are placed in physical danger when they are housed with adult populations. For instance, children are 500% more likely to be sexually assaulted, 200% more likely to be beaten by staff, and 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon when housed with adults.(6) In other words, while juveniles still commit crime, the juvenile justice system has functioned to meet the twin goals of reducing juvenile crime and protecting children to a far better degree than the adult criminal justice system.

The other major policy issue associated with the bill is the manner in which it proscribes a uniform approach to juvenile justice. Rather than allowing states to be the laboratories for innovative approaches to youth crime, it represents a "cookie-cutter" approach to crime reduction that was developed by an institution that has no history of juvenile justice. The Federal government has never maintained a juvenile court or detention system, and as a result has very little experience with juvenile offenders. Essentially, it represents the worst example of top-down decision making and government intrusion on states, rights. For example, the city of Boston has been widely acclaimed for having virtually no juvenile homicides in over 16 months, by using a mixture of community policing, intervention programs and incentives for youth improvement­­harsh punitive measures are explicitly not employed. Under S.10, Boston would have to abandon its successful policy and adopt the new federal guidelines if they are to receive any federal funds. In many ways, the bill as it now stands runs contrary to experience and common sense with regard to juvenile justice, and seems to reflect the political need to be tough on crime. One expects that the 1998 election cycle will only exacerbate such political pandering to public paranoia, regardless of the law's long term social effects.

The Juvenile Crime Bill (S.10) has already passed in the House of Representatives, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is soon to be voted on by the Senate. As people who have experienced, first-hand the weight of our justice system, your voice is an important one in this debate. Please let your families, friends, and Senators know what you think about treating juveniles like adults, especially for nonviolent violations of laws.

You can write to your Senator at:

The Honorable [full name]
United States Senate
Washington DC 20510

If you want to share your views with the rest of America, you might want to write to Ann Landers at:

Ann Landers
c/o Creators Syndicate
5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700
Los Angeles, CA 90045

1. ACLU Fact Sheet, ACLU Fact Sheet on the Juvenile Justice System.

2. Children's Defense Fund, Issue Brief: Juvenile Crime Bill Would Harm Children (Oct. 14, 1997).

3. Snyder & Sickmund, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A National Report, OJJDP, Justice Department (Aug. 1995).

4. Greenwood, Peter, et. al. Diverting Children from a Life of Crime, Measuring Costs and Benefits, RAND Corporation (1996).

5. Donna Bishop, et. al., "The Transfer of Juveniles to Criminal Court: Does It Make a Difference?," 42 Crime and Delinquency, 171, 183 (1996).

6. ACLU Fact Sheet, ACLU Fact Sheet on the Juvenile Justice System.

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