Bruce was first busted eight years ago -- at the age of 9 -- when he and two other boys ransacked an elementary school near his home on Capitol Hill.

Since then, he has been unable to kick the crime habit. Bruce has been arrested 30 times, convicted of at least five and, law enforcement officials insist, would have been convicted on nearly a dozen more charges if it were not for a lenient policy of dropping pending charges against juveniles already convicted on other charges.

Willie, 18, has a record that includes eight arrests and seven convictions in six years. He has spent more than half that period locked up. But Willie has been arrested four times for violent crimes and was convicted of homicide at the age of 14 -- for beating a man to death with a baseball bat during a robbery.

He was sentenced to the maximum juvenile penalty for the killing, two years, and was back on the streets -- and back into crime -- before the two years were up.

Spurred by chronic teen-age unemployment, rising drug traffic, lenient juvenile crime penalties and what social workers view as a growing sense of frustration and helplessness, more and more of Washington's children are mugging, beating, raping, selling drugs and occasionally killing.

Street-wise young men like Bruce and Willie (not their real names), teen-aged career criminals, are fueling the upsurge of crime in the Nation's Capital. The newest, growing element in the District's spiraling crime rate, area law enforcement officials say, is the kid next door:

One of two juveniles arrested each month for crimes in the District has been arrested previously.

One of every four persons arrested for major crimes, including murders, burglaries, robberies, rapes and assaults in the District for the year ending Sept. 30 was a juvenile, according to the latest police figures.

Two of every five persons arrested for robbery were under 18 years of age. One of three persons arrested for burglary, auto theft and attempted rape was a juvenile.

One of every 17 murder victims in the city was killed by someone 17 years old or younger.

So active are some of these juveniles that D.C. police and city prosecutors keep score of the major offenders, giving points based on the nature and seriousness of the crime.

Homicides or assault with intent to rape gets five points, assault with intent to rob gets four, burglary is good for either three or four points, depending on whether the house is occupied. Simple assault is worth only one point.

When the point total reaches a certain figure [officials decline to say what that figure is], the repeat offenders are placed in a special program, in which law enforcement officials keep a closer tab on their cases, informing a judge of the youth's record during hearings to determine whether he or she should be released or detained.

Already police and prosecutors have pinpointed 155 juveniles ranging in age from 15 to 17 who are responsible for 2,363 career crimes, an average of 15 crimes per child.

The youth rarely speak with remorse about their victims. Bruce, for instance, proudly points out that he has never beaten up any of his victims. "I ain't going to bust people in their heads," he said, hunched over a table at Oak Hill, the District's maximum security juvenile detention center in Laurel, Md. "That ain't me."

Willie makes no apologies, especially to the whites whom he and his partners have mugged. "When you hit them, sometimes we watched them change colors," he said, grinning to show his chipped front teeth. "They be all red right here (he pointed to his upper lip). Hit them in the eye, they get gray, blue . . . . I used to enjoy that."

They are sophisticated criminals who know the system and have little fear of the police, the courts or jail. Their principal beliefs are that they will not get caught and if they are, that they will serve very little time. The average length of stay in the city's juvenile detention facilities is between seven and nine months.

The basic juvenile court philosophy, according to Judge George H. Goodrich, chief of the family section of the D.C. Superior Court, is aimed at rehabilitation rather than incarceration. Judges have a variety of punishments from probation to a maximum two-year sentence.

However, officials admit that the maximum two years is rarely served by a juvenile for any crime.

In some instances juveniles can be and are tried as adults and receive stiffer sentences if convicted. But, court officials and police say, such trials usually take place only when the crimes are especially violent and the juvenile is 16 or older.

Critics say lenient court sentences encourage continued criminal activity. However, Goodrich and others say the courts are not entirely to blame. Other factors, including schools, parents, the community and socioeconomic conditions contribute, they say.

"I'm of the impression that the community is creating delinquency," said R. Rimsky Atkinson, former head of Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, the city's homes for delinquent youth. "When a youngster does something minor but incorrect and you don't correct him, invariably he will do something else.

"Despite what some people will have you believe, these kids are not crazy. They live in a world where you get what you want by taking things. They think we are crazy for not taking things. It's their value system.

The goal of rehabilitation is to prevent the juvenile offenders from ending up at Lorton Reformatory, the city's prison for adult criminals. But that deterrent -- the thought of being locked up in a sprawling, hard-core prison instead of the single-room cottages in the juvenile facilities -- usually poses no real threat until the youths approach their 18th birthdays.

Cedar Knoll and Oak Hill are places for habitual teen-aged criminals -- many of whom know one another from previous lockups -- to boast and brag.

Many of the 250 persons at the two facilities grew up in God-fearing Washington homes, often in impovershed and transitional neighborhoods, where parents worked and tried to instill the work ethic in their offspring. Others grew up in families where the mother was the sole provider.

Bruce grew up on Capitol Hill -- in the shadows of the trendy, renovated row houses -- where he lived with his mother and grandmother. As a small child, he attended Sunday School at a holiness church, sang in the choir at another church in the neighborhood and went to school every day.

His grandmother did not react mildly to the break-in at the elementary school, one of his first brushes with the law. The next morning, his grandmother picked him up at the police station.

"She beat me and took me home," he said. "She told me to stay away from my friends. They used to be everywhere I be. I wanted to be like the rest of the guys. I didn't want to be called a sucker."

Bruce went to court on the burglary charge and was placed on six months' probation, he said. But he continued to get into trouble.

He was arrested five times in 1973, four times in 1974, five times in 1975, five times in 1976, three times each in 1977 and 1978, once in 1979 and twice in 1980. He has spent about three years in juvenile detention facilities.

Willie has been locked up more frequently. The longest sentence followed the homicide conviction.

Willie was arrested two months after the homicide occurred in 1977.

According to Willie, the police said he, his older brother and a friend beat a man to death with a baseball bat in the elevator of an apartment building in the Shaw area. The police found his brother's fingerprints on some coins that were found near the man's battered body, Willie said.

Willie, who said he and his brother could pass for twins, said he did not kill the man, although he says he admitted to the killing on the witness stand.

He said he only did that because he knew he was only going to get two years in a juvenile detention facility at the most, and he wanted to help his brother, who he feared "was going to face big time."

"I knew what I was doing," he said. "I wouldn't get no more than my two years. Everybody knows how the system is."

Willie was right. He was locked up at Oak Hill for 11 months awaiting trial. After he was convicted, he spent six months in Oak Hill before he was allowed to go home for weekend visits and eventually was released. His brother was sentenced to five-to-fifteen years at Lorton.

Even when Willie was released, he continued to get into trouble. He was arrested in 1979 for beating and robbing a man who earlier in the had been watching him shoot craps, he said.

Willie said he enjoys beating his victims, especially whites. "We wouldn't rob no blacks because we knew they didn't have much. And the little they did have they needed.

"We used to tear whiteys up. We wait for whiteys to come out of the bank. We would follow them. We would go down the street playing and stuff . . . . Then we would wait for him for him to get in the midway of this parking lot near some bushes. We would get him. Knock him over in the bushes. Take his money and beat him up. Then just listen to him holler."

Willie's first arrest came when he was 11. He and a friend broke into a shack on a construction site and stole some tools. He was charged with unlawful entry, convicted and placed on probation.

Later he was charged with receiving stolen property and two unrelated burglaries. He was convicted of the burglaries and cleared of the receiving stolen property charge. Less than a month before the homicide occurred in 1977, he was arrested and convicted of two other robberies in which he used force.

Willie likes to brag about how well he knows the system. "Two years, and you doubt it very serious if you get that much, because there is always someone who will come along and take your place," he said. "And the government is so tight on its money and they always hollering about the budget. But really you ain't going to do more than nine or 10 months."

When he is arrested, he said, he gives little information to the police, "You give them a phony name, phony address, phony telephone number and don't say nothing," he said grinning.

When he goes to court, he said, he is polite to the judge. "You just stare at the judge and give that real innocent look. You talk to the judge and if you are square business, serious about it, convince him that you are serious, they will take it into consideration in releasing you.

"They give you a little probation. They ask you, 'Are you going to school?' The majority of the probation officers are not going to check up on you. When I was in the shelter house [a neighborhood juvenile group home], I used to tell them I was going to school. I would go to school for a half day and come back out. Swing out."

School has seldom been a popular place for Wille. He preferred to spend school hours shoplifting in downtown stores, especially Woodward & Lothrop. "I was kind of skep-ti-cal," he said carefully, drawing out each syllable, "about stealing things, because I knew my laywer was always saying keep your hands off things don't belong to you because you'll get in trouble. But my buddy would say, 'Ain't nobody going to see you.' He would stand in front of me, and I would put the stuff down my pants."

He says he only got caught once for shoplifting. "The police just wrote up a pink slip and let me go. I started laughing," he said, smiling.

Willie, the youngest of two sisters and a brother, grew up in the Shaw area, where his family moved after spending a brief time in what he described as a "nice" Northeast neighborhood. He says his father died when he was 3 years old.

He blames his troubles with the law partly on his neighborhood, where he said drugs were commonplace. It was there that he began staying out late, playing hooky from school and running with some of the meanest dudes on the street, he said.

"Everything turned around," he said."I started getting wild. I used to like school . . . . My friends used to say, 'Hey man, we ain't going to school.'

"I used to skeptical about that. I used to fear the police, but now I don't fear them no more. I'm just not afraid of them no more. They just like I am. The only thing different is they wear a little blue suit, carry handcuffs and a little stick and a pistol that's all.

Willie is 18. When he gets released from Oak Hill, he said, he has got to be careful because if he is arrested again, he know he will face tougher punishment in adult court. "I got to leave this gangster stuff alone because it's not me now," he said.

Bruce, 17, also knows the system. "This is my last time being considered as a juvenile," he said, staring at his brown work boots. "I know they [the prosecutors] have plans for me if I'm arrested when I get out . . . . It's like a procedure for a person like me."

But even with the threat of going to a real prison the next time they are busted, both youths acknowledge that it will be difficult to mend their ways. "If people start at a young age, that's it right there," Bruce said. "When you're young, like crime is a brave thing to do. It's macho. People look up to you. You don't think about what you be doing. You just do it."

Willie has another answer. "They don't think they will get caught," said the short, ashen-faced youth. "They say, 'I know what Oak Hill is like. I'm going to go out and commit another charge and I'm going to try not to get caught.' But it just so happens that they get caught. As long they are at that certain age, they are going to keep committing crimes."

Willie stands up to leave. As he puts on his coat, he pauses. "Don't you have something else to ask me?" he asks a reporter.

"Should I?"

"Well, don't you want to know why I got my pants on inside out?" he asked.

The reporter surveyed his faded green fatigues. "Why?"

"For attention," he said, then strutted out the door.