District of Columbia police routinely arrest juveniles accused of breaking the law, but they take them to court only "as a last resort," said Deputy Chief Leonard Maiden, head of the department's Youth Division.

"It's a longstanding concept that some offenses can be better handled by not taking children through the criminal justice system. That's sort of a last resort," Maiden said. "We prefer to keep them out of the criminal system and give them a chance to become law-abiding."

With few exceptions, police can arrest juveniles as young as 7. Under the law, children younger than that are usually considered mentally unable to form an intent to commit a crime.

Maiden said that in 1984, police arrested 3,239 juveniles, 1,993 of whom were charged with "Part I" felony offenses: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft. But of all juveniles arrested, Maiden said, about 50 percent were not taken to court. They were handled with less serious methods, such as informal counseling with their parents.

Police have "a lot of discretion to decide which cases to handle on an informal basis and which to refer to court," Maiden said. Among the important factors in that decision, he said, are the seriousness of the charge, whether the youth has had any previous trouble with the law and whether the parents are willing to take responsibility for dealing with the child.

Counseling rather than prosecution is especially appropriate, he said, when the youth charged has had no previous involvement with police.

Police, he said, are not permitted to use the courts "as a scare tactic," he said. "That is not an accepted method of handling juveniles."

Juveniles who are brought to court typically are held in cells segregated from adults. The law pertaining to adults, as well as juveniles, prohibits placing defendants awaiting court disposition of their cases with offenders who are serving sentences for criminal convictions.