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  • Opinion
    Searching for Juvenile Justice

    Monday, April 6, 1998; Page A24

    Linda Collier's opinion that the Jonesboro juvenile murders support more transfers of juveniles to the criminal justice system is not supported by scientific evidence -- that is, if her main concern is public safety ["Adult Crime, Adult Time," Outlook, March 29].

    My review of 50 studies of juvenile transfers to the criminal justice system found that after their release transferred juveniles commit offenses sooner and at a higher rate than juveniles retained in the juvenile justice system and that they also may commit more serious offenses. Ironically, the same issue of The Post carried an article reporting that Maryland officials are questioning the effectiveness of their new juvenile transfer law.

    Ms. Collier also repeats the myth that the juvenile justice system was not designed to handle serious juvenile offenders. A recent review of 200 program evaluations found that, if anything, juvenile justice programs are more effective with more serious offenders than with delinquents committing less serious offenses.

    The debate over juvenile vs. criminal court handling of juvenile offenders should be better informed by scientific evidence.

    Herndon Wednesday, April 15, 1998; Page A18

    Linda J. Collier's call for harsher punishments for juvenile offenders ["Adult Crime, Adult Time," Outlook, March 29] misses the mark both in her analysis of data and her understanding of juvenile behavior.

    Conjuring up a wave of juvenile violence, Ms. Collier states that the number of 12-year-olds arrested for violent crimes has doubled since 1965. But the total number of violent crimes reported to the police has quadrupled since that time, and children under 13 now represent just 1.4 percent of all arrests for violence.

    As has been well documented by the Department of Justice, the rise in juvenile homicides since 1986 was not due to the coming of age of a new breed of more violent kids, but rather teenagers' having greater access to firearms. Similarly, the decline of the past several years has been the result of a drop in gun-related murders. Law enforcement and community efforts to keep guns out of the hands of kids may have played a significant role in this regard.

    Despite the fact that nearly every state has stiffened its juvenile offender provisions in recent years, Ms. Collier seems to think that more of the same somehow will deter future kids bent on violence. But does she really believe that an 11-year-old potential killer decides to shoot at other children because he rationally has made a calculation that he will be locked up "only" until he's 21?

    The national attention focused on the recent Arkansas tragedy in some respects calls to mind the schoolyard killings of 16 children in a Scottish town several years ago. That incident led to a national outcry and bipartisan measures to control guns. Rather than engaging in further erosion of the mission of the juvenile court, we would do better to direct our attention to broad-based approaches to keeping guns out of the hands of children.

    The writer is assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research organization.

    Although the article "Adult Crime, Adult Time" deals with a serious problem, it proposes a solution that would worsen the problem.

    It states that "a juvenile accused of murdering, raping or assaulting someone with a deadly weapon should automatically be sent to adult court." But research has shown that juveniles tried in adult criminal court get easier sentences than others with similar records tried in juvenile court. Rules of evidence in criminal court are more exacting and the procedures more expensive than those of juvenile court, and if the accused is judged guilty and sentenced, he is often sent to juvenile corrections anyway. Judges simply cannot send 15-year-olds to prison with a bunch of hardened, serious offenders.

    After this process, what has been accomplished? The state has spent a lot of money. The delay between the offense/arrest and any action other than limbo has been months. The lawyers and possibly members of the jury have wasted a lot of time. If such a juvenile offender is sent to prison, he will still be a young man when he gets out, according to records of time spent in prison, and will be in worse shape to take his place in society.

    With all that, there are legitimate reasons to waive some juveniles to criminal court, not as a result of legislative fiat, but by the considered decision of juvenile court judges. This may happen, for instance, when a judge reviews the record of a youth of 17 who has committed a series of offenses of increasing seriousness and who has exhausted all the corrections programs the juvenile system has to offer.

    Too many juvenile courts also are not staffed with enough dedicated judges and professional personnel. These courts do not have available programs because they are customarily underfunded.

    If we are serious about juvenile crime, we should strengthen and support these juvenile systems. Let's fix whatever is wrong, but let's stop jumping to baseless action.


    Linda J. Collier makes a valid point when she states that the juvenile justice system should be overhauled. But trying children as adults is not the only way to accomplish this. The reason children are viewed as children first and criminals second is that they are children. They are not fully formed intellectually or emotionally.

    The boys accused in the Jonesboro killings -- like other young criminals -- have been failed miserably by the adults in their lives. It is these adults that the justice system should be looking at and calling to task. Ms. Collier herself speaks of "children whose lives have gone awry, sometimes because of circumstances beyond their control." Would she advocate sentencing these children to life imprisonment -- or death?

    Yes, overhaul the justice system; yes, protect society from violent juveniles. But let's put the emphasis on rehabilitation and family accountability. Children are redeemable.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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