Most children get lost in politics

by N. Lee Cooper

Congress is about to undermine the juvenile justice system's ability to help most of the children who enter the system in favor of focusing on punishing the less than one-half of 1 percent of juveniles who commit violent crimes.

For far too long, the juvenile justice system has been the unwanted stepchild of the justice system -- lacking in resources and needing attention. New proposals in Congress provide the promise of much-needed funding, but only if states meet conditions that damage their ability to provide justice for juveniles.

For example, one requirement included in House-passed legislation would force states that accept federal money to try as an adult any juvenile as young as 15, charged with certain crimes, either automatically or at the discretion of the prosecutor.

Trying juveniles as adults certainly is appropriate in some cases. Some juveniles do become "career" criminals at a young age, and should be held to an adult standard if they commit a violent offense. But this should be a decision that a judge, working at the local level, makes in a particular case. We cannot have a "one size fits all" rule dictated to the heartland of America from inside the Beltway.

Wholesale movement of juveniles into the adult system has real consequences.

Many juveniles tried as adults are housed in correctional facilities with adults where they are denied access to treatment, education and vocational training, and are exposed to a more hardened and experienced group of offenders.

Juveniles in adult facilities also are at risk of being physically assaulted. The consequences of such treatment are entirely predictable.

Recent studies looking at Florida and New Jersey/New York reveal that juveniles tried as adults are more likely to be re-arrested than are juveniles tried as juveniles. In addition, experts estimate that detaining, prosecuting and incarcerating additional juveniles as adults will cost states hundreds of millions of dollars.

The congressional proposals totally ignore the fact that the vast majority of juvenile arrests -- more than 94 percent -- are for non-violent crimes.

If Congress is serious about addressing juvenile crime, it must encourage and support programs such as the one in Boston, a three-pronged program of prevention, intervention and enforcement aimed at violent youth offenders that has, over five years, reduced the number of youth homicides by 80 percent, with not a single youth dying in a firearm homicide in 1996.

Resources should be made available for programs that will give the great majority of children arrested for non-violent crimes an opportunity for adequate prevention, treatment and substance abuse services, for an adequate defense, and for a chance to start over in life.

Let's not simply send children into the adult system, where they will only learn violence and defiance. We must not abandon hope for the 94 percent of our children in order to address a handful caught up in violent crime.

N. Lee Cooper is immediate past president of the American Bar Association.