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Justice Ponders Bolstering Ability To Prosecute Juvenile Offenders

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WASHINGTON--As part of the Bush Administration's "war on crime,'' the Justice Department is contemplating steps to enhance the federal government's ability to prosecute juvenile offenders.

Under a proposal being circulated now by the agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would begin including juvenile records in its criminal-history information system, Attorney General William P. Barr said in a recent speech.

In addition, Mr. Barr said he was considering proposing a change to the federal code that would give the federal government more flexibility to try juveniles as adults.

The Justice Department is considering changes not only to the types of crimes for which juvenile offenders can be prosecuted as adults, but also to age requirements to make it easier to try juveniles as adults when appropriate, Mr. Barr said in remarks prepared for an address early this month to a Milwaukee conference on juvenile crime, drugs, and gangs convened by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin.

Early Identification Sought

In addition to the violent felonies and serious drug crimes for which juveniles can now be prosecuted as adults under federal law, the Justice Department is considering adding serious firearms offenses and "certain other gang-related crimes where there is a strong federal interest,'' Mr. Barr said.

He said the juvenile-justice system needs to be more effective at early intervention to steer troubled youths away from a life of crime and better at identifying and "dealing decisively'' with a habitual offender.

"Our objective should be to identify as early as possible the habitual offender and to incapacitate that offender through stiff adult penalties,'' he said.

States that currently have "strong built-in presumptions'' against treating juveniles as adults "harken back to a more innocent age,'' Mr. Barr said.

Mr. Barr also bemoaned the inadequacy of recordkeeping for juvenile offenders, and the reluctance of jurisdictions to share their records with justice officials in other locales.

Without access to information about a juvenile's criminal history, "it is virtually impossible'' to determine whether the youth should be tried as an adult, Mr. Barr said.

John J. Sheridan, the secretary-treasurer of the National Association of Juvenile Correctional Agencies, said he had "mixed feelings'' about the prospect of F.B.I.-networked juvenile records.

"I support those who maintain juvenile records should be confidential,'' Mr. Sheridan said. "On the other hand, I've seen youngsters when they get to be 16 or 17 [commit] pretty horrendous crimes.''

Missing the Boat?

Justice authorities, he said, "really miss the boat'' when they cannot use an adult's juvenile offenses in trying him.

Hunter Hurst, the director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, which is the research arm of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said he considered Mr. Barr's proposals about prosecuting juveniles as adults to be "not a bad move, but I wish it were a better move.''

In New York State, Mr. Hurst said, 16- and 17-year-olds have been treated as adults in prosecuting certain felonies since at least 1925.

However, he said, "I haven't seen any big change in New York's crime rate.''

"It's tough to deliver on a promise,'' Mr. Hurst added, "and the federal government, from what I can see, is no better than anyone else in catching people and getting them to court.''

Over all, Attorney General Barr "is to be commended,'' Mr. Hurst said, "because he's acting; he's not burying his head.''

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