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Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as Clinton, Congress Zero In on Youth Violence

Clinton, Congress Zero In on Youth Violence

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One week after a deadly school shooting incident, President Clinton unveiled an ambitious package of gun-control legislation that contains several measures geared specifically toward reducing youth violence.

The shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., that left 14 students and one teacher dead provided a solemn subtext as Mr. Clinton and other participants in an April 27 gathering at the stately Old Executive Office Building made a case for stiffer gun laws.

"Do we know for absolutely certain that if we had every reasonable law and the ones I'm going to propose here that none of these school violence things would have happened?" asked Mr. Clinton, who was flanked by about 40 mostly Democratic members of Congress and several Cabinet secretaries during the event. "No. But we do know one thing for certain. We know there would have been fewer of them, and there would have been fewer kids killed in the last several years in America."

In the wake of the Columbine killings on April 20, lawmakers of both parties zeroed in on youth violence, though most Republicans, and even some Democrats, have expressed skepticism at the need for additional federal gun-control measures.

Last week, Republican leaders in Congress sought to spark a broader examination of school violence by calling for a national dialogue on the issue. Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois urged all members of Congress in the next few weeks to hold "listening sessions" with students, parents, teachers, civic leaders, police, and others.

"We have to take this cue that our children are crying out for help," Mr. Hastert said. The speaker, a former high school teacher and coach, was joined by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., in announcing plans for a National Conference on Youth and Culture. Mr. Lott also said last week that he would allow debate and votes on school-violence-related measures later this month.

Separately, in a television interview last Thursday, Mr. Clinton said he planned to soon hold a meeting with "high-level" entertainment industry representatives and others on their role in preventing youth violence.

Columbine's Aftermath

Among the proposals President Clinton outlined last week: raising the minimum age for possessing a handgun from 18 to 21; banning juvenile possession of semiautomatic weapons; barring young people convicted in juvenile court from ever owning firearms; requiring child-safety locks for guns; and holding adults legally responsible for children's access to guns. Under this last provision, the plan would impose felony penalties on adults who knowingly or recklessly allowed a child to have unlawful access to a gun later used to cause death or injury. The administration has already proposed several of the measures previously within the past year.

Just after the Columbine shooting, Mr. Clinton discussed other federal efforts specifically designed to help prevent school violence. ("National Policymakers Trying Range of Measures To Stem School Violence," April 28, 1999.)

Meanwhile, juvenile-crime legislation that failed to win final approval in the last Congress is being revisited in a revised form, but the Columbine High shootings appear to be complicating matters.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee had intended to mark up a bipartisan juvenile-justice bill--HR 1150--last week, but those plans were canceled at the last minute because of a flurry of new amendments proposed after the Colorado killings. The Early Childhood, Youth, and Families Subcommittee had approved the bill with bipartisan support on April 22.

"The bill has become a magnet for every school violence measure you could imagine," Jay Diskey, the spokesman for Republicans on the education committee, said in explaining the delay. He said the committee would need more time to evaluate new proposals before moving forward.

HR 1150, which would reauthorize federal funding for efforts in juvenile-crime control and prevention, is geared toward allowing greater flexibility for states and localities in meeting certain federal requirements. It would consolidate a number of discretionary grant programs--such as those for juvenile-offender "boot camps," mentoring, and responses to child abuse and neglect--into a broader prevention block grant for states.

The bill--which does not set out specific funding amounts--is similar to legislation that passed the House with bipartisan support in July 1997.

Separate juvenile-justice legislation, HR 1501, may be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee this week. The bill would provide $1.5 billion in grants over three years to help states and local government agencies bolster their juvenile-justice systems by increasing the accountability of young offenders. The plan would require states to have systems of graduated sanctions for juvenile offenders that imposed tougher penalties with each subsequent and more serious offense. States could be excused from the requirement if they reported annually on why graduated sanctions were not imposed.

Although House efforts this year on juvenile justice have been generally bipartisan so far, the same is not true in the Senate, where juvenile-justice activities are being wrapped into one overarching bill. The Republican-backed measure, S 254, would give substantially more flexibility to states and localities than current federal law allows.

Among other provisions, the Senate GOP bill would take steps to allow juvenile defendants to be treated more like adults, consolidate numerous federal programs into a $200 million-per-year prevention block grant to states, and add a new block grant program, authorized at $450 million annually, to support a system of graduated sanctions for juvenile offenders. Overall, the bill would authorize roughly $5 billion over five years.

Weighing Sanctions

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and S 254's sponsor, has argued that the changes are long overdue. "The sad reality is we can no longer sit silently by as children kill children, as teenagers commit truly heinous offenses," Mr. Hatch said in a speech he delivered on the Senate floor in January.

While advocacy groups for children and youths say Senate Republicans have softened some of their stances from a more controversial bill they offered last year, the new proposal still takes a harder line on youth offenders than those groups would like.

John Brooks, the assistant director for public policy for the YMCA of the U.S.A., said: "S 254 is not nearly as bad as [last year's bill] was." Still, he said, "we wanted more of a guarantee that prevention programs would have been supported."

Clinton administration officials also are pressing Republican leaders to make sure that federal protections established in 1974 to safeguard young prisoners remain intact.

"The biggest concern is maintaining protections for kids in custody, while still providing public safety in that the kids who need to be locked up are locked up, and those that need treatment get treatment," Shay Bilchik, the administrator of the Department of Justice's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, said in a recent interview.

Addressing the House Early Childhood, Youth, and Families Subcommittee in March, Mr. Bilchik said federal aid should be withheld from states that fail to run juvenile facilities "in a manner that keeps children safe from physical and psychological harm."

Efforts are under way by advocacy groups to change the House and Senate bills to ensure that funding is set aside for "primary prevention" efforts focusing on at-risk youths who have never committed a crime.

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Pages 22,25

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