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Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as Gun Language Bogs Down Juvenile-Justice Legislation

Gun Language Bogs Down Juvenile-Justice Legislation

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In the wake of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado last April, it looked as if Congress was ready to pass a new juvenile-crime bill this year. But seven months later, seemingly insurmountable differences on gun control have kept members of the House and the Senate from fulfilling that mission—and some youth advocates say young people may be better off for it.

Members of the House-Senate conference committee on the reauthorization of federal juvenile-justice programs were expected to reconcile the substantial differences in their respective bills this year, but they met only once—in August. And, according to the spokeswoman for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R- Utah, who is chairing the conference committee, no meetings to discuss the legislation had been scheduled as of last week.

But Mike Connelly, the spokesman for Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the conference panel, said that Mr. Hyde remains confident a compromise will be worked out.

The major roadblocks to progress, youth advocates and congressional aides agree, are the gun-control provisions in the Senate juvenile-crime bill.

The lack of consensus has "very little to do with juvenile justice,'' said Miriam Rollin, the director of public policy for the National Network for Youth, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

At stake is the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. States are required to adhere to the act's requirements in order to receive federal money for juvenile-justice programs. The law came up for reauthorization in 1998, but Congress postponed the process until this year. In the meantime, if the programs are not reauthorized, they will continue to be funded at their fiscal 1999 levels with adjustments for inflation.

In June, the House rejected proposed language on gun control in HR 2122, which was defeated. Separately, members of the House approved HR 1501, which contained juvenile-justice measures similar to those in the Senate bill. In May, the Senate passed the Violent and Repeat Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act, or S 254. The bill would mandate background checks at gun shows and require that all new handguns be sold with child-safety devices.

Background Checks

Experts on youth issues have raised concerns about the legislation, particularly controversial amendments in both the House and Senate versions that would allow juveniles 14 or older charged with serious drug offenses or violent felonies to be tried as adults in federal court. The Senate legislation also would repeal provisions in the existing juvenile-justice law that require states to address the disproportionate confinement of minority youths and contains language that would weaken protections for keeping children out of adult jails and prisons.

The House measure also contains an amendment that would allow the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools and other government buildings.

Some youth advocates said postponing action on a final bill until next year would actually be a good step.

"Why make a dramatic change in federal laws when crime is going down?'' said Mark Soler, the president of the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit public-interest-law organization here, referring to a federally documented drop in the rate of violent crime by juveniles. Young people may be "better off without this legislation passing,'' he added.

On Capitol Hill, debate has bogged down over defining what constitutes a gun show and the length of time for conducting background checks on gun purchasers. The current waiting period is three business days. An amendment to the Senate bill would drop the wait to 24 hours.

A 24-hour waiting period might not give law-enforcement officials time to do background checks during weekend gun shows, said David Bernstein, a spokesman for Handgun Control, a Washington group that advocates stricter gun laws. Rep. Hyde, who supported the much tougher version of the House bill, is pushing a compromise that would allow for a 24-hour wait unless the background check raises a red flag, in which case investigators would have three days to check out the application, said Mr. Connelly.

The juvenile-crime proposal in the conference committee is much harsher than the law now on the books, added Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the Justice Policy Institute, a private nonprofit policy and research organization in Washington. What's more, he argued, the sharp decline in juvenile crime shows that state and local actions are working.

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Pages 30,34

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