School Climate & Safety

Legislators Tackle Youth Crime Via New Juvenile-Justice Routes

By Jessica Portner — April 15, 1998 9 min read
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Shortly after reports that two young boys had gunned down four classmates and a teacher at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school last month, politicians, commentators, and community leaders across the country began calling for swift justice for the accused killers.

Such shocking and widely publicized crimes--Jonesboro marked the third multiple slaying at a school since October--have prodded some states to launch a batch of youth-crime initiatives.

But the flurry of legislative activity is hardly novel. Juvenile-justice reforms have been on a fast track in recent years, ever since the youth-crime rate started to surge in the early 1990s.

In the past decade, incrementally and controversially, state governments have been transforming the legal landscape for children--drastically rewriting laws that hadn’t been dusted off in a century.

At least 40 states have revised their juvenile codes, keying in on trying young people as adults for certain crimes, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles, and modifying long-standing confidentiality protections for delinquents.

“The entire [juvenile-justice] system has to be revamped, and the legislatures are realizing that,” said Linda J. Collier, a lawyer and a professor of criminal justice at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa. Most juvenile laws badly need a makeover, she said, because the majority are built on antiquated doctrines crafted to deal with youthful 19th-century miscreants.

Recent events continue to keep the focus on juvenile justice.

Late last month, Mississippi legislators voted to expand the state’s death-penalty statute to make murder at schools and college campuses a capital offense. Their vote followed the shooting spree at Pearl (Miss.) High School in October that left two girls dead and a 16-year-old sophomore under arrest. Five other Pearl students and a graduate of the school were later charged with conspiracy in the killings.

Then, in December, three students were killed and five were wounded at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. Police arrested a 14-year-old freshman in the case. And, on March 24, police say an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old opened fire at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, taking the lives of five people. (“Arkansas Community Still Reeling After Fatal School Shooting Spree,” April 1, 1998.)

Treat or Punish?

Most youth-law experts agree that the American juvenile-justice system was born in 1899, when a pioneering Chicago judge named Benjamin Barr Lindsay helped set up a separate court in Cook County, Ill., to “regulate the treatment and control of dependent, neglected, and delinquent children.” For centuries before that time, minors were treated as adults under the law and were routinely subjected to harsh and sometimes cruel punishments.

In 1648, a child in Massachusetts, for example, could be sentenced to death for striking his parents, Ms. Collier writes in her book, Where Have All the Children Gone? Children who committed petty crimes--such as failing to do their chores or stealing food--were often whipped, placed in solitary confinement, or strapped into leg irons.

Such punishments persisted into the 1800s, when many poor, young offenders--committed by their parents for infractions as seemingly innocuous as “idleness” or “associating with vicious persons"--were thrown into reformatories. Such “houses of reform” originated in New York City, but flourished throughout the country and were advertised as a kinder alternative to incarceration. But by the 1880s, when an influx of immigrants brought a rise in juvenile crime, some institutions acquired a reputation as little more than holding pens where children were sometimes beaten to death.

In light of such circumstances, Judge Lindsay and other reformers lobbied the Illinois legislature to pass a law establishing the country’s first juvenile court. By 1912, at least 22 states had followed suit; by 1925, all but two states--Maine and Wyoming--had functioning juvenile-court systems.

The fundamental philosophy behind these new legal institutions was that juveniles were to be treated, not punished. The principle was maintained in 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court granted young people constitutional rights--such as the right to counsel--previously afforded to adults only.

Modern Justice

But some youth-crime experts say that philosophy is outdated, and that 19th-century laws aren’t sufficient today.

Between 1983 and 1992, the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes such as rape, murder, and aggravated assault jumped by 55 percent, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures. If current trends persist and the adolescent population continues to climb as expected--by 22 percent over the next decade--juvenile arrests for violent crime are expected to more than double by 2010.

“There’s been an erosion in the moral fabric in society,” Ms. Collier said. “After 100 years, we should adjust our attitude.”

State Rep. Toby Goodman, a Texas lawmaker, agrees.

“The most violent predator today is a juvenile felon who has no remorse and is as dangerous as hell,” said Mr. Goodman, a Republican who helped usher in one of the one of the nation’s most sweeping juvenile-justice reform laws. “You leave them on the street, and they are going to repeat,” he said last week.

Texas passed its new Juvenile-Justice Code in 1995 after violent juvenile crime there shot up 162 percent between 1985 and 1995. Among other provisions, the new law lowered to 14 the age that a juvenile can be tried as an adult, expanded programs for at-risk youths, mandated better record-keeping for juvenile crimes, and set minimum sentences for youth offenders. A juvenile convicted of murder in Texas now must be jailed for at least 10 years, unless a judge commutes the sentence.

Previously, Texas judges had the discretion to impose a range of penalties at the outset. In the past two years, the violent-juvenile-crime rate in Texas has dropped by 12 percent, Mr. Goodman said. In Texas, he noted, 26 percent of all violent crimes are committed by 14- to 18-year-olds.

The Lone Star State’s juvenile-justice system, which combines its harsher penalties with a comprehensive system of treatment and services for at-risk and incarcerated minors, is a model for similar efforts across the country. “Your primary purpose is to protect the public, and the punishment has to fit the crime,” Mr. Goodman said.

In tandem with the state activity, there is movement on Capitol Hill in Washington to transform a federal juvenile-justice law that hasn’t been overhauled since it was passed in 1974.

Congressional Republicans may act this spring on a bill, S 10, that would reauthorize the law and revamp the Justice Department’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention and transfer control of most federal juvenile-crime programs to the states through federal block grants.

While the Clinton administration applauds Congress’ overall effort to modernize the 24-year-old law, Justice Department officials are lobbying congressional leaders to strike the right balance between treatment and punishment.

Like its companion bill, HR 1818, which passed the House last year, the Senate bill does not set aside money in the block grant for school- and community-based violence-prevention programs. It would also loosen a long-standing federal requirement that states house convicted juveniles in facilities separate from those used for adult offenders.

“The whole premise of the juvenile system is that young offenders should be subject to a more rehabilitative code of treatment, and so mingling them with adult offenders is counterproductive for their mental well-being,” said Shay Bilchik, the administrator of the juvenile-justice office.

Republican sponsors of the bill, meanwhile, say the measure still provides adequate protections for incarcerated youths.

While federal reforms loom, many states have already advanced stricter approaches.

In 1996, Kansas lawmakers passed a measure allowing children as young as 10 to be tried in adult court for certain offenses. In Massachusetts, if a juvenile age 14 or older is convicted of first-degree murder, the court must lock up the offender for at least 15 years.

A 1995 Mississippi law stripped juveniles convicted of illegal firearms possession of their long-standing right to keep their names and addresses confidential.

And in Texas last week, a Republican legislator proposed a bill that would lower to 11 the age at which a juvenile could be sentenced to death. Such executions, however, could not be carried out until the offender turned 17.

Going Too Far?

Some lawmakers worry that in the rush to answer the public’s desire for action, legislatures may be drafting laws that are inflexible and overly severe.

“One of the major problems is the front-page cases that drive juvenile-justice policy,” said state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, a Connecticut lawmaker and former prosecutor. “Everybody is going to rewrite their laws based on what happened in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but it might have nothing to do with the procedures and realities in their states,” he said.

As the Democratic co-chairman of the state’s House judiciary committee, Mr. Lawlor shepherded through a juvenile-justice law in 1995 that gives prosecutors in Connecticut the discretion to transfer offenders as young as 14 who commit felonies such as drug dealing, assault, or car theft to adult court. But the law also allows the judge to return cases to juvenile court when there are extenuating circumstances.

Mr. Lawlor contends that law-enforcement officials, not state politicians, ought to make decisions to send cases to adult court on an individual basis. Otherwise, he said, the cost of prison construction would be astronomical. Connecticut spends more to run its prison system than to operate its colleges, Mr. Lawlor said.

While getting a dangerous individual off the streets may be desirable, many of the people who work with delinquent youths say incarceration alone should not be viewed as a deterrent to crime.

“People believe punishment is going to change people, but there is no evidence of that,” said Bill Porter, who runs violence-prevention programs at the Cherry Creek public schools, a 38,000-student district in Englewood, Colo. “Punishment is not going to change kids’ behavior unless you do intervention that is appropriate for the deficit the kid has,” he said.

Youth-violence experts say that the jump in juvenile crime over the past few decades is rooted in a complicated set of cultural and economic factors. Compared with their counterparts of 30 or 40 years ago, children today are more likely to have divorced parents, to be neglected or abused, to be poor, to lack literacy skills, and to have mental-health problems, child-health experts say. (“Violence-Prevention Program Reduces Aggressive Behavior, Study Concludes,” June 4, 1997.)

While several studies in recent years have shown that many violence-prevention programs have failed to keep violence-prone teenagers from entering the prison system, several approaches have shown promising results.

Individualized approaches that encourage problem-solving, foster moral reasoning and decisionmaking, and emphasize academic or job-related skills can help prevent violent behavior, most youth-violence experts say. Most states also send social workers into schools to help keep youngsters out of trouble.

Job and educational opportunities are among the best buffers against youth crime, said Tom Nazarrio, a professor at the University of San Francisco law school and the author of a book on children’s rights, In Defense of Children. “The trick is to get them early and immunize them from doing wrong,” he said.

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