New York — He is just nine. But 4-foot 5-inch Robert -- authorities won't disclose his last name -- stood in Family Court here this week accused of bank robbery. He had used a toy gun in taking $118 from a midtown Manhattan bank.
The boy, who turned himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Feb. 27 , spent part of the money on hamburgers, a movie, and a wrist watch that plays music. He smiled broadly as he was besieged by newsmen.
But while more about Robert and his motive may not be revealed until his trial April 3, questions and controversy are mounting about the rise of so-called "kiddie crime" across the United States.
According to the latest available figures from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, 117,589 children aged 11 or 12 were arrested in the nation's cities in 1979. This is down slightly from 1978, when there were 127,788 such arrests. Figures for 13-
But an FBI spokesman says these figures do not provide an exact measure of whether "kiddie crime" is decreasing or increasing, because many children who are apprehended are referred to special treatment programs and their arrest records expunged -- not formally counted because they are referred to special treatment programs.
Many law enforcement authorities say the best thing to do about the alarming increase in young offenders is "get tough." Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola advocates longer sentences in juvenile detention centers. But the prestigious Twentieth Century Fund has recommended in a report that "minimum sentences fo custodial confinement are worthy of consideration" only if a deadly weapon used or bodily harm is inflicted by the perpetrator.
The answer may lie somewhere in the middle, according to Sherlee Argrett, who as head of the Special Treatment Unit at Bronx Children's Psychiatric Center, has had years of experience trying to rehabilitate, or as she puts it "habilitate," violent youth criminals. And what these children most need is "help before they break the law," she says.
"In this country we have systems which are supposed to be helping children who are very deliquent," contends Mrs. Argrett.
Flora Rothman, executive director of the New York Coalition for Juvenile Justice and Youth Services, a recognized national expert on youth crime, also prefers a middle-of-the-road policy for juvenile offenders, but would stop short of grouping very young offenders -- from, say, 9- to 12-years-old, with 14- and 15-year-olds in youth detention shelters, known more commonly as reform schools.
"Putting a 9-year-old with a 13-year-old is ridiculous," she maintains. "The chances are that you will come out with a child who is worse when he gets out than when he went in."
Although Mrs. Rothman agrees that juvenile crime is on the rise nationwide, she doesn't believe it is as bad as the media represents it to be. "I think it has increased, but not in proportion to media attention."
But Bronx District Attorney Merola has the figures to prove childhood crime is on the increase in the Bronx, which contains the now-infamous South Bronx, one of America's worst slums. He says there have been 26 instances in the last six months in which children under 15 and as young as 13 were arrested for crimes involving guns, including one murder. Some 1,900 juveniles between the ages of 7 and 12 were arrested in New York City last year.
He is calling for stricter inforcement of existing laws, including New York's tough Juvenile Crime Act, past three years ago, which says that 14- and 15 -year-olds can be treated as adults in the state's criminal justice system. (In New York and most other states, anyone under 16 is a juvenile.)
Meanwhile, 9-year-old Robert has entered a not-guilty plea and been placed in the custody of his grandfather and father pending trial. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile detention facility.