Waterbury, Vt. — Behind a massive metal door and windows covered with a wire mesh that can't be cut, 15-year old Jamie Savage plays ping-pong.
Because of a crime Jamie and a friend committed, Vermont now has one of the strictest juvenile justice laws in the nation. A child as young as 10 can be tried as an adult for certain serious crimes.
Jamie stays in the juvenile detention unit here with other youths that the state deems dangerous. He's here because he and Louis Hamlin III were convicted of raping, torturing, and murdering a 12-year old Essex Junction girl. Another young girl, who was also assaulted and tortured, lived to tell the story.
Because Hamlin was 16 at the time, he went to prison for a stiff 45 -years-to-life term. But Jamie was only 15, so he was sent here to the Waterbury detention center. He'll go free - with his criminal record wiped clean - on his 18th birthday.
Vermonters were outraged. In response, the state Legislature called it's first special session in six years to pass the new law.
But some 15 months later, statistics indicate that juvenile crime in Vermont is worse than ever.
The most recent state police records show juveniles committing almost 30 percent of serious crime in the first half of 1982. Burlington police say violent juvenile crime in 1982 in the city is up 400 percent over 1981, partly because of more police manpower and more attention paid to juvenile crime.
The Vermont case - like grisly crimes committed elsewhere by youths - made headlines for months. But such exceptionally violent incidents tell only a part of the overall story concerning juvenile crime. And perhaps the most notable aspect of this broader picture is that, nationwide, juvenile crime is dropping.
Juveniles still account for more than 40 percent of criminal arrests, according to a recent report by the Justice Department's National Institute for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. But, even so, the newly released US Justice Department Uniform Crime Reports show that in 1981, juveniles accounted for 19.8 percent of all serious crime, down from almost 26 percent in 1975.
The decline is largely attributable to a change of emphasis by the police, says William Vaughan Stapleton, director of the private, federally funded Center for the Assessment of the Juvenile Justice System.
''Police may say crimes are getting more serious,'' says Dr. Stapleton. But part of the reason, he explains, is the new way police and the courts approach juvenile crime. Now they focus their time and effort on serious crime and send runaways and truants to social agencies.
Still, the anger and the legislative backlash that immediately follow highly publicized cases of violent juvenile crime, such as the Essex Junction case, are not unusual.
Especially in cities, lawmakers are sensitive to people's concern about vicious forms of juvenile crime. A large portion of that public concern has been fueled by a few highly publicized cases of juvenile crime, such as that of a 15 -year old boy from Woodbury, Conn., and two older friends, who were charged last month with the murder of University of Florida professor Howard Appledorf.
Besides Vermont, states passing tougher juvenile crime laws include:
* New Jersey. In July a law was passed that allows offenders 14 and older to be tried as adults for certain serious crimes. Under the old law, the adult threshold was 18, no matter what the crime. The law takes effect in September 1983.
* New York. Four years ago the state passed what was then the nation's strictest juvenile law, which included trying as adults 13-year olds indicted for murder.
''Such legislation has been passed based on the public perception that juvenile crime is growing. That's a mistake, but it's still (spurring) legislative change,'' says John Hutzler of the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
In Vermont, the Essex Junction case paved the way for some six young people so far to be tried as adults, said Chittenden County state's attorney Mark Keller, who prosecuted Hamlin.
''(The Hamlin-Savage case) wasn't just the straw that broke the camel's back, '' says Christopher Davis, Hamlin's lawyer. ''This was the case that changed the law. People were crying for blood.''
Vermont leads the way in making tough new law. But like other states that have legislatively cracked down, says Mr. Davis, Vermont has done nothing to solve the youth crime problem except legislate tougher sentencing.
''The law just increases punishment, it doesn't address any of the issues,'' he says.
''Passing laws doesn't have anything to do with stopping crime,'' says Joseph White, president of The Academy, Inc., a social research center in Columbus, Ohio. There is no evidence to show that tougher laws deter juvenile crime, says Mr. White. ''Juveniles ought to stay juvenile as long as they can.''
Conventional wisdom would expect a youngster tried as an adult to get a harder rap. Not so, says White. In his recent study on the nationwide move towards trying youngsters in adult court, he found that 90 percent of the cases moved to adult court were convicted. But of those, 65 percent received a fine, probation, restitution, or confinement of less than a year. Of the remaining 35 percent, White says the bulk of them will serve far less than the time allowed by their maximum sentence.
''We're putting a lot of kids into the criminal court system because we expect them to administer severe punishment, and they're not,'' says White. ''Juvenile courts already have the power to administer the sentences being given in adult courts.''
The Academy is now studying whether the juvenile courts or the adult courts are harder on youngsters.