San Diego — Despite a dramatic decline in crime committed by juveniles, more states are trying them in adult courts, giving them longer prison sentences and putting them in overcrowded adult prisons where rehabilitation is not often a top priority. Prison officials gathered here last week for a three-day conference of the American Correctional Association (ACA) say the country has swung from a 1970s attitude favoring the education and rehabilitation of juveniles to today's ``lock 'em up mentality.''
In some states, youths 14 years and younger are serving sentences for murder and other violent crimes in marked contrast to a decade ago, when courts put more emphasis on reforming juveniles and releasing them quickly.
Orlando Martinez, director of Colorado's Division of Youth Services, says prison officials are partly responsible for the shift in attitudes. Faced with more urgent problems such as prison overcrowding, they have not done the research needed to prove to a skeptical public that rehabilitation works, he says.
``The people see teenagers committing crimes and they ask us if our programs work,'' Mr. Martinez says. ``We throw up our hands and say we don't know. So their response is, `lock them up and we'll know they won't commit any more crimes.' ''
In the last five years, 21 states have enacted tougher laws against youth offenders, including mandatory prison sentences and statutes requiring juveniles convicted of violent crimes to serve time in adult prisons, according to the ACA.
While punishment is getting tougher, Victor L. Streib, a professor at Cleveland Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, sees a clear trend away from sentencing juvenile offenders to death row. He says the executions of Charles Rumbaugh in September 1985 and James Terry Roach, on Jan. 10 of this year focused more attention on death penalty laws for juveniles. Some states have enacted or are considering enacting laws prohibiting the death penalty for juveniles.
Studies show that juvenile crime is on the decline, mostly because the US teenage population is lower than 20 years ago. Violent crime by youthful offenders, for example, has fallen by 13.6 percent since 1978, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics cited by the ACA.
``No one can defend the statement that juvenile crime is out of control,'' says Edward R. Loughran, commissioner for the Massachusettes Department of Youth Services. ``And yet we have this hysterical perception that crime is so bad we have to send our children to adult prisons. That's really dangerous.''
But other corrections officials see no cause for alarm in the tougher measures being leveled against juveniles. Many of the youths sentenced to adult prisons have been convicted of murder, rape, and assault and should be treated as the violent criminals they are, these officials say.
``The public is demanding a man-sized punishment for a man-sized crime,'' says Dale Landress, former director of Florida's Youthful Offender program. ``They see these violent and disruptive kids being released from jails only to commit more crimes and they want them off the streets.''
Mr. Landress says many youth offenders have to go to adult prisons because they are often too violent for the juvenile system. ``It's better to send the few violent kids to the adult system so the 500 kids in the youth facility can live safely.''
As of June 30, there were more than 6,300 juveniles in adult facilities nationwide, according to figures prepared by the ACA. However, Mr. Loughran and other correctional officials think that figure will increase as new, tougher laws in New Jersey, Florida, and other states take effect.
Loughren and others say adult prisons are not equipped to help youths with the vocational and rehabilitation assistance they need. ``In adult prisons, you give your attention to the bad guys. The only thing you can do for the juvenile is protect him,'' says Hunter Horst, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.
By contrast, staffs in most juvenile facilities tend to be larger and have the equipment and expertise to teach juveniles how to read and write and to train them for new jobs, Mr. Horst says.
Putting teenagers into a prison with hard-core adult criminals can be disasterous, says Anthony K. Umina, deputy director of the New York State Division for Youth. Most juveniles who commit crimes in New York are poor, often illiterate and sometimes sexually and physically abused, Mr. Umina said. ``When mingled with the adult criminal populations, social skills are often derailed and damaged beyond repair,'' he said.