Trust Us to Deal With Criminal Youth, Contend Juvenile-Court Judges

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AMERICA'S juvenile-court judges are calling for more resources to punish and rehabilitate youthful criminal offenders.

At its conference in Boston this week, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) unveiled what it calls an ``action plan for dealing with violent juvenile crime.''

While many other citizen and law-enforcement groups also are demanding a crackdown on a disturbing increase in teenage violence, the juvenile-court judges seem to be motivated in part by a desire to keep control of the battle against youth crime.

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The assertion by judges that the juvenile-justice system is particularly well-adapted to deal with young offenders comes at a time of growing national sentiment to judge and punish violent and repeat teenage criminals as adults.

In remarks to the more than 1,000 juvenile- and family-court judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation officers, social-services providers, and children's advocates who gathered here, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts warned: ``Make no mistake - if you can't develop new methods and programs for dealing with juvenile violence, more and more young people will be tried and sentenced as adult criminals.''

New laws enacted or pending in Congress and many state legislatures lower the age at which teenagers can be prosecuted as adults for certain violent or repeat offenses.

This get-tough approach, a NCJFCJ statement says, ``means that juveniles who commit violent crimes should not be treated as individuals who can be rehabilitated, but rather as individuals who should be temporarily warehoused for public safety.''

The judges cite studies indicating that they impose punishments on youth just as stiff as those criminal courts do, and that juvenile courts are more likely to impose sanctions on young criminals than criminal courts - which dismiss many of the cases transferred from the juvenile-justice system.

The NCJFCJ statement insists that ``protection of public safety remains the paramount goal of the juvenile court in dealing with violent juvenile crime.'' Thus, the first objective of the ``action plan,'' the statement says, is to ensure ``that juvenile courts can hold violent juvenile offenders fully accountable for their crimes. Resources must be directed to imposition of swift and sure sanctions....'' The juvenile-court judges acknowledge the need to transfer some hard-core cases to the adult criminal courts, but they oppose the mandatory transfer provisions for violent offenders contained in many federal and state bills.

These judges say they need more resources. ``The juvenile-justice system has been shortchanged for many years,'' says Carmen Ferrante, a juvenile-court judge in Passaic, N.J. ``It gets just 2.5 to 3 percent of all the money allocated to criminal justice.'' Adds Judge Stephen Herrell of Portland, Ore., ``There has been a massive shift of resources from the juvenile-justice system to the adult criminal system. But it just hasn't worked.''

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