`IF you're old enough to do the crime, you're old enough to do the time.''
That sentiment lies at the heart of a growing get-tough attitude toward juvenile crime in the United States.
Florida lawmakers are weighing the possibility of executing juveniles as young as 14 convicted of murder. In Kansas, Nebraska, and New Mexico, officials want to establish prisons for teens. In Massachusetts, Gov. William Weld has vowed to take ``extreme measures'' to crack down on young violent offenders. Youths 14 and up would automatically be tried as adults for serious crimes. Those convicted of carrying a gun would be committed to the Department of Youth Services until they are 18.
No one can minimize the seriousness of youth violence. Although reported crime is down overall, violent crime is up, and violent offenders are more often young. Arrests of juveniles for murder and some lesser forms of homicide rose 93 percent between 1982 and 1991, according to the Children's Defense Fund. That compares to an 11 percent increase for adults during the same period.
Protecting public safety remains a paramount responsibility of law-enforcement officials and courts. They must send clear messages that young people will be held fully accountable for their actions and punished for their crimes.
Trying violent youths as adults may be appropriate in certain cases. But simply warehousing young offenders in prisons will never deter juvenile crime. Amid the growing fervor for punishment, where is the talk about rehabilitation and prevention?
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking in Boston last week, warned that a harsher justice system won't solve the root causes of violence. Instead, he emphasizes the need to allocate more resources for prenatal care, better schools, job training, and other preventive measures. ``We must heal the whole society,'' Mr. Jackson says. Children did not create the current culture of violence. It will take more than simply punishing the youngest offenders to reform that culture and bring about the healing Jackson is calling for.