WASHINGTON — America's children are increasingly showing up in court with a warning label: "armed and dangerous."
*Two 12-year-old boys in Wenatchee, Wash., shoot and kill a migrant farm worker after he tells them to stop making noise.
*A pair of teens in Franklin, N.J., ages 17 and 18, gun down two pizza deliverymen, not for money or in an argument but, according to police, to experience the "thrill" of killing.
*Two Chicago boys, ages 10 and 11, drop a 5-year-old out of a vacant 14-story apartment because the boy refused to steal candy for them.
Such examples illustrate the grim but important task facing parents, judges, police officers, teachers, and others who work with troubled children. Moreover, they highlight the sense of crisis that pervades the ongoing debate in Congress over the future direction of juvenile justice in America.
Historically, the system has been oriented toward a philosophy of benevolence, aimed at helping wayward youths get back on track toward productive, law-abiding lives. But now, after a decade of rising violent crime committed by ever-younger offenders, a political consensus is emerging that seeks to hold young criminals accountable for their crimes by locking them up.
The effort is contained in a bill that was expected to pass the House yesterday. A similar bill is pending in the Senate, and the White House is likely to back whatever emerges from conference committee.
Opponents, meanwhile, say the House measure is short-sighted and mean-spirited.
Supporters say the time has arrived for children who commit violent adult crimes to be treated as adults.
The concept of juvenile-justice reform was not invented in Congress. Since 1992, 41 states have changed their juvenile codes in response to a perceived explosion of crime and violence by children and teens.
The statistical bombshell
The statistics are alarming. According to Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, between 1965 and 1992 the number of 12-year-olds arrested for violent crimes increased 211 percent; the number of 13- and 14-year-olds rose 301 percent; and the number of 15-year-olds rose 297 percent.
Overall, increases in violent youth crime were most pronounced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at a time when a combination of crack cocaine and the proliferation of handguns raised the stakes for urban teenage criminals, crime experts say.
After a steady, dramatic 10-year rise, arrests of youth for violent crimes tailed off slightly in 1994 and 1995. But many criminologists say it's only a temporary reprieve. They anticipate that as children of the mini baby-boom of the 1980s move into their more crime-prone teens, the number of arrests for violent youth crime could double by 2010.
That would mark a 145 percent increase in youths arrested for murder, a 66 percent hike in arrests for rape, and a 129 percent jump in arrests for aggravated assault.
"Perhaps never before has there been a greater need for the juvenile-justice system to be working effectively than now," says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, author of the juvenile-justice bill.
The new law seeks, in effect, to induce states to alter their individual systems in favor of a set of standards that would apply in all states. The cornerstone of the effort is to reduce to 15 the age at which a teen charged with a violent crime would be considered an adult for purposes of prosecution and punishment.
To encourage states to comply, the legislation authorizes the allocation of up to $500 million a year among states and localities that adopt the suggested provisions in the bill.
The money is to be spent on building or expanding juvenile-detention facilities or to underwrite the targeting and prosecution of violent juveniles.
Critics say the measure is long on punishment but short on prevention and rehabilitation. In the end, they say, it will simply produce an ever younger batch of career criminals.
"The adult system is based on a punitive approach," says Mark Kappelhoff of the American Civil Liberties Union. "For that reason you end up with more people returning to crime."
Mr. Kappelhoff says two studies comparing young offenders in juvenile courts with similar youths sent to adult courts found that those treated as adults were 30 percent more likely to become repeat offenders.
Weeding the system
Other experts say it is necessary to weed out of the juvenile-justice system the most violent and dangerous offenders to protect both society and those other children who can be helped in juvenile courts.
"If juvenile justice wants to remain true to its tradition, there must be a siphoning of these bad kids out of it," says Joseph Sanborn, a criminologist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "The more you force the juvenile-justice system to take these very violent kids within its jurisdiction, the more you force it to be something that it is not meant to be."
Despite the rhetoric in Washington, the nation's juvenile-justice system isn't entirely dysfunctional. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, roughly 60 percent of youths referred to juvenile court for the first time never return on a new charge.
Of the nation's entire population of young offenders, only 8 percent are charged with violent crimes. And only 1 of every 6 of those will return to court on a new violent charge, according to a study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a research group.
GOALS OF THE JUVENILE CRIME CONTROL ACT
Congress is moving toward a major revamp of America's juvenile-justice system. The House bill, expected to pass yesterday, includes the following provisions:
* Ensures that juveniles ages 15 and older charged with violent or serious drug crimes face trial and punishment as adults in state and local courts. In federal courts, youths as young as 13 could be tried as adults if prosecutors decide to pursue the case.
* Establishes a nationwide system of graduated sanctions for all juvenile offenders so that each subsequent crime draws a harsher penalty.
* Creates a uniform system of maintaining permanent, public criminal records of juvenile felons. Such records could be accessed by police, judicial, and school officials, as well as any prospective employer seeking a background check. The law would abolish the practice in some states of expunging juvenile records when a teen becomes an adult.
* Enables judges nationwide to levy sanctions against parents of offenders for failing to supervise their children's compliance with court directives.