Punishing the Young

PREDICTABLY, the Jonesboro, Ark., killings have renewed calls for tougher penalties for young offenders. Many people are dismayed that the perpetrators of the crime may have to spend only a relatively few years in jail before mandatory release.

While such concerns are understandable given the crime, the reasons for different treatment of youthful criminals need to be kept in mind. The fundamental assumption is that most children who commit crimes can be helped to escape a cycle of dishonesty and violence - that they are not "hardened." Plenty of people, however, including many of those who make the laws, will argue that today's young violators defy that assumption.

That argument is, in essence, an indictment of today's society - implying that children are less teachable now, less capable of being rehabilitated, than they were when the juvenile justice laws were first drawn up. Society certainly has changed, and children are frequently subjected to influences that either didn't exist, or were less blatant, decades ago. But we can't accept the premise that children as young as 11 or 13 should be written off as incorrigible and packed off to adult courts and prisons.

Not that the current system is without need of reform. Older teenagers convicted, often repeatedly, of serious crimes may well belong in the adult system. The public should be protected from their ravages, and the public should have access to the records of dangerous young criminals - access now widely forbidden by juvenile-justice laws.

But the outcry following terrible violence like that in Jonesboro shouldn't obscure the still-valid rationale for treating youngsters differently from adults. Lives can be turned around. Parents can learn to take more responsibility for the moral development of their children.

The overall trend of crime in the US has been downward for six years now, but the statistics for youthful violent crime remain alarming. That problem must be addressed from many directions. The application of adult penalties, regardless of the age or record of the offender, is a reaction, not a solution.

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