A century of lessons

Henry Campbell's petty larceny hardly seemed like the stuff of history. But when the 11-year-old was hauled by his mother before a Chicago judge in July 3, 1899, it began a revolution in American justice by establishing the nation's first court specifically for juveniles.

A century later, the question is whether Campbell represents a lasting legacy or an historic anomaly that's about to disappear in the face of American society's assault on crime.

The boy was sent east to live with his grandmother in hopes a change of scenery would mend his ways. But his modern-day counterpart would have a tougher time. Under a new law implemented in Illinois this year, he'd be subject to a much more formal process, including being fingerprinted and given a permanent record that could dog him the rest of his life.

Such is the pattern across the country: Lawmakers are getting tougher in their treatment of juveniles. In fact, many see a rapid dismantling of a system set up on the premise that juveniles deserve different handling from adults.

"This moment could well be the greatest crisis for juvenile justice since its founding," says David Tanenhaus, a judicial historian at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

The debate, fueled by the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., is apt to grow shriller in the months ahead. Congress must reconcile juvenile-justice bills already passed by the House and Senate that stiffen penalties against juveniles and lower the bar for trying them as adults. And a number of states, including California, are weighing fundamental changes in how they treat juveniles.

So far, the debate has clearly tilted toward those arguing for a crackdown. They're winning more severe punishment, a lower age (13 and 14 in many states) at which youths are treated as adults, and removal of much of judges' discretion.

Yet there are also voices suggesting the juvenile-justice system is worth preserving. Their argument is gradually escalating, timed to the system's 100-year anniversary and a sense that its integrity is at a crisis point.

One success story

Dennis Sweeney, a onetime street tough in San Francisco, is one such voice. If it weren't for a great deal of leniency and flexibility, traits critics are systematically stripping from juvenile justice, Mr. Sweeney says, "I'd probably still be in jail."

Instead, the recently retired Sweeney forged a career in the very system he ran into as a teen. He became San Francisco's chief juvenile probation officer.

Sweeney figures he was put on the right track by a sympathetic judge, a little time in detention, and the natural wisdom that time can impart to a confused adolescent. "I hope that as states pass these laws, they make room for exceptions, because otherwise, it's barbaric," writes Sweeney in a new book, "Second Chances," to be published this week.

Sweeney is one of 19 people, ranging from Olympic athlete Bob Beamon to former Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, to tell their stories in the new book, which was put together by the Justice Policy Institute and the Northwestern University Children and Family Justice Center.

"Children are more amenable to correction than adults," says Steve Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor. "The system needs to reorient itself to recognize that children are developmentally different from adults. They need to learn from mistakes, and we need to give them time to prove themselves."

Of course, critics cite the seemingly growing viciousness of youth crime in recent years. They argue it's high time to focus laws and the system of justice on the rights of victims rather than the offenders. Also, they argue, stricter punishments might act as a deterrent, steering other youths away from violent crime.

That's exactly what's happened in recent decades, says Mr. Tanenhaus. Since the 1970s, the juvenile courts have gradually become more and more like adult courts, which is to say less and less concerned with rehabilitation and more with punishment.

The juvenile system has come under increasing attack, not only from tough law-and-order advocates, but also from those on the left. Many argue that juveniles deserve greater protections.

Barry Feld of the University of Minnesota and author of "Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court" thinks it's time to pull the plug on the system altogether.

"Now that we've abandoned a lot of the pretenses of rehabilitation, the juvenile system is just a scaled down, second-class adult court," says Mr. Feld. His alternative would be a single judicial system with penalty "discounts" written into the law for juvenile offenders.

Even though the idea of rehabilitation has lost ground since Henry Campbell was sent to live with his grandmother, one of the system's founding assumptions remains that juveniles are different from adults.

While there is skepticism of this notion, at least as a shield for youngsters committing violent crimes, Feld says the idea that teenagers are developmentally different is convincingly established in research. "Kids are different, and so their degree of culpability is different."

Sweeney certainly agrees. Recalling his years burgling homes, which ended when his mother discovered he'd stolen a gun from a police officer's house, Sweeney struggles with exactly when and why he matured into a successful student. Based on his experience as a probation officer, he says he regards "doing something stupid" as pretty typical for teens.

The question in the current get-tough movement is where to strike the balance between protecting society and giving delinquents a second chance.

Juvenile-system supporters hope the decline in youth crime since the early 1990s will ease the cry for harsher penalties. Yet many see the increasingly spectacular nature of juvenile crime as a greater driver of popular and political sentiment and one that offsets any comfort over the decreasing crime rate.

Coming debates

Political forces, no doubt, play a huge role in this debate. For instance, Californians will vote on sweeping changes in juvenile justice next March.

And as it fights greater restrictions on guns, the National Rifle Association has promised to make combating juvenile crime one of its top priorities in the coming year, a pledge that could add more muscle to the "get tough" on juveniles movement.

The principal change of the 1990s is the myriad of ways to transfer juveniles to adult courts. Amnesty International says 200,000 teenagers are funneled into US criminal courts each year.

Looking at the coming decade, Tanenhaus says, "We may see a state or two wanting to dismantle their juvenile systems altogether."

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