When is 'get tough' too tough on teens?

Initiative making it easier to try juveniles as adults becomes focal point of debate.

For most of the past decade, the juvenile violent-crime rate in the United States has moved like an upside-down Internet stock index: down, down, down.

In California, for instance, per capita arrests of those under 18 for homicide dropped some 60 percent from 1991 to 1998, according to Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Yet in California and the nation as a whole, the good news on juvenile crime has not yet produced any softening of the public mood on crime policy.

That's one reason a measure to go before California voters on March 7 that would further stiffen treatment of juvenile offenders is being closely watched as a timely barometer of public mood.

"This is the absurd outer limit of the get-tough approach" to juvenile crime, says Mr. Zimring. Sniffs another critic: "This is a solution in search of a problem."

For others, though, the measure is a test of the public's will to stay the course toward zero tolerance of juvenile crime. One of the measure's key components is making it easier to transfer juveniles to adult criminal courts for certain violent offenses.

The practice of sending juveniles charged with particularly heinous crimes to the adult-courts system is age-old in the United States. But in recent years, the threshold for such transfers, which doesn't necessarily mean imprisoning juveniles with adults, has been systematically lowered in most states. The usual means is reduction of the minimum age at which teenagers can be transferred and expansion of the list of crimes for which such transfers are allowed or even mandated.

In addition, prosecutors have been given expanded powers in the decision process, rather than juvenile judges. The California proposal follows that pattern, granting prosecutors the power to send juveniles to criminal courts for certain violent offenses.

Advocates see a tougher and more-efficient court system when prosecutors are given these powers. Opponents say judges are less political and thus fairer.

While the American justice system's more-punitive approach toward juveniles has been unfolding for 30 years, pinning down its precise impact is difficult.

Statistical basis

A number of criminologists see no hard evidence yet that it has directly increased public safety. Some surmise the tougher approach is playing a role as a deterrent, but that is not something provable with statistics.

Pointing to two studies, one she co-wrote, Donna Bishop, a Northeastern University professor of criminal justice, says the rate at which convicted juveniles commit new crimes after release from jail is, if anything, higher among juveniles tried as adults than among those that remain in the juvenile system.

A study released this week goes beyond the frequent criticism of the toughening treatment of juveniles and says the system is also racially tinged.

Allegations that the American justice system has a racial bias are longstanding. But those charges usually start with the fact that minorities are arrested at higher rates than whites.

The new research by the Justice Policy Institute, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that favors the traditional juvenile-justice system, indicates that minority juveniles are six times more likely to be transferred to the adult courts than white juveniles arrested for the same crimes. The study is based on data from Los Angeles County.

"What I see going on here is that anyone labeled a gang member is seen by the system as less redeemable, and kids of color are much more likely to be labeled gang members," says Dan Macallair of the Justice Policy Institute.

Public perception that skyrocketing juvenile crime was largely a minority, urban problem was rooted in the late 1980s. Juvenile homicides jumped sharply then, and much of the increase occurred in the inner cities and involved minority youths.

But that fact was politically exploited in ways that played on public fear, resulting in what Minnesota law professor Barry Feld calls the "systematic dismantling of the traditional jurisdiction of the juvenile courts" over juvenile offenders.

The number of offenders sent to adult courts by juvenile-court judges nearly doubled nationwide in the decade after the late 1980s. In addition, the number of states allowing prosecutors greater power in transfers also doubled.

And a racial skewing has occurred among those transfers, says Professor Feld. Serious offenders sent to the adult courts are overwhelmingly black, and they get stiffer sentences than those in the juvenile system.

Racism in the system

While Feld says racial bias occurs in the movement to toughen treatment of juveniles, he says it is also "absolutely endemic" in the entire juvenile-justice system. The cause, ironically he says, is the different philosophy of juvenile justice.

From its beginning a century ago, juvenile justice was meant to give young offenders a second chance. It's a system with more discretion deliberately built in, based on the notion that youths are more apt to make mistakes - and also to correct their behavior with tailored treatment.

But with all that discretion, judges often base decisions on a host of factors, like the role of an offenders' parents and his community support, which often unwittingly ended up favoring white juveniles, says Feld.

So while a racial tilt already exists, Feld and others see the get-tough trend toward juveniles simply worsening that problem.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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