THE growing problem of teenage violence is prompting a fresh look at juvenile justice systems across the country. It is a good thing. For most states, catching young criminals isn't the problem; it is doing something constructive with them once they are caught. The percentage of young Americans in jail has reached a new high, yet the number of youths who commit violent crimes continues to rise.
The first impulse of many states is to get tough. It is fueled by stories like that of the 13-year-old boy in Florida who was questioned in connection with the killing of a British tourist. He already had a record of 56 arrests. In Arizona, the average young offender has nine encounters with the juvenile justice system before getting locked up. There is merit in dealing swiftly and sternly with the most violent youths - and sending a signal that such violence won't be countenanced. But authorities shouldn't overreact in responding to public pressure to curb the problem.
The cautionary tale here is the 17-year-old black Georgia youth who was sentenced by a white judge to three years in prison for stealing $20 worth of ice cream. This week the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole commuted the sentence to two years' probation. The judge's sentence may or may not have included an element of racism, as some have suggested. But certainly the board's interpretation of his ``excessive'' punishment - that it reflected a national ``mass hysteria'' over juvenile crime - is instructive.
As part of a hardening attitude, a growing number of states are trying older youths in adult-type courts. Colorado recently created a special tier in the juvenile justice system to handle teenagers who commit violent crimes. Arizona is considering making it easier to transfer certain juvenile offenders to adult courts.
Just being baton-tough, though, is insufficient. Alternative programs that effectively address the social, educational, and other problems that underlie teen crime - without taxing local treasuries - also are needed. Experiments abound. In Dade County, Fla., youths in the juvenile court system operate their own ice cream business. Several states employ young offenders in shipyards. An academy outside Philadelphia focuses on overcoming negative peer pressure.
If the current climate is breeding toughness, it is also breeding innovation. The need is for more duplication of what works.