Criminals, but Still Children

FOR frontline veterans of trench warfare, they show few signs of battle fatigue or shell shock. Their morale is surprisingly good, considering that they are as familiar with defeat as with victory.

These soldiers are the men and women who operate America's juvenile-justice system - judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation officers, corrections administrators, social-service providers, and children's advocates. More than 1,000 of them gathered in Boston last week for the 21st National Conference on Juvenile Justice, sponsored by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National District Attorneys Association. As with all conferees, their conviviality was partly attributable to the fact that they were playing hookey for a few days, ensconced in a comfortable hotel far from their workaday worlds, bantering with congenial peers. Still, many of them emanated a hopefulness that seemed to be a matter of character more than of relaxation. This hopefulness was striking, given the abuse, neglect, poverty, despair, cruelty, learning disabilities, mental illness, substance abuse, delinquency, crime, and violence they witness every day in the lives of the children who enter the juvenile-justice system.

In their commitment to young people, these juvenile-justice professionals reminded an observer of good teachers. But whereas most school teachers deal with generally decent kids and only the occasional misfit, the juvenile-justice pros deal almost exclusively with kids of broken families, broken communities, and broken lives. These professionals' belief in children is a leap of faith as much as a product of success stories.

America's juvenile-justice system is nearing its 100th birthday: The first juvenile court was established in Illinois in 1899. Spreading to other states, the juvenile-court system and its affiliated agencies were and are premised on the idea that youthful offenders are still children who, with proper intervention, discipline, and guidance, can develop into productive citizens. Criminologists have questioned the concept of rehabilitation for adult offenders, but in the juvenile-justice system, belief in rehabilitation is alive and well.

But instead of being a time of celebration for juvenile-justice pros, this centenary is a time of concern. Alarmed by a rising tide of gang wars and other youth violence, many Americans want to get tough with young criminals by prosecuting them as adults and subjecting them to stiff mandatory prison sentences. It's unlikely that the juvenile-justice system will be abolished; but its principles and effectiveness are being called into question.

The juvenile-justice pros who convened in Boston aren't star- gazers or bleeding hearts: They, better than most other people, know there are incorrigible teenage killers and drug dealers who need to be locked up to protect society. But they also know from experience that, in most cases, transferring young offenders into the adult criminal-justice system achieves little in terms of public safety, and it extinguishes any likelihood of rehabilitation.

These professionals worry that, in the present climate of public opinion, political support for juvenile justice - never strong for the chronically underfunded system even in the best of times - will weaken further.

Rather than focus just on the small number of violent youths who have painted in the public's mind the picture of the adolescent hit man, Americans need to consider the thousands of young people who every year are deflected from the criminal path by a firm but compassionate judge, a caring but don't-jive-me probation officer, or a sympathetic youth-services provider. And this enhanced awareness has to be translated into resources to ease overcrowded juvenile-court dockets and to lighten probationary caseloads, as well as to improve early-intervention programs and ``aftercare'' programs for juveniles after they are released.

For many kids on America's streets, juvenile-justice professionals are the teachers in the school of hard knocks.

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