Youth and Crime

THREE things happened almost simultaneously last week.

First, Republicans took control of Congress and began debating the ``Contract With America.'' One idea up for discussion is the Taking Back Our Streets Act, which advocates harsher punishment of convicted criminals.

Second, state lawmakers used the start of the new year to enact strict measures to crack down on criminals, particularly juveniles.

And third, friends and family came to pay their respects for a Long Island social worker allegedly killed by her two teenage foster sons. The boys were found driving Hope Fried's car through Florida, carrying her money and credit cards.

Tragically, the Long Island murder is just one in a list of crimes committed by youngsters. These acts still shock and sadden us, but each year Americans have grown increasingly disgusted with what looks more and more like an epidemic.

It is, therefore, understandable that a larger proportion of the population now advocates stricter penalties for juveniles. In Florida, for example, prosecutors can more easily try 14- and 15-year-olds as adults. In Illinois, violent 10- to 13-year-olds can be held longer than 30 days and placed in high-security detention centers. In Minnesota, judges can impose both an adult sentence and juvenile sentence on offenders 14 to 17 years old.

We hope this crackdown helps curb juvenile crime. But enacting tough sentencing laws is the easy part. Reducing crime and violence among youths requires much more.

Some efforts have already had a measure of success. In one New York City neighborhood, for example, an after-school program offering athletics and extra academic help attracts hundreds of young people.

In Los Angeles, troubled youths can find structure and support in probation camps and alternative education programs. In these and countless other programs, budget cuts and inadequate resources are constant threats. Society can commit to locking away youths at a younger age; it should commit to programs that may give these same individuals some hope.

A recent survey of juveniles involved in violence shows that one-third think their parents are not interested or are too busy to help them. Too many adults lament that they are helpless in the face of juvenile crime. Others think that stricter laws alone will solve the problem. Neither is true.

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