A GROWING number of states, eager to curb juvenile crime, are trying young offenders as adults. One reason: to ensure they receive harsh enough punishment.
But do teens tried in the adult system actually serve more time?
Not in many cases, statistics show, which is triggering a new debate over how society should deal with its violent young offenders.
''If the rationale for trying kids as adults is to be tough on them, I'm not sure that that happens,'' says Melissa Sickmund, a researcher at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. Often studies have inconclusive results, she says.
Typical is one recent study here by a University of Washington student researcher, Scott March. In a survey of 48 juvenile cases in Seattle, he found that 40 percent of the youths tried in adult courts were sentenced to 12 months or more beyond the maximum possible in juveinile courts. But in the majority of the cases, the punishment was weaker.
''In the main you do more time in the juvenile system than in the adult system,'' says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, based in San Francisco. Youths also are poorly served by adult courts, he adds, because they lose the benefits of the juvenile system's far greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
More research is needed nationwide, Ms. Sickmund says, since most studies were done based on data gathered before a wave of legislation cracking down on youth violence. Arrests for juvenile violent crime jump 47 percent between 1988 and 1992, and youth crime now accounts for about 13 percent of all violent crimes reported.
With political pressure mounting on adult-court judges to deal with such cases firmly, ''it is entirely possible that the climate has changed,'' Sickmund says. But she says she has not seen hard evidence that this is occurring.
High-profile murder trials, such as a recent Seattle case involving two 15-year-olds and one 14-year-old, tend to leave a public impression of tougher sentences for violent teens, but they may be the exception to the rule.
The teen murderers, convicted in the death of seven-year-old Angelica Robinson by stray gunfire, have been sentenced to six-, 18-, and 20-year prison terms. Two of the prison terms are significantly longer than what the teens could have gotten in juvenile court.
Traditionally, juvenile court judges have given tougher sentences than their peers on adult-court benches, analysts say. For one thing, the worst offenders at the juvenile level may look relatively tame in criminal courts. Also, analysts say adult-court sentences are watered down by plea bargains and, after-the-fact, by early release due to prison overcrowding.
Advocates of moving juveniles into criminal courts say the move allows the public to be kept safer and for dangerous criminals to get substantive punishment.
All states have some provision for sending youths to adult courts and more than 20 states, including Washington, have made their laws more strict since 1992.
Most common are ''exclusion'' provisions, which say that certain crimes are automatically to be tried in adult courts, depending on the age and prior record of the youth. Twenty-six states now have some exclusion law.
This approach has been growing fast under recent legislation, with 10 states expanding their exclusion provisions since 1992. In New York and Georgia, the age threshold is particularly low; any youth age 13 or above charged with murder goes automatically to criminal court.
Analysts are unsure how many youths are transferred each year nationwide. Gathering data is difficult for youths transferred under exclusion or prosecutorial discretion, they say.
The number of youths transferred by waiver rose 68 percent between 1988 and 1992, according to a report Sickmund is preparing for the Justice Department. Some 11,700 cases were waived in 1992. Of those, 34 percent of the cases were for ''person'' crimes such as rape or murder, 45 percent property crimes, 12 percent drugs, and 9 percent public order.
Larry Fehr, president of the Washington Council on Crime and Delinquency in Seattle, says he hopes states will not view the matter simply on economic terms. The juvenile system costs much more per inmate than adult prisons, because of greater efforts at education and rehabilitation. In Washington State, the cost per inmate is almost twice as high in juvenile facilities.
In the long run, the best economic strategy is to keep kids from a life of crime, experts say. Dave Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo., says spending on programs to assist and educate at-risk youths at the preschool level would pay for itself in later correctional and welfare costs avoided. By contrast, many experts say adult prison experiences harden youths for life.