Search for Answers To Juvenile Crime

Consensus is emerging between liberals and conservatives on ways to curb teen violence

For years, American communities have grappled with how to stem the rising tide of violence among youths.

But that effort is taking on fresh urgency now as demographic trends and statistics show lawlessness among juveniles continues to climb even as overall urban crime rates drop.

Across the country, community leaders and law-enforcement officials are holding youth-crime summits to search for ways to keep the foretold from becoming the future.

As a result, members of organizations who often see the juvenile-justice problem from diametrically opposed viewpoints are finding common ground. Conservatives, typically holding a "lock them up" line, are calling for churches' help in drafting violence-prevention programs. Liberals, traditionally high on early intervention, are admitting that punishment has its place.

While disagreement continues over the details, a consensus over several key ways to fight juvenile crime is emerging, including:

*Keep kids in school. If teens are in the classroom, they're off the street and out of trouble. Because in some cities the juvenile-crime rate is shown to be highest between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., some experts suggest a reordering of the high school day, where teens would start and end school later. "We'll see our crime rate plummet if we keep kids busy from 3 to 8," says James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. Opening early, offering after-school activities, and providing adult education at night are seen as community stabilizers, as well.

*Recognize the link between child abuse and child criminals. Though national statistics are apparently not available, some states have begun monitoring juvenile criminals' history of abuse. In Connecticut, for instance, 60 percent of boys who have been arrested have a documented history of abuse and neglect; 90 percent of girls with a record have a history of physical or sexual abuse, according to Connecticut's Juvenile Justice Department. "Kids are learning to be violent long before they turn 15," says Bob Pidgeon, juvenile justice director there.

*Develop a logical record-sharing system. Though debate continues over whether to make youth records public, judges, school officials, and police agree that unless those involved with youth rehabilitation know of youths' past offenses and treatment they cannot do their jobs effectively. "If you don't know the history, your intervention is worthless," says John Firman, research director for International Association of Chiefs of Police.

*Provide for swift and meaningful sanctions. More important than trying juveniles as adults at an earlier age, many say, is making sure that youths are punished quickly and logically after their early offenses - usually truancy, petty theft, or possession of drugs or alcohol. With court dockets so clogged, many teens aren't tried until as much as a year after they've committed a crime - too long for them to feel the relationship between crime and punishment, judges and district attorneys say.

"If somebody does something wrong, there should appear to be some consequence, some kind of sanction," says John Corbett, a judge in the Plymouth, Mass., juvenile court. "That doesn't mean you lock them up every time, but we have to do something."

Professor Fox says this consensus over tactics for tackling juvenile crime is due, at least in part, to his effort to publicize demographic trends showing a coming youth-crime storm.

"Concern for the future is motivating people to act," Fox says.

But Fox has his detractors. John Calhoun, National Crime and Prevention Council director, discounts that a spike in juvenile violence is pending. "It makes me angry a little the way demographics are being used to talk about this," he says. "Demographics do not have to be destiny."

In any case, a battle is brewing in Washington over the 22-year-old law that governs the handling of young criminals, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. President Clinton is expected to introduce legislation this summer that would make the act more flexible but largely preserve measures mandating separate detention facilities and sentencing for juveniles and adults.

But Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime, charges that the current law is too soft. He has introduced a bill that would replace the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention with the Office of Juvenile Crime Control and triple its funding; require that offenders 14 and older be tried as adults if charged with serious felonies; and discontinue juvenile-record expungement.

Predictions of a jump in violent juvenile crime are based on research showing that, in the last decade, homicide rates among 14- to 24-year-olds rose dramatically even as their percentage of the population declined.

Males 14 to 24 were less than 8 percent of the population in 1994 but committed 48 percent of the country's murders, according to Justice Department figures. Since demographic studies show that the number of 14- to 17-year olds will grow 23 percent in the coming decade, many criminologists are predicting violent crimes to hit record levels.

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