Harsher punishment may be one way to deter youthful crime, but it's certainly not the only way. And it's probably not the best way if the goal is to keep young people from embarking on a life of crime in the first place. Yet many in Congress just can't seem to stretch their policymaking vision beyond courtrooms and prison cells.
Legislation just passed by the House would tie federal crime-fighting dollars to states' readiness to try youths in adult courts, make their criminal records public, and, ultimately, incarcerate them in adult prisons.
There are teenage criminals for whom these steps might be appropriate - those with long strings of violent offenses. The juvenile-justice systems in most states are not designed to deal with hardened criminals. And most states already have ways of channeling such offenders into the regular court system.
But the specific justification for the get-tough bill before Congress is concern about a coming crime wave as children from the mini baby boom of the 1980s move into their later teen years. Most of those youths are still in their pre-teens. They can be reached and guided away from crime. If an ounce of prevention was ever called for, it's now with regard to these children.
Why not, then, tie federal grants to local initiatives to start after-school activities for youth? Or to expand outreach programs for troubled families?
Many communities around the country have launched initiatives to help prevent juvenile crime. Sometimes they're educational, like a Seattle program to turn youngsters away from gun use. Bethlehem, Pa., brings the families of young offenders together with the families of victims to talk about restitution. San Diego's STAR (Sports Training, Academics, and Recreation) program recruits police, firefighters, and other adult volunteers to give kids after-school tutoring and athletic instruction.
Why not some significant federal encouragement for these kinds of anticrime efforts?
One response to predictions of a coming increase in youth crime is to simply get the courts and prisons ready. Another is to recognize that these kids can be reached before crime becomes ingrained.
These aren't either/or options. Some of the former may be wise. To neglect the latter is foolish.