For Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, a night ride in a police car several years ago helped shape his attitude toward punishing juveniles. A group of 15-year-olds from a fairly affluent school were caught spraying graffiti on a wall.
"The police said they saw them do this at least once a week," Mr. McCollum says, "and sent them home." McCollum thought they should be booked or taken to juvenile court. The police said they were too busy with serious crime.
When McCollum asked the boys how long they would go on doing graffiti, they said, "Until we're 18. Then we'll be punished."
Herein lies the heart of the debate over how to deal with juvenile delinquency in the United States: Do solutions lie in punishment or prevention? Is it a question of building more facilities at the back end of delinquency, or creating more programs at the front end?
"If kids don't think there are consequences," says McCollum, representing the punitive view, "and first time misdemeanors are not punished, that's why when a kid becomes 17 or 18 with a gun in his hand, he won't hesitate to pull the trigger."
Even as violent juvenile crime has declined slightly over the last two years, most juvenile courts, prosecutors, and detention centers are overwhelmed not only by numbers of youths, but the complexity of the related social, mental, and cultural problems.
Many juveniles that appear in court are neglected or abused, requiring special care in too few treatment centers. Also, most juvenile offenders are mere status offenders such as runaways, truants, or shoplifters. A 1994 study in Orange County, Calif., found that only 8 percent of juveniles there were chronic offenders, and this 8 percent accounted for 50 percent of the cases in the county.
In addition, according to the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va., up to 70 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have mental or emotional disorders.
"Most of the kids in my court," says Ronald Alvarez, Circuit Court Judge in Palm Beach County, Fla., "come out of abandonment and abuse. They say, 'How are you going to punish me? I haven't seen my mother in three years, and my dad is an alcoholic who beats me.' How tough should we be on them?"
Overcrowded and brutal
In addition, juvenile correctional departments in Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana have recently been condemned by the US Department of Justice for overcrowded conditions, brutality by guards, or a serious lack of appropriate care. Georgia agreed to spend $10.8 million to hire more medical workers, teachers, and other staff or face a federal takeover of 30 detention facilities.
Speaking before the recent 25th National Conference on Juvenile Justice here, McCollum argues for legislation offering states more money for juvenile judges, probation officers, prosecutors, facilities, and diversionary programs. "Our bill (HR3) and the Senate bill (S10) do not encourage incarcerating children with adults," he says. "But some kids at the bottom of the ladder really do need tough punishment."
Some states have opted for "blended sentencing," which extends juvenile jurisdiction into criminal courts. Serious juvenile offenders are given an adult sentence but held under a juvenile court's supervision.
"The stayed adult sentence." says James Backstrom, Dakota county attorney, Hastings, Minn, "is designed to serve as a wake-up call. You have one last chance to change criminal behavior." Results have been mixed because violations of the "last chance" have not been consistently punished by judges, prosecutors say.
Few professionals would argue that youth shootings and murders shouldn't be prosecuted. What they argue for is a balance between money allocated to punishment and prisons, and for intervention and prevention.
"In our efforts to ensure that the most serious offenders are transferred to the criminal justice system," says Shay Bilchik, administrator, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the US Department of Justice, "we should not let our response shift the fundamental underpinnings of the system to the point that we ignore the rehabilitative goal of that very system."
Over the last decade, while most states have increased punishment options for juvenile offenders, many community-based juvenile correctional programs have been successful. Professional youth workers call for more collaboration between government agencies, volunteers, police, churches, schools, and non-profit agencies.
"We cannot win the battle with force no matter how many kids are jailed," says Calvin Ross, Secretary of Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice. "We have to put collaborative strategies together."
Mr. Ross cites an example of an unplanned community response in Jacksonville, Fla. Three years ago in a tough neighborhood, the parking lot for the Beaver Street Fisheries, an importer of fish products, was plagued by kids routinely stealing cars. Many of the 400 employees were scared to go to work.
The owner of the company, Harry Frisch, finally went to the local middle school and told the 1,100 kids there, "we are not the enemy." He invited the toughest kids to tour the company to understand that they were stealing cars from neighborhood people.
"Mr. Frisch took the next step and started a mentoring program, " Ross said. "He paid employees to be involved as mentors and tutors and also involved the Big Brothers and Sisters program." An academic awards program was started. Holiday dinners and festivals were held. "All the car thefts and vandalism dropped to nothing. And any student who graduated from high school was promised a job at the company."
In Milwaukee, a grant from the Center for Mental Health Services in Washington started "Wraparound Milwaukee," a support service for at-risk youth and their families. The approach individualizes care by identifying what families need, and then enlisting the parent or caretaker in developing and carrying out the plan.
One part of the program successfully returned 22 out of 25 at-risk youth from institutions to their families. The effort included a 24-hour mobile crisis team and some 30 services for families.
By combining punishment and treatment, Harry Shorstein, a Florida state attorney, has gained national recognition. Prosecuting teens as young as 13 as adults, he says, has led to a drop of 50 percent in the crime rate for juveniles since 1993 in Duval County.
Housed in a special facility, juveniles are offered mentoring, education, and vocational training. "The point," Mr. Shorstein says, "is to strike a balance between punishment and rehabilitation."
States Respond to Jump in Juvenile Crime Rate
* Between 1991 and 1996, 47 of 50 state legislatures and the District of Columbia made substantive changes to their laws targeting juveniles who commit violent or other serious crimes: jurisdiction; sentencing; corrections programming; confidentiality of juvenile records and proceedings; and victim rights.
* As of 1995, 23 states hold parents responsible for restitution. However, in nearly all states, the parents of a delinquent minor can be held liable for the costs of confinement and/or services provided their children.
* In 1993, 35 percent of all delinquency cases disposed by juvenile courts resulted in probation. Probation was the most severe disposition in over half (56 percent) of adjudicated delinquency cases.
* Juvenile courts nationwide waived 12,300 delinquency cases to adult court in 1994. The number of waived cases grew 71 percent between 1985 and 1994.
* Today's violent youth commits the same number of violent acts as his/her predecessor of 15 years ago. The difference is that a greater proportion of juveniles are committing violent acts. Policy makers don't know why.
Source: US Department of Justice