How Tough Juvenile Justice?

Prosecution of two preteens for murder frames rehabilitation vs. punishment debate.

It has been almost 100 years since the nation's first juvenile courts came into existence here in Chicago. Yet today there remains a deep ambivalence in America about how to handle society's most-violent youths.

Indeed, two court cases this week - one here and one in Jonesboro, Ark. - highlight the conflicting views and emotions about the best approach for dealing with troubled youths: Should they be severely punished or, because of their age, carefully and compassionately rehabilitated?

In Chicago, two boys aged 7 and 8 are accused of killing an 11-year-old girl, possibly to get her blue Road Warrior bike. The boys are believed to be the youngest ever charged for murder.

The fact that they are so young tests the limits of the prevailing get-tough approach to justice. Lawyers and judges are wrestling with whether the boys should be punished for allegedly doing something they may not be old enough to understand.

In Jonesboro, sentiments are less conflicted. A judge Tuesday convicted two boys, aged 12 and 14, of capital murder in the shooting deaths of a teacher and four students last March. Under Arkansas law, the youths have to be released from jail by their 21st birthdays. The prescribed sentence has prompted many local residents - and the judge in the case - to lament that the punishment didn't fit the crime.

"Our society is feeling its way around on how to handle these things," says Helen Leiner, chair of the Juvenile Justice Committee at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "If our society is honest with itself, we'll see there is an element of revenge."

The first juvenile courts were created here in 1899 with the aim of rehabilitating troubled children - mostly immigrants who were skipping school or stealing from grocery stores.

But now the pendulum has swung toward tough punishment. During a wave of juvenile violence from 1980 to 1995, states created laws that allow most teens to be tried as adults for serious crimes.

"There has been a declining belief in the ability of rehabilitation to save our youth," says University of Florida criminology professor Kathleen Heidi. "It will be interesting to see if there is some new concern and compassion shown because of the age of the boys in Chicago."

But for now the get-tough approach prevails, despite a leveling-off in the amount of juvenile crime. Congress, for instance, is considering a bill that would allow prosecutors sole discretion on whether to try a child as an adult - a decision that's usually made by a grand jury or other impartial official. The bill would likely mean many more adult sentences for youth offenders.

There are two basic philosophies behind the tougher approach. First, is that "the only way to treat the victim as a full human being - to fully honor the memory of the victim - is to punish the perpetrator," says Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas.

Second is the concern that there is a violent core of repeat offenders who "may not be adult but are fully capable of committing crimes," he says. "So for society's sake, we need to keep them behind bars."

THAT'S part of the concern in Jonesboro, where, because the boys' records will be expunged at the time of release, they will then be allowed to carry guns. But critics reply that society is holding children to a double standard. "We have always treated children differently than adults," says Ms. Leiner. "We say they're not mature enough to drink or vote. We prevent them from making most decisions, but then we punish them for making bad ones."

Indeed in Chicago, defense lawyers are arguing that the two boys' confessions of guilt shouldn't be admitted as evidence because they were made without the presence of an attorney or a parent. They say children - who may be too young to understand the gravity of a police interrogation - might be subtly coerced into confessing.

Police say the confessions weren't coerced and that the boys told them details only the assailants could know. The victim, Ryan Harris, was found last month after being hit on the head with a blunt object, possibly a rock, and had been sexually assaulted.

It's because of crimes like these that critics of the get-tough approach say society must work to rehabilitate juveniles. If the Chicago boys, whose names are being kept secret, are found to have committed the crime, observers say there's a good probability that they can be reformed because they are so young. Some think all juveniles should get that chance, if only to protect society when they are released.

Furthermore, there's some evidence juvenile prisons have a better effect on youths than adult prisons. University of Florida researchers tracked 5,476 juvenile criminals from 1987 to 1994. Those tried as adults committed new crimes sooner after their release from prison, and perpetrated more violent crimes.

"We see adults come out worse all the time," says Hugo Bedau, a philosophy professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "We need to prevent that when we lock up kids."

Still, critics on both sides point out that the juvenile-justice system often doesn't engender turnarounds through treatment. Liberals say it's because of lack of funds and effective programs. Conservatives say treatment methods are dubious at best.

In the end, though, observers caution about overreaction to high-profile juvenile crimes. "We love our kids and do everything for them, but at the same time we're afraid of them," says Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington. "We think kids are inexplicably out of control. It's just not true."

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