When Should Kids Go to Jail?

Article excerpt

While America's latest crime wave appears to be subsiding, the legitimate fears it aroused in urban America leave a powerful political legacy. Along with new police strategies and more prisons, legislators continue to call for harsher treatment of juvenile offenders long granted special status because of a historic belief in the diminished culpability of children and adolescents. Nearly all states now permit the "waiver" of youngsters charged with serious crimes to adult courts; in more than half, legislatures have specifically excluded those charged with certain crimes from juvenile court jurisdiction. In some cases the exclusions apply to children as young as 13. Legislation moving forward in the current Congress would expand adult federal court jurisdiction over offenders as young as 14 and give prosecutors, rather than judges, the power to transfer a juvenile case to adult court.

Therein lies an important debate. The nation approaches the one hundredth anniversary of the first juvenile court, offenders as established in Chicago by Progressive Era reformers in 1899. It formally recognized that childhood should exist in the usefulness eyes of the criminal law. Youth, Progressives believed, can partly excuse even violent misbehavior and always permits hope for rehabilitation. Is that historic commitment really obsolete?

The question remains germane even as juvenile crime trend lines turn down, because demographics suggest a possible new crime wave. Scholars like James Alan Fox of Northeastern University have predicted a "baby-boomerang" 20 percent increase in the juvenile population and juvenile crime by 2005. The Justice Department predicts a doubling of juvenile arrests for violent crime by 2010.

The Senate judiciary Committee report on the new juvenile crime bill relies heavily on such predictions to justify treating more juvenile Defenders of special treatment find themselves hampered by the history of the juvenile court, whose has fallen into real question as it succumbed to an advanced identity crisis.

THE WHOLE CHILD

The Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899, which established the Chicago court, was based on the British idea of parens patriae. It granted the state the power to intervene on behalf of children when their natural parents failed to provide care or supervision. "Jane Addams and the dauntless women of Hull House," who established the new court, "strove to develop a safe haven, a space to protect, to rehabilitate and to heal children, a site of nurturance and guidance, understanding and compassion," writes William Ayers in a new book about the Chicago court. judges serving in the court were to receive social-science and child development training so that they could craft sentences in the best interest of the "whole child."

The idea spread rapidly. Thirty-two states had set up juvenile courts or probation services by 1910; by 1925, they existed in all but two states. The belief that a court should take over the nurture and discipline of troubled youth informed both philosophy and procedures. Sanford J. Fox, writing in an issue of The Future of Children devoted to articles about the juvenile court, recalls judge Ben B. Lindsey, who served in Denver from 1901 to 1927. "Children who came to the Denver court were `his boys' and were seen by him as fundamentally good human beings whose going astray was largely attributable to their social and psychological environment," Fox writes. "According to Lindsey, the role of the juvenile court judge was to strengthen the child's belief in himself and make available to him all of the support and encouragement from outside the court that the judge could harness on his behalf."

Today's juvenile courts continue the practice of dealing with cases of child abuse and neglect, along with "status offenses"--truancy, running away from home, unmanageability--as well as juvenile delinquency. A 1994 survey counted 1. …