By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
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. …