Justice Trend: Violent Teens Get Their Day in Adult Court Series: Decision to Try Murder Suspect Edward O'Brien Jr., 16, in Juvenile Court Sparked Shock and Anger in the Boston Area., C.J. GUNTHER/AP

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THE push to prosecute teenagers as adults is gaining momentum in state capitals across the country.

Driven by public outcry over brutal murders and by statistics showing that violent crime among youths is rising, states are abandoning old rules that protect juveniles from treatment as adults in the legal system.

Underlying the trend, however, are some enduring questions: Is the practice curbing crime rates - and is it doing more harm than good to juveniles? Indeed, some lawyers and judges are warning against laws created in a "lynch mob" atmosphere.

In just the past few weeks, several cases have surfaced showing how states and courts are handling juveniles differently:

*Fifteen-year-old Joshua Jenkins faced a San Diego judge last week on charges of murdering his parents, grandparents, and 10-year-old sister in late January. Until last summer, the teenager would certainly have been prosecuted as a juvenile.

But a tough new law allowing California to send violent offenders ages 14 to 17 to adult court has changed that. In another recent San Diego case, a judge ordered a 15-year-old girl to stand trial as an adult for the stabbing death of an older woman.

*In Chicago last month, a judge sentenced a 12-year-old boy to a state juvenile penitentiary, making him the nation's youngest inmate at a high-security prison. The youth and a 13-year-old boy were were convicted of murder for dropping a five-year-old from a 14-story building after the youngster refused to steal candy for them.

*In Boston, by contrast, a Superior Court judge recently denied a motion to try a 16-year-old as an adult for the stabbing murder of his best friend's mother. The slaying has caused shock and anger in the Boston area, due to its ugliness and because the youth accused of the crime came from a "good" two-parent home.

"This isn't the {19}50s any more," says David Kopel, an expert on violence at the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo., referring to the hardening attitudes toward juveniles.

Last year alone, more than a dozen states passed laws to treat juvenile criminals more like adults. Many have lowered to 14 the age at which juveniles can be so tried.

Rules for juvenile court vary from state to state. But generally, unlike in an adult trial, the hearings are confidential, the number of attorneys is much greater (parents, for example, may have separate counsel), and the judge has enormous latitude to decide punishment.

Many states are also pushing longer sentences for kids and expanding the types of crimes for which juveniles can be prosecuted as adults. …