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