Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Many States Are Getting Tough with Young Offenders

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Many States Are Getting Tough with Young Offenders

Article excerpt

After Tongan gang members in Salt Lake City pulled a teen-ager from his car, beat him in front of hundreds of people and then fatally shot him, lawmakers said, "Enough."

Meeting in emergency session last month, they took the same drastic step that an increasing number of states are taking: They decided to treat violent kids like adults in court.

Across the country, from Colorado to Massachusetts, states are giving up when it comes to violent young offenders. Many are sending youths straight to adult court, while others are trying to ensure a long stay behind bars.

Ironically, many of these "get-tough" proposals actually may have the opposite effect. Youths in adult court, for instance, often get lighter sentences than those in juvenile court. And in Massachusetts, a get-tough law resulted in fewer teens being sent to adult court, not more.

Nevertheless, the trend toward harsher punishment is picking up speed, said Barry Feld, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota and one of the country's leading scholars of juvenile crime. At least 24 states now have laws that automatically send violent youths to adult court, and several more are considering the idea.

"Folks are just thinking, you know, if we get tough, we'll make the problem go away," Feld said.

But the problem is not going away, not anytime soon. According to the Justice Department, arrests of juveniles for violent crimes set a record in 1991, the most recent year for which figures are available.

At the same time, juvenile justice authorities say, many people have given up on the idea that young criminals - especially the violent ones - can be reformed. "Nobody wants them," said Stephen Herrell, a judge in Portland, Ore..

In Portland, like many cities, violent juvenile crime has surged. In the last six years, the number of charges filed against juveniles for violent crimes has increased more than 500 percent.

Part of the problem, said prosecutor Mark McDonnell, is that the juvenile system was never cut out to handle today's violent offenders.

In Oregon, for instance, juvenile court's jurisdiction ends at 21. "So if you commit a murder at 17 1/2, that means less than four years and you're out," McDonell said. …

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