`PEOPLE HAVE HAD ENOUGH' BILLS AIM AT REPEAT OFFENDERS Series: Juvenile Injustice Second of Three Parts

Article excerpt

Seventeen-year-old Kevin G., tall, muscular and handsome, listened impassively as a deputy juvenile officer tried to persuade a juvenile judge to give up on him.

He'd been abandoned in a dank basement at age 6. He'd bounced among several foster homes and a boys' home, and run away repeatedly. He'd lived with his father until his father's girlfriend got tired of him. For more than a year, he'd lived where he could.

Now juvenile court workers were recommending that the court certify Kevin for prosecution as an adult on charges of murdering a 35-year-old woman as she sat in her car talking on a pay telephone.

Should the state provide rehabilitation or retribution for violent juvenile offenders like Kevin?

That's one of the central questions remaining for the Missouri Legislature as it wraps up a session marked by an unprecedented amount of debate over what to do about juvenile crime.

"Crime is the number one issue on everyone's mind," said Rep. Steven R. Carroll, D-Hannibal. "People have just had enough. They're screaming bloody murder that they want something done."

Carroll wants third-time juvenile offenders automatically prosecuted as adults. So does Rep. Phil Smith, D-Louisiana, sponsor of the House's Juvenile Crime Bill.

Another Democrat, Sen. Joe Moseley of Columbia wants to fortify the juvenile system with more money and more authority. But he also wants to allow adult courts to prosecute children of any age for the most violent types of crimes.

"We need to send kids the message that if you do bad things, somebody is going to do bad things back to you," Moseley said.

The Missouri House has Carroll's and Smith's bills. Each would divert more juvenile offenders to adult courts and adult prisons with adult sentences.

Doing so would be tantamount to giving up on those kids, critics say.

If any of these bills becomes law, hundreds more Missouri children could be diverted each year to the already burdened adult system. More than 9,350 Missouri youths were referred to juvenile courts last year for violent offenses - murder, rape, sodomy, robbery and assault.

Many people think prosecuting more juvenile offenders as adults is a good idea. Seventy-three percent of the respondents to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll this year supported the approach.

"It's part of the `get tough' thinking," said Randy Thomas, the juvenile justice specialist with the Missouri Department of Public Safety. "People see it as a tangible way to address violent juveniles."

Colorado, Florida and Utah passed similar laws last year. Florida already was tougher than most states on juvenile offenders. It transferred 3,248 children to adult courts between October 1990 and June 1991 - 25 times more than Missouri. Nationwide, nearly 100,000 juveniles go to adult jails each year.

The Missouri Juvenile Justice Association is so appalled at what it views as a giant step away from rehabilitation that it has asked Gov. Mel Carnahan to block any change until the state comes up with a long-range plan for dealing with juveniles - and the means to pay for it.

"We've got a lot of legislation based on misinformation and fear," said Julie Cole-Agee, the group's executive director.

No Guarantees

Would treating children like adults result in less crime? If the goal is to guarantee punishment, no.

National studies show that juveniles prosecuted in adult courts for crimes other than murder usually spend less time confined than those in the juvenile system. Here's why:

Most go home. Of the 265 youths certified as adults in Missouri in 1992, about half were actually charged, even fewer prosecuted and only a few dozen sentenced to prison. The rest went home within 20 hours of their arrests, often because victims were afraid to prosecute.

In St. Louis last year, 55 percent of the 112 juveniles who were certified as adults were prosecuted; in 1992, only 45 percent had been. …