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The Criminalization of Youth

The          Criminalization of Youth

Rep. McCollum is backing up his rhetoric with legislative clout. He has proposed the Juvenile Crime Control Act of 1997 (originally called the Superpredator Incapacitation Act) which calls for $1.5 billion in incentive grants to states to encourage automatic transfers to adult courts for juveniles charged with certain crimes, escalating predetermined punishment for repeat juvenile offenders -- as well as sanctions for their parents -- and the public release of previously sealed juvenile criminal records. With its aggregation of certain youth into a convenient and manageable mob and its one-size-fits-all simplicity, it passed the House 286-132 and moves, with the Clinton administration's support for key provisions, inexorably toward the Senate. Rep. McCollum's bill represents a decisive withdrawal from a century of difficult, uneven progress in relation to juvenile justice, undermining the fundamental thesis that a child in crisis, a child in trouble, is still a child.

Rep. McCollum relies on an entirely inaccurate popular impression that youth crime is a runaway train, reckless, out of control, unpredictably dangerous, picking up speed as it careens down the track toward our town or neighborhood. We read about teenagers being "wild in the streets" and of a "ticking demographic time bomb," the 3-year-olds of today morphing overnight into tiny monsters in sneakers.

The truth is more complicated. The overwhelming majority of kids are not criminals -- less than one-half of one percent of youth 10-17 are charged with violent crimes. In fact, youth crime is relatively flat over decades and juvenile arrests for violent offenses have declined dramatically for the last three years. Youth murder is up, it's true, but why? Access to guns. What would have been a terrible incident twenty years ago -- a brutal fight, a kid hit by another kid with a baseball bat -- is now too often fatal. Today the immature, impulsive kid can get a gun.

While each instance of youth-on-youth violence is alarming, the hidden, terrible truth is that most murder victims under 18 are killed by adults; 70% of the murderers of children in 1994 were adults, and it is six times more likely that a parent will kill his or her teenage child than the other way around.

Under Rep. McCollum's bill, we would return to the practices of the 19th century, erasing the distinctions between children and adults, thrusting youngsters into adult courts and prisons, ensuring that they are preyed upon sexually and physically, hardened and destroyed. Six in 10 juveniles tried as adults are non-violent offenders, and headline-grabbing youth crimes account for less than 1% of all juvenile delinquency. But once in adult prisons, youth are twice as likely to be beaten or to commit suicide and five times as likely to be sexually assaulted. Those who survive have higher recidivism rates than kids charged with similar offenses but kept under the supervision of juvenile courts.

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