Combating juvenile crime: Do it by the book Site specific: Core cities need what works everywhere else.

THE ARGUMENT

March 10, 1996|By Thomas C. Raup | Thomas C. Raup,Special to The Sun

The United States is suffering a frightening and unacceptable level of violent juvenile crime. Criminologists are nearly unanimous in predicting substantial continuing increases. The gravest danger is that many Americans don't understand the central nature of the problem and thus can't begin to deal with the available solutions.

The crisis is location-specific. The flood of juvenile predation emanates from bone-poor sections of big cities. In smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas, there are serious challenges with difficult youth, but with resourcefulness, the juvenile justice system there is truly effective. The problem is being dealt with.

Why then the inner cities' crisis? No recent record more dramatically answers that question than "No Matter How Loud I Shout" by Edward Humes (Simon & Schuster, 399 Pages. $24).

To make Mr. Humes' book possible, the juvenile court presiding judge of the nation's largest and most gang-infested city, Los Angeles, gave him access to the otherwise closed system for a year.

During that year, Mr. Humes observed proceedings, interviewed officials and even taught writing and poetry ("...there's not much I can do, there's no way out, my screams have no voice no matter how loud I shout...") to juveniles locked in detention.

Mr. Humes' book poignantly reinforces the observations and conclusions of many professionals, myself included.

The prime causes: systemic failure of schools, heavy concentrations of narcotics use, astronomic levels of children being born to children with no parenting skills or authority. There is rank poverty and multi-generational unemployment. Gangs are more likely to become established in large cities, and are difficult to dislodge. Worse, there is rampant synergy: The whole is far bigger than the sum of the parts.

Big-city governments are chronically short of cash. Money that may be available in the suburbs to staff programs for truants, incorrigibles and early offenders, simply is nonexistent. The city is overwhelmed by serious crime. Lesser felonies and misdemeanors tend to become decriminalized. Yet such minor criminal and "pre-criminal" behavior is prelude to violent crimes. Thus, children absorb a generalized contempt for the "system" and older miscreants use younger juveniles to front for them, knowing an arrest will be inconsequential.

That must change if there is to be any hope of reform. It must become a crime again in the cities to shop-lift, or to steal a bike, or to paint graffiti; and chronic truancy and ungovernability must be as serious there as in small towns.

Reform efforts must focus on the source of the crisis of violence. But while some changes can indeed be limited to the large urban cores, for practical reasons statutory remedies must be state-wide. There cannot be one juvenile law for the cities and another for the rest of the state.

The most immediate and accessible structural reforms should be - but to many are not - obvious:

1. Open the doors and windows of juvenile justice - which is now usually both statutorily and traditionally secret.

2. Institute tough - and very precisely defined - standards for trying certain types of major juvenile perpetrators as adult criminals.

3. While juvenile lock-ups are usually best operated by government, the private sector is doing a superior job operating non-secure remedial programs. Privatization is working well where utilized. States that are mired in dependence on public facilities should move to privatization.

Wide publicity

In 1995, the state legislature of Pennsylvania, where I live and have judged juvenile cases, among others, for 22 years, amended its Juvenile Act to allow public access to felony hearings. I was among the jurists who opposed the move. Our traditionalist view was that open hearings would often result in wide publicity of the indiscretions of adolescence, creating a barrier to development of a youth. We were wrong.

Judges in my state have come to realize that the press is covering only serious cases that were usually publicized under prior law. The added exposure of these cases increases public confidence in a good court system. And a lazy or unduly permissive jurist can no longer be hidden in juvenile court - a major problem identified in the Humes book.

The second most promising system-wide reform must address the sentiment, "do an adult crime, do adult time." The challenge is to decide how automatic it should be to transfer an accused teen from juvenile to adult criminal court. How much discretion should be left to judges?.

Most states rightly require that murder charges against adolescents be directly filed in criminal court. States that have no such law, including California when Mr. Humes was doing his research, should pass one.

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