Shooting revives drive to toughen juvenile justice Senate would push states to try more juveniles as adults

Stress on 'consequences'

Both sides expect new life for bill

March 26, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The carnage apparently wrought by two children Tuesday outside a school in Jonesboro, Ark., has suddenly given momentum to a tough juvenile crime bill that would encourage states to try more children as adults, allow teen-agers to be imprisoned with older criminals and impose stiffer penalties on juvenile offenders.

The Republican-sponsored juvenile justice measure has languished for nearly a year, as critics on the left attacked it as cruel while conservatives criticized provisions designed to keep guns away from schools as too burdensome for gun owners.

But senators from both parties predicted yesterday that the deadly ambush attributed to two boys, ages 11 and 13, would prod Republicans and Democrats to pass a bipartisan juvenile crime bill this year.

"I intend to do all that I can to make that happen," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who had not previously made juvenile crime legislation a priority. "The tragedy, the horrific tragedy yesterday, is another illustration of the need to do an array of things, including passing a good juvenile crime bill," Daschle said.

"If we don't pass a juvenile crime bill, the country's going to see more and more of these things," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who co-wrote the pending measure. "These kids have to see there are consequences for their actions."

The attack took the lives of four girls and a teacher, leaving the nation aghast at two children in camouflage gear who authorities said set off a fire alarm, then fired a hail of bullets as their schoolmates emerged.

At a hearing yesterday before a Juvenile Court judge, the boys were ordered held without bail to face capital murder and battery charges. A hearing was set for April 29; the defendants will later be tried as juveniles.

"This is the first time I know of when children that young, with premeditation, were lying in wait to carry out a mass execution," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who drafted the juvenile crime bill with Hatch. "I don't know what that means for our society."

Both parties have touted the need for new juvenile crime legislation since Congress narrowly passed an adult crime bill in 1994. Despite the recent drop in juvenile crime rates, a rash of high-profile crimes by minors had convinced Republicans and Democrats alike that action was needed.

The Arkansas shooting is the latest in a series of recent schoolyard assaults. On Dec. 1, a boy opened fire on a student prayer circle at a high school in West Paducah, Ky., killing three students and wounding five. Two months earlier, two students were gunned down in Pearl, Miss., allegedly by a 16-year-old. Yesterday, President Clinton asked Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate the school incidents, to identify any common elements.

Advocates of new federal legislation say stringent new juvenile statutes would put youths on notice that they should and would pay for their crimes.

"The fact is, if a juvenile commits an adult crime, he should serve adult time," said Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican.

Because, under Arkansas law, no offender under age 14 can be tried as an adult, both suspects will be wards of the juvenile justice system, said Vada Berger, an assistant Arkansas attorney general. Theoretically, they could remain under juvenile jurisdiction until age 21. But because no juvenile facility exists in Arkansas to house offenders older than 18, incarceration could not be longer than six years for the 11-year-old and four years for the 13-year-old.

Proposals in the Arkansas Legislature to lower the age limit for trying a youth as an adult have gone nowhere. But state politicians quickly revived them yesterday, going so far as to suggest that there should be no age limit.

Like Arkansas law, the Senate bill sets age 14 as the point at which a juvenile could be tried as an adult. And Sessions concedes that his legislation would not have applied to the Arkansas shooting because both suspects are younger than 14. But, he said yesterday, he intends to revisit that age limit and perhaps lower it.

Toughening the bill further might be impossible, however. Though unanimous in their professed desires for new juvenile crime legislation, members of Congress have been unable to agree on specific matters that pit conservatives against liberals.

House Republicans passed their juvenile crime bill in May, with the Senate Judiciary Committee passing a similar measure in July. But Democrats have vowed not to pass the legislation unless it is substantially rewritten.

While violent crimes are generally a matter of state, not federal, law, the legislation in Congress would dangle new money as an incentive to enact stricter penalties.

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