A court system to fit even young criminals Juvenile justice: We must continue to recognize that children aren't just miniature adults.

September 19, 1998

THAT CHICAGO police and prosecutors mishandled a murder case involving children ages 7 and 8 is no longer in question. The issue now is, what next?

The crime and investigation have triggered discussions of such issues as whether the two pre-adolescents should have been interrogated without parents present and whether children that young can truly waive their Miranda rights.

Chicago authorities have proposed requiring police and prosecutors to videotape interviews with suspects under 12, with a parent in the room. Chicago's City Council is considering legislation to include a psychologist when a suspect under 11 is interrogated.

The two boys were picked up by police in the murder of an 11-year-old suburban honor student spending the summer with her godmother in the poor Englewood section of Chicago. Police reported the pair confessed to beating her with a rock and suffocating her.

Nationwide reaction to the July incident was swift and vicious against youthful defendants. This followed a rash of juvenile killings in Jonesboro, Ark., Pearl, Miss., Springfield, Ore., and Paducah, Ky.

The case against the Chicago boys was dropped after a laboratory analysis found semen on the girl's panties and authorities concluded children so young could not have been responsible.

The case is a reminder that the nation does have a juvenile crime problem, though not of mounting incidents. Numbers of juvenile crimes overall are falling, but isolated violent acts tend to give the opposite impression.

How we react to this dismaying phenomenon is a measure of society's understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of what it is like to be a child. And of the level of legal protection needed for children.

Juvenile authorities, including police and prosecutors, need more specific direction on how they should handle such cases. Right now, they face a mishmash of responsibility and procedures and spotty coordination.

Children are not adults, no matter how much they try to act grown up. The changes being considered in Chicago should be a starting point for juvenile justice systems everywhere.

Pub Date: 9/19/98

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