You currently do not have JavaScript enabled in your web browser.
The ABA website relies on JavaScript for display purposes.
To fully experience the ABA site, please enable javascript.
Don't Abandon Our Children to Conveyor Belt Justice

Don't Abandon Our Children to Conveyor Belt Justice

N. Lee Cooper
President, American Bar Association

For the first time in our history, Congress is about to enact legislation that gives up on some of our nation's most needy children. In abandoning support for an already fragile network of prevention and intervention programs, Congress proposes to undermine the juvenile justice system's ability to help most of the children who enter the system, and instead focus almost exclusively on punishing the less than one-half of one percent of juveniles who commit violent crimes.

Are we really ready to abandon these children who admittedly have made serious mistakes? Is the answer to juvenile violence sending juvenile offenders to adult jails where they surely will become hardened criminals? Isn't this approach likely to result in an expansion of "conveyor belt" justice, with juvenile offenders placed on a path with nowhere to go but to a life of crime?

For far too long the juvenile justice system has been the unwanted stepchild of the justice system -- lacking in resources and needing attention. New proposals in Congress provide the promise of much-needed funding, but only if states meet a number of conditions -- conditions that damage their ability to provide justice for juveniles. For example, one requirement included in House-passed legislation would force states that accept federal money to try as an adult any juvenile as young as 15, charged with certain crimes, either automatically or at the discretion of the prosecutor.

Trying juveniles as adults certainly is appropriate in some cases, but it should not be automatically required in all cases, nor should it be the sole decision of the prosecutor. It is true that some juveniles become "career" criminals at a young age, and should be held to an adult standard if they commit a violent offense. But this should be the decision that judges, working at the local level, make in a particular case. We can not have a "one size fits all" rule dictated to the heartland of America from inside the Beltway.

Wholesale movement of juveniles into the adult system has real consequences. Many juveniles tried as adults are housed in correctional facilities with adults where they are denied access to treatment, education and vocational training, and are exposed to a more hardened and experienced group of offenders. Juveniles in adult facilities are also at risk of being physically assaulted. The consequences of such treatment are entirely predictable. Recent studies looking at Florida and New Jersey/New York reveal that juveniles tried as adults are more likely to be re-arrested than are juveniles tried as juveniles. In addition, experts estimate that detaining, prosecuting and incarcerating additional juveniles as adults will cost states hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now Congress is saying that much-needed money will be available to state and local governments if they prosecute more juveniles as adults. This only hamstrings local governments from supporting many programs that show promise, and totally ignores the fact that the vast majority of juveniles are charged with non-violent crimes. Violent crimes account for less than six percent of all juvenile arrests in the United States -- these legislative proposals undermine the ability of state and local governments to deal effectively with the 94 percent of juveniles arrested who are non-violent juvenile offenders and who are clearly at risk and need attention.

If Congress is serious about addressing juvenile crime, it must encourage and support programs with proven track records. For example, in Boston a three-prong program of prevention, intervention and enforcement aimed at violent youth offenders has, over five years, reduced the number of youth homicides by 80 percent, with not a single youth dying in a firearm homicide in 1996. Resources should be made available for programs like these that will give the great majority of children arrested for non-violent crimes an opportunity for access to adequate prevention, treatment and substance abuse services, for an adequate defense, and for a chance to start over in life. Let's not simply send children into the adult system, where they will only learn violence and defiance. We must not abandon hope for the 94 percent of our children in order to address a handful caught up in violent crime.

Juvenile Justice: Facts And Figures