On May 8, the House of Representatives voted to get tough on criminals. This perennial issue took on a new angle in the latest bill by focusing on juvenile criminals. A bill sponsored by Republican Bill McCollum of Florida would make it possible for the federal government to prosecute offenders 14 years old and up as adults. It also includes $1.5 billion in incentives for states, who deal with most crimes covered in the statute, to adopt similiar rules. To qualify for the money a state would have to do four things: try 15-year-olds as adults for serious violent crimes; impose a sanction for the very first delinquent act by a young person, and escalating sanctions for subsequent offenses; preserve all felony conviction records after a juvenile's second offense, and make them public; and let juvenile court judges issue orders against parents or guardians for failing to supervise a youth after conviction. The NewsHour discussed the bill with its sponsor Rep. McCollum and one of the chief opponents of the legislation, Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA).
Congressman John Sununu has been deeply involved in the evolving budget negotiations. Prior to reaching agreement with the White House, he sponsored and led the floor fight for a bill to request that President Clinton resubmit a budget that was deemed balanced by the Congressional Budget Office. Sununu also voted for the juvenile crime legislation sponsored by Representative McCollum.
Congressman Bill Pascrell was one of the Democrats who drafted the Democratic alternative to the GOP's Juvenile Crime Bill. During floor debate of the measure, Pascrell said, "We owe it to our constituents to confront the issues of crime head-on, not just chest pounding and
tough talk. That is why I rise today in support of the Democratic substitute to the juvenile justice bill. Our substitute represents the only real balanced approach to solving the problem of youth violence. In contrast to our balanced approach, the [Republican] bill . . . takes the most extreme approach to juvenile justice reform and is filled with tough-sounding provisions which have never been proven to reduce violent crime."
A question from Kyle Richardson, Paterson, NJ:
It seems that most of the current thinking is that heavier punishments are the solution to juvenile crime.
But wouldn't it be more economically and socially responsible to deal with the base causes of crime? What do you think is the base cause for the increase in juvenile crime?
Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. responds:
First, Kyle, let me say it is a pleasure hearing from someone from my hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. I could not agree with you more. Any strategy to address juvenile crime that avoids the base causes of crime is a flawed strategy. We must do more than simply pound our chests and posture ourselves as tough on crime. We must take real steps to prevent crime and make our streets and neighborhoods safer.
We recently debated the issue of juvenile justice in the House, and I strongly advocated that I drafted as balanced between punishment and prevention. While we must be tough on repeat juvenile offenders and those committing the most violent crimes, we must also focus on proven community-based initiatives that actually prevent children from ever committing crimes in the first place. Just throwing children in jail alone will not solve this epidemic, but rather, only ensure that we will lose the war on youth violence.
I believe juvenile crime is on the rise for many reasons, chief among them being a dramatic inrease in drug use among our young people. In 1996, for example, half of juvenile crimes were drug-related. To combat the growing drug problem in our region, I have met with officials at the Drug Enforcement Agency and requested that they establish an office in Passaic County. We need to step up our efforts and attack this growing problem head-on.
I feel as strongly as you do about this issue. As Mayor of Paterson, I implemented manyof the same preventative measures that failed to pass the House. The result was a 36% decrcase incrime in our city, 26% for violent crime. We can win this war, but to do so, we haveto be smart as well as tough.
Congressman John Sununu responds:
I believe that the base causes of juvenile crime are cyclical poverty, a failing educational system, and a lack of personal values and individual responsibility among young people. No single solution will address all of these problems, but a firm and clear process for deliberation and punishment of offenders will help foster a greater sense among juveniles for the serious consequences of breaking the law. A system that fails to deal with criminal activity in a direct and consistent manner will only compound the problem of decaying values among troubled youth.
Recent measures to reform our public housing and welfare systems will begin to address these issues by moving families out of poverty and toward independence. Educational reforms that give more power, funding and control to parents and teachers at the local level will also help identify and assist at-risk youth at an early age. Each of these reforms is part of a broad approach that must be undertaken at the federal, state and local level if we are to be successful in fighting juvenile crime.
On to the next question...