Background: Juvenile Punishment Fitting the Crime?
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MARGARET WARNER: The House of Representatives late this afternoon resoundingly approved a bill designed to toughen the way the nation’s criminal justice system deals with juvenile offenders. Republican Congressman Bill McCollum, chairman of the House Crime Subcommittee, is chief sponsor of the measure.
REP. BILL McCOLLUM, (R) Florida: We need to provide a change, a repair, in a broken juvenile justice system in this nation we have one out of every five violent crimes in America being committed by those under 18 years of age and of those who are under 18 that are adjudicated for a violent crime or convicted, if you will. We are finding that only one out of ten of those ever served any time in a secure detention facility of any sort.
MARGARET WARNER: The last ten years have seen a surge in violent crime committed by juveniles as young as ten years old. From 1985 to 1994, crimes committed by young people nearly doubled. Those arrest rates eased in 1995 but concern remains that the coming surge in the teenage population over the next ten years could trigger a rising crime rate as well. The bill applies directly to young people who commit federal crime. The Justice Department says that’s only two hundred to four hundred young people each year. For young people charged in the federal system the bill provides that juveniles 14 or older and some 13-year-olds, as well, would be tried as adults for violent crimes and serious drug offenses. In addition, U.S. attorneys would set up special task forces to apprehend violent young offenders.
The bill also prods the states, who handle the lion’s share of juvenile crime, to adopt similar measures by offering $1.5 billion in block grants over three years. 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.
House debate today grew heated. While not denying it’s a problems, some Democrats objected to the thrust and some of the particulars of McCollum’s proposed solution.
PATRICK KENNEDY, (D) Rhode Island: When you put kids in adult prison, guess what? They don’t serve as much time because the judges don’t have the heart to sentence a kid for as long as an adult. Second, if the kid is in jail, we’re lucky that they don’t end up murdered or committing suicide, as my former — colleague just said. Third, if they stay there long enough, they come out meaner and harder than you sent them in to begin with. Now, this bill is a joke because it ignores these facts, and what’s more, it ignores the fundamental truth that prevention works.
MARGARET WARNER: Some Democrats offered amendments to add money for prevention or to weaken some of the bill’s provisions, but all the amendments were defeated, with many Democrats voting with the Republicans. The House then voted to adopt McCollum’s bill as drafted.
RAY LAHOOD, (R) Illinois: The yeahs are 286, the nays are 132. The bill is passed.
MARGARET WARNER: The position of the White House isn’t entirely clear. The Justice Department worked with McCollum on the bill. But the administration wants an additional provision requiring gun dealers to provide child safety locks on all guns they sell. Attorney General Janet Reno spoke to that issue today.
JANET RENO, Attorney General: This is a reasonable, simple precaution that can be taken to put a lock on a gun to prevent it from being used by children who might not be aware of the danger. I think it’s a reasonable precaution, and I urge it.
MARGARET WARNER: The Republican leadership, however, refused to allow a vote on the safety lock provision. The Senate next takes up its own version of the juvenile crime bill.