October 7, 1998
One of the very first projects I worked on as a young attorney at the
Children's Defense Fund 25 years ago was a study of what happens to
juveniles incarcerated with adults.
Not surprisingly, I found that children placed in adult prisons
experience unspeakable horrors. They are eight times more likely to
commit suicide and five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than
those who serve their time in juvenile facilities.
As a result of these facts, Congress acted in 1974 to separate juveniles
from adults in prison.
Now, in the pre-election flurry of activity on Capitol Hill, these
protections are in danger of being eroded. There is a move in Congress to
rush through a juvenile crime bill -- without a moment's debate on the
Senate floor -- that could result in young runaways and truants being
placed in adult prisons.
Juvenile crime is too important an issue to deal with in this manner. It
requires full and proper debate.
During the 1980s, lots of tough talk failed to stem the increase in
violent crime. When my husband was elected, he abandoned tough talk and
replaced it with a real strategy, focused on the local level, that
combined tough prosecution measures with smart prevention efforts. The
Brady Bill and his 1994 crime bill cracked down on the sale of handguns
to fugitives, stalkers and felons, banned 19 types of assault weapons and
funded 100,000 new police officers on our streets. Communities got the
tools they needed to address their own crime problems.
The President's strategy has worked. We have seen violent crime decrease
each of the last six years and overall crime rates go down to their
lowest level in nearly 25 years.
This same approach can work for juvenile crime. Communities all across
the country are abandoning rhetoric for prosecution and prevention
strategies that show real results.
San Diego County is attacking this problem with a comprehensive plan in
which law enforcement, schools, public agencies and communities work
together. There is zero tolerance for guns and drugs in school. Young
people who break the law are held accountable. Families in trouble are
directed to a wide array of support services. And at-risk youth are
steered into a variety of after-school activities.
Since San Diego implemented its plan, there has been a significant
decrease in juvenile crime coupled with reductions in teen birth rates,
dropout rates, possession of drugs and weapons on campus, and truancy rates.
The widely reported success of Boston's juvenile crime initiatives has
made it a model for communities around the country as well as for the
President's Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Strategy.
In Boston, a comprehensive community-based program reaches at-risk youth
before they take their first step into crime and deals with those already
in trouble, specifically targeting gang activity and illicit gun
trafficking. Prevention efforts, including after-school programs and
part-time jobs, are also key elements.
This three-pronged strategy of prevention, intervention and enforcement
is paying off. Between 1990 and 1995, Boston's youth homicides dropped 80
percent, and in 1996, not a single juvenile died in a firearm homicide in
The President's own juvenile crime strategy also targets gangs and
violent youth, cracks down on guns and gun traffickers, and works to keep
children in school, off drugs and out of trouble.
Any juvenile crime initiative must balance real accountability for those
who commit acts of violence with prevention measures that keep our
children on the right track. It should prohibit serious and violent
juvenile offenders from ever possessing guns. And it should target
children's easy access to handguns by raising penalties for adults who
unlawfully supply them.
Prevention programs must offer young people constructive activities
during the hours when most juvenile crime occurs -- after school.
One successful Baltimore after-school program we will highlight next week
at the White House Conference on School Safety and the Causes and
Prevention of Youth Violence stresses academics and is staffed by police
officers who know that often the best way to fight crime is to prevent it
in the first place. Since this program opened, crimes against children in
the neighborhood have decreased 44 percent and the juvenile arrest rate
has dropped 16 percent.
A different model in San Antonio, Texas, introduces at-risk youngsters to
arts after school. Urban smARTS combines a variety of arts activities
with conflict resolution, training and a range of child and family
services -- all with an eye to keeping kids out of the criminal justice
The debate over juvenile justice must not be framed in terms of
prevention OR prosecution. We must demand both: tough measures that
punish criminal behavior and protect children in custody, along with
strategies and programs to keep kids out of the criminal justice system
in the first place. That's the formula for federal legislation that could
really decrease juvenile crime across the country. Let's hope this
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