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 city.
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 system.
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 Congress agrees.
COPYRIGHT 1998 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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