#166  

 August 1997


 

Let's Hold Juveniles Responsible for Their Crimes


by Darlene Kennedy



The meek may be blessed, but they're not likely to inherit the earth anytime soon.

In May, President Clinton stood proudly before an audience of law enforcement, community leaders and others at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. to announce preliminary Justice Department figures citing a 7 percent drop in crime from 1995 to 1996. What he neglected to mention is that juvenile crime is rapidly on the rise and does not show signs of slowing down. A recent Justice Department study revealed that in 1995 14 percent of all violent crimes were committed by juveniles, up from 10 percent in 1980. Thugs too young even to vote now account for 15 percent of all forcible rapes, 20 percent of robberies, 13 percent of aggravated assaults and 9 percent of murders.

In an era in which violent crime among our youth is more commonplace than jump rope and stickball, the time has come for young criminals to be stopped in their tracks. To that end, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently passed a juvenile crime bill to be voted on by the full Senate sometime in September or October. The House of Representatives has already passed a juvenile crime bill. Remarkably, 77 Democrats joined the 209 members of the Republican side voting in favor of this measure. Under the proposed law, hoodlums 14 and older who commit violent federal crimes including murder, rape, aggravated assault, armed robbery, and major drug offenses could be tried as adults. In extraordinary circumstances, the attorney general would have the discretion to charge 13-year-olds (alleged) miscreants as adults as well.

The House should take a bow for addressing a serious problem forthrightly. President Clinton cannot. His smells-of-politics contribution to the debate has been to assert that "...a juvenile justice bill [which] doesn't limit children's access to guns is a bill that walks away from the problem." Which is to say that in order to stem the wretched tide of teenage thugs and gang members who murder, rape, and rob we must take guns from the hands of the law abiding -- an argument that insults the intelligence of the American people. To lay blame for the acts of thousands of young criminals and the intolerably high crime rate they have created on guns and lawful gun ownership is absurd. The House was not addressing the relatively rare but well-publicized instances of children who accidentally, tragically, fire a pistol and injure or kill another.

First things first. Congress properly (and finally) responded to the problem of marauding sociopaths who make the terrorist teens depicted a quarter-century ago in "A Clockwork Orange" look like the Bowery Boys. We're talking about young venal minds who abuse the gift of free will by electing hate over love, and cruelty over compassion. Safety locks and background checks are the answers to serious but tangential problems, and will not stop these young criminals from their appointed rounds. Though the anti-gun crowd may be loathe to admit it, guns are not always the weapon of choice for young killers. In the first two weeks of May, the citizens of Baltimore were witness to two children murdered in separate incidents at the hands of fellow adolescents. The alleged criminals in these cases, a girl and a boy, were both under the age of 15; both wielded knives, not the firearms that Clinton and his misguided acolytes claim to be the real menace to society.

To encourage state involvement in their effort, the House bill also includes $1.5 billion in state grants. To qualify for this funding, states must impose escalating sanctions on juvenile offenders for every delinquent or criminal act; establish a felony tracking system where juveniles' records would become public adult criminal records after a second offense; and finally, violent criminal acts committed by 15-year-olds would be treated as adult offenses.

Opponents argue the bill is ineffective if it doesn't include prevention programs. Will little Jane and Johnny really abstain from a life of crime if given basketballs and baseballs (and perhaps a few golf balls) as the late evening news anchors are signing off? Kids on the brink of choosing a life of crime will

not do so on the promise of unlimited access to sports programs. What turns potential criminals around, quite often, is the same thing that prevents growing kids from advancing from mischievous pranks to is the certainty that their crimes will not go unpunished. A juvenile who rapes, robs, or commits the ultimate sin of murder should no longer be treated as a child but must pay the piper for his transgressions. Soon, we will see if the President and Senate agree.


-Darlene Addie Kennedy, a tax attorney, serves on the national Advisory Committee of the African-American leadership group Project 21. She is also a policy analyst for the Independent Women's Forum.




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