The Blog

HOW TO DEAL WITH THE YOUTH CRIME WAVE

12:00 AM, Sep 16, 1996 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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On May 30, Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, introduced the Violent Predator Act of 1996. The bill calls for automatic adult prosecution of juveniles age 14 or older who commit federal violent crimes or major drug crimes. It permits adult prosecution of juveniles age 13 or older who commit any federal felony. It imposes mandatory minimum sentences for armed violent youth offenders. It enhances cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement officials in apprehending violent youth criminals who use guns. It seeks to improve juvenile-crime record-keeping and public access. It establishes a new Office of Juvenile Crime Control. And it relaxes federal restrictions on housing juvenile offenders in adult jails or prisons.

House Democrats howled at the McCollum bill and forced a change in its title -- the word "predator" is now gone. But head-in-the-sand word games won't obviate the harsh social fact that this nation is in the grip of a large and growing juvenile-crime problem. Granted, the vast majority of the nearly 2 million juveniles who get arrested each year are not remorseless, violent predators. But frightening numbers of them most definitely are. Indeed, juveniles now account for almost 20 percent of violent-crime arrests and over a third of all property-crime arrests. Yet many House Democrats continue to talk as if we are dealing with a highly corrigible class of juvenile criminals more like the duck-tailed West Side Story boys of the 1950s than the drive-by shooters of the 1980s and today. An estimated 200,000 juveniles are members of street gangs. The primary victims of these youth predators are other juveniles, including many innocent bystanders. Democratic party euphemisms for youth crime only guarantee more youth victim eulogies.

In early August, the Clinton administration sang the House Democrats' tune on juvenile crime with a declaration that juvenile crime was declining. Just in case anyone missed the news, the Democratic platform made it official: " Four years ago, crime in America seemed intractable. . . . Bill Clinton promised to turn things around, and that is exactly what he did . . . [steering] young people away from crime and drugs . . . putting 100,000 police officers on the streets."

But in many big cities, including Washington and Philadelphia, youth violence, drug abuse, and murders are up, not down. Over a third of the total decrease in crimes reported to the police since 1993 occurred in New York City -- where the number of cops had not increased. The ongoing crime- fighting success in New York has had absolutely nothing to do with Clinton's spurious "100,000 cops" or touchy-feely federal anti-crime "partnership" programs, and much to do with beat cops and special squads who stop, frisk, and arrest aggressive panhandlers, prostitutes, youth criminals, street gangsters, and drug pushers.

Still, the McCollum bill isn't perfect; its proposed relaxation of restrictions on the housing of juvenile offenders is a bad idea. Before the 1970s, we institutionalized juvenile offenders in reform schools that in too many cases were dirty, disorderly, and deadly hellholes. Over the last two decades, we solved that problem by deinstitutionalizing juvenile offenders, but without first bothering to create a meaningful, nononsense network of community-based residential facilities and programs. The result is a system that today locks up only about 56 out of every 1,000 juveniles who get arrested, permits tens of thousands of known youth criminals to run wild, and forces the nation's overburdened juvenile probation offcers to manage ever larger numbers of violent youth.

Indeed, between 1989 and 1993 alone, the number of violent juvenile offenders placed on probation increased by 45 percent. But rather than succumb to the immediate pressure to incarcerate these kids in adult facilities, the wiser course would be to assist the states and cities in building, staffing, and funding a new generation of juveniles-only prisons and jails that meet both basic security requirements and the educational and other needs of a young, diverse, and growing criminal population.

With this one exception, the McCollum bill is both substantively and symbolically the right federal juvenile-crime measure at the right time. To date, its chief critics have advanced three overarching arguments against it. Each of their criticisms, however, is less an informed argument than an ideological or partisan myth.