SN News , May 7 1999

We create criminals when kids are charged as adults
By Tom Teepen

How much better would you sleep at night knowing that a 15-year-old boy with the IQ of a 5-year-old was jailed for seven weeks for snatching $2 from a classmate's pocket? No, actually, you did read that right: $2.

The boy is Anthony Laster, charged as an adult in West Palm Beach, Fla., with strong-armed robbery, jailed over Christmas just days after his mother had died.

He was finally spared possible imprisonment partly because the putative victim eventually said he had not been so much scared as mad - but mainly because CBS's ``60 Minutes'' had shown up with a camera crew.

Even a zero-tolerance prosecutor, who apparently thinks the best you can do with and for errant kids is to make criminal examples of them, knows when to cut his losses.

Expect more excesses of that sort - though expect few of them to attract as much outraged notice - if legislation being pushed in Congress prevails.

Republicans mean to give federal prosecutors the right, without judicial review, to charge children as young as 14 as adults, and they want to loosen the 25-year-old bar against incarcerating juveniles in adult jails.

The feds have little juvenile crime responsibility, but the idea is to incite laggard states to follow with kid-whapping laws of their own.

The White House is preparing juvenile justice legislation, too, but if President Clinton is true to form in the political bidding against crime, he will tender pretty much the same, with a cosmetic blush of prevention and a tick less punitiveness, and try to fob the differences off as significant.

From the political roar around this issue, you'd think we live on a killing ground aprowl with child predators, when, in fact, we just live in a nation where rare, extreme cases are sensationalized for fun and profit.

Juvenile crime actually has fallen sharply in recent years, returning to traditional levels.

There was a bad bump up in the '80s, when the crack turf wars put a lot of money on the street and guns were huckstered to teens sent out to swagger, kill and die for the big players. But teen murders plunged 39 percent between 1993 and '97, and juvenile property-crime arrests have declined steadily over 25 years.

There are proven juvenile crime prevention strategies: prenatal and early-childhood home visits by nurses and graduation incentive programs, for just two.

Alternative sentencing and concentrated rehabilitation work well with the young. Incarceration, on the other hand, increases the likelihood of repeat offenses.

The Palm Beach County prosecutor charged 600-plus juveniles as adults last year, single-handedly trying almost to double the state's incarceration of nearly 700 juveniles, who were charged as adults and in some cases sent to adult lockups. Some were as young as 13.

In the name of fighting a juvenile crime wave that doesn't even exist, that virtually ensures a later, adult crime wave. And Congress wants to take the blunder national?

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers, based in Atlanta, Ga.

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