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hortly after the recent killing of six-year-old Kayla Rolland by her six-year-old classmate in a Michigan public school, President Clinton exhorted Congress to pass gun control measures that have been stalled in committee for the past eight months. Then he met with Kayla Rolland's mother. It was a familiar political moment, and putting aside the horror of children shooting children, the casual liberal observer must have been pleased: The president was defying the NRA and standing up for the safety of kids. Or so it seemed.
You wouldn't know it from watching the news or reading The New York Times, but new gun control measures championed by the president and liberal Democrats in Congress are attached to a repressive juvenile justice bill that right-wing law-and-order zealots have been trying to enact for the past several years. With few exceptions (notably New Republic editor Peter Beinart), reporters and commentators haven't covered or even mentioned this story. Instead, like congressional Democrats, the press has misled people into believing that gun control measures stand alone as a putative child protection bill. In fact, children will pay a heavy price for incremental gun controls supposedly designed to protect them.
The bill so enthusiastically endorsed by Democrats empowers federal prosecutors to try 14-year-olds as adults, without judicial review. (Current law imbues judges, not prosecutors, with final authority to determine whether children should be prosecuted as adults.) It expands federal jurisdiction over juvenile crimes, continuing a dangerous trend of federalizing criminal prosecutions. It subjects juveniles to harsh mandatory minimum sentences and gives schools and employers access to juvenile records, permanently stigmatizing kids seeking to rehabilitate themselves. Perhaps the most gratuitous cruelty in the bill is a measure loosening restrictions on housing juveniles with adult offenders, which effectively sentences children to be raped and brutalized: According to the American Civil Liberties Union, children housed in adult prisons are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by staff, and eight times more likely to commit suicide than those sent to juvenile facilities.
How does a society preoccupied with child abuse rationalize the wholesale consignment of children to the brutalities of adult prisons? It utterly dehumanizes those juveniles targeted by prosecutors or associated with gangs. It's hard to discount the influence of racism on this process, and, in fact, minority youths are treated more harshly than whites charged with similar crimes. A recent study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention showed that while African-American boys represent only 26 percent of juvenile arrests, they represent 52 percent of all children transferred to adult court. Maybe it's no coincidence that the federal bill would eliminate current requirements that states monitor and address racial disparities in their juvenile justice systems.
Prospects for passage of this bill are unclear; liberals should hope the NRA will succeed in derailing it. But unfortunately, Congress and the president are not alone in their vendetta against juvenile offenders. On March 7, California passed Proposition 21, which gives prosecutors unbridled discretion to try 14-year-olds as adults, subjects more juveniles to the death penalty, and expands the list of "three-strikes" crimes that will send juveniles to prison for life. The California law, which will cost the state an estimated $430 million a year (after a start-up cost of $1 billion), will also condemn juveniles to incarceration in adult prisons.
What was the impetus for this repressive (and very expensive) law? While last year's high school shootings aroused concern and hysteria about violent teens, juvenile crime rates have fallen in recent years. In California, FBI statistics show a 33 percent decrease in juvenile arrests for violent crime since 1995. Before Proposition 21 passed, California's juveniles were already subject to prosecution in adult court--if a judge found probable cause to send them to it--and the state was prosecuting some 2,000 juveniles as adults annually.
States have been experimenting with prosecuting juveniles as adults for years, with unimpressive results. The number of juveniles sent to adult prisons has doubled since 1985, but this harshness toward children and teens is not responsible for recent decreases in juvenile crime. There is persuasive evidence that trying juveniles as adults actually increases their rates of recidivism. It's clear that there was no particular public interest served by Proposition 21, but it was not intended to serve the public. It was originally designed to further the presidential bid of former California Governor Pete Wilson, who tried and failed to push a packet of similar provisions through the California legislature in 1998. It was supported by prosecutors eager to expand their power.
How are they likely to use their newfound authority? In a recent Florida case, a prosecutor charged a mentally disabled 15-year-old boy with strong-arm robbery, punishable by life in prison, for grabbing $2 in lunch money from a classmate because he was hungry. Following a spate of bad press and a threatened report by 60 Minutes, the prosecutor withdrew the charge, after the boy spent some four weeks in jail. Like a lot of kids, he was probably not beyond redemption. ¤