I. In Chicago, an 11-year old gang member shoots a 14-year old girl to death. In turn, the young gang member is found dead a few days later with two bullets in the back of his head. His suspected killers are 14 and 16 years old. In Littleton, Colorado, two students opened fire on classmates and teachers with semiautomatic weapons and homemade bombs, killing 12 students and a teacher, before turning their weapons on themselves and taking their own lives. In Somerset, Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old is charged with hammering nails into the heels of a younger boy. In Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, a 13-year-old boy is accused of beating a 22-year-old female neighbor with a mop handle and then raping her. These hellish snapshots re-emphasize one major idea in modern culture: juvenile justice reforms need to dig deeper. Such startling headlines are clear indications that tougher penalities for junvenile crime must be implemented.
II. Statistics show that juvenile crime is on the rise
A. According to FBI records, people under the age of 18 account for 1/3 of all arrests for burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft, 13% for aggravated assault, 26% for robbery, and 7% for murder.
B. Between 1983 and 1992, juvenile arrest rates jumped 128% for murder and non-negligent manslaughter, 95% for aggravated assault, and 25% for rape.
C. In 1994, Florida, Michigan, New York, Texas, California and Illinois alone accounted for 56% of juveniles arrested for murder.
III. Stiffer penalties will enforce accountability for ones own actions
A. Current punishment is not serious enough to discourage juvenile violence.
1. Nearly forty percent have their cases dismissed before or during the trial stage.
2. When courts finally lock an older teen up, more often than not, that teen has accumulated a long rap sheet, with arrests starting in the early teens.
3. Forty-three percent of juveniles in state institutions have more than five prior arrests, and twenty percent have been arrested more than ten times.
4. Only 10% of violent juvenile offendersthose convicted of murder, rape, robbery, and assaultreceive any sort of secure confinement.
5. Nearly 40% of violent juvenile offenders who come into contact with the justice system have their cases dismissed.
6. About 4/5 of juvenile offenders had previously been on probation and about 3/5 had been committed to a correctional facility at least once in the past.
7. Average length of institutionalization for a violent juvenile offender is 353 days. That is less than one year.
B. Legislation addressing punishment for juveniles is needed.
1. In the last three years, at least 35 states have changed their laws in order to get tougher on juveniles committing crimes.
2. In most cases, the age at which a juvenile could be tried as an adult was lowered.
3. In other instances, the number of offenses for which a juvenile can be transferred to adult courts has been increased.
4. In an extreme reaction, Texas Representative Jim Pitts of Waxahachie proposed extending the death penality to 11-year olds. (The youngest age at which a person can be sentenced to death in the United States is still 16).
5. The 25-year old principle of keeping children separate from adults is threatened by proposed legislation in the US Senate that will allow teen-agers arrested for crimes for which they could be tried as an adult to be housed in adult jails indefinitely. This makes more sense than sentencing a juvenile as an adult only to confine him in a juvenile facility, sending an underlying message that although the system recognizes them as an adult for trial purposes the punishment will essentially be juvenile in nature. Such treatment eliminates the fear factor associated with trial as an adult.
IV. What can be done to hold young people accountable at the initial discovery of their law-breaking tendencies?
A. A variety of well-defined and sequenced sanctions, including mentoring, formal probation, at-home supervision, community service, non-secured group homes, and short-term incarceration in military-style boot camps or locked facilities would allow the system to screen out salvageable offenders while providing long-term lock-up for those who remain a violent threat to society.
B. There should be a sanction similar to the Three Strikes law in place for adult offenders in some states. After an offender has accumulated 3 offenses, he must appear before a judge who then reviews the individual offenses and dispositions to determine what punishment the offender must face.
V. Unaddressed wrongdoing inevitably leads to more serious crimes
A. Families must instill virtue and self-restraint in children
B. Government must be prepared to immediately send a message to those children, and their parents, that law-breaking will not be tolerated, and that children will be held accountable for their actions