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Don't steal that car, said the policeman.
Why? Said the kid.
Because it is illegal, said the policeman.
Not if I don't get caught, said the kid. . .
     — from a poem by Christopher

in Hard Time:
A Real Life Look at Juvenile Crime and Violence

by Janet Bode and Stan Mack

Social conservatives blame juvenile crime on liberal permissiveness, while liberals attribute it to a shortage of government social programs. VAGUEpolitix suspects that both sides are on to something. The problem is, the kinds of discipline conservatives have pushed — like trying kids as adults — makes as much sense as impounding tricycles for illegal parking.(1) Similarly, for seriously troubled kids, preventative liberal social programs like self-esteem classes are as effective as a band-aid on a slit throat.

First off, the kids who commit the majority of violent crimes usually start turning mean before they're five. Babies who are abused or neglected can get stuck in "the terrible twos" like mice in a glue trap. Badly damaged people are like huge, monstrous two-year-olds who never get past the concepts of "I won't!" and "Mine!" They grow more cunning, hairier, hornier, more lethal but not a whole lot more evolved every year. By ages five to eight, career-criminals-in-training need more than self-esteem to fly right. Undisciplined, they'll commit several serious crimes before they're officially punished. By their late teens on through their 30s, most grown-up psycho-babies will be beyond any kind of rehab we can hope to afford.(2) And please note that, by the time they qualify for the "Three Strikes, You're Out" program at the maximum-security pen nearest you, they'll be nearing retirement — leaving you to pick up the enormous tab for their prostate radiation therapy, AZT and Meals-on-Wheels.(3)

There are several known factors that raise the odds that a babe in arms will become an armed bandit. In no particular order they are: neglect or abuse, a disorganized community, poverty, bad housing, conflict in the home, single parenting (especially by a teen), a family role-model in jail, inconsistent discipline and, most of all, a subculture that believes in revenge.

It may not take a village to raise every child, but it definitely takes a village to rescue one. Poor children subjected to crappy parenting are far more likely to survive the ordeal if they live in healthy communities. Merely rebellious kids experimenting with drugs, gang glamour and bad attitude also need a strong social matrix to keep them on the smart side of the edge.

So how do you get there? The latest vogue in crime control is called (ever so imaginatively) "community building". It's a Web-like, extremely VAGUE concept. Community builders attack social problems by co-ordinating neighborhood resources across ideologies. Local political groups, churches, schools, settlement houses and a colorful array of volunteers hook up with outside groups — government agencies, non-profits, businesses — to create flexible, reciprocal partnerships that focus on solutions.

Although no "solutions" are problem-free, the success stories of the community building movement are amazingly cheap and far-reaching. If we want to reduce crime, particularly youth crime, we have to invest in community building and replace its critical functions when it falls short. Social services like child-care training for teen parents, (4) conflict resolution classes in schools and organized after-school activities have all been proven to slash crime levels at bargain rates. It's unforgiveable, knowing what we know, not to have more of them. According to scientific studies collected worldwide by the International Center for the Prevention of Crime (ICPC), a combination of these programs cuts kid crime by 50%-80%. That's twice the crime reduction promised by Three Strikes legislation.

Second, if kids are veering toward the deep end, research shows that both leniency and harsh prosecution fails them. A much-cited study on discipline in Denmark shows that the severity of punishment is not what keeps kids straight — it's the certainty of the punishment and the guarantee that it increases with each offense. (5) The ICPC predicts that predictable punishment by juvenile courts, combined with drug treatment and targeted gun control would yield a 50% reduction in crime. And again, that's a steal.

So what we got from wading through the landfill of lit out there was that shooting people doesn't make a kid an adult any more than smoking or wearing lipstick does. If children are to grow into responsible adults they need to be both raised and punished as children. That means better early care, healthier communities, more systematic and earlier, more systematic discipline for those who need it. It does not mean using the law to vent upon them our fury at how badly they turned out. Only two-year-olds pull stunts like that.

(1) Runaway Juvenile Crime?
While FBI statistics from 1994 showed a huge spike in juvenile violence, there's intense partisan debate about what the numbers really mean. For example, stats that show more arrests of kids with guns may reflect increases in laws against kids possessing firearms rather than in increase in kids' actual use or misuse of guns.

(2) See Mugged by Reality, Eugene H. Methvin's unique mix of social kindness and repression for scary "facts" like this:
"Psychopaths constitute an estimated 1 to 2 percent of the population. . . This means the United States has at least 2 million psychopaths."
Alas, says Methvin, psychopaths make up only 20-25% of our 1.8 million prisoners. So what to do? Should we let 3/4 of our current prisoners go to make room for psychopaths? Build still more prisons? Or figure out how to damage fewer children? Duh.

(3) "The full-term alternative (sentencing adults who commit violent first offenses to full terms without parole) would increase sentences for all serious offenders — including first timers who are near the beginning of their criminal careers — and pay for it by not imprisoning many minor felons. Three strikes, in contrast, ignores first-time serious offenders and instead expends a large amount of money keeping older criminals — including many convicted of minor offenses — locked up well past the time when they might have given up crime anyway."

(4) Why Prevent Crime?
"Young children will grow up to offend 50-80% less by providing pre-school programs and nurse home evaluations for at-risk children as well as coordinated efforts to reduce bullying."

(5) Two excellent reports from U.S. News and World Report:

"In Florida, which has sent thousands of teens to trial as adults in recent years, criminologists conclude in a new study that youths tried as adults commit even more crimes after release than do those who remain in the juvenile system.

"Officials are experimenting with hybrid arrangements that might produce better results. In Jacksonville, Fla., for example, prosecutor Harry Shorstein has tried more than 1,100 young toughs as adults but then arranged to have them incarcerated in local jails that offer a variety of education and treatment programs. Youth crime in the area has dropped, bucking the general trend."

"...The U.S. Justice Department recently funded 'Safe Futures' plans in six cities to establish a series of escalating penalties on young violators. If the kids do not stop committing crimes after modest sanctions, tougher punishment kicks in.

"...tough speeches may be 'good for politicians' re-elections but don't make much sense,' says Jesse Williams, a Philadelphia youth-corrections official."

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