Not so long ago politicians campaigned by kissing babies. Today, they lock children in jail. Never mind that juvenile crime rates are falling: Washington is in a bipartisan fever to incarcerate middle schoolers in Attica, Huntsville and other penitentiaries alongside adult robbers, rapists and killers. As I write, the Senate Judiciary Committee is preparing for hearings on S. 10, the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act, sponsored by Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions says he wants to “give judges the ability to command respect from young criminals.” Commanding respect, in this case, means allowing children as young as 14 to be tried and jailed with adults for any felony. S. 10 would virtually abolish federally funded juvenile rehabilitation in favor of prison construction; end the confidentiality of youthful offenders’ records; and in the most sweeping assault on the rights of adolescents in memory, would in effect revive the old “stubborn child” laws, giving state judges broad new powers to put runaways and truants behind bars even if they have committed no crime.
If S. 10 seems an unlikely and radical prescription for punishment, consider that on May 8 the House passed H.R. 3, sponsored by Bill McCollum of Florida. Only slightly more moderate than S. 10, the House bill would allow eighth graders to be imprisoned with adults for a narrower range of specified violent and drug crimes and would blackmail states into following the policy by withholding $1.5 billion in grants for noncompliance. The bill’s supporters included Democrats close to the White House; President Clinton’s only objection is that these bills don’t incorporate his own proposed hodgepodge of juvenile gun regulations and anti-gang laws.
There are plenty of grounds for opposing S. 10 and its kin. The “soaring” juvenile crime cited by Sessions doesn’t exist. Congress’s own recent study on crime prevention finds no evidence that adult-level prosecution reduces juvenile violence, and all research suggests that in many cases juvenile rehabilitation works. Further, as Mike Males points out in The Scapegoat Generation, in many states adolescents serve longer sentences, on average, than adults convicted of the same crimes. And a Justice Department memo quietly being circulated in Washington reports that for states to meet the requirements of the Sessions-McCollum bill will actually cost between $16 and $42 in local tax dollars for every dollar in federal grants.
So far the Senate bill’s most vocal opponents have been law-enforcement professionals — D.A.s, police chiefs, corrections officials — who see the imprisonment of children with adults as a disaster in the making. Many of the largest liberal groups remain on the fringes of the debate. The A.C.L.U. has mounted the barricades with a passion, but Marian Wright Edelman and her Children’s Defense Fund are nearly invisible, as are Kweisi Mfume and the N.A.A.C.P. Perhaps these groups are silent because they fear being caricatured as defenders of predatory criminals. The debate over child punishment is not just about jailing a few gangbangers: It’s a leading edge in the campaign to further unravel social welfare and civil rights.
One of the bellwethers of encroaching Reaganism came in 1976, when New York’s Democratic Governor Hugh Carey, feeling the heat from some well-publicized murders, passed an unprecedented law giving prosecutors the right to try some teens as adults. Carey’s youth commissioner (Peter Edelman, who twenty years later found himself in similar straits with the Clinton Administration over the welfare bill) resigned in protest. In California, harsh punishment for juvenile offenders was a key to Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial success. These new bills would cast root causes of crime like poverty and family violence even further from the public mind and turn back the clock on more than 100 years of attempts to save troubled adolescents.
Since most of Washington seems paralyzed, a grass-roots fight against S. 10 is crucial (for information, call the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 202-678-9282). One way to fight is to tell the stories of the some 5,200 children already incarcerated in adult prisons — kids like Rodney Hulin Jr. of Beaumont, Texas, sentenced at 16 to eight years in adult prison for arson. Shortly after arriving at the Clemens Unit in Brazoria County, he was raped by another inmate. He asked for protective custody but was turned down. Repeatedly beaten, raped and robbed, Rodney hanged himself; he was in a coma for four months before dying. In one of his last letters he wrote: “Dad, I’m scared, scared that I will die in here.” For some children, adult prison will be crime school. For others, it will be a death sentence.