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Increase in Youth Crime Brings Push for Tougher Laws : Bills: State legislators seek to lower the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults. Critics say candidates for rehabilitation would be lost to long prison terms.


Brown's son, Chris, was eating a hot dog at an Encino convenience store last year when the 14-year-old and two others fled with several 12-packs of beer. The manager called out for help and when Chris Brown, 24, cornered the 14-year-old in the back yard of a nearby house, the youth shot him in the chest with a handgun.

The 14-year-old, who was sentenced to the youth authority, will be eligible for parole in six years. If he had been tried as an adult, he would have faced a sentence of 25 years to life in prison or life without possibility of parole.

"This kid's going to get out before long, but me and my family have a lifetime sentence.. . . We have to live with Chris' murder every day for the rest of our lives," Brown said. "All the emphasis is on the juvenile and his rehabilitation, but nobody cares about the murder victims or their family . . . or the safety of the public."

But many juvenile justice experts reject the contention that trying youths as adults helps control the crime problem. A federal study in New York during the 1980s examined laws that lowered the age of juveniles who can be tried as adults and found that "the laws had absolutely no impact" on the juvenile crime rate, said Dan Macallair, a director at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

California jails its juveniles at a higher rate than any other state and keeps them locked up longer, according to federal statistics, but the youth crime rate has continued to rise. California has a higher per capita incarceration rate for juveniles than any other state.

"All these laws are doing is making the world safer for politicians, not citizens." Krisberg said at the committee hearing. "We already have the toughest juvenile justice system in the U.S. . . . but it's not having an impact on juvenile crime. We need a careful, thoughtful approach to these problems."


Most of the attorneys at the Los Angeles public defender's juvenile office, housed in a crowded series of rooms adjacent to the central Juvenile Hall, recall cases involving youths with good prospects for rehabilitation--youths who face trial in adult court.

Lisa Greer represented a 16-year-old boy who was living with relatives after his parents paid a smuggler to get him out of Vietnam. The boy, who left Vietnam with boat people and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, was a good student, receiving As in his high school math and science courses. But his aunt and uncle decided they could no longer afford to house him and sent him off to live with a brother, who worked full time while attending school at night.

The boy was constantly left alone and began associating with gang members. He was accused of driving a stolen car and shooting at--and missing--another group of teen-agers after an argument.

A social worker who evaluated the youth determined that he should not be sentenced as an adult nor sent to the California Youth Authority because he was "not hard core enough," Greer said. The social worker considered him an ideal candidate for a juvenile probation camp or foster care, she said.

"This kid was wrenched from his friends and family and went through hell to get here," Greer said. "He was doing fine until his support structure here was taken away. All of a sudden he found himself living virtually alone and he got involved with the wrong people. I really felt that he was a kid who would straighten out with the right program."

The probation officer who interviewed the youth and studied the case told Greer he agreed that the youth should stay in the juvenile system. But a probation supervisor overruled the officer, Greer said, and recommended that he be tried in adult court, where he faces a stiff sentence.


The primary reason for the increase in juvenile crime is gang-related violence and the prevalence of guns, criminal justice experts say. But there also are a number of societal factors, they say, including child abuse, more single-parent households, television and movies that glorify violence and increased drug use.

In Los Angeles County, about 20,000 juveniles were charged with felonies last year, compared to about 15,000 five years ago. The county's juvenile homicide rate has more than doubled in the past decade, with about 300 juveniles a year now being charged with murder.

At one time in California, all youths under 21 were considered juveniles by the court. In the 1960s, the age was dropped to 18. Today, 16- and 17-year-olds are eligible to be tried as adults for a number of serious crimes, including murder, armed robbery, rape and assault with a firearm.

Before a youth can be tried as an adult, the district attorney's office must request a "fitness investigation." A probation officer investigates the seriousness of the crime, the juvenile's criminal history, the prospects for rehabilitation and other factors and makes a recommendation to the court.

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