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'94 Candidates Agree on 1 Goal: Curbing Juvenile Crime : But any crackdown could be just a warm-up to an even tougher clash when welfare reform is tackled

October 10, 1994|Ronald Brownstein

Call it tough love, common standards or fear and loathing, but one of the most powerful trends in campaign 1994 is the rising demand for a crackdown on juvenile criminals.

With juvenile violence rising more rapidly than adult violence, promises of boot camps, longer sentences, adult trials and curfews for teen-agers are ringing through campaigns around the country, especially gubernatorial races. This is an agenda with an angry edge--filled with denunciations of punks and thugs and hoodlums. But even so, it may be only the warm-up for a more polarizing conflict next year, when the likelihood is that anxiety over youth crime will become intertwined with the racially charged effort to reform the welfare system.

The first stage of this process--stiffening sanctions against violent juveniles--amounts to a tidal wave. At least 20 states this year moved to prosecute more violent juveniles as adults, thereby allowing courts to impose longer sentences.

In Texas, George W. Bush, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, calls juvenile violence the most important problem in the state; he wants to lower to 14 the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults. California Gov. Pete Wilson has already signed such a bill into law. In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Roy Romer led a special session last fall that created a new system of longer sentences and secure incarceration for juveniles.

Overall, this may represent nothing less than a rejection of the juvenile justice system erected at the turn of the century to protect and reform wayward young people charged with delinquency or petty theft. In the era of killers not yet old enough to shave, the stern new guiding principle appears to be that, whatever the defendant's age, "every criminal act of an offender must translate into a definite consequence," as Peter Ramirez of the New York City family court puts it.

Stiffer sanctions against violent juveniles, however, constitute only the first (and relatively less incendiary) step in a broader reassessment. A growing number of candidates in both parties, but especially Republicans, are linking the rise in juvenile violence with the growth in out-of-wedlock births and welfare dependency. Jeb Bush, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Florida, puts it flatly: "The pathology of the welfare state is, I think, the primary reason why we have . . . juvenile crime."

In fact, research doesn't support such a blanket statement.

An exhaustive Justice Department review of sociological studies recently concluded that children from single-parent families are more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior, and that crime rates are higher in neighborhoods with high proportions of mother-only families.

But millions of children grow up in single-parent households without becoming delinquents or criminals. The high rates of crime in neighborhoods with lots of single mothers could also reflect other factors, like racial segregation or poverty, researchers note. And other forms of dysfunction in "intact" families can also predict criminal behavior: child abuse, criminal activity by parents and marital discord.

"Not all children follow the same path to delinquency," the review concluded.

Still, the relationship between father absence and crime appears strong enough--especially in isolated inner-city neighborhoods--to force the issue of broken families into the juvenile crime debate. And that, in turn, is increasing discussion of what Princeton University criminologist John J. DiIulio terms the "most radical of radical social program proposals": an increased effort by government to guide the upbringing of children raised fatherless and poor.

Put another way, what we are hearing is the opening notes of a movement to bring back the orphanage.

This call is coming from two directions. Social conservatives like William J. Bennett and Charles Murray see orphanages as a way to care for children who could otherwise be left destitute by their proposals to cut off all welfare benefits for single mothers, in the hope of discouraging illegitimacy.

More intriguingly, criminologists like DiIulio are pushing the idea of orphanage-like institutions as a means of removing children from surroundings that raise their risk of involvement in crime. The leader in this modest movement has been UCLA management professor James Q. Wilson. In an article last month in Commentary, Wilson renewed his call for "group homes" with strict rules and supervision, where single, teen-age parents and their children could live in "the kind of structured, consistent and nurturant environment that children need."

In looking to modernize and adapt the orphanage, these writers are championing an institution long out of favor. For years, the clear preference of social welfare agencies has been to keep children in families, even those that only loosely deserve the name; the Census Bureau now counts fewer than 25,000 children living in long-term care facilities like orphanages.

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