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REAL LIFE

All They Are Saying Is, Give Youth a Chance

May 18, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four years ago, Jeremy Estrada was a 16-year-old kid from East L.A. with a long history of violent assaults when he stood once again before a judge who would decide his fate. This time, he was the only suspect in a pencil stabbing of another youth at Juvenile Hall. He remembers his life hanging in the balance as Judge Jeanne Buckley weighed whether to send him to prison or to a highly structured rehabilitative program.

She chose to give him another chance.

"That judge that day saw something in me I never knew I had that I couldn't see in myself," said Estrada, now 20 and a premed student on full scholarship at Pepperdine University in Malibu. "That judge saved my life."

But the days when troubled kids like Estrada get special treatment for their crimes seem numbered.

Even with stirring calls for massive volunteering efforts to shore up weakened family and neighborhood ties lingering in the air, Congress moved to pass a bill requiring federal judges to try juveniles 13 and older as adults for serious crimes. If federal legislators have their way, states would receive financial incentives to mandate adult treatment for youths convicted of serious crimes.

The get-tough approach may work for a handful of kids a year, but youth advocates contend it virtually eliminates any chance for many others to work out their problems, stay out of jail and become productive, contributing members of society.

"The idea of plowing 200,000 juveniles into criminal court is a radical social experiment without any scientific foundation," said Barry Krisberg, president of the San Francisco-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "It plunges us back to the 19th century when kids languished in adult facilities, being raped, assaulted, being killed or killing themselves," he said. Outrage over that situation led to the creation of the current juvenile justice system that allows judges to give special treatment to youthful offenders.

In the last five years, the majority of states have either lowered ages for adult treatment or increased the number of crimes in which children can and must be tried as adults, generally out of fear of rising homicide rates for youths, said Miriam Rollin, consultant for the National Assn. of Child Advocates in Washington, D.C.

California legislators recently turned down Gov. Pete Wilson's proposal to treat juvenile offenders as adults. Still, when block grants are involved, "it gets people thinking," Krisberg said.

Advocates for young people note that overall crime is down, that youth crime constitutes only one-fifth of the total, that get-tough approaches haven't been shown to work and that the public mood seems to be going in the opposite direction.

According to a poll of 1,700 voters conducted this year for the California Wellness Foundation, Californians mistakenly perceive that youths are committing the majority of crimes--but even so, 75% still believe there is no age beyond which a youth who has gotten involved in violence and crime cannot still be helped.

By a 5-to-1 margin, the majority said society's top priority should be investing in ways to prevent kids from taking wrong turns and ending up in gangs or becoming violent rather than building more prisons, youth facilities or enforcing stricter sentences.

Since virtually all the increase in youth violence has to do with handguns, advocates suggest focusing on the source of the problem. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell us what we need to do about that," Rollin said. "No one in Congress wants to talk gun control."

The other solution that advocates know to be effective is to surround youths with caring adults, in long-term residential programs if necessary. Estrada attended a two-year Rites of Passage program in Nevada.

Said Krisberg: "Most of the kids you listen to say they finally found an adult who cared about them. They did have to make a personal choice, but mostly it had to do with people hanging in there with them, not giving up."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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