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House Crime Bill Permits Teens To Be Treated as Adults in Court

By Edwin Chen
Los Angeles Times

The House easily approved a tough and potentially far-reaching juvenile crime bill Thursday that would allow offenders as young as 13 to be tried as adults in federal courts.

The GOP-sponsored measure also would disburse $1.5 billion in crime-fighting funds to states that bring their laws into compliance with the federal standards, which would all but abolish the special treatment traditionally accorded young people accused of serious crimes.

The legislation, characterized as counterproductive and excessively harsh by many House Democrats, would give federal prosecutors broad authority to charge juveniles as adults, increase the types of offenses that make juveniles eligible for such treatment, open to public scrutiny juvenile records and court proceedings, and allow juveniles to be incarcerated alongside adults.

"In America today, no population poses a greater threat to public safety than juvenile criminals," said Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., the bill's author.

The measure's immediate effect would be limited - because only about 200 juveniles each year are prosecuted as adults in the federal system. But its impact would be broadly felt if states, as a result, toughen their laws and bring them into harmony with the standards in the House-passed bill.

About 12,300 youths are prosecuted as adults each year in state courts, but that number could skyrocket if the bill became law and states followed suit. And if that were to happen, said one children's advocate, "it's not clear what's left (of the juvenile justice system)."

But McCollum said his bill addresses "one of the most important issues we will tackle in this Congress," especially with a projected increase in the number of teen-agers as the children of today's baby boomers come of age in the decades ahead.

Led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Democrats derided the bill as a cynical effort to present a tough crime-fighting image that in fact does nothing to attempt to prevent violent juvenile crime in the first place.

"(Republicans) want to lock them up and ignore the problem," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who was a Michigan state trooper for 12 years before coming to Congress.

Final passage of the bill came on a 286132 vote after the House, largely along partisan lines, defeated a Democratic alternative that would have allocated 60 percent of the $1.5 billion bill to crime-prevention efforts.

The states may use the funds, which would be dispensed over a three-year period, to hire more prosecutors, build more jails and prisons, and create drug courts, among other uses.

About two-thirds of the states would have to toughen their juvenile justice laws to become eligible for the block grants. One qualifying step would be to take away from judges any role in the decision to "waive" youthful offenders into the adult system, thus leaving the discretion entirely in the hands of prosecutors. Another step would be to make juvenile records and proceedings as open as those in adult criminal cases.

Although in recent years more than 40 states have stampeded to enact measures aimed at curbing violent juvenile crimes, McCollum's bill "goes way beyond what states are doing," said Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C.