Juvenile Justice

A 15-year-old boy—we’ll call him James—broke into a house in Washington, D.C. While James was searching one room, one of his two accomplices shot the home owner in another room. James was convicted of burglary and assault with intent to kill. But as Naftali Bendavid wrote in Legal Times, James got a lucky break: Instead of being locked up in an adult prison, he was sent to Oak Hill Youth Center, a home for juvenile offenders. There James earned his high school equivalency diploma and studied hairstyling in the center’s vocational program. He was released just a few months ago and now works in a D.C. hair salon: a success story. But if some lawmakers have their way, youthful criminals like James would be sent, not to a rehab center, but to an adult prison. Instead of learning hairdressing, James would have learned a "trade" from his fellow inmates: how to murder, rape and steal without getting caught. The U. S. House of Representatives recently passed a juvenile justice bill, sponsored by Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida. This bill requires that kids aged 14 and over be tried as adults for serious crimes and then, if convicted, sent to adult prisons. The Senate is now considering a juvenile crime bill similar to the McCollum bill. There’s no doubt that America is facing a juvenile crime crisis. The children of baby boomers will soon hit their teen years, and criminologists predict that when they do, we’ll face a "storm of juvenile crime." What’s happening to our kids? Two criminologists—James Q. Wilson and Richard Hernstein—asked that question a few years ago in their book Crime and Human Nature. Sin, they concluded, is innate in the human soul. Whether a person becomes a criminal depends crucially, Wilson and Hernstein said, on the development of conscience in the early years. Behavior is a reflection of childhood moral training. Words like these ought to resonate richly for the Christian. Scripture teaches that sin is a part of human nature from birth. Children must be taught right from wrong. But moral training is exactly what most juvenile offenders are not receiving. Professor Wilson has found that juvenile offenders come largely from broken families and often have a parent in prison. They have demonstrated anti-social behavior from an early age. They are, to put it bluntly, morally illiterate. That’s why the answer to crime isn’t just locking kids up¾ especially in adult prisons. No, the real answer—the only one that will work—is attacking the moral roots of the crime problem. That’s the purpose of a bill introduced by Congressman Frank Riggs of California. The Riggs bill provides block grants to states for early intervention and deterrence programs, targeting areas where youth crime is high. As Riggs put it, the bill’s "emphasis on holding juveniles accountable for their actions, including… graduated sanctions, restitution requirements, and victim restoration" addresses "the alarming rate of increase in juvenile crime." The Riggs bill would also insist that juvenile offenders be incarcerated away from adults. Please, call your representative and ask him to vote for H.R. 1818, the Riggs bill, as written, so that intervention programs are included in the final juvenile justice bill when Congress finishes its work. These programs recognize the most basic truth: that crime is a moral problem—one that requires moral solutions.


Chuck Colson


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