ACLU Calls on Democratic Leadership to Slow Juvenile Justice Legislation

May 27, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, May 27, 1999

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today warned that Vice President Al Gore and Democratic Congressional leaders are threatening decades of progress in dealing with juvenile crime by their rush to seek political victory in the ongoing gun-control wars despite Republican threats to seek draconian juvenile justice legislation.

Particularly endangered, said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office, are the minority children who already face incomprehensible discrimination at every level of the criminal justice system.

“The Senate Democratic victory on gun control will take a toll on minority youth who find themselves entangled in the juvenile justice system,” Murphy said. “We believe it is highly inappropriate for the Democratic leadership to talk solely about guns when the future of minority youth is also at stake.”

Only two Democratic Senators — Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin — bucked their party leadership and voted against the underlying juvenile justice bill that was subsumed by the gun debate.

Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel, said the Senate bill would ultimately do exactly the opposite of what its supporters intend. Although the bill would allow children as young as 14 to be funneled into the adult system, it provides no guarantee that they will not be housed with mature criminals in adult jails.

“By blocking any ability for children to reform themselves, the Senate bill would inevitably result in more hardened career criminals,” King said. “Without any hope of rehabilitation, even kids who receive 20-year sentences may emerge into society as angry 34-year-old adults full of rage with no social skills, education or prospects and more likely to commit another crime.”

The ACLU said that the Senate bill would aggravate the already unfair treatment of minority youth by overturning a requirement that states take steps to reduce the disproportionate number of children of color who are detained in juvenile facilities. “All youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system should be treated appropriately and equally,” King said. “At least 40 states are currently developing plans to address how their justice systems unfairly treat minority youth. This legislation threatens to wipe out all of that progress.”

The legislation would also enable schools, employers and others to view juvenile crime records. “These records are closed now so rehabilitated children are not crippled in their adult lives by the stigma of a conviction for a crime they may have committed as a child,” King said. “The House must ensure that its legislation does not make it impossible for children to put their past behind them and become productive members of society.”

Murphy called on House leaders to slow down and reconsider the path they are taking. “After 3 years of hard work, a fair and bipartisan juvenile justice measure was moments from the House floor,” she said. “We are calling today on the Democratic leadership, in particular, to remember the children on whose backs their gun control victory will fall.”

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