ACLU Says Juvenile Crime Bill Is A Cruel Hoax On America's Children and Families

June 17, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, June 17, 1999

WASHINGTON — Although dodging several bullets — including a measure that would have made a mockery of the free speech provisions of the First Amendment — the juvenile justice bill adopted by the House late tonight remains a public policy nightmare, the American Civil Liberties Union said. The bill includes both draconian changes to the federal juvenile justice system and dangerous measures that threaten the religious liberty of families across America.

The House voted 287 to 139 to adopt H.R. 1501, which contained a slew of largely unexamined amendments and reactionary changes to our juvenile justice system.

“Its proponents claim its cruel treatment of children is necessary to prevent crime,” said Rachel King, a Legislative Counsel for the ACLU. “Unfortunately, the joke will be not only on them, but on all Americans when the hardened criminals this legislation will inevitably produce return to society.”

Despite statistics indicating that children housed in adult facilities are more likely to commit more crimes after their release, the bill allows 14-year-olds to be funneled into the federal adult criminal system without any guarantee that they will be protected from adult criminals in prison. The bill would also open all juvenile records, which can then be made available just as adult records are, including to universities and potential employers.

“By closing the most likely avenues to reform — education and employment — this legislation makes it impossible for adults to put even ‘youthful indiscretions’ like shoplifting behind them and become productive members of society,” King said.

“Handing prosecutors the power to arbitrarily decide to send a 14-year-old through the adult system will do nothing to prevent crime,” King added. “It will only bring us closer to a ‘Wild West’ system of justice, where the prosecutors’ whims are the law of the land.”

The juvenile justice legislation also became a vehicle for debate on the culture wars, with several representatives indicating that the First Amendment is responsible for nearly all societal ills.

The flotilla of anti-First Amendment measures included four that threaten the religious liberty of families across America. One, proposed by Reps. Mark Souder (R-IN) and Philip English (R-PA), requires government agencies to fund religious institutions that provide juvenile justice services. It would subject state and local governments to liability for encroaching upon Americans’ religious freedom because youth will have no choice to opt out of programs that subject them to religious indoctrination.

Another amendment, proposed by Rep. Jim DeMint (R-SC), makes it more difficult for people to seek help from the courts when public authorities have violated their religious freedom by imposing religious practices onto their children.

A provision proposed by Rep. Thomas Tancredo (R-CO) would limit the ability of parents to challenge the constitutionality of religious memorials in the public schools. Finally, a resolution that encourages schools to post the 10 Commandments was proposed by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL). All four of these amendments were adopted by large margins and became part of the pending juvenile justice bill.

“Congress perpetrated a cruel hoax on the American people today when it pretended that government force feeding of religion to our public school children would have prevented the tragic school shootings in Georgia and Colorado,” said Terri Schroeder, a legislative analyst for the ACLU.

Two measures that would have eviscerated Americans’ free speech rights were soundly defeated; another was adopted by a voice vote.

The first, introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), was an even more sweeping effort at censorship than an Internet censorship law that was unanimously struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997’s Reno v. ACLU. It failed by a vote of 146 to 282. The second, proposed by Reps. Zach Wamp (R-IN) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) would have required retailers to enforce a new labeling system for audio and visual media products. It was defeated by a vote of 161 to 266.

The amendment adopted by a voice vote would require all schools and libraries that receive access to the Internet through the FCC’s “Universal Service” program to adopt and install an Internet filtering or blocking system.

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