Senate Adopts Juvenile Justice Legislation That ACLU Says Could Ultimately Lead to Increases in Adult Crime

May 20, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, May 20, 1999

WASHINGTON — Although the juvenile justice legislation adopted tonight by the Senate had been significantly modified, the American Civil Liberties Union pledged to continue to work against the bill, saying that it could actually lead to increases in adult crime.

“This legislation will ultimately do exactly the opposite of what its supporters intend,” said Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “By blocking any ability for children to reform themselves, the bill would inevitably result in more hardened career criminals.”

The bill, S. 254, was adopted tonight by a vote of 73 to 25. It now goes to the House, which is considering vastly different juvenile justice legislation.

One particularly disturbing element of the legislation would enable schools, employers and others to view juvenile crime records. Current law requires that all juvenile records and proceedings be closed to the public. But under the crime bill before the Senate, those records — local, state or federal — would be completely open.

“These records are closed now so rehabilitated children are not crippled in their adult lives by crimes they may have committed in their youth,” King said. “By lifting this requirement, this legislation makes it difficult for children to put their past behind them and become productive members of society.”

Another troublesome element of the legislation, the ACLU said, are the provisions that could lead to children being housed in adult jails with experienced criminals. While the bill’s proponents say they have corrected the problem of housing children in adult facilities, the ACLU said the issue remains because the bill would permit the federal government to prosecute children as young as 14 as adults.

“Once a child is tried and convicted as an adult, there is no guarantee that he will be protected from mature criminals and adult jails,” 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 it was also deeply disappointed in the Senate’s failure to address a provision that would aggravate the already unfair treatment of minority youth at every level of the justice system.

In a 52-to-48 vote Wednesday evening, the Senate rejected an amendment offered by Senators Paul Wellstone, D-MN, and Edward Kennedy, D-MA, to uphold the spirit of current law by requiring states to take steps to reduce the disproportionate number of children of color who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

“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. The Senate now threatens to wipe out all of that progress.”

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