Robin Templeton on the War against Children (cont'd)

Tony Hollick (
Sun, 31 May 98 21:54 BST-1


"First, we kill all the 11-year-olds..."

Meaner than the mean kids who go on shooting sprees are the measures
adults are pursuing in the name of combating crime -- including proposed
legislation to execute preteens.

BY ROBIN TEMPLETON | A series of high-profile school-site killings by
young boys -- including last week's shooting spree in a Springfield,
Ore., high school cafeteria -- have precipitated a more predictable
horror: proposed legislation to try 10-year-olds as adults and apply the
death penalty to 11-year-olds. It is as if a handful of problem
children -- "mean kids" we call them -- are absolving adults of having
to deal with the problems of children.

"Current juvenile laws could not have anticipated violent crimes being
committed by children this young," explains Texas State Rep. Jim Pitts,
who is sponsoring the latest round of legislation.

But it is Pitts' generation that warrants concern. For the past
quarter-century, aging baby boomers -- not children or teenagers -- have
driven the upsurge in violent crime. The FBI reports that arrest rates
for violent crime have doubled for 30- to 49-year-olds since 1975.
Homicide by children under 13 occurs less frequently today than in 1965.

Texas is not a lone state. Long before Jonesboro, the governors of
California and New Mexico appealed in the name of victims of juvenile
crime for laws to lower their states' execution ages to 14 and 13,
respectively. On state and federal fronts, efforts are proliferating to
sentence children as adults, abolish the protective segregation of child
from adult inmates and limit parole for juvenile offenders. New Jersey
is deploying military-designed satellite technology to track juvenile
parolees cuffed with 8-pound transmitters. The head of the state's
Juvenile Justice Commission boasts that the system is like "Star Wars."

In short, the war on crime has become obsessed with young people -- but
as targets rather than victims, predators rather than prey. Which
shouldn't surprise young people. After all, children are far more apt to
be murdered by adults -- including their own parents -- than the other
way around. "The only time people really pay attention to kids is if we
pick up a gun and blast somebody," a 16-year-old friend observed a week
after the schoolyard killings in Jonesboro, Ark. Yet most young people
are more concerned about missing breakfast than dodging bullets. Some 12
million children are malnourished in America today, according to the
Children's Defense Fund. The poverty rate of young people overall is 50
percent higher today than it was in 1970.

Adults' response to all this would make Charles Dickens shudder: Since
1970 we have cut back spending on education by at least 25 percent and
upped funding for incarceration by $3.2 billion. If the present rate of
incarceration continues, one out of every 20 children born in 1997 will
spend time behind bars. For males the figure will be one out of 11, and
for African-American males it will be one in four.

The irony is that the generation of baby boomers backing these policies
grew up, by and large, distrusting adults. Today it is adults who
distrust the young. A Rand Corporation survey in 1996 found that
American adults believe juveniles cause 50 percent of violent crime. The
FBI, by contrast, reported that year that juveniles caused 10 to 15
percent of violent crime. Last March -- the same week that media
headlined the Jonesboro shootings -- the FBI reported a 30 percent drop
in the juvenile homicide rate over the past three years.

"I know what World War III will be -- a war against teenagers,"
predicted Emilio, 17, after watching "Twelve Monkeys," a film about
postapocalyptic dystopia. According to the National Criminal Justice
Commission, spending on crime fighting is actually increasing three
times faster than defense spending. The spectre of 10- and 11-year-olds
dressed in camouflage, toting rifles as they stalk their peers, serves
as the new "Red menace" for a prison-industrial complex that is coming
to rival the military-industrial complex. This time the enemy is among
us -- our own children.

Wars, of course, can be useful. World War II drafted 10 million American
men after the Great Depression rendered more than 15 million Americans
jobless. In deindustrializing economies, prisons convert otherwise
expendable and potentially subversive residents into raw material and
profit margins. The war on crime is assimilating young people on the
margins by criminalizing them largely for nonviolent, economically
motivated offenses such as drug possession. Three-strikes-you're-out
laws make it clear that there is no such thing as redemption once you've
activated the tripwire.

Facing up to Springfield -- or Pearl, Miss., or Memphis or Jonesboro --
will require acknowledging that children devalue life to the extent that
the adult world devalues their lives. In towns long considered America's
heartland, mean children are arming themselves in imitation of adults
increasingly determined to prove they can be meaner.
SALON | May 27, 1998

Robin Templeton is a youth advocate and prison reform activist who is
writing a book about young crime and punishment.

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