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ANSWER TO YOUTH CRIMES ISN’T IN THE ADULT SYSTEM

SHARE ANSWER TO YOUTH CRIMES ISN’T IN THE ADULT SYSTEM

Gov. Mike Leavitt got it half right when he announced a new criminal and juvenile justice package this week - one designed to cope with the 1 percent of youthful miscreants who seem to have little if any regard for life or property rights.

Part of his plan would help greatly in the war on young offenders. Among other things, he would increase funding for the criminal and juvenile justice budget by 19 percent, adding room for 172 more youths in detention centers as well as 32 new secure beds in facilities statewide. If approved, this would make 350 new juvenile detention beds in two years.As any law-enforcement official and politician along the Wasatch Front will attest, a dire need exists for such facilities. Without them, scores of young people will continue compiling lengthy rap sheets before suffering any punishment.

Leavitt also would add a new juvenile judge and eight new juvenile probation officers, all desperately needed to ensure children don't get lost in an overburdened criminal system.

The governor also wants $15.1 million for crime prevention programs aimed at vulnerable youth. Part of the money would reduce the average size of fourth grade classes, a figure that now stands at 27.5 students per teacher. This would give teachers a better chance to recognize problems and help children at a time of life when many offenders begin committing their misdeeds.

All these are good measures sure to help the juvenile justice system send the message that it no longer will look the other way until a young man or woman does something so heinous it no longer can be ignored.

But the governor missed the mark when he announced his plan to create a category of criminal called "Serious Youth Offender," a plan that would greatly increase the number of youths who are tried as adults.

With some exceptions, shoving immature kids into a world of hardened criminals serves no worthwhile purpose for society.

Certainly, children who commit murder or other heinous offenses should be tried as adults. They already are. Between 50 to 60 juveniles will have been certified this year, if current trends continue. That figure is up from 22 in 1993. However, had the governor's plan been in effect, 327 teens would have been tried as adults in 1993, and the number would have been much higher this year.

Leavitt's plan would cover a variety of crimes and would automatically certify as an adult anyone 16 or older who commits a felony after already having served time in a youth detention center.

Many states are passing similar measures, reacting to the outrage of decent citizens over crimes committed by youths. Florida now allows kids as young as 14 to be tried as adults. Georgia allows it for 13-year-olds. Tennessee has removed age barriers altogether.

The idea is to scare youths into thinking twice before doing bad things. Chances are, however, that the threat of doing time in a state penitentiary won't outweigh peer pressure and other powerful influences in the often illogical world of criminal juveniles.

Meanwhile, the adult system won't necessarily satisfy the public's demand for punishment. An official in the court administrator's office studied 53 teens who were certified as adults in the last five years. One-third of them ended up on probation while 22 ended up with sentences that, on average, were three to six months longer than the average sentence in the juvenile system. The rest were sentenced to from five years to life.

Because the worst offenders already are standing trial as adults, Leavitt's plan would do little but add many more teens who likely will be put on probation or given light sentences in the adult system - a system that offers little hope of rehabilitating impressionable youths.

Leavitt is correct to put more funding and emphasis on expanding the juvenile system. That is where the best hope lies for all but the most hardened of youthful offenders.

But the state already has a way of handling youngsters who should stand trial as adults, and that system shouldn't be altered.