Everyone is talking about youths who commit violent crimes these days and how to break the cycle of kids, guns and the "celebration of violence."
Western governors, meeting in their annual convention here, heard some disheartening news during Sunday's discussion on youth crime, but they also heard some hopeful expressions.Utah was praised by several youth-crime experts for its commitment to families, an enlightened juvenile court system and active intervention programs. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley promised governors, including Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, that special-education money for at-risk youths will come with few or no federal strings attached. Riley said President Clinton, while supporting the tough federal anti-crime bill now in final debate in Congress, has increased intervention, or "front-end," money as no other president. However, several juvenile-crime experts warned Riley that the federal anti-crime bill could end up costing states $20 to $30 for every $1 in federal aid. "This crime bill could be a state budget-buster," warned one.
Leavitt, who will be elected chairman of the Western Governors Association on Tuesday, outlined some Utah commitments to fighting youth crime - tougher gun laws for juveniles, more money to build prison cells for youthful criminals and more money for family services and at-risk kids programs in the schools.
But Utah still experiences some of the problems of its Western neighbors. Barry Krisberg of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency said in each state he's studied, the worst-run agency is child protective services. "They have no risk management, no idea which abused children to take out of their homes, which to take a chance on (leaving in the home)."
After a lawsuit and scathing legislative audit of Utah's Division of Family Services, Leavitt reassigned the director, and his office took over managerial control of the agency.
In an October 1993 special legislative session, Leavitt told conferencegoers, Utah lawmakers doubled the number of youth correction cells, agreed to experiment with a "boot camp" juvenile correction program, increased the number of juvenile judges by a third and added 51 youth probation officers.
While Utah's juvenile correction system was praised by Krisberg and others, experts said more cells and tougher laws for violent youths isn't, and never will be, the total answer. Leavitt agreed, saying it will take years of work and help from families, neighborhoods and churches.
"Our society celebrates violence," said Dr. Debra Prothrow-Stith, a Harvard School of Public Health professor and author of a book on youth violence in America. "We teach our children to laugh at violence . . . we teach our children violence," she said. "We teach violence in the way we talk to our children when they get into a fight, how they watch us when we get into fights."
Little is really said about the root cause of violence in America, said Stith. Most Americans, whether youths or adults, are murdered by someone they know, not a stranger. The mixture of alcohol with friends who get into arguments when a handgun is nearby is what's killing people, she said.
Several of the experts and juvenile judges who spoke told the governors from gun-loving Western states that the blank truth, whether the National Rifle Association likes it or not, is that guns do kill people and too many guns are in the hands of kids.
Tough new laws like three strikes and you're out - the popular policy of locking a person up for life after three violent felonies - makes no impact "on two people who know each other, are drinking and have a handgun," said Stith.
Legislatures lowering the age of juveniles to try them in the adult criminal system not only is wrong morally, but it doesn't work at all, the experts said. Krisberg said that studies show that in almost every state, a juvenile who commits a violent crime is held longer in the juvenile prisons than adults who commit the same crime.
"I'm seeing kids who actually ask, they ask to get into the adult (trial) system because they know they'll get more lenient treatment," said Stephen B. Herrell, a juvenile judge in Portland, Ore.