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QUESTION: THE LATEST legal trend is to try violent juvenile offenders as adults. Virtually all 50 states have overhauled their laws recently so violent youths face tougher sentences. Meanwhile, arrest rates for homicides committed by 14- to 17-year-olds have tripled. Is punishing them more severely a good idea?

BONNIE ERBE: This is a great idea. Why? Because today's "youthful" offender often is no longer a child. When a child has access to a deadly weapon, he is just as much a danger to society as his adult counterpart. And he should be treated with the same severity. I'm more interested in keeping him in jail for longer periods, to protect his would-be victims, than I am about whether he'll become a repeat offender. As far as I'm concerned, the sentence for any murder should be death, regardless of the murderer's age.Criminal defense lawyers and those who work with young criminals boo-hoo about how child criminals are not as responsible for their actions as older criminals. That's a bunch of bunk. Kids grow up more quickly now than they did a generation ago. They watch the same violent movies as adult criminals. They join the same gangs. And they have easy access to all manner of weapons.

The national crime survey released earlier this month shows that, overall, violent crime is dropping. But the one area of increase is among violent youths.

Attorney General Janet Reno has made youth crime her favorite target. But we won't stop the epidemic of youth violence if we don't get guns out of kids' hands.

Getting tough on violent youths also means getting murder weapons out of their hands. And Republicans, unfortunately, lack the guts to do that.

BETSY HART: Just when I thought my colleague might be on the verge of seeing the conservative light, my hopes were dashed!

She is absolutely right that many of today's "children" are, in fact, often hardened criminals by the time they reach their teens. And, of course, the state's responsibility is to protect law abiding citizens from those who would do them harm, whatever their age.

But the bad news isn't just that arrest rates for homicides committed by 14- to 17-year-olds have tripled. It's that in the next decade the size of this age group will increase by 20 percent! So the question shouldn't be just "What do we do with these violent offenders?" but more "Why is the crime rate among this group growing so rapidly?"

There are several reasons, although none of them has to do with rampant gun use. That's a symptom, not a cause of the problem. After all, guns have been prolific and available since this country was born. Legally, they may be harder to get today than ever.

No, the biggest problem is the dramatic rise in single parenthood and divorce in the last several decades. We've seen more and more homes where kids are growing up without dads. The number of single-parent households - not employment, pov-erty or education - is the No. 1 predictor of the level of violent crime.