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House OKs 13-year-olds be tried as adults on violent federal crimes

May 9, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Members of the House took aim at the nation’s youngest criminals, passing a bill that would allow youths as young as 13 to be tried as adults on charges of committing violent federal crimes.

Charges of murder, rape, aggravated assault, armed robbery and major drug offenses routinely would be tried in adult courts unless the attorney general holds that the public interest would be better served by trying those 14 and older as juveniles.

If the attorney general agrees, 13-year-olds could be transferred into adult courts.

Few teen-agers ever become involved in federal court cases. But the bill could transform state juvenile court systems by offering $1.5 billion to states that adopt some of the same types of measures.

Opponents contended the bill overlooked key weapons in the fight against juvenile crime, such as prevention programs and requiring safety locks for guns. But they were overwhelmed by lawmakers who called for a crackdown on violent crime.

Prevention will be covered in separate legislation, Republicans said.

``This bill is meant to go after the young people who are committing murders and rapes and brutal assaults against decent human beings in our society,″ Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., said.

The bill was passed 286-132 Thursday, with 77 Democrats joining 209 Republicans. Nine Republicans, 77 Democrats and one independent voted against it.

President Clinton denounced the bill shortly after its passage. He said that unlike his own proposal, the measure does not do enough to fight gangs, fails to set aside money for prosecuting gang-related violence and does not bar the sale of guns to 18-year-olds with juvenile criminal records.

``Today, the House of Representatives missed an important opportunity to fight and prevent the scourge of juvenile crime,″ Clinton said in a statement released from the White House.

Attorney General Janet Reno used similar words, saying the bill ``fails to target funding for prevention and intervention like after-school programs.″

``The only effective way to reduce and prevent juvenile crime is to balance tough enforcement measures with targeted, effective prevention and intervention initiatives,″ Reno said.

States could get federal funds to alter their juvenile courts by trying 15-year-old suspects as adults for violent crimes, for example, or allowing prosecutors to decide whether a crime warrants trial in adult courts.

The issue now goes to the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee is preparing to work on a bill by Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that also envisions more adult trials of juvenile offenders.

The House bill’s chief sponsor was Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. He has said that rather than being thankful for falling crime rates, Americans should be bracing themselves for more violence sparked by an expected increase in the numbers of teen-agers over the next few years.

``The essence of what we’re doing today is to try to fix a juvenile justice system so the very bad are removed from society because they commit the most heinous of crimes that we have here,″ McCollum said. ``We need to be tough with them.″

About one-fifth of all violent crime _ including murders, rapes, armed robberies and assaults _ are committed by juveniles under 18, McCollum said.

Early offenses often go unpunished, teaching youngsters the wrong lesson, he said. Even when juveniles are convicted of serious violent crimes, he said, only one in 10 is incarcerated.

Minors were responsible for 14 percent of all violent crime in 1995, up from 10 percent in 1980, a recent Justice Department report found. In 1995, juveniles committed 9 percent of murders, 15 percent of forcible rapes, 20 percent of robberies and 13 percent of aggravated assaults, it said.

``This bill was meant to send a signal to these young people that they’re going to be treated like adults, and they have to be, especially because of the escalation of brutal juvenile crimes,″ Solomon said.

One opponent, freshman Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Texas, said that as a former judge, he knows from hearing thousands of juvenile cases that ``some children absolutely must be incarcerated.″

``But if we think that merely by incarcerating children that we’re going to solve these problems, we’re wrong,″ he said. ``If we think it will serve as a deterrent, we’re fooling ourselves.″

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