Making a Federal Case of Juvenile Crime

Commentary by Pete du Pont

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis - a 1930's socialist frozen in time - and I actually agree on something: that Congress is not the place to solve the nation's juvenile crime problem. For that matter, others can be found all across the political spectrum who share that view - no doubt for different reasons.

All sides acknowledge that juvenile crime, both current and predicted, is indeed a big concern across the country. The violent crime rate among young people has nearly doubled since 1985, and the FBI predicts that the number of violent juvenile crimes will more than double again by 2010, partly because there will be more juveniles.

Where we differ is on the reasons Congress ought not to be involved. Those on the left say the juvenile crime bill passed by the House encourages harsh treatment of young criminals when Congress ought to be pouring money into programs to prevent juvenile crime before it occurs.

A noble goal, perhaps, but those critics miss the real point. Just at the time that Congress is - rightly - turning over to state and local governments major responsibility for such programs as welfare, it is proposing to assume more responsibility for dealing with juvenile crime, which is almost entirely a state and local matter.

Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced juvenile crime bills in both the House and the Senate. A House bill has already been passed.

There is plenty that needs to be done to combat violent juvenile crime. Young thugs have been taking advantage of the current juvenile justice system for too long, and literally have gotten away with murder. Unless there is a reasonable expectation of punishment when a crime is committed, too many juveniles (or adults for that matter) will continue to conclude that the cost is low enough to justify committing a crime.

But none of that changes the fact that the federal government is only marginally involved. U.S. attorneys prosecute no more than a couple of hundred juveniles a year. And crime, with just a few constitutional exceptions, is a state matter. So why is Congress making this a federal issue? Because people are concerned about crime and politicians believe passing a crime bill means votes.

The juvenile crime bill already passed by the House would send federal money - $1.5 billion of it - to state and local governments that agree to toughen their treatment of juveniles. The money would go out in block grants of $500 million a year for three years, and would require only 10% matching funds. This money can be used for a number of purposes, including hiring judges, public defenders, prosecutors and juvenile corrections personnel. The law would also subsidize new "gun courts" and "drug courts" for juveniles charged with crimes involving guns or drugs.

So what happens after three years? Will the block grants continue, or will state and local governments have to find new ways to pay for continuing the heavy commitments they have made?

More difficult is that a bill passed by the House would set up federal "Armed Youth Criminal Apprehension Task Forces" to get violent armed juvenile criminals off the street. It would give U.S. attorneys the authority to decide whether serious juvenile crimes should be tried in federal courts or turned over to state courts. Do we really need this much legislation to deal with the handful of juveniles handled today by the federal system? No; what is happening here is another federal seizure of state authority. Giving U.S. attorneys this measure of control over state courts is a significant, and unwarranted, broadening of federal power and diminishment of federalism principles.

Our friends on the left don't want tougher treatment of juvenile criminals, contending that what is really needed is more social and prevention programs. On the right the need is seen to be tougher prosecution of criminals to deter crime.

But right or left, the place to set juvenile policy is our state capitols, not the nation's capitol.