Teaching America's Youth to Play by the Rules

By Joan Kirby

Native American golfer Notah Begay III - at twenty-seven, the first Native American to play the hallowed grounds of Augusta National's Masters Tournament - started two groundbreaking trends for youth this year. First, he was named the PGA's rookie of the year and competed in the Masters. Second, and more importantly, he faced career-threatening consequences to set an example for the youth in his community.

After being arrested in Albuquerque this January for his second drunk driving offense in five years, Begay defied his attorney's advice and pled guilty. With so few recent public examples of the take-responsibility-for-your-actions ethic, Begay broke the mold and served a seven-day jail sentence he might easily have persuaded the court to excuse. But Begay's buck didn't stop at the jail door. He faced a possible public affairs nightmare by playing in the Masters Tournament anyway, with no attempt to deflect the blame for his crime. He took responsibility by paying the price in full view of America's young Tiger Woods-inspired sports fans. And all of this in the face of stereotypes about Native Americans and alcohol consumption.

My own brother at sixteen, clearly middle class and Caucasian, was arrested years ago for vandalism. Bolstered by alcohol and the applause of his peers, he pulled a fire extinguisher off the wall, pointed the hose at public property and released the contents. When my father received the dreaded call from the station, he instructed the officers to let my brother stay in jail overnight to "memorize the jail room walls." That was the last time my brother broke the law. He now teaches in Maryland and has raised three wonderful children.

Consequences play a crucial role in deterring crime. According to Morgan Reynolds, director of the Criminal Justice Center for the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, increased "expected punishment" - the number of days in prison a typical criminal can expect to serve per crime - is the most important variable that explains the recent decline of serious crime in the United States. In his study, "Crime and Punishment in America: 1999," Dr. Reynolds reports that the annual murder rate dropped by 8 percent in 1998 and has finally returned to the lower rates of the 1960's. This downward trend is directly proportional to an increase in the number of murders reported, prosecuted, convicted, answered with jail time and served to conclusion.

My own brother at sixteen, clearly middle class and Caucasian, was arrested years ago for vandalism. Bolstered by alcohol and the applause of his peers, he pulled a fire extinguisher off the wall, pointed the hose at public property and released the contents. When my father received the dreaded call from the station, he instructed the officers to let my brother stay in jail overnight to "memorize the jail room walls." That was the last time my brother broke the law. He now teaches in Maryland and has raised three wonderful children.

Consequences play a crucial role in deterring crime. According to Morgan Reynolds, director of the Criminal Justice Center for the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, increased "expected punishment" - the number of days in prison a typical criminal can expect to serve per crime - is the most important variable that explains the recent decline of serious crime in the United States. In his study, "Crime and Punishment in America: 1999," Dr. Reynolds reports that the annual murder rate dropped by 8 percent in 1998 and has finally returned to the lower rates of the 1960's. This downward trend is directly proportional to an increase in the number of murders reported, prosecuted, convicted, answered with jail time and served to conclusion.

Juvenile criminals, offenders under age 18, have not been subject to the same rigorous consequences as adult criminals in America. It can be argued that a youth considering committing a serious crime - for example, the teen facing his father's gun cabinet imagining a murder scenario - does not feel the pressure from potential consequences to reconsider whether or not his or her actions will ultimately be worth the price. Without a significant deterrent and a high probability of actually paying that price, today's teen has no real incentive to reconsider pulling Dad's gun from the cabinet. The burden remains to establish a "clear and present" expected punishment for youth in order to reduce juvenile crime.

Congress has not been blind to the need to increase accountability for juvenile offenders. The "Juvenile Crime Bill," H.R. 1501, introduced by Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida on April 21st of 1999, which would provide necessary deterrents to youth crime, includes provisions for juvenile justice reform which would authorize juveniles aged 14 or older to be tried as adults for serious violent felonies, serious drug offenses, or other felony offenses it deems warranted. Juvenile offenders who committed their crimes at age16 or under could also be referred to juvenile court, where the court deems it appropriate. Individuals under age 18 would still be excluded from the death penalty.

The juvenile crime bill also includes crime prevention provisions which would make grants to states for local governments to develop ways to more effectively enforce juvenile crime laws already on the books, as well as develop a pilot program to prevent violent juvenile crimes. Other provisions would allow the Secretary of Education to allocate money to state and local education agencies to create ten demonstration projects, possibly in conjunction with the private sector, to create alternative educational services for "at risk" youth.

As promising as these provisions seem to a nation hungry to develop ways to keep its youth accountable in the aftermath of Columbine, the bill has been locked in the House and Senate Conference Committee since the Senate passed and amended it last July, due to disagreement over the controversial gun control provisions. If the only solution to the juvenile crime bill stalemate is to remove the gun control provisions from the bill, then it is imperative that the two issues be divorced so that the Juvenile Crime Bill can move forward on its own. Unfortunately, the Notah Begays - the role models for personal accountability for our youth -- are few and far between. It's time we grownups be responsible enough to step up to the plate and take action.