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It is not surprising that nine out of 10 adults polled recently by a New York public policy group think the current crop of America's children has failed to learn fundamental moral values. With violent juvenile crime rising rapidly even as overall crime figures are dropping, it is also not surprising that policy makers in both the Clinton administration and Congress have decided that something must be done.

What should be surprising, but sadly also is not, is that those policy makers have come up with a grab bag of "solutions" that range from obvious to ill-advised to just plain stupid, and that have almost no relation to the few public programs proven to effectively lower juvenile crime.

More than one-half to two-thirds of the adults questioned by Public Agenda were antagonistic and contemptuous of children, especially teen-agers.

Many were also afraid, and not without reason. The number of 14- to-17-year-olds arrested for murder has tripled in the last 10 years. Psychologists and criminologists have for some time been warning of a plague of "feral children" -- those now approaching their teen-age years after having been raised in one-parent homes, in deep poverty and often suffering from abuse and neglect. Periodic headlines of terrible crimes committed by such children reinforce the fear.

What to do about this plague of children without values, without respect for others or themselves? Predictably, Congress would have us punish them harder, more strictly and for longer periods. A bill to entice with $1.5 billion in federal money states willing to do so has sailed easily through the House and will likely get through the Senate.

Since President Clinton has decided to become a Republican on such issues, the grants will soon be going out to states that punish juveniles over 15 in adult courts, impose more serious penalties on them and make the whole juvenile justice process more public. Oh, yes, the bill would also encourage states to punish parents who do not sufficiently supervise their convicted minor children.

A separate drive is under way to put convicted juveniles into adult prisons, while yet other "get-tough" advocates would scrap the entire juvenile court system across the country.

So what's wrong with getting tough with juvenile criminals? As usual, nothing, except that it doesn't work. Those states that have already instituted some or all of these measures can show absolutely no drop in juvenile crime. In fact, a study in Florida found that juveniles thrown into adult prisons went back to crime more quickly on release, and committed both more crimes and more serious crimes than those who were sent to juvenile institutions.

The study does not say how many of those juveniles were instantly and repeatedly raped as soon as they arrived in the adult prisons. Neither prison officials nor lawmakers like to compile those kinds of statistics.

In Boston, where police cracked down on gun sales and violent gangs and supported recreational and counseling programs, juvenile killings dropped 80 percent in five years. No youth has died in a shooting in that city in more than a year.

Even though the rise in violent juvenile crime can be so immediately and directly tied to the universal availability of guns, our legislative leaders cannot bring themselves to contemplate the idea that making guns harder to get might reduce the level of crime.

Nor have I heard anyone recently quoting that most famous line from the old comic strip Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us." We brought this crime wave on ourselves, with massive neglect of 20 percent of our children, by allowing the near-complete degeneration of our inner-city schools and by considering it more important to cut next year's budget for this or that than to find, fund and encourage programs and services that actually help children.

The real moral failure is not our children's. It's ours.

King Features Syndicate

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