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THE SENATE'S RIGID APPROACH TO JUVENILE OFFENDERS ISN'T THE WAY TO REDUCE CRIME

Bill Clinton is not the only potential lawbreaker whose fate might rest in the hands of the Senate this election year. In fact, in terms of broad social impact, he's not even the most important.

Before or shortly after its Easter break, the Senate will weigh a juvenile-crime bill guaranteed to produce more criminals rather than turn the nation's wayward kids around. But it may sneak through with little fanfare while the country is preoccupied with whether Clinton should be impeached for groping and fibbing.

While it may be too late for a 51-year-old president to change, the same can't be said for many kids. That's why everyone from coalitions of police chiefs and prosecutors to juvenile-justice advocates thinks Congress is on the wrong path with the Senate's juvenile-crime proposal.

The bill's main impact would be to assure that more teens get tried as adults. It also would erase protections that insure that they don't get tossed into adult prisons where they might be assaulted or tutored by rapists and murderers.

The bill also would let juvenile records follow a kid for life instead of allowing a second chance after some youthful non-violent mistakes. Even status offenders -- runaways, truants, etc. -- would be affected by provisions allowing them to be jailed.

The bill would accomplish all of that by giving states $2.5 billion in "incentive" grants to follow Washington's advice on how to treat kid offenders, even though that advice is at odds with what works.

Granted, some young criminals are incorrigible and have earned prison. And murders like those in Arkansas this week won't do much to soften attitudes toward wayward youth.

But many more can be turned around if caught in time and given the chance. After all, the possibility of rehabilitating kids is the whole idea behind having a separate juvenile system in the first place and giving judges some discretion.

That's why groups like Fight Crime: Invest in Kids -- a national coalition of police, prosecutors and crime victims -- are pushing an entirely different approach from the Senate's misguided attempt.

The group is armed with studies proving what law-abiding adults already know from reflecting on their own early years: Most kids, if given alternatives to the street life, don't end up as street thugs.

It's a common-sense approach to preventing crime; but sometimes common sense doesn't count for much in Washington. So the coalition augments that with data to prove its point. It cites studies like the one in Michigan that found that at-risk tykes given quality pre-school programs like Head Start were five times less likely to turn out as chronic lawbreakers two decades later.

Or the one in Baltimore that found that wrongdoing in a high-crime neighborhood dropped 42 percent after police there started an after-school program. Or the one in Philadelphia in which kids randomly assigned to a program offering academic and life-skills counseling and financial incentives were far less likely than peers to get into trouble during their high-risk years.

With that kind of data, it's no wonder Northeastern University got a singular response when it surveyed police chiefs on the most effective long-term strategy for reducing crime. The chiefs overwhelmingly picked investing in prevention programs. Hiring more cops and trying more kids as adults weren't even close seconds.

Even Republican Sen. Arlen Specter -- a former prosecutor and hardly soft on crime -- argued for federal funding to be designated for prevention programs when the Judiciary Committee passed this misguided bill. Specter lost, but he vowed to renew the battle on the Senate floor.

Pam Allen, public policy director for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, touched on part of the reason the Senate is on this tack when she cited a public perception that too many kids get off too easy under the juvenile system. But she said young offenders don't necessarily get longer sentences in adult courts, and the recidivism rate is higher for those sent there.

"So if you're looking for an impact on crime, that doesn't work," she said of the bill's approach, which would take discretion from judges in most serious cases.

But maybe the public is starting to wise up. Buffalo Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske recognizes that a balance is needed between preventive and criminal-justice approaches. His department benefited from a federal program that paid Yale University experts to train cops to help Buffalo kids who've been exposed to violence, so they don't get caught up in the cycle. He sees the public tide turning ever so slightly.

"I hear from a lot of conservative people that the bills are starting to come due," he says, referring to the cost of locking up a kid for several years versus the cost of keeping him out of trouble in the first place.

He notes that California and Florida now spend more on their prison systems than on higher education.

"That should be a wake-up call," the police chief says.

But will it be, when the Senate starts talking about crime and punishment instead of about crime and prevention?

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