It's Time to Hold Kids Accountable for Their Crimes

Last month's tragic sniper attack at a middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and the past weekend's shooting at an eighth-grade dance in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, provided extraordinary opportunities for sociologizing about the causes of youth crime. The usual suspects were trotted out: violence-drenched movies and television, the spread of urban ills to rural America, easy access to firearms, and the decline of the two-parent family.

There may be truth in such explanations, but they offer little practical help. The immediate question is, how can we improve school safety, and perhaps reduce overall youth crime too?

Superintendent Rod Paige of the Houston Independent School District just reported a 22 percent decline in violent crimes on HISD campuses. Many of these facilities are in the inner city, yet this academic year through March there were only 18 robberies reported (down from 26 a year earlier), 18 aggravated assaults (down from 20), and no murder or rapes reported this year or last.

Why? First, Paige cites nearly 200 uniformed police officers patrolling HISD schools, and second, a contract that has allowed the district to place 450 disruptive students in private schools. Lamar High School Student Council President Michael Waters also cites increased police patrols, higher administrator and teacher visibility, and proactive students.

The irony is that kids often are safer in inner-city schools with armed security present than in suburban and rural schools attempting to be "gun-free" zones. Guns in public safety's adult hands constitute "surefire" crime prevention. Look at the 11-year-old and 13-year-old shooters at Jonesboro, and then again at the 14-year-old shooter in Edinboro: they rationally stopped shooting when law enforcement or an armed citizen showed up. It's one thing to shoot at the defenseless, another to risk deadly return fire. Incentives matter.

Jonesboro exposed another shortcoming, namely the juvenile justice system itself. The system has never been interested in the administration of justice and the numbers show it.

While the rate of violent crimes and burglaries has generally declined nationwide during the `90s, the rate of violent crime by young people has risen sharply since 1985. And the FBI predicts that violent crimes committed by juveniles will more than double again by the year 2010.

A major reason crime has dropped among adults is that they increasingly realize that the justice system will make them pay for their bad decisions. Kids must learn the same thing.

What causes crime anyway? That's easy: the guilty criminal does! He (93 percent of offenders are male) is a free moral agent who, confronted with a choice between right and wrong, chooses to do wrong, even if only for a brief period in his life. He refuses to respect the rights of others to be secure in their lives and possessions.

The reasons juvenile crime has boomed are twofold: 1) more youths than ever are effectively growing up as barbarians, failing to learn the minimum ethics required for peaceful cooperation, and 2) crime pays for too many youths – they usually pay a low price even when caught.

The primary obstacle to reform is the juvenile justice system itself. The system was founded on false premises because it seeks to shield youths from the consequences of their own actions.

This good-intentions approach displaces the guidance of parents, church, school, and community, but also violates the fundamental principles of justice. Youth should not be an excuse. As Judge Ralph Adam Fine of Wisconsin writes, "We keep our hands out of the flame because it hurt the very first time (not the second, fifth or tenth time) we touched the fire."

Punishment is right and just if apportioned to the gravity of the crime. It's not just about practical consequences or inconveniencing offenders. Punishment is a language: it sends messages, it has a vocabulary, and it delivers its message if backed by real action. Punishment is fundamentally about moral condemnation.

The current juvenile justice system sends the message that victims' lives have no real value if taken by a child. It is an outrage that a young criminal can ambush an entire school, taking multiple innocent lives, and then get to start all over when he turns 18 and is released from juvenile detention. The public cries out for moral accountability. Egregious acts of violence perpetrated by young criminals will continue to rise until that cry is answered affirmatively. And responsible schools, too, must rely on the real safety of armed, defensive force, as the Houston school district has effectively demonstrated.