McCollum's hard cell

Bill McCollum made headlines again this week for cracking down on juvenile crime. As ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee McCollum, the Republican from Longwood has made it his mission to sound the alarm about the great juvenile crime wave. And the Sentinel goes along.

McCollum says teenage thugs are not sufficiently punished. He says the state's lack of a credible deterrent gives them license to do more crimes. He proposes harsher sanctions, more transfers of teen-agers to adult court, more kiddie jails. He holds up $1.5 billion for states who adopt his punitive program. There's only one problem with McCollum's theory.

It is wrong.

It is wrong.

Although juvenile felonies have increased over the past five years, the most serious categories -- murder, rape, armed robbery -- are falling. Assaults are up, but the main categories of serious crimes rising among juveniles involve drug possession.

In Florida, arrests for felony marijuana possession more than doubled between 1991 and 1996. Non marijuana misdemeanor arrests increased by more than six times, and pot misdemeanors doubled.

McCollum says only 10 percent of youths convicted of murder, rape, robbery and assault spend any time behind bars.

Wrong again.

Wrong again.

According to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, more than 25 percent of children arrested for those charges either serve time in a juvenile prison or are transferred to adult court, and 44 percent are detained before trial, often for months, guilty or not.

Among children accused of murder, just seven percent are committed by the juvenile courts to juvenile jails. But more than 87 percent are shipped to adult court, where they are usually convicted and sentenced to serve time in juvenile jails. In the 1995-1996 year 104 children were accused of murder and 98 were either committed or tried as adults. More than 60 percent of Florida's accused youthful armed robbers are either committed or sent to adult court.

And the rates of incarceration and transfer to adult court -- where studies show youthful offenders are sentenced to less time behind bars than if they were kept in the juvenile system -- are rising. Florida leads the nation in sending children into the adult justice system, but serious researchers have found the strategy questionable.

The daily paper quoted some McCollum critics who noted the enduring popularity of get-tough-on-crime proposals, but they didn't correct McCollum's errors. Television news leaves the impression that youths are predators, committing, in the words of the congressman, "some of the most heinous acts in the country." But murder charges amount to less than one-tenth of one percent of all the cases referred to the Florida juvenile justice system, and more children were transferred to adult court last year for shoplifting, petty larceny, trespassing and loitering (147) than for murder (91). More were imprisoned for those misdemeanors than for murder, rape and robbery together.

"The juvenile justice system in America is broken," McCollum says. He's right. But the congressman's sound-bite theories about crime and punishment are more dangerous than all the "super predators" his fevered imagination can conjure. And he's likely to conjure some directly with this bill.

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