Gun Debate Overwhelms Juvenile Justice Bill

June 11, 1999 12:00 am

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Friday, June 11, 1999

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today warned that Congress is poised to vote on legislation that threatens decades of progress in dealing with juvenile crime while public attention is swept up in the partisan wrangling over gun control.

“This bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “It purports to be about guns, but the vehicle for the gun debate has become a mean-spirited measure that would have us lock up 13-year-old children with adults and contains an assortment of other draconian and ineffective punishments for kids in crisis.”

Murphy’s comments came at a news conference held by Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), civil rights and children’s advocacy groups, to call attention to H.R. 2037, the House GOP’s version of juvenile justice legislation recently passed by the Senate. The bill, sponsored by Representative Bill McCollum (R-FL), bypassed committee hearings and instead will likely be voted on by the full House next week.

Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel, said the bill would ultimately do exactly the opposite of what its supporters intend. It places children in danger by allowing 13-year-olds to be funneled into the federal adult criminal system, but provides no guarantee that they will be protected from adult criminals in prison.

“Handing prosecutors the power to arbitrarily decide to send a 13-year-old through the adult system will do nothing to prevent crime,” said King. “It will only bring us closer to a ‘Wild West’ system of justice, where the prosecutors whims are the law of the land.”

The legislation would also enable schools, employers and others to view juvenile crime records. “These records are closed now so rehabilitated children are not punished for crimes like shoplifting for the rest of their lives,” King said. “This legislation makes it impossible for children to put their pasts behind them and become productive members of society.”

“By blocking any ability for children to reform themselves, the bill would inevitably result in more hardened career criminals,” Murphy said. “Without any hope of rehabilitation, even kids who receive 20-year sentences may emerge into society as angry 33-year-old adults with no social skills, education or prospects and more likely to commit another crime.”

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