Fifteen-year-old Tonya Kline had been caught skipping school and shoplifting repeatedly, but it was a burglary attempt that landed the curly-haired blonde before South Carolina Judge Wayne Creech this past December. Instead of the familiar sentencing alternatives, however, Judge Creech opted for a rather novel punishment: Kline would be chained to her mother 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a month. Kline's offenses are not the worst that teens offer up nor is her punishment the most severe, but the sentence epitomizes the absolute desperation of the juvenile justice system. The fact that her mother had to be hospitalized after three weeks for a drug overdose sparked by the stress of being leashed to her daughter serves as a perversely fitting metaphor: The system, literally at its wit's end, sinks into collapse, giving up long before its charges are ready to.
A new Justice Department study underscores the disturbing increase and severity of juvenile crime. The number of juveniles arrested for serious offense rose from 83,400 in 1983 to 129,600 in 1992; the number of murders committed by teens doubled. Currently, a quarter of all weapons arrests are of teenagers, and the worst is yet to come. The expected bulge in the teenage population presents a "ticking violent crime bomb," the nonpartisan Council on Crime in America recently warned.
It's not surprising that growing panic over an explosion of Clockwork Orange Droogs has sparked competition for the toughest crackdown. Just before Christmas, New York Governor George Pataki proposed new legislation to lengthen juvenile sentences and put more minors in adult prisons. Hawaii is now the only state in the union that treats all kids under 16 as juveniles.
These legal shifts do not result only from political grandstanding; they reflect a transformation in what people believe to be teenagers' very nature. In the past, juvenile delinquents were primarily seen as children temporarily gone astray. If anything, the thrust of the 20th century's juvenile justice system has been to protect 13, 14, or 15-year-olds so that they wouldn't be forever dogged by youthful indiscretions. Now teenagers are seen as scarier, more vicious and more impulsive than adults, capable of serenely blasting someone's head off for wearing the wrong jacket or the wrong expression. The juvenile justice system is returning to a 19th century model in which the crime, not the kid, determines the treatment, and there is...