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Taking a preventive tack with teen crime

It is a fascinating paradox of current politics that the further removed an official is from the front lines of the war on crime, the tougher he is likely to talk. That is particularly the case when it comes to violence by juveniles, a genuine problem that Americans rightly find alarming.

When Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole talked about the issue in a radio address earlier this month, he promised to crack down on these "merciless criminals capable of committing the most vicious acts for the most trivial reasons: a pair of sneakers or a football jersey."

When President Clinton responded a few days later, he spoke in ominous tones of the fact that in the last two decades, "the number of homicides by teens who have guns has tripled."

Both said that prosecutors should have much more leeway to try juveniles charged with serious crime as adults. "If a teenager commits a crime as an adult," Clinton said, "he should be prosecuted as an adult." Before leaving the Senate, Dole introduced legislation to allow adult prosecutions of people as young as 13 and the death penalty for 16-year-olds.

But when a cross section of police chiefs was surveyed recently by Northeastern University's Center for Criminal Justice Policy on the effectiveness of four different approaches to reducing crime and violence, the least favored option was the one candidates Dole and Clinton have endorsed _ and many governors already have put into effect. Only 14 percent of the 540 chiefs surveyed chose the policy of trying more juveniles as adults and sentencing more of them to adult prisons.

About the same number said hiring additional police officers would be the best tool and a somewhat larger group said the priority should be making parents legally liable when their children commit crimes.

But the overwhelming majority _ three out of every four big city chiefs and three out of five in the overall sample _ said the best way to reduce crime and violence is to increase investment in programs that help all children and youths get a good start.

These findings were reported at a Washington press briefing last week by a new advocacy group calling itself Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, run by veteran liberal activist Sanford Newman. Press conference participants included the police chiefs of Chicago and Buffalo, the former chiefs of New York City, Detroit and Washington and the head of the largest police organization, the Fraternal Order of Police.

A cynic might argue that the liberals and the chiefs _ who are, after all, mostly mayoral appointees _ have just found new rhetoric to support the old programs that pump federal money into the cities. But the cynical view will not withstand the hardheaded sincerity of people like Gil Kerlikowske, the Buffalo police chief, who complained that "the preventive programs are getting lost because everyone (in politics) is trying to grow hair on his chest in this election year."

What he means is well illustrated by the juvenile crime bill Dole introduced. It would allocate $100-million a year for prevention programs run by community-based groups, including religious organizations, and four times that amount for investigating, prosecuting and jailing juvenile offenders. But the whole $500-million would be paid for by cutting "social-spending provisions" of the 1994 crime bill, including intensive after-school and family-counseling programs.

James Alan Fox, the Northeastern University center's director, presented studies from the criminology literature showing that intensive early intervention programs can reduce the later delinquency and criminal behavior of at-risk youths by as much as 80 percent. In Lansing, Mich., when police, schools and social service agencies began youth programs in a newly opened community center, the number of crimes in nearby neighborhoods was cut from 156 in 1990 to 40 in 1993.

I was skeptical about these case studies. But John DiIulio Jr. of Princeton, a scholar whose work is much admired by conservatives and who was not part of this group, told me that "the more scientific the study, the stronger the link and the more positive the results. We now can say with some confidence that programs that get responsible adults involved with at-risk kids can reduce later delinquency and crime."

That is of enormous importance, because teenagers now have the highest arrest rate for violent offense and in the next decade, the number of teenagers will explode. There are now 39-million children under age 10, the most since the 1950s.

Prosecuting today's teen criminals as adults may satisfy current political pressures, but we better be serious about preventing their younger brothers from becoming criminals _ or we are in big trouble.

Washington Post Writers Group