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CNN Today

Crime and Punishment: Trend Toward Harsher Punishment for Young Violent Offenders Draws Heated Debate

Aired January 13, 2000 - 1:42 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: In recent years there's been a trend toward harsher punishment for young people accused of violent crimes.

CNN's Jennifer Auther with our report on that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JENNIFER AUTHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nathaniel Abraham was 11 years old when he shot and killed a stranger. He was tried in Michigan as an adult, convicted at 13. His case brings to light a trend in the U.S. to get tough on the most violent children. Now, Californians face a March 7 ballot initiative which seeks to lower to 14 the age at which a child can be tried as an adult without extenuating circumstances, the current age is 16.

GROVER TRASK, RIVERSIDE CO. DISTRICT ATTORNEY: It's going to reform the juvenile justice system in California to allow us to take a very small group of what we consider predators, juveniles, and move them into the adult system in a much more effective and efficient way.

AUTHER: Proponents argue, juvenile, gang-related crime is on the rise, but their argument is not supported by statistics from the U.S. Department of justice, the California Department of Justice, or the FBI.

According to the FBI, from 1994 to 1998, there was a 47 percent decrease in the number of kids arrested in the U.S. for murder and non-negligent manslaughter.

The California ACLU, other civil rights activists and church leaders are rallying against the initiative.

REV. MIKE KENNEDY, DOLORES MISSION CHURCH: This law comes in effect, closes the door, that's what we are doing.

AUTHER: Closing the door, Father Kennedy would argue, on kids like Carlos Avalos. He was tried as an adult at 16 with no prior arrests. He used a gun during a street fight, severely wounding someone.

MARTIN AVALOS, CONVICTED TEENAGER'S FATHER: We need programs like sports, kind of like work, after school. AUTHER: On the other side, victim's rights groups and widows, like Maggie Elvy (ph) of Sacramento. Two teenagers kill her husband Ross with a lead pipe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We need to make it so that victims don't have to wonder if this kid is going to back out on the at 25.

AUTHER: Juvenile court judge Robert Leventer says he opposes the measure because it would allow prosecutors to decide if a teenager should be tried as an adult.

JUDGE ROBERT LEVENTER, JUVENILE SUPERIOR COURT, LOS ANGELES COUNTY: We need someone who can exercise discretion, who is not going to be motivated by political considerations or conviction rate statistics.

AUTHER (on camera): At least 46 states in the U.S. have changed laws recently to allow juveniles to be tried as adults, According to Amnesty USA, 15 of those states allow prosecutors to make such a decision, 14 states have mandatory adult prosecution for teenagers charged with certain offenses.

Jennifer Auther, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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