August 8, 1997 in City

Let Their Record, For Good Or Ill, Go With Them

C.W. Gusewelle New York Times
 

Somehow, over the years, the notions of responsibility for one’s own actions and lasting consequences for misbehavior fell out of favor among social theorists.

Every sort of wrongdoing - from robbery to rape, murder and pedophilia - could be explained. The offender was mentally disordered, or had been badly parented, or was the guiltless product of society’s ills.

Blame became unfashionable, replaced by the novel concept of the criminal as victim.

But the pendulum has swung again. Witness the increasing use of capital punishment, the Supreme Court’s support of state-enacted sexual predator laws, and, now, the effort in Congress to place sterner sanctions on serious misconduct by juveniles.

The legislative proposals would encourage states to impose harsher penalties on juveniles who commit serious crimes and also to make their convictions part of the permanent record, rather than wiping the slate clean when young criminals have reached the age of majority.

That there is growing public support for such measures hardly can be doubted.

In the name of immaturity, much can be forgiven, even forgotten. As a general rule, the irresponsibility of youth is self-correcting. But minor truancies are not the issue. The proposed law is concerned with offenses that, if committed by an adult, would be classed as felonies.

The service station attendant or convenience store clerk gunned down during a robbery is equally dead, whether the killer was 16 or 25. The woman assaulted in a parking lot is no less violated if her attackers turn out to be predatory adolescents.

There is ample evidence that violent and lawless youngsters tend to become, in due course, violent and lawless adults. Simply to expunge the record and send them forth unburdened by history to replicate their violence affronts common sense.

Yet some youth advocates are concerned about the hardening public mood and the possible legislative consequences. They worry that juvenile offenders will be lastingly stigmatized.

For one thing, the permanent record would be available to law enforcement agencies. For another, college admissions officers might look unfavorably on an applicant with a known history of felonious behavior. And a prospective employer, choosing among several candidates, might take a criminal conviction into account.

Where does it end? How long must the offender be dogged by the past? And who, eventually, might be allowed access to the juvenile record?

“Why not the neighbors?” one of the objectors asked.

That’s precisely the question, and it’s not rhetorical at all.

Why not?

The archaic concepts of responsibility and consequences are fast coming back in style.

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