Gun-loaded Juvenile Crime Bill a No-Show

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The House and Senate juvenile justice legislation, passed with so much fanfare in late summer, didn't make final cut during the first session of the 106th Congress.

"It was such a lousy bill," said a Democratic Capitol Hill source, "that despite half-hearted attempts at getting it to [Senate-House] conference, most people in both parties didn't want it to become law."

Focused as they were on piety, purity and punishment (allowing the prosecution of 13-year-olds as adults, recommending public building displays of the Ten Commandments, forbidding under-17s from interacting with R-rated Internet offerings and video games), the bills "still represented a lost opportunity to do something positive to address youth violence,"observed a disappointed Miriam Rollin, public policy director for the D.C.-based National Network for Youth.

The bills also focused on guns. Gun control provisions were included in the Senate's Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999, but were separated in the House into H.R. 1150 (which required a separate vote). A final bill reported out of the conference committee - charged with coming up with one bill to present to both houses - would have had to combine elements of all three pieces of legislation. But after a one-time-only "introductory" session in August, the House-Senate conferees never met again. Republican presidential candidate Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chairman of the conferees, chose not to hold another session.

"It was bullets killed the beast," cracked another Hill source, who claimed that the National Rifle Association, an opponent of the gun restrictions, "leaned on" Hatch and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a foe of the gun regulations and a member of the House Republican leadership.

But hope for a new and better bill early in Congress' next session (during the 2000 election year) still burns, if not bright, at least medium-flame. "The bill is not dead, but in a coma," said Gordon Raley, executive director of the D.C.-based National Assembly and its Collaboration for Youth.

Capital Hill sources are equally optimistic, and also somewhat in agreement. A Democratic source said it is conceivable a House juvenile justice bill will "rise from the ashes free of encumbrances." By that he meant without the Ten Commandments, etc. A Republican source said, in effect, "Hallelujah" to that.

Contentious Columbine-influenced gun restrictions aside, other points of debate loomed if an effort had been made to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bills. The Senate bill authorized up to $460 million for prevention programs; the House bill left the total unclear. The Senate bill stipulated that 25 percent of the $500 million Juvenile Accountability Block Grant would have to be set aside for prevention; the House bill had no such requirement.

The bill that died in committee, Rollin pointed out, would have authorized a number of new programs for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and provided new grants for state and local governments for juvenile crime prevention and enforcement. Existing programs and grants that were authorized previously continue to be funded, receiving a total of $287 million in FY 2000.