A few years ago Ben Wilson, rated the top high school basketball player in the nation, was gunned down on a Chicago sidewalk by two teenagers. Tried as adults, the young murderers received maximum penalties: 40 years to the one who did the shooting, and 30 years to his accomplice.

Aside from the prominence of the victim, what happened in this case is not unusual or confined to large cities. Instead of using the juvenile courts—a resource designed to meet the needs of young offenders—more and more young people are being tried as adults, then warehoused in prisons where their survival is uncertain. At a cost to the taxpayers of nearly $20,000 a year, such confinement is an expensive and tragic mistake.

This disregard for young offenders is not surprising, given the current demand for a get-tough approach to crime. Law and order is the order of the day. One of the best ways to get elected to public office is to promise swift and harsh treatment of convicted criminals, regardless of age. “We’re sacrificing several hundred young people a year on the altar of political ambition,” lamented one juvenile court official, decrying the number of midteen offenders remanded to the adult court system.

In our legitimate concern over increasing crime, we demand justice. But trying the young criminal as an adult may be counterproductive. A likely target for the more hardened criminal, the teenager sent to an adult prison faces sexual abuse, psychological torture, and death. If he survives his term, he returns to society more hardened and embittered than when sentenced. “Once you lock a juvenile up, you have lost a kid,” says Jack Browne, Cook County’s chief probation officer.

Christians have been just as outspoken in supporting this trend to ...

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