When juvenile crime rates soared in the mid-1990 s, nearly every state began prosecuting and incarcerating minors as adults. But the rise in crime quickly turned into a steady decline, and by 1997 the juvenile homicide rate had dropped to its lowest level in 25 years. But occasional schoolyard shootings and other high-profile incidents of youth violence have kept the nation's focus on juvenile crime. As a result, most states still have tough juvenile justice laws, and many states continue to treat juvenile offenders as incorrigible adults, including many charged with non-violent offenses. Prosecutors say strict laws are still necessary to protect the public, but critics say such policies cause grave harm to the nation's youth - and to society at large. Life quickly went downhill for 15-year-old Anthony Laster of West Palm Beach, Fla.

, after he grabbed $2 in lunch money from a classmate. When word of the schoolyard incident reached local prosecutor Barry E. Krischer, he decided to charge Anthony as an adult - even though the youth was mentally disabled and communicated on the level of a 5-year-old. [1] The charges were strong-arm robbery and extortion, and under Florida's tough juvenile justice system Anthony faced the extraordinary prospect of life in an adult prison. Meanwhile, because his family could not afford his $500 bail, he spent four weeks in the county jail. Soon after the CBS television show "60 Minutes II" took an interest in the case, the charges against Anthony were dropped.

But Krischer's office said the media spotlight had nothing to do with the dismissal. The charges were dropped, according to a court brief, because Anthony's victim recanted his original statement that he had been threatened with physical violence. Krischer was unapologetic, however, about bringing charges in the first place. "The state [draws] the line when there is a threat of physical violence," said Michael Edmondson, a spokesman for the state attorney's office. "The intent is to show [juveniles] there will be an absolute consequence to their actions." [2] What happened to Anthony had its roots in the drug-related juvenile crime wave of the late 1980 s and the series of high-profile school shootings that began in the late 1990 s. The crime wave prompted some experts to predict that a new breed of youthful "super predators" had arrived on the national scene.

In response, nearly every state passed laws making it easier for minors to be prosecuted and incarcerated as adults. Sensational youth crimes still occasionally occur, but the 21 st century has not given rise to the murderous rampage that some experts had forecast. On the contrary, by 1997 the juvenile homicide rate had already plummeted to its lowest level in 25 years. Still, the nation's revamped juvenile justice system continues to treat multitudes of juvenile delinquents as incorrigible adult criminals, including large numbers of minors charged with non-violent offenses. Prosecutors defend such policies, but many legal analysts and social policy experts say they are inflicting grave harm on the nation's youth - and on society at large.

As for Anthony Laster, they say the schoolyard incident should have been handled at the principal's office. "This movement toward trying kids as adults has encompassed almost our entire juvenile justice debate, which has allowed many politicians to ignore the fact that America's juvenile justice system stinks," says Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "But we never get to discuss that because all our leaders want to talk about is the kid who shot up his high school, and how many more kids they want to prosecute as adults." Between 1992 and 1999, largely in response to a short-lived spike in violent juvenile crime, all but one state enacted or expanded legislation making it easier -or even mandatory - for youths under 18 to be tried as adults. [3] In 1997, for instance, of those teenagers who ran afoul of the law and were adjudicated, 9 percent - mostly minority youths - were referred to adult court.

[4] Many prosecutors and lawmakers say the laws permitting adult charges for juveniles were long overdue. "We need laws that allow for adult prosecution of juvenile offenders when they commit violent crimes," says James C. Back strom, co-chairman of the National District Attorneys Association's juvenile justice committee. "I think it's entirely legitimate that some of the changes that we saw in the 1990 s allowed us to place more emphasis on public safety, rather than what's in the best interests of the juvenile.".