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The Juvenile Court
Reflections on the 100th anniversary
In 1999, 100 years after the establishment of the nations first juvenile court in Cook County (Chicago), Illinois, nearly all states have succeeded in passing sweeping legislation to criminalize or adultify their juvenile justice systems. Virtually every state now makes it far easier to transfer juveniles to adult court, hold them in adult jails, and sentence them to adult prisons. Most require judges to impose harsher and longer sentences than ever before. The results of these changes are alarming. Last year nearly 18,000 youths spent time in adult prisons, 20 percent mixed with the general adult population. On any given day 7,000 to 8,000 youth are held in adult jails nationwide. In many states juvenile records are no longer sealed and some even allow juvenile offenses to be counted in Three Strikes legislation. Federal juvenile justice bills now pending (S. 254 and H.R. 1501) promise more of the same. The states, and sadly the public, have bought into the notion long advanced by tough-on-crime ideologues, that juvenile offenders should be treated as criminals who happen to be young, not children who happen to be criminal.
As someone who has worked with delinquent and disadvantaged youth in many settingsfrom juvenile and adult prisons to alternative programs for at risk teenagers to inner-city schoolsI am deeply troubled by such measures. One hundred years ago Jane Addams and a group of visionary women dedicated themselves to saving children from the adult jails and prisons to which they had been previously confined. These reformers rejected the dominant philosophy of their day, which viewed children as mini adults. They tried to create a new vision of childhood as a sacred period of life during which youth should be nurtured and supported. They dreamed of establishing a court where troubled children would have access to a full array of specialized treatment services. Following their example, the juvenile court idea spread rapidly across the country and around the world. Tragically, childrens advocates are still fighting many of the same battles as did the founders of the juvenile court.
Todays misguided efforts to toughen up the juvenile justice system are built on several dangerous myths and misconceptions. The first, popularized by Princeton Professor John Dilulio, is the belief that we are confronted by a new generation of super predators who are far beyond the rehabilitative capabilities of the juvenile court. The second is that we are experiencing an unprecedented wave of juvenile crime. Paradoxically, both myths have demonstrated tremendous staying power despite six straight years of declining juvenile crime rates.
Juveniles are far less violent than we have been led to believe. Nationwide, violent offenses account for only 5 percent of all juvenile arrests, according to the FBls Uniform Crime Report. Homicide represents less than 0.1 percent. Instead, juveniles are far more likely to be arrested for non-violent property offenses (38 percent) and so-called status offenses such as underage drinking, running away, loitering, and curfew violations (18 percent). Time honored juvenile offenses such as disorderly conduct and vandalism each represent another 6 percent of juvenile arrests. Interestingly, these misperceptions about youth are nothing new. In The Cycle of Juvenile Justice, historian Thomas J. Bernard shows how over the past 200 years each generation has believed that juveniles were committing more frequent and more serious crimes than juveniles 30 or 40 years earlier.
Crime statistics are enormously complicated. In particular, the FBls Uniform Crime Report (UCR) is notoriously unreliable and easily affected by small changes in reporting and processing procedures. For example, aggravated assault, which represents the largest category of so-called violent juvenile offenses, is a catch-all category that can include school yard fist fights as well as cases of only threatened, but not actual, harm. Moreover, today police are far more likely to arrest juveniles than they were 20 years ago. Thus an increase in arrests does not necessarily indicate an increase in real rates of juvenile crime. Juvenile arrest rates are also misleading in several other ways. Children are far more likely to commit crimes in groups, thereby generating multiple arrests for a single offense. Children are also far more likely to be arrested on weaker evidence than adults, and thus a large percentage of juvenile arrests are later dismissed. Because of this, clearance rates (the number of crimes for which juveniles are actually charged and turned over to the court for prosecution) are far more accurate than arrest rates. What do these clearance rates reveal? That since 1972 the amount of serious property crime committed by youth has remained stable, if not declined. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted annually by the Department of Justice has also documented a steady decline in most types of crime, although the NCVS is cited far less frequently than the FBls UCR by news reporters.
Juvenile murder rates provide the major exception. While juvenile homicide arrests tripled between 1984 and 1993, they have declined by over 40 percent since then. Yet here again such arrest figures are highly misleading and contribute to our distorted view of juvenile crime. Many of these murder arrests were subsequently dropped by prosecutors, a clear indicator of lack of evidence and, presumably, lack of guilt. For example, although youths age 13 to 15 constituted 4.2 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for 4.2 percent of all homicide arrests in 1995, in the end they were charged (i.e., legally prosecuted) for homicide in only 2.4 percent of all cases. Even if we look at a broader age range, youth age 13 to 17 are not overrepresented in terms of murder rates. Constituting 8.2 percent of the population, they were cleared for 8 percent of all homicides in 1996. Moreover, the 1980s increase in homicide arrests was entirely restricted to gun violence. The number of youth arrested for non-gun related murders has actually declined since 1976. Thus, one might conclude that it is the far greater availability of lethal weapons, rather than a new generation of super predators, that is primarily responsible for the 1986-1993 increase in juvenile homicide arrests.
Even when we look closely at the so-called serious youthful offendersthe ones being sent to prisonwe find large numbers of non-violent cases. The majority sentenced to juvenile prisons are committed for property and drug-related offenses; many are housed in small, non-secure facilities. Similarly, nationwide two thirds of youth transferred to adult criminal court were charged with non-violent offenses in 1996: 45 percent for property crimes; 12 percent drugs offenses; and 9 percent for vaguely-defined public order offenses.
Whereas the juvenile court was originally empowered to act in the best interests of the child, perhaps by devising an alternative to a prison sentence if the judge determined it would do more harm than good for a particular child, such individualized justice has been significantly reduced. Todays automatic transfer laws mandate that a juvenile who commits a certain type of offense must automatically be prosecuted in adult court, regardless of the circumstances.
As we toughen up juvenile justice we are only sweeping up ever-larger numbers of non-violent offenders, who are overwhelmingly disadvantaged African-American and Latino youth, into an increasingly harsh and punitive system. Increasingly it is a system in which funding cutbacks mean they are even less likely to be provided with any real rehabilitative or treatment programs. For example, the education program which allowed me to teach for five years within the Illinois prison system is no longer eligible for federal funding.
Nor is there any evidence that these get tough policies work. In fact, quite the opposite appears to be the case. Children who are tried in adult courts are more likely to commit new crimes, and more serious crimes, than similar kids who are treated in juvenile court. Conversely, although the public is led to believe that juvenile court is simply a revolving door where the same youthful offenders appear over and over again, receiving only an ineffective slap on the wrist, most children (60 percent) who are arrested and referred to juvenile court never appear again, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice study.
These are the successes that we rarely hear about. Most youth need only one encounter with the law to shake them up. For others the juvenile court succeeds in providing a caring probation officer, a special program, or counseling services that offer the support they need. I have worked closely with juveniles convicted of serious crimes, including murder. They are not the embodiments of unredeemable evil that the label super predator suggests. Many are desperately reaching out for adult guidance.
However, in jurisdictions such as Los Angeles where juvenile probation caseloads reached 500 per officer and virtually all treatment programs were eliminated in the 1990s, it is not surprising that such success stories have become far fewer. Instead, Californias juvenile prisons, like those in many states, are bursting at their seams as more and more juveniles are sentenced to prison for non-violent offenses.
The original vision of the juvenile court was to give kids a second chance. To allow them to make mistakes without being penalized for life. Most of us who have worked with troubled youth know that hope, not fear, is what leads to real rehabilitation and change. Those who have no hope of a future, those who see no life of possibility ahead, are far less likely to be deterred, no matter how harsh the penalties we impose. In the past, most youth, even those heavily involved in criminal activity, often moved away from crime by their mid-20s as they matured. But this is only possible if we offer them the chance to pursue more honest means of making a living and jobs which offer a living wage, opportunities that will be increasingly limited if we expose their juvenile records to schools, future employees, and the military. Many inner city, poor, and minority youth can already report how a single arrest cost them a job.
The underlying causes of, and real solutions to, juvenile crime often lie far outside the justice system. As a society we have failed to provide the resources so that all children might enjoy the same educational, social, cultural, and economic opportunities. Opportunities that might reduce the allure of crime, drugs, gangs, and delinquency. Instead, we have chosen to retreat to the suburbs, build more walled and gated communities, send our own children to private schools. In the end, our current get tough policies have only served to polarize our society even more, rending even deeper the divisions of race and class which grow ever more intractable. Z
Mara Dodge teaches history at Westfield State College, MA. She is a long-time activist around prison and criminal reform and is currently working on a book, Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind: Women, Crime, and Prisons in Illinois, 1833-1940.