The Juvenile Court

In 1999, 100 years after the establishment of the nation’s 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
settings—from juvenile and adult prisons to alternative programs for “at
risk” teenagers to inner-city schools—I 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, children’s
advocates are still fighting many of the same battles as did the founders
of the juvenile court.

Today’s 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 FBl’s 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 FBl’s 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 FBl’s 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 offenders—the
ones being sent to prison—we 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.
Today’s “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, California’s 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.

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.