Is There Hope for America’s Juvenile Justice System?

Wj-2pgWhile no one case should be considered a tipping point for rethinking and/or reforming America’s juvenile justice system, the horrific details of the injustice and torture visited upon Kalief Browder has brought a much-deserved spotlight on the system. In the spring of 2010, shortly before his seventeenth birthday, Browder was arrested for a robbery he maintained he didn’t commit. In court, Browder found out that he was being charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. His family couldn’t post the $3,000 bail. Browder was sent to New York’s notorious Riker’s Island Prison Complex to await trial. Browder would then spend more than 1,000 days at Rikers, including some 800 days in solitary confinement, before charges were eventually dropped.

“Insisting that he was innocent, he refused plea bargains that would have allowed him to go home, even as his case was delayed month after month. Videotapes show him being beaten by guards and other prisoners. He tried to commit suicide several times,” The New York Times reported. In July 2015, after he was released from Rikers, Browder succeeded in committing suicide. (For more details on the Browder case see The New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman’s two stories on Browder, titled “Before The Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life,” and “Kalief Browder, 1993–2015.”

America’s juvenile justice system had complicated and contradictory beginnings. While designers of the system, according to a new book by The Sentencing Project’s Ashley Nellis, had somewhat idealistic and hopeful goals, unfortunately, since it was designed for “other people’s children,” it quickly devolved into a dreadfully unjust and heartbreaking system.

An email from The Sentencing Project promoting Nellis’ book, titled A Return to Justice: Rethinking Our Approach to Juveniles in the System (Rowman and Littlefield), states: “First established with the recognition that children are less mature than adults, and that the processes in the juvenile system ought to shield youth from stigma and collateral consequences, the system’s designers favored a rehabilitative approach.” The early system, however, failed “youth of color, especially African Americans, [who] were poorly treated…: often housed separately from whites, subjected to grueling hard labor, and detained for longer periods than their white counterparts.”

While the 1950s and 1960s had their moments of panic regarding the highly publicized rise of juvenile delinquency, the “tough on crime” period, which began in the 1970s, took root in the 1990s when Princeton University professor John Dilulio came up with the term, “superpredator” to focus on “kids that have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future.” As I pointed out late last year in a piece titled “John Dilulio’s “Superpredator” Fear-Mongering Changed the U.S. Criminal Legal System and Locked Away a Generation of Black Youth.” DiIulio and cohorts–particularly James Alan Fox, the Northeastern University criminologist–described these young people as “fatherless, Godless, and jobless” and as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more teenage boys, who murder, assault, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs, and create serious [linked] disorders.”

When asked by The Crime Report’s David J. Krajicek why she wrote Return to Justice, Nellis, Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, stated that she had seen important “reforms…over the past 15 years…[including]: a decline in youth incarceration by half, elimination of the death penalty for youth, and restrictions on the use of life without parole sentences for juveniles, to name only a few.”

In the interview, Nellis also acknowledged that the “treatment of youth, particularly African-American youth, in the 1990s was misguided and fear-driven rather than science based.” While her book “catalogs significant reforms,” those reforms have not yet dealt with “the staggering racial disparities [that] have persisted despite overall declines in the use detention and secure placement for youth. Without truly addressing this reality and focusing specifically on reducing racial and ethnic disparities, lasting reform that treats all youth as equally deserving of rehabilitation is not likely.”

As research and data has improved, in some circles there has been a definite turnabout in thinking about juvenile justice. It is now understood that “the act of removing them from their school, family and community environment is extremely disruptive to normal development,” Nellis pointed out. “To the extent that youth who break the law can receive treatment in the community and maintain their ties to friends, school, and family, this should be attempted. Most research finds this to be the best approach.”

Late last month, President Obama “banned the practice of holding juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons, saying it could lead to ‘devastating, lasting psychological consequences,’” The New York Times reported. Obama, the newspaper pointed out, “said the change, along with expanded mental health treatment, would affect as many as 10,000 inmates in the federal system, about a tenth of those being held in solitary confinement in the United States, including in state prisons.”

While there is hope for change, Nellis acknowledged that it wouldn’t take much to stymie reforms: “As a society we have not truly faced the racial and ethnic disparities that lie at the core of system of justice. Incidents in the past few years—starting with the gunning down of Trayvon Martin in Florida and most recently with the failure to indict the officers responsible for the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland—suggest that we have a long way to go in coming to value the life of young black teens.”

The Crime Report (TCR), is published daily through the year by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It s a daily news service “covering the diverse challenges and issues of 21st century criminal justice in the U.S. and abroad.”



Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.