Since most adult criminals are juvenile delinquents that have reached age 18, reducing crime depends on a successful juvenile justice system. Though the obstacles are often formidable, here's what can be done.
A discussion of juvenile crime traditionally begins with either a terrifying statistic or a gruesome tale of woe. A terrifying statistic tells you what an incredibly high percentage of rapes, muggings, and murders are perpetrated by incredibly young kids. A gruesome tale of woe relates how a defiant but scarcely pubescent punk has already been in court a dozen times for rape, assault, murder, and robbery, and how he's been released each time with barely a light slap on his fat little pudgy hand. With the reader's indulgence, the standard opening (either form) will be omitted. And those readers who endure to the end will also note the omission of the standard conclusion: namely, that as juvenile crime spirals toward "out of control," society gropes frantically for a solution. Actually there now appears to be sufficient evidence to justify indulging ourselves in a little bit of old-fashioned optimism.
Just what is the juvenile justice system? The "system" is really a loose assortment of institutions designed to help, handle, or house kids in trouble, foster homes, special schools, "camps," and semi-prisons. All are fed their raw material of cantankerous, troubled, frightened, disoriented, and/or dangerous juveniles by the juvenile court. In most large metropolitan areas, the infamous juvenile hall is also part of the "system." Juvenile hall is a place of waiting either for kids who are en route to the courtroom. or for kids who have had their day in court and are waiting for space to open up in the institution to which they have been assigned.
The Status Offense
Why do we have a separate justice system for juveniles? One reason is, of course, the basic philosophical tenet that juveniles are not as responsible for their actions as are adults. Aside from that ancient belief, the origin of our present approach to juvenile justice can be traced back to a reform movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The reformers considered the urban environment with its manifold negative influences on youth to be the spawning ground of crime. Their solution was to make it illegal for kids to do all the nasty things everyone knew criminals had done when they were kids. When prohibited by law, these naughty deeds — loitering, cursing, and truancy — were known as "status offenses," because they were only illegal when committed by those of a certain status — minors. Furthermore, reasoning that it would be best to keep kids out of adult courts, the reformers fathered an entirely new institution, the juvenile court. As a result, today's juvenile justice system must deal with two broad categories of offenders. One category is those kids who commit actual criminal offenses, ranging in seriousness from shoplifting to murder. The second category is the status offenders, today primarily runaways, truants, and curfew violators.
When we consider first just the very serious, dangerous juvenile offenders, such as those guilty of murder, rape, or robbery, it seems society has been a little too naive in dealing with them. A juvenile who commits murder will likely spend only about a year and a half in some institution. Society has felt that heavy sentences would have little deterrent value since the assumption is that juveniles cannot adequately apply the famous "moral calculus" described by the eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. (Bentham's moral calculus argued that crime will be deterred if the would-be criminal views the potential punishment as too great a price to pay for the act he is contemplating) Yet we hear that older gang members put the guns in the hands of the younger members because they know the court will be more lenient with the young ones. And we have to wonder if these hard-core kids are not actually masters of moral calculus. After all, when a kid, after seeing an older kid hauled out of the neighborhood for some serious crime only to return a few months later, deduces that the penalty for crime is not that great, that is moral calculus at work. The 15 or 16 year-old is mature enough to be strongly told that there are some things society just will not tolerate.
But in contrast to its treatment of the serious offender, society has for decades over-institutionalized both juveniles guilty of petty criminal offenses and status offenders. Consider first the petty criminal — the shoplifter or the car thief, for example. More damage may ultimately result, both to the juvenile and to society, from hauling him off to some secluded reformatory rather than from risking letting him heist a few more trinkets from the local five-and-dime. It is commonly recognized that a large percentage of kids commit such petty crimes, to some degree or another. The vast, vast majority outgrow such behavior. For these reasons, a new school of thought has emerged which suggests that society would serve itself better if it did not take formal action against juveniles who commit petty crimes.
Before further discussing over-institutionalization, especially in regard to the status offender, it will be useful to briefly mention one of the most promising modern theories on the causes of crime and delinquency: control theory. Control theory postulates that an individual's likelihood of engaging in deviant behavior is determined by the strength of his "bond" to normal society. A strong "bond" results from a high degree of attachment to other members of society, principally family members, and from a high commitment to and involvement in legitimate activities of society, such as education or career. Control theory suggests that the typical juvenile offender has a weak bond with society, that is, a poor relationship with parents and probably poor performance or poor status in school. And the facts bear out what the theory suggests. A juvenile court judge commented that 70% of the kids who come into juvenile court come from broken homes. Hans Cohn, who directs Pasadena's Rosemary Cottage, a community-based home for girls, offered the following summarization: "Essentially our youngsters are kids who have failed persistently in just about everything that they have tried, largely because their families have not given them much emotional support, because they have been shunted from place to place... Their families have broken up, usually. They've been in foster homes. They've been in other institutions, and they've had no continuity in their lives and have not had an opportunity to settle down anywhere to develop any kind of roots." When we institutionalize the status offender or petty juvenile criminal — when we take him out of normal society — the most significant effect may be to further weaken the juvenile's already far-too-weak bond to society. On the other hand, for some kids, especially certain status offenders, the institution may afford them their first real chance to forge a normal bond to society. This has been the case with many runaways, who, by running away, were trying to escape intolerable home conditions. Some kids get their first taste of normal life in institutions. But these are usually fairly open, community-based institutions where life for the youth is much like life on a typical block and where rules, regulations, and restrictions roughly parallel those of a normal family. Moreover, while the juvenile offender may have a weak bond to normal, legitimate society, he often has a strong bond with the quasi-criminal youth subculture, such as gangs. In such a case, an institution may be the best thing that ever happened to the kid's "bonds."
One reason we can permit ourselves a measure of guarded optimism over the juvenile justice situation is the introduction of the "diversion project." Diversion projects take many forms, but the basic idea of them all is to divert kids away from the formal juvenile court procedures — to try to help them in the community. Usually, there is some sort of counseling involved, often including parents. Diverting more kids away from juvenile court will also spare the courts the problem of trying to perform two often contradictory roles. On the one hand, the juvenile bench is expected to be a just, firm court of law that protects both society and the rights of the accused. On the other hand, society also expects juvenile court to be a surrogate parent for wayward kids, guiding treatment and rehabilitation with flexible wisdom and tender loving care. These often conflicting roles have led to many injustices and inconsistencies. It would be best to divert the petty criminal and status offender away from juvenile court as much as possible. Then the court would have to perform only one role: that of a just, hopefully somewhat firmer-than-at-present protector of society. The court would handle, for the most part, only those juveniles who are dangerous to society or habitually criminal.
Getting Into the Home
There is general agreement within the juvenile justice system that "diversion" is a step in the right direction. The consensus is that society waits too long to offer help. Frank Jameson, who is youth services coordinator for the Pasadena Police Department and a coordinator for several diversion projects, relates a story that is far more typical than most people imagine. Jameson was asked to investigate the backgrounds of five high school students who had committed unprovoked and seemingly unreasonable acts of violence on a high school campus. The problem was originally presented to Jameson somewhat as follows: Why do five kids "all of a sudden" and "out of the blue" decide to wreak havoc on their school grounds? What Jameson found was that there was nothing "out of the blue" about the affair. Beginning with their early primary years, all five students, he learned, had repeatedly been identified by school officials as children with severe problems. The five showed up in police records as well. One, in fact, was pictured in police files at the age of eight months, the victim of an unfit home. Jameson concluded that "it certainly seems ludicrous... to wait until a child is forced into a blatantly delinquent pattern of behavior before the system can mobilize itself to pay attention to him." But even if potentially troubled kids can be identified at a very early age, what can society do about it? Philosophically, how far and under what conditions is society entitled to formally intrude into the workings of the individual family? Larry Rubin, who coordinates several diversion projects in Orange County, California, says, "I think the key is to get the family involved. And that's the most difficult thing... I think there's a need for professionals to give guidance to a family that's trying to regroup and improve itself." Howard Nariman directs a home for delinquent boys that is sponsored by the Optimist Club. Nariman feels "that sometimes parents are seeking and asking, genuinely asking, for support and help, because they may not have the resources to deal with the problem that they're facing." Informalization and diversion within the juvenile justice system are encouraging signs. We can reasonably hope that the practice of offering no-strings-attached help to families that request it will gradually emerge.
Family Unity the Key Issue
In the long run, significant improvement in the juvenile justice system will depend more on improvement in the family unit than on any other factor. It's impossible to say with certainty if the family unit is improving or disintegrating. Some point with concern to the disruptive pressures piled on the family in our changing society. But there is a bright side to the family situation as well: Quickly dying out among young potential parents is the notion that a couple must or should have children. Having a child is more and more coming to be a well-thought-out, well-prepared-for decision to which the couple is highly committed. To such potential parents, a child is not a trinket whose presence defies all explanation except that "doesn't everybody have them?" Rather, a child is something they really want.
Trends, Not Reform
There are no simple answers to the problems of juvenile justice. The "system" will always be burdened to some degree by the often contradictory roles of protecting society and being a surrogate parent. It will always be trying to help, treat, or rehabilitate kids who were short-changed somewhere, usually at home. Any progress will be in the form of positive trends rather than overnight changes initiated by well-meaning reformers. But we can reasonably expect the following trends: We can expect to see juvenile courts, now incredibly overcrowded, handling few cases other than the dangerous, hard-core juvenile offender. We can expect such offenders to receive treatment that more fully impresses them with the seriousness of their deeds. On the other hand, the petty criminal and status offender will almost always be diverted away from the court and, whenever possible, into the informal "helping hands" of the community. We can expect similar, informal help to be available not only to the kid in trouble, but also to the family in trouble, with no legal strings attached. And finally, we can expect — although we may be confusing our expectations with our hopes — to find fewer families in trouble, and more and more homes solving the juvenile justice problem before it even begins. Let's work toward that end in our own families and communities.
Kids, Crimes, and Courts by Thomas D Hall
What makes a kid go wrong? What role should the courts have in dealing with juvenile offenders? And what can be done to reduce the spiraling crime rate of our youth? To find out, Plain Truth interviewer Tom Hall talked with Joseph N. Sorrentino, himself a former gang leader in New York City, but now attorney-at-law, juvenile court judge, and author of the book The Concrete Cradle.
HALL: Mr. Sorrentino, why did you write The Concrete Cradle? SORRENTINO: Well, I think juvenile crime is escalating very dangerously, and it is, I think, symptomatic of a society that is morally sick. Q. How do you explain this? A. There appears to be an erosion of the legitimacy of law in the United States. Young people today disrespect the law, disrespect the police, disrespect authority, and there's also the ethic: "I'll get what I can get." I had a young girl in my courtroom who mugged an old lady, and I questioned her afterwards about why she had done it. She said, "To get what I can get." That attitude is becoming pervasive. Q. What role are the courts being asked to play by society in stemming this rising tide of crime? A. I think an unrealistically large role. I would agree to some degree that the courts must accept their share of the blame because often they are unwisely indulgent. The odds are 600 to 1 that a youth who commits a burglary will not go to camp or be confined. Kids often come into court with the assumption that "you owe me one or two," which means that they can go out and commit one or two crimes. Also, I think the average time spent in confinement by a juvenile for murder is 18 months, which is an absurdly lenient penalty for taking a human life. It derogates the reverence for life, to give it such a cheap penalty. Kids know that. In fact, the older gang members put the guns in the hands of the younger ones because they know the young kids will be dealt with lightly by the system. I think the courts should toughen up. My brother, who is a detective in New York City, is furious with the courts. There's one judge back there that the police call "Cut'em-loose-Bruce" and another is "Let'em-go-Joe." But the assumption by society that the courts are going to solve the problem is a naive one. You have to do something about the home life of those youngsters and the larger environment of the youngster in terms of the values of American society. Q. In your book, you talk about the "non-parent." Could you elaborate? A. Well, a non-parent, I feel, is somebody who meets the financial obligations of the household but neglects the important function of teaching his child morals and being an example to that child. I think there's a proliferating phenomenon of emotional starvation. A lot of these kids in our society are so starved for emotional gratification that they plunge into drugs as an escape from their empty lives. Q. Is this phenomenon primarily in the ghetto? A. When I talk about the family deteriorating, I'm also talking about middle-class families. I had a case in my court where a young girl was running away from home... just a minor offense that had a parent shown up she would have been able to be returned to her family. She was very excited and looking forward to going home, and neither parent showed up in the courtroom. So I asked the bailiff to call the girl's parents and have them come and pick her up. The father, it appeared, was out of state. The mother got on the phone and said, "Listen, we don't want her. Why don't you just keep her there in juvenile hall. You can have her." Naturally I had to pass that message on to this little girl, and she just shattered in front of me — just started to cry and convulse. I wanted to get down from the bench and put my arms around her and really show the human emotion and affection that she needed, but all I could do in the capacity of a judge was order her back to a cell, pending placement in some foster home at some later time. And my prognosis in the case of this young girl is that eventually she will be found overdosing or she'll be a suicide case. Without a decent set of parents, a kid doesn't have much of a chance in this society. Q. What legal rights does the juvenile have compared to that of an adult when he is brought to court? A. Well, the Supreme Court has conferred upon a juvenile almost all the rights that adult defendants have, except the right to a jury trial. Q. Does that in any way change the approach of youth toward the courts? A. There is an atmosphere of advocacy about the courtroom. I remember one thirteen-year-old girl who came into the courtroom with her mother. This young girl had been missing for several days, and her mother ran over to her and said, "Where were you? What were you doing? I've been going out of my mind looking for you." The thirteen-year-old girl turned to her mother and said, "Speak to my attorney. I don't have to talk to you." A young boy was picked up by the police. He was twelve years old, picked up on the streets with glue on his lips, on his hands, on his nose — obviously sniffing glue which has toluene in it — destroying his brain cells. When he came into court, I think his attorney should have thought, "Well, what is in the best interests of this kid? Shouldn't he be committed to some sort of institution for treatment?" All the attorney could think about was winning the case. He disputed the fact that the prosecution did not have the can in court to demonstrate that it actually had the chemical toluene in it and objected on hearsay grounds. Eventually this kid got the thing kicked out on a technicality. He went back out sniffing glue and destroyed his brain. Q. You yourself used to be a gang leader in New York. Now you're a respected attorney. What was the key to your success? A. I guess there were good people along the way, a teacher, a probation officer, people who extended a hand... But I think it was ultimately an inner resolution within myself that I was tired of being on the down side of life, of being abused and pushed around and being a nobody and a loser. I made the commitment that I was going to change my life. I went back to night high school at 21, which is rather late to start high school. Then, ten years later I emerged as the valedictorian at Harvard Law School, so it was quite a metamorphosis. Q. So we're all products of our own character, whether good or bad? A. Yes, I think ultimately the spiritual resources of the individual are the most important elements of his destiny.