At the end of 1995, President Bill Clinton declared juvenile violent crime to be the country’s most serious crime problem (Finlay, 1996). Although juvenile crime rates have actually decreased in the past 2 years, nobody would argue that such crime is still a serious concern. What is more frightening, however, is the way in which policymakers have responded. The entire juvenile court system is in the process of being dismantled, and more and more teens are being sent into the adult prison system (Van Patten, 1995). The roots of our juvenile justice system date back to 1899, when the principle of parens patriae was introduced. Under this doctrine, the courts were given the power to protect the community by intervening in families where youth were out of control. Parens patriae recognized that youth were not simply small adults, or even young adults, but had needs distinctive to their developmental stages.
During the 1960s, further development of the juvenile justice system offered young lawbreakers a combination of punishment, treatment, and counseling to help them straighten out their lives (Gest & Pope, 1996). However, between 1989 and 1993, the number of cases sent from juvenile court to adult court for trial increased 41%, totaling 11,800, or one out of every four juveniles arrested for violent crime (Witkin, 1996). Three years ago the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that automatically tried juveniles 14 years old and up as adults unless it could be proven that they were amenable to treatment in the juvenile system. In 1996, the Massachusetts House of Representatives changed that law, mandating that all 14-year-olds accused of murder be automatically tried as adults, regardless of the circumstances or their amenability to treatment. Oregon recently passed a similar law, lowering the age from 14 to 12. Wisconsin placed its minimum age at 10, and Tennessee has eliminated any minimum age for youth to be tried as adults (Gest & Pope, 1996).
What will be the outcome of this “new" national approach?
Edward J. Loughran, former head of Massachusetts' juvenile corrections agency, has some serious concerns regarding the direction juvenile policies are taking. He said, “Bad cases make bad law. One heinous case has everyone jumping up and down saying all kids are doing it" (Gest and Pope, 1996, p. 32).
Under Loughran, Massachusetts was a national model for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. Although the Massachusetts program was sorely underfunded, its results were impressive: The rearrest rate for juveniles released from Massachusetts treatment facilities was 23%, compared to 62% nationally (American Correctional Association, 1990). Since Loughran's departure in 1993, the treatment approach has slowly been replaced by more-popular longer sentences without a treatment component. Loughran is not alone in his evaluation. When a cross-section of police chiefs was surveyed by Northeastern University’s Center for Criminal Justice Policy on the effectiveness of different approaches to reducing crime and violence, only 14% of the 540 chiefs chose the policy of trying more juveniles as adults and sentencing them to adult prisons. The overwhelming majority “75% “said the best way to reduce crime and violence was to increase investment in programs that help all children and youth get a good start (Broder, 1996).
A Philadelphia youth corrections official, Jesse Williams, stated: “Tough speeches may be good for politicians” re-elections, but they don’t make much sense for curbing the cycle of juvenile crime" (Gest & Pope, 1996, p. 4). Crime consultant Donna Hamparian of Columbus, Ohio, agreed: “Even if more youths are put behind bars, the projected violator totals are so high that we can’t build enough prisons to keep all of them locked up" (Gest & Pope, 1996, p. 36).
The reality is that even if more youth are put into adult prisons, the vast majority of them will still be released to society, but more violent and dangerous than ever. The American Civil Liberties Union recently issued a bulletin exposing flaws in much of the current thinking. For example, the bulletin noted that if drugs were the scapegoats of the 1980s, then kids are clearly the scapegoats of the 1990s.
A movement has taken hold nationally to undermine the juvenile justice system and erase any distinction between young offenders and adult criminals. Legislatures are rushing to make sure juveniles receive maximum punishment, turning the juvenile courts completely upside down. If this backward trend isn’t halted, the consequences will be disastrous – not only for an entire generation of our nation's youth, who will be condemned to prison, but for society as a whole, which will be left with a more violent culture. Putting young offenders in adult prisons increases, not lessens, their propensity for committing crime.
While in prison, the juvenile offender will learn from older, more hardened criminals. When he or she is released back into the community (in his or her 20s, undereducated, unsocialized, unemployable, and at the peak of physical power), this individual will be the very model of the person society wished most to avoid creating (American Civil Liberties Union, 1996).
Can anything be done to reach this population of high-risk youth? According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), three critical elements are necessary to counter risk factors in a young person's life:
Clearly, these needs will never be met in the current environment. A recent University of Florida study concluded that “juveniles sentenced to adult prisons revert to a life of crime more quickly after released – and commit more crimes, and more serious crimes – than those in juvenile institutions" ("States Revamping Laws," 1996, p. 34). According to the OJJDP, the only hope for turning the tide of juvenile crime is a combination of effective community-based intervention and intensive treatment and rehabilitation of juveniles in juvenile facilities.
We operate a home where we take in kids who have been released from juvenile facilities. Over the past 6 years, we have had six youth live with us who were locked up on manslaughter charges. Five of those six kids are now in college. In addition, all of them are working stable jobs in the community. None have become re-offenders.
If any of them had committed their offenses a couple of years later, every one of them would be serving most of their lives in an adult prison. Is this really what we want as a society? Do we really think that putting them into adult prisons will make our streets safer in the long run? Have we completely given up on the notion that kids can change?
The voices in favor of rehabilitating youthful offenders who are deemed amenable to treatment are few. They have been lost in the political rhetoric of “Get tough on crime," “mandatory sentences" and “Three strikes and you’re out."
I get a sick feeling when I think not only of these wasted lives in adult prisons, but of what kind of people these kids will have become by the time they are released back onto our streets. We are at a critical juncture when it comes to juvenile justice. What has taken several decades to build could be completely dismantled soon. There has never been a more important time to work to reeducate our friends, neighbors, and politicians about what really will make our neighborhoods safer and reclaim the lives of our most at-risk teens.
Scott J. Larson, with Hanne Larson, founded and direct Straight Ahead Ministries, Inc. This feature is one of the “free pages” of the journal Reclaiming Children and Youth.