Myths About Juvenile Justice

Historically, juvenile violent crime arrest rates rose 5.2 percent from 1987 to 1989, 12.1 percent from 1989 to 1990, 7.6 percent from 1990 to 1991, and by at least 4 percent in every year thereafter until 1994. Recently, however, juvenile violence has declined. Arrests for violent crime among juveniles aged 10 to 17 dropped nationally by almost 3 percent from 1994 to 1995. Although juvenile crime now appears to be on the decrease, lawmakers have passed tough laws enabling states to try more juveniles as adults.

New studies call the existence of the new laws into question. One study shows that virtually all the increase in homicides by juveniles in the late 1980s was attributable to crimes committed with handguns, not to the emergence of a new breed of superpredator teenagers. While the rate of gun killings by juveniles tripled from 1986 to 1993 and has fallen since, the rate of homicides by juveniles with other weapons has not changed.

New research on juvenile violence also suggests that much of the increase in arrests of juveniles in aggravated assaults in the late 1980s was not because teenagers were more violent, but the result of increased police activity, as officers arrested young people in altercations that would have been ignored earlier. Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, claims that reclassification by the police of juvenile fights into aggravated assaults created a completely artificial juvenile crime wave. “Youth in 1998,” according to Zimring, “are no more prone to violence than were teens 20 years ago.”

But Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie‐Mellon University, warns that homicides by juveniles remained higher in 1997 than they were in the early 1980s before the advent of crack cocaine, semiautomatic handguns, and gangs ignited an increase in killings by teens. The rate of homicide by juveniles 14 to 17 years old increased from 8.5 per 100,000 in 1984 to 30.2 in 1993 and then declined to 16.5 in 1997, according to James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.

Nevertheless, Zimring argues that most people don't understand that the increase, and more recently, decrease, really involves the role of handguns and not evidence of a violent new breed of teenagers. Since the police in many big cities have begun aggressive programs to take guns away from juveniles, the juvenile homicide rate has dropped.

The belief that locking up more juveniles is cost-effective

Today, conservatives favor a host of reforms that would boost the number of youths incarcerated. These include

  • Replacing the juvenile court's rehabilitation philosophy with a get‐tough policy that makes the punishment fit the crime.

  • Passing mandatory‐sentencing laws for juveniles charged with violent crimes and drug crimes.

  • Building more juvenile correctional institutions.

Critics of institutionalization think it costs too much and produces more hardened criminals. Reformers favor removing all but the violent juveniles from juvenile facilities and placing them in community programs. Deinstitutionalization consists of providing programs in communities instead of institutions. Advocates of deinstitutionalization contend it is more humane, cheaper, and more effective in reducing delinquency than is institutionaliztion.

Studies of the Massachusetts deinstitutionalization experiment have identified positive results. In the early and mid‐1970s, Jerome Miller, an advocate of reform in juvenile justice, helped several states deinstitutionalize their juvenile justice systems. In Massachusetts, the governor replaced all the reform schools with some 200 different nonprofit programs, including group homes and individual intensive treatment for the worst cases. Researchers found that a decade after Massachusetts closed its reform schools, the recidivism rate was much lower than in states that continued to rely on reform schools and prisons. In Massachusetts, 24 percent of juveniles who had been released for 36 months were reincarcerated or recommitted. In contrast, Texas had a recidivism rate of 43 percent and California a rate of 62 percent. Moreover, when Massachusetts juveniles committed new crimes, the violations were less serious than those by offenders in states with stricter laws. According to Miller, the deinstitutionalization movement was successful—the reforms didn't cost any more than institutionalization, produced lower recidivism rates, and “spoke to civility and decency.”

The belief that boot camps “shock” youthful offenders out of their criminal ways

Boot camps are short‐term, institutional programs that feature tough physical training to develop discipline and respect for authority. Some programs also provide education, job training, and rehabilitation. Evaluations have revealed that boot camps don't reduce recidivism rates and don't automatically reduce prison overcrowding. Defenders applaud the strict discipline and military‐type approach to punishment, but critics point to cases in which workers at boot camps have abused inmates. Five workers at Boys Ranch, an Arizona boot camp for juvenile delinquents, were indicted for murder in a boy's death in 1998. California and Arizona investigators found a pattern of abuse after a 16‐year‐old youth died after forced exercise.

The belief that youths join gangs for protection from neighborhood violence

Youth gangs have become a serious and growing problem in the United States. The need for physical safety and protection is only one reason for joining a gang. Other reasons include a search for a sense of belonging, the need for recognition and power, excitement, and the desire for a sense of self‐worth and social status. The problem with youths joining gangs for protection is that it distorts our thinking about gangs. “Kids who join gangs for status or protection usually end up getting in more trouble,” says Irving Spergel, a professor at the University of Chicago. “Kids who manage to avoid gangs have found their self‐esteem elsewhere.” A 1998 Department of Justice study supports Spergel. It found that those who join gangs for protection often suffer serious brutality in the assaults that are part of gang initiation rites. This study also found that gang members were more likely to commit crimes involving drugs, auto theft, and shootings than their nongang peers. Gang members are also more likely to possess weapons. According to Spergel, the best single predictor of kids' avoiding or getting out of gangs is their finding legitimate employment.

The belief that there is an emerging consensus about how to deal with juvenile delinquency

In reality, there are big differences of opinion on how to deal with delinquents. Do we punish them, as most Americans want to do, or do we treat and rehabilitate them? For the past century, since the creation of the first juvenile court in Chicago in 1899, the main goal of the juvenile justice system has been to protect and rehabilitate young offenders. Public policy is now moving away from that ideal, as we seek to put more juveniles in adult court and incarcerate them in adult prisons.

Fox Butterfield, an expert on juvenile justice, claims this emerging policy flies in the face of research showing that while some very young violent children are almost impossible to reform, a large number can be helped. According to Butterfield, the costs of early intervention may be lower than those associated with incarceration. Head Start and infant home visitation programs with trained nurses or social workers, family therapy and parent training, and life skills training (which teaches stress management, problem‐solving, and self‐control) have potential for reducing delinquency and cost less than simply building more juvenile and adult prisons.