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May 11, 2007

NY Times attacks treating juve criminals as adults

A number of folks have sent me the link to today's New York Times editorial about juvenile justice issues. Here is a snippet:

The United States made a disastrous miscalculation when it started automatically trying youthful offenders as adults instead of handling them through the juvenile courts.  Prosecutors argued that the policy would get violent predators off the streets and deter further crime.  But a new federally backed study shows that juveniles who do time as adults later commit more violent crime than those who are handled through the juvenile courts.

The study, published last month in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, was produced by the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, an independent research group with close ties to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  After an exhaustive survey of the literature, the group determined that the practice of transferring children into adult courts was counterproductive, actually creating more crime than it cured.

The study referenced in this editorial and some other pieces are available at this link.

May 11, 2007 at 02:33 PM | Permalink


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I spent 2 years working on a large, state-wide task force on juvenile justice as our governor's designee on the reform commission (I was one of his lawyers at the time). On the whole, I agree with the findings of this study.

There are a couple of crucial points that one must make, constantly, in order to pursue wise policies in this area. First, the goal of sentencing should be to reduce the likelihood that the offender will commit future crimes in the civilian population (as a matter of utterly practical politics, the public just doesn't care what prisoners do to each other, until conditions get really, really bad). Where life imprisonment is handed down, that prevents future crime in the civilian population. So reform advocates, save that battle for later. Focus on the juveniles who will be released one day.

Because the fact that they will be released one day is a powerful argument in favor of sentences which have a greater chance of turning the juvenile into a productive member of society, rather than a criminal leech.

Second, in order to succeed, in the long run, at reducing juvenile crime, real reform is needed along the entire continuum of the system. Simply cutting back on juvenile-to-adult transfers is not going to resolve the problem of juvenile crime, and if that's your only reform, the public will backlash against it once they see that it hasn't affected crime.

A big problem in the juvenile system is that the kids are given too many slaps on the wrist before getting any real punishment. The first time the kid is arrested and hauled before the juvie court, he's probably pretty nervous, scared. If the judge gives him a lecture (just like his momma does routinely to no avail) and then says "I'm giving you one more chance," he does not walk out of court thinking, whew, I've got a chance to clean up my act. Instead, he walks out thinking "man, that wasn't so bad." If something similar happens the SECOND time he goes to juvie, then he comes out with very little fear of the court system.

This, of course, encourages him to continue his crime spree. By the time any real consequences are imposed, the kid is half way to becoming a hardened criminal.

I'm not saying lock up the kid on a first offense, nor am I promoting the (excreable) zero-tolerance policies which have become too popular. What I'm saying is that the judge needs to make sure that she imposes a punishment for breaking the law that the kid really feels. Whether that's shame, or removing a video game from the home, writing lines, detention, a special school, do something which is going to get that particular kid's attention and teach him that unpleasant consequences will follow any law-breaking.

Without these 2 approaches, I think any juvenile justice reform will fail, in the long run.

Posted by: PatHMV | May 11, 2007 3:57:22 PM


One of our probation officers talks about kids competing for adult attention. When the kids are in court they have the full attention of a room full of adults and I strongly agree it is not a good thing if they leave thinking "what was so bad about that". Some of them are in very deep before they ever see a juvenile judge. My impression that juvenile court is a low rent and prestige operation that the regular judiciary would like to see go away. The most cost effective crime fighting measure is to divert these kids at the first sign of trouble.

Posted by: John Neff | May 11, 2007 5:44:42 PM

My concern with the New York Times editorial is . . . I can't trust
the New York Times. Their reporting on the Duke Rape Hoax was so
hopelessly biassed that I have no way of knowing whether their editorial
is giving the full, accurate story on this study or not.

They lied to support the Duke Rape Hoax. How do I know they
won't also lie to support less harsh treatment of juvenile criminals? (And
KC Johnson's blog has plenty of backup for my use of the verb "to lie").

Sad to say, but I need to see this story in a more trustworthy
place than the New York Times before I can believe it.

Posted by: William Jockusch | May 11, 2007 6:48:17 PM

William, that's the great joy of the internet. There's a link to the original source material, the study itself, so you don't have to take the NY Times' word for it (which, in and of itself, is quite a rational position to take).

John, to expand on your point, one of the problems I've seen in the juvenile justice arena is that for prosecutors, as well as judges, "juvie" is about at the bottom of the respect heap. The ADAs handling juvenile prosecutions are either fresh out of law school or biding time until retirement, or they are otherwise not the cream of the crop. The DA puts people there when he just doesn't care that much about their performance, or when he's testing them to see if they're sharp enough to quickly maneuver themselves out of the section and into a "real" court.

All that leads to not much pressure being put onto anybody to find new, better solutions.

Posted by: PatHMV | May 11, 2007 9:36:27 PM

I think the problem is that we are viewing kids through adult lenses.We have to examine the role family and mental health factors play versus a kids own responsibility for his actions.If a judge cant make a kid's parents learn to be responsible or take care of themselves, then how can we make a kid? We have to decide if we even should.My area of interest has been cultural bias against mental health treatment.If a family refused to get medical treat for a kid's diabetes,we have no problems intervening, but if its a psychiatric issue that a whole different ball game.Sometimes Id rather see a kid go to prison around lifers who have sincerely changed than to go back home where everyone who lives there is on parole, or neither parent has even turned 30 yet.Adults have choices and the responsibilty to change or leave their environments, I think we now assume the same for kids. What is required is a multidisciplinary approach, which we know takes alot of money.

Posted by: Mark | May 11, 2007 11:35:44 PM

Violent juvenile offenders need to be dealt with harshly. For example, the offenders in Long Beach who committed racially motivated assaults. They needed to get at least 10 years apiece.

Posted by: federalist | May 12, 2007 2:16:14 AM

True, but we endangering the community if we dont make a serious attempt to help these kids make behavior changes and reduce their likelihood of future crimes during their incarceration.When released from prison after 10 years, a teen will be even bigger and stronger, and possibly more violent and angry.So if our priority is to protect the community, we should provide something besides a weight lifting room and program.We also forget that one can still endanger the community while in prison,as demononstrated by social network theory. Even easier in states that allow conjugal visits, like New York.

Posted by: Mark | May 12, 2007 3:08:00 AM

Mark, I agree that parents can be a big part of the problem. When I advocate a different approach, I don't mean just "send them back to the parents," far from it. I want the judge to have a wide spectrum of options available, from incarceration to alternative boarding schools to alternative day schools to counseling to anything else that is shown to work at reducing recidivism.

It's an intriguing thought you mention about putting kids in with lifers who have seen the light, as it were. I'm going to have to give that one some thought.

Posted by: PatHMV | May 12, 2007 9:07:29 AM

PatHMV, dont know if your a boxing fan, but Undisputed World Champion Bernard Hopkins is an example of a juvenile(17)who was mentored by a lifer, while serving a 18 year sentence.Released at age 23,Hopkins visits his mentor regularly.This weekend's edition of the wall Street Journal has an article on the kid in wisconsin, charged as an adult for killing his principal.It details family problems, but the focus is about special ed children being placed in mainstream classes.

Posted by: Mark | May 12, 2007 10:59:33 AM

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