In 1999, 100 years after the establishment of the nation's first juvenile court in Cook County, Ill., virtually all states have succeeded in passing legislation to criminalize or "adultify" their juvenile justice systems. It is now far easier to transfer juveniles to adult court, hold them in adult jails and sentence them to adult prisons. Most of the laws require judges to impose harsher and longer sentences than ever before.
I have worked with delinquent and disadvantaged youths in juvenile and adult prisons, in alternative programs for teenagers at risk and in inner-city schools, and I am deeply troubled by the shift to such draconian measures, which undermine the basic philosophy of the juvenile court as established a century ago.
In a sense, this recriminalization is a return to a philosophy--children are small adults--that Nobel Prize-winning social reformer Jane Addams and a group of visionary women fought in the 1890s, when children were routinely confined to adult prisons. They dreamed of establishing a court where troubled children would have access to specialized treatment services, and they succeeded.
The evidence of recriminalization is alarming. Last year, nearly 18,000 youths spent time in adult prisons, and 20 percent of those were mixed in with the general adult population. On any given day, 7,000 to 8,000 youths are held in adult jails nationwide. In most states juvenile records are more accessible than ever, and some states allow juvenile offenses to be counted in three-strikes legislation. Meanwhile, the United States remains the only Western nation that permits executions for crimes committed as a juvenile. As a country, we seem to have bought into the notion long advanced by tough-on-crime advocates that juvenile offenders should be treated as criminals who happen to be young, not children who happen to be criminal.
These efforts to toughen up the juvenile justice system are built on myth and misperceptions. The first myth, popularized by Princeton University professor John DiIulio, is that we are confronted by a new generation of superpredators who are beyond the rehabilitative capabilities of the juvenile court. (Interestingly, the assumption is not new. Historian Thomas J. Bernard, in "The Cycle of Juvenile Justice," has documented that for 200 years there has been a persistent belief that juveniles have been committing more serious crimes than their predecessors "in the good old days 30 or 40 years earlier.") The second myth is that we are experiencing an unprecedented wave of juvenile crime. Both myths have shown tremendous staying power, despite six straight years of declining juvenile crime rates in the United States.
Nationwide, violent offenses account for 5 percent of all juvenile arrests; homicides represent 0.1 percent. Juveniles are far more likely to be arrested for nonviolent property offenses (38 percent) and "status offenses," actions for which only minors can be arrested, such as underage drinking, running away and curfew violations (24 percent), according to the FBI's uniform crime report for 1996.
The recent horrific school shootings and well-publicized murders committed by teenagers have grossly distorted our view of young people and our perceptions of juvenile crime in general. Those cases, while shocking, are atypical. When official statistics from all sources are carefully assessed, there is strong evidence that juvenile crime (like crime overall) has declined over the last three decades.
For years, I have been trying to make sense of crime statistics. They are enormously complicated, and easily affected by small changes in reporting and processing procedures. For example, police are more likely to arrest juveniles today than they were 20 years ago. In many states, schools are required to call the police for any fight among students, in some cases even for verbal threats such as name-calling. An increase in arrests, therefore, does not necessarily indicate an increase in real rates of juvenile crime.
Juvenile arrest rates are misleading in other ways. Children are more likely to be arrested on weaker evidence than adults, and many children are released without being charged. Children are also far more likely to commit crimes in groups, which means there are multiple arrests for a single offense. For these reasons, rates of "clearance"--tracking crimes for which juveniles are actually charged and prosecuted--are far more accurate than arrest rates. And what do these clearance rates reveal? Variables make precise conclusions difficult, but since 1972, the rates of most types of crime committed by youth seem to have declined.
One thing is true: Juvenile homicide is way up. But should our response to all juvenile crimes be fueled by this one area of increase? I think not. Juvenile homicide arrests nearly tripled between 1984 and 1993 and have declined by more than 40 percent since then. But here again, arrest figures are misleading, since many of these homicide arrest cases were subsequently dismissed. One example: Youths ages 13 to 15 made up 4.2 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for 4.2 percent of all homicide arrests in 1995, but in the end they were prosecuted for homicide in only 2.4 percent of all cases. The same pattern is clear for older teens. Moreover, the 1980s increase in homicide arrests reflected a rise in gun violence. The number of youths arrested for homicides not involving guns has declined steadily since 1984.
And when we look closely at the so-called "serious youthful offenders"--the ones being sent to prison--we find large numbers of nonviolent cases. Nationwide, two-thirds of youths transferred to adult criminal court in 1996 were charged with nonviolent offenses.
Originally, the juvenile court gave judges leeway to devise alternatives to a prison sentence. Today, ever-larger numbers of offenders--who are overwhelmingly African American and Latino--are being swept into an increasingly harsh system. In 36 states, automatic-transfer laws mandate that a juvenile who commits certain offenses be prosecuted in adult court. And funding cutbacks mean rehabilitative or treatment programs are scarcer than ever. For example, prisoners are no longer eligible for federal Pell Grants, which help fund higher education and technical training. That change has meant the end of the program that enabled me to spend five years teaching in the Illinois prison system.
There is no evidence that these get-tough policies work. In fact, juvenile defendants who are tried in adult courts are more likely to commit new crimes, and more serious crimes, than similar offenders who are prosecuted in juvenile court. And while everyone seems to have heard about offenders who return to juvenile court again and again as if through a revolving door, for many youths, that's simply not the case. According to a 1995 Department of Justice report, 60 percent of children who are referred to juvenile court learn their lesson the first time: They never reappear there. These are the successes the public rarely hears about. However, in jurisdictions such as Los Angeles, where juvenile caseloads reached 500 children per officer by the mid-1990s, and virtually all treatment programs were eliminated, it is not surprising that such success stories have become far fewer.
The juvenile court was meant to give kids a second chance--to allow them to make youthful mistakes without being penalized for life. It is this possibility that current practices are snuffing out. In the past, many youths, even those heavily involved in criminal activity, moved away from crime as they matured. Their juvenile records were kept private, whereas nowadays, laws in some states make those records available to schools, future employers and the military. Today, a single juvenile conviction can brand someone for life.
While we commemorate the juvenile court's centennial, it's worth noting that the court has never had the personnel and resources necessary to fulfill its rehabilitative mission. There never was a golden age. Since its founding in 1899, the juvenile court has repeatedly been under attack--in the 1930s and 1950s, for instance--whenever there has been widespread fear over perceived increases in juvenile crime.
Still, Jane Addams's era was a far more visionary one than our own, and it is a vision we should restore. It seems to me that current get-tough policies reflect a society that has given up on its children. We have lost faith that troubled and troublesome young people are capable of rehabilitation. Worst of all, as we have criminalized our juvenile justice system, we have demonized the youths it serves.
L. Mara Dodge is an assistant professor of history at Westfield State College in Westfield, Mass.