Skip Navigation Links

Is juvenile "Justice" wishful thinking?

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.


The System

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.


Too Naive

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.


Control Theory

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."