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Juvenile Justice: Charting a New Course
Chantal Hylton
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In the U.S. today, more than 2,500 prisoners are serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. (Of these, 59% had no prior convictions and 26% were convicted only as accomplices to murder.) The combined total of juveniles sentenced to life without parole in all other countries is zero. That’s right: When it comes to showing leniency to children and teens, our legal system is a world behind.

There have been previous movements in this country to recognize that juvenile crime is different from adult crime, and to focus on prevention and therapy for teens rather than harsh punishments. In 1974, for example, a federal act encouraged states not to keep youth in adult prisons. But through the 1980s and 1990s, public anxiety about crime drove politicians to enact many “tough on crime” laws. Young people became particular targets of these laws. There was even a popular theory that American teens had developed something like a virus which turned them into “super-predators.” According to one 1996 book, “a new generation of street criminals is upon us—the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known.”

Change Is Coming

The good news is that the expected teen crime wave never happened, and in 2010, things seem to be moving in the opposite direction. In New York and across the country, people are paying attention to evidence that being “tough” on kids generally doesn’t work. Instead, approaches that treat kids with respect—surprise!—have proved to be the most effective.

In this issue we highlight some of the ways the juvenile justice system is evolving to help teens get back on track, as well as the ways in which it keeps us from moving forward. We start with the daily interactions we have with law enforcement. In “Teens Challenge Police in Schools” (p. 10), we interviewed the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union about a lawsuit recently filed against school safety agents. The suit was prompted in part by a girl getting arrested for writing “OK” on her desk. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never walked into a classroom where at least one of the desks didn’t have some form of graffiti. This lawsuit invites us to ask: Are we now liable to be arrested for this kind of simple offense, for just being kids?

image by Froylan Garcia

Thankfully, not all adults are blind to the fact that misbehavior is part of growing up. Judge Michael Corriero, who spent 20 years presiding over cases involving youth, and Mark Steward, a former director of Missouri’s juvenile prison system, seem to get it. (“Who Gets a Second Chance?” p. 20, and “Dignity and Respect” p. 8.) They’ve seen firsthand that young people can change with time, and that skipping school or getting in a fight doesn’t necessarily mean we’re destined for a life of crime.

The Right Direction

That idea of giving teens a second chance is catching on here in New York. Gladys Carrión, who’s in charge of New York’s juvenile prisons, is closing some prisons and promoting a more understanding approach in dealing with juvenile delinquents (“Time for Change” p. 16). Nationally things may be changing, too. The Youth Promise Act, which aims to push at-risk and convicted teens in the right direction, is under consideration (“Prevention, Not Detention,” p. 21).

But what if you’re the victim of one of these teenage mistakes? Catherine Cosmo wants her attacker to be punished—as long as the sentence fits the crime (“A Victim’s Story” p. 27). And if you’re a kid who never gets into trouble, why should you even care about this? As Olivia Rosenthal explains (“My Peers in Prison” p. 4), exploring these issues means learning how to help prevent teen crime. That’s something everyone can get on board with.

Sources: The Sentencing Project (sentencingproject.org), Body Count (Simon & Schuster, 1996), written with William J. Bennett, John J. DiIulio, and John P. Walters.

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