I hurried to the Gleacher Center to catch a lecture about Chicago's juvenile
justice system. My mind buzzed with the recent images of two tiny people sitting
at a courtroom table coloring - their ankles dangling low, weighed down by metal
bracelets. My heart hurt in memory of Yummy Sandifer slaughtered by the media
and then murdered by big kids. I was growling about the mercy that was how the
"boys" that destroyed Leonard Clark. I assumed that we would hear
a critique of new state and federal legislation that facilitate child punishment.
I expected to participate in a wrenching interrogation of how we treat our children.
The speaker was a woman who has spent her professional life researching and teaching about the juvenile justice
system and "advocating" for children. According to her capsule history, the system was created by radical child advocates who were also social workers and wealthy philanthropists. She concluded by affirming that the court, though flawed, is an asset to society. I was stunned, unable to reconcile the horrifying image of a child in handcuffs with her intello-optimism. A jailed child is an indictment of society. Any discussion of the juvenile justice system is dishonest if it fails to acknowledge some of its fundamental flaws.
Flaw 1: The system is schizophrenic in its objectives. Some of its founders
considered juvenile court a means to help working parents keep their children
on the straight and
narrow. This group believed that the system should be
rehabilitative and should make troubled children well. Another group considered the courts a means to wrest control from unworthy parents - specifically the poor and uneducated. These forces wanted the system to punish bad children. While on the surface the existing system may attempt to rehabilitate and support, this undercurrent of retribution prevents its success.
Flaw 2: The system is only superficially child-centered. Punishment is too often based on chronological age, not on mental age or emotional age. Punishment methods do not reflect an understanding of how children learn and what motivates them. They ignore the evidence that tougher punishments are not better deterrents. They fail to prior-itize (and adequately fund) programs that work - those that stress community, self-esteem, and long-term attention. The courts pay too little attention to the pain and need that lead a child to commit a crime, and so do not tailor their interventions accordingly.
Flaw 3: Many officials - empowered by a racist, classist society - treat kids according to type. Study after study illustrates that poor black boys are most likely to be referred for more severe sentencing. Police, probation officers, counselors, and judges are more likely to blame a white child's external circumstances for his wrongdoing while a black child is believed to be bad. And a child who can afford his own representation instead of a court-appointed, severely overworked attorney is far more likely to get real help.
Flaw 4: The media plays a large and inappropriate role in the distribution of justice to children. The media thrives on sensationalizing young criminals and distorts the level of criminality. As a consequence society becomes vengeful and unforgiving, and laws are passed that make rehabilitation impossible.
The really horrible part is that there is a radical movement afoot to eradicate the system. But instead of replacing it with - and funneling funds toward - a program for true assistance and rehabilitation, this new movement seeks to integrate children back into the adult justice system. . .to rob children of their childhood and hope.
The problem of juvenile justice is knotty, multi-dimensional, and incredibly frustrating. But as far as I can tell it's nothing to be optimistic about.
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