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PRISM 2004


The Historical Legacy of JuvenileJustice

If he is tried in family court, he will soon be on his way to a juvenile detention facility. While incarcerated there he will be able to complete high school, but the conditions in which he’ll be living won’t be conducive to study. His cell will likely be overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe. His sensory stimulation will be severely limited, and he’ll be under lockdown conditions for as many as 20 hours each day. If he suffers from mental illness or chemical dependency, as the vast majority of incarcerated teens do, he can expect to receive no treatment and no medication. And this is the prettiest picture we can paint. If the boy is not so lucky, the district prosecutor will decide to have him tried as an adult in criminal court. Once convicted, he will be sentenced under the same guidelines used for adult sentencing, with little or no thought given to his rehabilitation or the age considerations that might make his case unique. After sentencing, his court-appointed lawyer might request an appeal, but it is more likely that she will simply look with weary but resigned eyes at the next item on the overloaded court docket.The prisoner will be cuffed and loaded onto a bus with other prisoners to make the grim sojourn to the state penitentiary.As the new arrivals dismount at the prison, they’ll be carefully watched and assessed by the veteran inmates. This one should be avoided; that one can be threatened for money or contraband.All the watchers will notice our young man, taking in his age, the nervous flick of his eyes. Details of the ordeals he will suffer during his imprisonment beggar description, but the cold, hard facts are indisputable. Children placed with adults are twice as likely to report being “beaten up” by staff; close to one in 10 juveniles report being assaulted by staff.These young people are eight times more likely to commit suicide than youths held at juvenile facilities, and the reasons aren’t difficult to understand: As Youth Law Center President Mark Soler explains, “A child who is put into an adult prison is an invitation to rape.” Despite this, the Coalition on Juvenile Justice reports that of the 120,000 youth now incarcerated, nearly 10 percent are being held in adult facilities. While that tithe of children suffer the most, there’s no doubt that the entire juvenile justice and detention process is in desperate need of an overhaul.

Until the latter part of the 1800s, children and adults were tried in the same criminal courts and incarcerated in the same penitentiaries. Children were seen as miniature adults, with all the same capacities and responsibilities for moral behavior. This represented the broadly held philosophy of nearly all justice systems throughout history, regardless of cultural distinctions. In the United States, that mentality underwent a slow transformation.As early as 1825, the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency and other reform organizations were advocating that youth be dealt with under separate auspices, but the first juvenile court system wasn’t established until 1899, in Cook County, Illinois. By 1925, the rest of the states had followed suit. Proponents of the separate justice system believed that the state should act as parent to young offenders, and the goal was to provide protection and rehabilitation to the children, as opposed to confinement and retribution.The focus of the court was on the particular situation and needs of the youth in question, rather than on the offense. Because its mission was distinctly different from that of adult criminal courts, juvenile court could be more flexible, and judges were able to select from a wide range of options when it came to sentencing. This flexibility placed young people entirely at the mercy of judicial discretion, in which two different judges might sen-

This 15-year-old boy has engraved various symbols and letters into his own flesh. Originally declared “high-risk,” he was determined to be non-suicidal and placed in a lower security unit. Last year 15,000 children with psychiatric disorders were improperly incarcerated, simply because no mental health care was available. PRISM 2004


A youth paces in his maximum-security cell. Evidence shows that youthful offenders are more likely to commit a crime after release than they were before imprisonment.

tence a young person to vocational training or hard time, for an identical crime. Children whom judges perceived as recalcitrant were placed in youth correctional institutions that were often brutal, dangerous places which utterly failed to have any impact in terms of reducing crime. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Supreme Court handed down a number of decisions (Kent v. United States, In re Gault, and Newlson v. Heyne) that made juvenile courts more like adult criminal courts. Juveniles were given the same rights to answer the charges against them and have access to an attorney, and the standard of evidence was changed from “preponderance of evidence” to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” On a federal level, concern about the state of the juvenile justice system was emerging. The belief prevailed that poor administration of these systems on the state level was responsible for the system’s problems. In 1974, President Gerald R. Ford signed into law the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.This was the first effort to grant national attention to the issue of juvenile crime, and reformers hailed it as a major victory.What the new Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention couldn’t remedy was that many Americans were beginning to believe that the youth court system was too lenient, and were concerned that lack of an effective deterrent was encouraging juveniles to engage in criminal activity.This perception was pushing state governments into passing new, harsher laws to deal with youth offenders. In the 1980s, Florida became the first state to pass a law allowing children to be tried as adults; most of the other states quickly followed suit.Today, all 50 states allow children to be tried as adults, and 42 states have recently considered, or are now considering, laws to increase punitive measures against young people who are convicted of crimes. Nine states have no minimum age at which children can be incarcerated with adults.

were improperly incarcerated, simply because no mental health care was available. A study dealing with mental health and delinquency, compiled by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Government Reform and released in July, is the first of its kind. One judge that the study surveyed, Ernestine S. Gray of the New Orleans Juvenile Court, testified that 70 to 80 percent of the children who appeared before her had mental health or drug problems.“All too often,” Judge Gray said, “children charged with delinquent behavior are identified early on as needing mental health services. But because the services are not available, the children are sent back home until there is another violation.After several brushes with the law, the children are incarcerated, so they might have a chance at getting mental health services.” Even when mental health services are available, they are often inadequate, sometimes exacerbating the very problems they’re called upon to help relieve. One tragic case was that of Rodney Hewlen, a 16-year-old who threw a bottle of gasoline at a snow-covered fence on a vacant lot. His Molotov cocktail caused only $500 worth of damage, and no one was injured. Despite these facts and his age, he was tried in Texas as an adult and convicted of arson, a conviction which earned him an eight-year sentence in an adult penitentiary. Prior to his trial, Rodney had been diagnosed with depression and was taking Paxil. The prison psychologist decided that the young man didn’t need his medication and should just “buck up.” Rodney lasted fewer than three months in prison: He was found hanging in his cell, and died of the results of asphyxiation in the prison infirmary a few days after the guards cut him down. Race is another dynamic that plays a part in the makeup of incarcerated juveniles.The National Council on Crime

W ho s Behind Bars? The Coalition on Juvenile Justice reports that fewer than one-third of youth in the juvenile court system have been apprehended for a violent offense. According to The State of America’s Children 2004, released by the Children’s Defense Fund, two-thirds of youths in the juvenile justice system have one or more diagnosable mental disorders. In fact, in 2003 alone, 15,000 children with psychiatric disorders

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and Delinquency reports that among youths who have never served time, blacks are more than six times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison by juvenile courts. For those charged with drug offenses, blacks are 48 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison. As for those charged with violent offenses, whites are incarcerated for an average of 193 days after trial, while blacks are incarcerated

an average of 254 days and Hispanics are incarcerated an average of 305 days. Children from low-income families, who depend on court-appointed lawyers to defend them, are also at a clear disadvantage. In states like Virginia, where public defenders earn less than $120 to represent a client in juvenile court— regardless of the client’s crime or the amount of time they

“I was in prison, and you visited me…” PROGRAMS THAT WORK From loosely organized networks like the Family Court ministry in Birmingham,Ala., to the organizationally sophisticated Youth Enrichment Services in Pittsburgh, Penn., widely differing models of outreach to juveniles in the justice system are enjoying success. Sometimes that success involves brightening an otherwise grim day for one inmate; sometimes it means becoming a familiar and consistent face to children whose lives are in chaos; sometimes it involves shepherding kids with legal problems all the way through the process. Andrea Moore works for Youth Enrichment Services, Inc. (YES), based in Pittsburgh. Under the executive directorship of Dennis Floyd Jones,YES provides mentoring and monitoring for young people coming into contact with the juvenile justice system for the first time. Most of the children they deal with are between the ages of 10 and 14, and are detained either for a first offense or a repeat, nonviolent offense.YES is a diversion program, an alternative to detention for kids awaiting their court date. During their stay (average stay is about 90 days), kids in YES will receive one-on-one mentoring which will continue until adjudication and, in some cases, after sentencing. “These children lack stability and consistency,” Moore told PRISM. “They get into a lot of trouble being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What we have to realize is that children are children, no matter where they are. The difference between the kids who go into the juvenile system and those who don’t is that the ones in juvenile detention got caught.There are preachers’ children who have done exactly the same things as these kids, but they’ve gotten away with it.There but for the grace of God go all of us." As Moore points out, the Christian organizations that are making a difference don’t focus on the juvenile offender in isolation; instead, they deal with the whole child, along with

the child’s family.The Gilead Center, an outreach for single mothers which assists them in making the transition to sobriety or to life after prison, offers a valuable ministry in Pennsylvania, a ministry goal that is mirrored by Agape, a faith-based organization that serves the Southeast from its headquarters in Mobile, Ala.The emphasis in both of these organizations is to help families become whole by aiding parents to take responsibility for their children and by providing a caring support network. “You’ve got to get to the kids earlier,” Moore says.“Get to them when they’re 8, 9, 10.This is the job of the church. Christians need to come out of our four walls of the church and begin to outreach to every child.We need to be alert and more sensitive to children.We need to be more stable so that when they hit a hard place they have someone to go to. Consistency makes a lot of difference to children—if we’re consistent and alert, we can impact their lives. Children are tired of people being fake, tired of broken promises, tired of being disappointed.” Ultimately, the church needs to be there every step of the way: reaching out to children, from birth onward, in a way that deals with the particular problems in their lives; educating, loving, and seeing them for who they are; refusing to ignore realities of poverty, abuse, or neglect that dog the steps of too many kids; letting them know they’ll always have a place to come home to, no matter how far they stray. A lot is at stake—not just the lives of the children in the juvenile justice system, and not just the reputation or strength of the Christian church. As humanitarian Margaret Mead once said,“The solution of adult problems tomorrow depends in large measure upon the way our children grow up today. There is no greater insight into the future than recognizing that, when we save children, we save ourselves.”

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the Florida Department of Law found 45 officers and civilian prison employees at one prison violating numerous standards, including one sergeant who smoked marijuana on duty, gambled with and stole from prisoners; another sergeant who extorted drugs and money from prisoners; and an officer who used cocaine as well as sold it to prisoners. In response to this report, a corrections spokeswoman told reporters that the officers would face no discipline. “No one is being prosecuted,” said D.O.C. spokeswoman Laura Levings, “so there was no corruption.” Denial on the part of authorities and silence on the part of prisoners are the rule rather than the exception.As Arthur Candell of the Institute for Public Affairs wrote, “Prison activists claim that only about 1 percent of the abuse inflicted by prison and jail guards on inmates ever reaches the attention of the public. Numerous laws and regulations effectively deny prisoners access to the courts to challenge any kind of abuse. Fear of retribution among inmates if they report excessive use of force on themselves or others, and the intimidation of guards by their peers and superiors, keep these episodes within the walls.”

spend with their client—many attorneys are not sufficiently motivated to keep their client’s best interests in mind. Of course, not all—or even most—of the young prisoners incarcerated are innocent victims of a malevolent system committed to robbing them of liberty. Each year, the lives of thousands of people are disrupted and shattered by crimes committed by juveniles, both violent and nonviolent.The question is not of guilt but how we can deal—in a healthy, compassionate, and effective way—with juveniles who commit crimes. Many dynamics are at play in the lives of children who end up in the justice system. Common factors include chronic poverty, unstable or broken families, inadequate public schools, and lack of any support network, whether at home or in the community.

No Place Like Home: Living Conditions in Juvenile Facilities Today, more than six out of 10 youth admitted to juvenile detention are placed in overcrowded institutions. Between 1985 and 1995, the average daily population in the nation’s publicly operated juvenile detention centers increased by roughly 72 percent, resulting in a 642 percent increase in the number of overcrowded detention centers (statistics from the Anne E. Casey Foundation). These detention centers are often infested with roaches and lice and offer little to nothing in terms of rehabilitative opportunities. Guards are afforded a disproportionate amount of authority, sometimes using pepper spray as a disciplinary practice.The Youth Law Center reported that while touring one particular detention facility, they observed cells so crowded with floor mattresses that the prisoners could barely move around, cells in which the walls were smeared with fecal matter.The children were kept in these cells for as many as 20 hours a day with no external stimulation. In these conditions, assaults, rape, and intimidation are common. Nonviolent offenders enjoy no separation from more violent convicts, so that a runaway can be housed in the same cell as a rapist or killer. But whether they are held in juvenile detention centers or adult prisons, the evidence shows that when youthful offenders are released, they are more likely to commit a crime than they were before imprisonment. Not only is the juvenile justice system failing to educate youths in moral and civic matters, but it is actually providing its inmates with an intensive course in crime.As convicted drug dealer George Jung, immortalized by Johnny Depp in the movie Blow, said of his first prison experience: “I went in with a degree in marijuana and came out with a Ph.D. in cocaine.” Sadly, stories of abuse are not uncommon. Following a four-month probe into allegations of corruption among correctional officers at Glades Correctional Institution in Florida,

Perceptions and Misperceptions The juvenile arrest rate for murder decreased an astounding 74 percent from 1993 to 2000, and between 1994 and 2000, the juvenile Property Crime Index (dealing with burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson) dropped nearly 37 percent to its lowest level since the 1960s (statistics from the Child Welfare League of America, 2002). Despite these encouraging numbers, American fear of juvenile crime has continued to snowball. Mark Soler of the Youth Law Center says that our concern over juvenile crime is due more to what we see on television than to actual crime statistics.“The vast majority of juvenile crime,” he says,“is nonviolent crime. Only about 6 percent of the kids that are arrested each year are charged with a violent crime” (quoted in If I Get Out Alive, 1999; see resources for more information). However, politicians find it politically expedient to be “tough on crime.” It is a popular position to advocate that young people be held to the same bar of behavior as their adult counterparts. If they’re old enough to do adult crimes, the reasoning goes, then they’re old enough to do adult time. This in spite of evidence that adolescents operate significantly differently than adults. Some studies have suggested that between the ages of 12 and 21, humans experience as much brain and chemical change as between birth and the age of 5.The capacity for making sound judgments is impaired during the teenage years, and adolescents are generally not equipped for realistic long-range thinking.To a teenager, the problems of today seem permanent and overwhelming: It is

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This17-year-old boy is being held in a maximum-security unit for violent and high-risk youth offenders. He threw a rock at a car and struck a man in the head, seriously injuring him. Because the injured man may die, the boy's sentence is uncertain at this point. He feels sorry for his family, since both of his brothers are also in jail.

difficult to imagine a time when one’s adolescent peers won’t be the deciding factor in terms of fashion, musical tastes, and social acceptability. Concerns about not fitting in can’t be assuaged by assurances that in five years, nobody will care if you don’t wear Sean John apparel. Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University, says that we have forgotten that kids who commit crime are kids.“They’re not little criminals,” he says,“and a lot of the things that make them kids, that make them different from adults, are things that we should be thinking about as we develop policies and practices involving how we treat juveniles who have gotten into trouble. So the proper way to treat juvenile offenders is to make sure that the community is safe, to make sure that they’re held accountable for what they’ve done, but also to make sure that we return them to the community in a better mental and psychological state than they went in [with]” (quoted in If I Get Out Alive). But instead of looking at adolescents and seeing children who have not yet grown into what they’re going to be, whose thought processes may not yet lead to sensible decisions, we see people who talk like adults and claim to think and feel like adults.This allows us to make harsh judgments without factoring in the complexities of age and development. Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama and former chairman of the Juvenile Crime Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, voices the attitude of many Americans when he says,“What do you do for a young tough who beats somebody up in school or writes graffiti that costs thousands of dollars on the school house? What if it’s their fifth time? Their tenth time? Unfortunately, many of these youngsters have never developed. They are almost without conscience, they’ve been abused perhaps, maybe they’ve been on drugs, maybe their mother was a cocaine addict and they’re crack babies, or whatever the cause is, some of them are dangerous. Some of them will kill you, will kill your family, and his (sic) classmates at school.” This perspective classifies children who commit crimes as without moral compass, without soul, and without possibility of rehabilitation.To engage in this pseudo-logic strips these children of their humanity and allows us to divest ourselves of responsibility. If we believe they are subhuman, then we are not required to treat them like human beings.

W hat s God Got to Do with It? The Bible tells us who these juvenile offenders really are, and tells us unequivocally:They are precious children, created in God’s image and invested with God’s love. Jesus made clear his specific relationship to the imprisoned and oppressed when he informed his followers that all who visited those who were sick and imprisoned were actually visiting him (Matthew 25). The twin themes of valuing God’s most vulnerable children and seeking justice run like veins of silver ore throughout both Testaments. As they inherited the promised land, God not only instructed the children of Israel to take care of the widows, fatherless, and aliens, but also established a sophisticated court system that set up standards of evidence and allowed for mercy and refuge in punishment. Isaiah, warning the unrighteous children of Israel of God’s impending judgment, held up their injustice to prisoners and the fatherless as evidence against them. He declares, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people” (Isa.10:1-2). Clearly, God likewise expects us today to address the ills in our justice system and advocate for those vulnerable children who are caught up in it. Admittedly, there is very little any one person can do to change a system that is bloated with injustice and riddled with political self-interest and corruption.This is not to say that the magnitude of the problem should paralyze us but rather that while we push aggressively for the long process of systemic overhaul, we must deal with juvenile offenders in the same way that God created them—one at a time. Many ministries have sprung up across the country to formulate relationships with young convicts, and some have

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intentioned Christians “go a couple of times, have no conversions, then get discouraged and don’t want to come back.” John Taylor, another participant in the same ministry, adds that “discouragement is a big factor. It’s like you’re throwing a pebble in the ocean, trying to fill up the ocean.” Fear is another factor—fear of entering a juvenile detention facility or fear of failing to make a connection with the kids involved. But whatever the reason, the first step to reacting to the juvenile justice crisis in a Christlike way was offered

experienced remarkable success (see “Programs that Work” sidebar on page 9). Some innovative halfway houses have been developed as a sentencing alternative to help teens finish high school and plan for a crime-free future. But ministry with troubled teenagers is difficult, and most attempts by evangelicals to reach out to these kids falter and die in a short period of time. Mac Daupin, an elder at Cahaba Valley Church in Birmingham,Ala., which has offered a Family Court ministry for the last two decades, says that failure occurs because well-

What Can I Do? Ultimately, the most effective solutions for rectifying the injustices in the juvenile justice system will have to come through state and federal legislatures. As Patricia Puritz, director of the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Center, noted in Criminal Justice magazine in Spring of 2000, legislative confusion, incoherence, and ignorance are to blame for the current crisis. Some legislative remedies that have been proposed by Puritz and others across the nation include: • Altering the process for transferring children into adult courts. Transfer Law SB 440, currently under discussion in Georgia’s state legislature, would mandate a hearing in juvenile court regarding jurisdiction and require that the Family Court judge, as opposed to the district attorney, make the determination on whether the child should be tried as an adult. Short of banning such designations altogether, this measure shows some promise and is supported by Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice, an organization based out of Atlanta, Ga. • Allocation of funds for training and equipping defense attorneys appointed to represent indigent juvenile defendants. According to a 1996 study published as A Call for Justice: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings, in many cases the first time children meet their court-appointed attorneys is at their detention hearing. Due to crushing caseloads and insufficient resources, these attorneys are unable to file even rudimentary pre-trial or appeals motions.These cases are often passed off to the least experienced attorneys, who receive no preliminary or ongoing training. Funds need to be available to provide sufficient paralegal and investigative support, and the state should mandate training and evaluation for all attorneys involved in indigent juvenile defense.The Due Process Advocacy Project, a nonprofit organization dealing with lawyers assigned to these cases, has taken some of these steps on its own in sponsoring training events for lawyers nationwide. • Creation of coherent uniform standards with regard to

children’s competence to stand trial.Thomas Grisso, professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts, draws upon years of extensive research to contend that serious doubt exists as to whether most children would rise to the legal standard of competency.The standard includes: first, the ability to understand the nature and possible consequences of charges, the trial process, the participants’ roles and their own rights; second, the ability to participate with and meaningfully assist counsel in developing and presenting a defense; third,the ability to make decisions to exercise or waive important rights. Grisso argues that most children would fail to meet one or more of these standards in an adult court, and that law should require that these standards are uniformly applied to children when they face redress in an adult court. • Mandating oversight of the functions of the juvenile justice system. Ongoing data collection and evaluation of the status of each state’s juvenile justice system should be routine. Legislatures should fund a perpetual effort to determine exactly how children are being treated in the juvenile justice system, the nature of the system’s weaknesses, and the components that lend to success. Lack of oversight leads to shoddy, misinformed legislation and poor execution of existing systems. • Alternatives to incarceration should be examined and funded. Many states, such as Indiana, have effectively implemented alternatives to incarceration, including halfway houses where children can complete school and receive psychological treatment. It’s a mistake to place nonviolent offenders beside their more violent counterparts in an identical incarceration situation. All children should be treated as if they have the potential to reform and to live out productive lives as citizens. For information on contacting your representatives in the Senate and Congress, go to and

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by Christ himself: Go visit. And then go visit again. Teenagers who commit crimes are used to a world of adults who have given up on them, who look at them and see a crime statistic instead of a young person. Perhaps your face, your touch, your love, can be the one God uses to make a difference in one child’s life. ■

True Notebooks (Knopf, 2003) describes author Mark Salzman’s life-changing experience of teaching writing to some of Los Angeles’ most violent teenage offenders. His students describe the life of a juvenile hall inmate, in their own unforgettable words. Go to to learn more about writing programs for juvenile offenders, and to read their work.

Laura Coulter’s dual passion for justice and research makes her an invaluable regular contributor to PRISM magazine.

The Beat Within (, a program of the nonprofit Pacific News Service, is a weekly publication featuring the art and writing of incarcerated juveniles.

Joseph Rodriguez, whose images taken at the San Jose Junvenile Hall illustrate this article, is a graduate of the U.S. juvenile justice system and a photographer who documents the stories of young people struggling to survive both inside the system and outside. Go to www.pixel to get a glimpse into these kids’ lives.

If I Get Out Alive is an award-winning public radio documentary that exposes the systematic abuse and brutality faced by juveniles in the adult prison system. It features firsthand accounts from children currently behind bars, rehabilitated youths who survived the system, parents of young people who died in adult prisons, legal experts, policy makers, and correction officials.To order a tape or transcript, or to listen to the broadcast, go to

Resources The Children’s Defense Fund, The Child Welfare League of America, The Youth Law Center, Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice,

They put kids in jail, for a life they ain’t even get to start. That’s murder, too, and it’s breaking my heart. It’s breaking our nation apart… — from the song “Joy” by Talib Kweli

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WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ZACHARIAH DOREY-STEIN BY LAURA COULTER PRISM 2004 6 The Hi s torical Legacy of Juvenile Ju s t i c e This 15-ye...