More Harm Than Good
Making a state safe from its kids, and vice versa
This piece probably was published in 1993 or thereabouts. I was doing a fair amount of writing—and even more learning and thinking—about the ways problematic children are treated in Illinois. I used to see the juvenile justice system as a bad system run by a lot of good people; more recently I worry that Illinois has a good (or good-as-it-can-get) system run by not nearly enough good people.
Illinois earned a spot—perhaps undeservedly—on the roster of U.S. social service innovators when it adopted its landmark Juvenile Court legislation in 1899 that provided alternatives to incarceration in adult jails for minors who commit crimes. Its founders designed a hybrid institution that was part law court, part welfare agency, part den mother. The juvenile courts were given this unique charge because Illinois then no other agencies that might do any of those jobs. Its backwardness obliged it to be innovative.
The act’s premise was that children, even murderous ones, ought not to be held responsible for the evils visited upon them by callous or stupid adults. For example, the original Juvenile Court Act assumes that not every kid who commits a crime is a criminal. (Criminal behavior is one way that kids reveal the damage done by drug abuse, mental retardation, sex abuse, and endemic poverty.) The act also assumed that people who are not adults cannot be expected to exercise adult responsibility over their actions and thus shouldn't be punished like adults for the results, and that since the aim of the system should be to help rather than punish the kid, the court and its officials need to be granted a generous discretion in the disposition of cases.
Keeping kids out of jail is good for the kids and good for the taxpayers. The annual cost of housing an adult in an Illinois jail is $16,000, a fact that makes juvenile delinquency and drug abuse prevention programs look cheap. (The cost of crisis intervention, emergency placement, and other services offered by the Department of Children and Family Services' Division of Youth and Community Services in FY91 was $645 per kid—although it is debatable whether such services actually deter anyone from ending up in jail.)
Illinois's chronic money shortages mean that the state must break that promise to both the kids and the taxpayers. Typical was the decision by the legislature to eliminate 38 staffers (most of them parole agents) from the allocation for the Juvenile Field Services Division of the Department of Corrections to reduce the FY88 budget.
For more than a century, Illinois' juvenile justice policy has wavered between the state's role of helper and that of punisher, usually according to the levels of anxiety felt by the general public about juvenile lawbreakers. At the moment the punishers hold sway; a suburban member of the General Assembly introduced three typical bills this session that would impose harsher-than-normal sentences when crimes such as illegal weapons use were committed by gang members.
Such distinctions are of dubious constitutionality, and law enforcement experts were unanimous in agreeing that they would have no deterrent effect on young people. Such measures keep being introduced anyway, because such objections pale beside lawmakers' need to placate an anxious public by "doing something" about youth gangs.
We still believe that kids under a certain age cannot be held responsible for their actions, but the legal age of responsibility has shifted with the times; in Illinois it used to be seven; today anyone in Illinois 15 years and over can automatically be tried as an adult if he commits certain serious crimes. That age may continue to drop as the public's fear of young criminals rises. In 1988 the Illinois Supreme Court was obliged to rule whether 13-years-olds charged with multiple murders could be tried as adults or children under state law.
The legislators' focus on crimes rather than on criminals, say Michael Maloney of the Chicago office of the John Howard Association, leads to prescriptions for the Juvenile Court that are "not terribly well thought out," so they do "more harm than good."
For example, by far the most crimes committed by kids are property crimes. Even the dismaying tendency toward armed violence is (the tragic case of bystander shootings notwithstanding) mostly intramural. Our social decision to punish drug use rather than to cure it also exaggerates the extent of youthful crime by criminalizing a whole generation of (mainly) poor teens for whom conventional sources of both recreation and income are hard to come by.
The presumed innocence of youth is only the most dubious of the assumptions underlying juvenile justice. Much of the juvenile justice apparatus also assumes that every youthful delinquent is father to an adult criminal, that a kid who breaks the law will, unless stopped, go on to more and worse crimes. Accumulating research suggests that this view is, if not exactly unfounded, at least over-simple. Kids who commit serious crimes tend do indeed tend to commit serious crimes as adults, but kids who commit minor crimes tend to commit only minor crimes as adults, if they break the law at all.
In a major study of Philadelphia's crooks, a mere seven percent of the criminals committed two thirds of all violent crimes, including three fourths of rapes and virtually all the murders. Most significantly in terms of preventive policy, this tendency toward mayhem was evident quite early; all the habitual criminals had had five or more arrests by age 18. But since these early arrests led to only token punishments they had no deterrent effect.
A sensible juvenile delinquency program would focus on ways to identify those kids most likely to become habitual criminals and deal with them seriously (via incarceration or therapy). But the system's record-keeping, confidentiality rules, and general incompetence makes tracking these miscreants all but impossible.
As a result, attempts to get tough with kids usually get tangled in the contradictions of the laws we set up to deal with them. Throw the book at a first-time offender in order to scare him out of a life of crime, and you'll probably force him into one; a record does not make getting a straight job easy, after all. Last year the Chicago Tribune told this story about one youngster who was an habitual criminal by the age of 16, having been arrested several times for burglaries and, later, break-ins and rapes. A DCFS ward, he had run away from shelters and other places he'd been sent by officials of the Juvenile Court. When arrested on a felony charge early in 1992, he lied and gave his age as 18. By thus bypassing the Juvenile Court and making himself eligible for a personal recognizance bond available to adults charged with nonviolent felony crimes. He didn't have to run away this time, just walk out of jail. ●