There is a myth that is perpetuated regarding teenagers – specifically the idea that some are good and some are bad. Growing up in a fairly urban area in the 1980s, I could tell you my social circle was populated not with the “good” and “bad”, but with the decidedly gray pallor of moral ambiguity. I had friends who were seemingly virtuous, making the grade, comforting their parents, but ultimately ticking time bombs of self-indulgence and self-destruction. I had a friend who looked the part of teenage angst and rebellion (multiple piercings, tattoos, dead roses decorating their room, etc) and this person went on to dazzle everyone with her academic achievements and tireless humanitarian drive. There were also friends who succumbed to drug addiction, mental illness, and even a friend who was locked up at the age of 16 for murder. Sounds like a motley bunch, I know. However, I would like to think that this loosely associated group was representative of the developmental chaos and collective confusion that existed at that time (as I would imagine it is not all that different for today’s teenage population).
Shortly after I graduated from my turbulent teenage years, the juvenile justice system went into clampdown mode – sending more and more children to juvenile lockups (sometimes for months) while they awaited trial for nonviolent offenses or even noncriminal behavior like being “unruly.” And as everyone knows, children who spend their formative years in detention are far more likely to slip deeper into delinquency than they are to correct bad behavior.
As reported in The New York Times earlier this week, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses on disadvantaged children, advocated only locking up children who were violent and/or truly dangerous, by underwriting juvenile justice reform projects in five states in the early 1990s. The results of these few programs have been overwhelmingly positive, as many areas have managed to cut the number of children in detention by half or more; in many, the youth crime rate has declined. For those children that don’t fall into the realm of violet offenders, there are programs that invite collaboration among law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, as well as judges and public defenders to determine what is needed for these children/teens that are acting out and breaking laws.
This all seems like a no-brainer to me, but for many hard justice seems like the only option when confronting teenage delinquency and rebellion. Have we lost our innocence and proceeded to take out our own frustrations and desires for order on our children? Are we too easy and too abiding when it comes to bad behavior among teenagers? Are the problems of our criminal justice system rooted in the way we treat juvenile offenders? If anyone has any personal experience with this, we would love to hear from you!
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.