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Rebels Like Teen Spirit: Reviewing the Juvenile Justice System

Rebels Like Teen Spirit: Reviewing the Juvenile Justice System

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.

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

25 comments

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1:11PM PST on Feb 28, 2012

Our system is set up like a revolving door that once you enter, then you have a high probability of winding up back in again and again and again. It doesn't rehabilitate. It doesn't save money. It helps neither the innocent, the guilty, the victims, the perps, the society in general, etc. We need to reform the system in a way that is humane and humanizing. If you treat someone like a beast long enough, then why are you all so surprised that they come out and act beastly?

8:29AM PST on Feb 23, 2012

You cannot incarcerate your way out of behavior problems. Incarceration exacerbates behavior problems. Part of the problem is that as a society we have gone back to treating children as small adults when in fact they aren't. They are growing and evolving and incarceration truncates that growth. Spending the money on community programs, giving schools more support and options and working on a case by case would help. Instead we have become more punitive frequently blaming the child for the parent's shortcomings. Police target minority youth and lower class neighborhoods. We group them by the most basic category (age) and expect them all to have the same maturity level and coping skills regardless of their quality of education and care. We are failing miserably.

12:29AM PST on Mar 5, 2010

thanks for the article

12:05PM PDT on Aug 22, 2009

We would all like to think that if we parent perfectly our children will always behave perfectly. They will never get in trouble with the law, with drugs or alcohol, in school, etc. For some this does turn out to be true, but for many others, all the good parenting in the world does not keep our children from walking down the path they were taught to avoid.

In his book The Book of Secrets, Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life, Deepak Chopra refers to a 1971 Stanford University study in which volunteers were asked to simulate a prison, some portraying the prisoners and some the guards. To simulate the guards, they

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3:51PM PDT on Aug 21, 2009

A note to young parents. It is important to instill values in our children. Keeping them busy is another good strategy for keeping them "out of trouble". Hopefully in doing this, your child will enter young adulthood unscathed by much of the problems some teens face. However, a word of caution, sometimes parents can do everything right and still a child follows a path that goes against everything his/her parents taught them. Involved parents do everything possible to provide structure, activity and example and to prevent our children from experiencing trauma. But sometimes even the most protective and involved parents find their children choosing paths that go against everything we've taught them and against everything our children once believed was undesirable. Hopefully you your children will be lucky and not blindsided by unexpected and seemingly unwarranted behavior. Hopefully your children will not experience unexpected trauma that can result in drastic behavioral changes.

When you see a child or teen in trouble, hopefully you will lay aside judgement and understand that children that get in trouble are crying for help. They either have no guidance at home or they may have had a very traumatic experience that causes them to lose perspective. They need help, not judgement. They also may have parents that are doing everything they know how to do. If, one day, you find your children in unexpected trouble, love, be patient, and never, ever give up on them.

5:18AM PDT on Aug 21, 2009

15 years ago, either I was too naieve or oblivious to reality, but I thought that gangs only happened in the large cities. Then, in a little town in WI, someone drove by and shot at our police department. A SMALL town. Only a gas station, and the usual bars and churches and school. Gangs were becoming even a reality for me. Five or six years ago our city next door was voted one of the best places in WI to raise your child. Four years ago I lived there and had my car broken into and every single thing of value in it was stolen.

Awesomely said, David Harmon!!! I can 90% guarantee that the parents of a 14 to 18 year old delinquents didn't have control over them while they were young children. Kids need to be taught cooperation, consideration, respect, responsibility, consequences... all of that and more while they are KIDS! Those are the EXACT words my mother used on me while growing up and I am now passing them along to my 5 year old son :)

Idle hands idle hands... Start EARLY with EVERYTHING you want to teach your child. This is how a parent first teaches those important words in the paragraph before. They respect you more because all they wanted to do was please you at that age. Then they have the fear of mom and dad in them. They don't want to have to deal with the justice system AND the parents they let down!

10:22PM PDT on Aug 20, 2009

I'm with Gretchen Small on this. As a former educator now living in a neighborhood populated by families who think parenting stops after giving birth, I think it sometimes necessary to remove a kid from his/ger home environment and place the individual in an age appropriate living situation to redeive support, guidance and hopefully learn personal discipline and develop goals. Yes there are some bad living alternatives for kids in trouble which should be closed of overhauled. But when a young adult comes up to you years later and says "thanks for getting out of my old hood. My life is good, i have a trade and I have a future" , it is apparent a big breaak can be lifesaving.
The author talks about moral ambiguity. I want children to understand the gray nature of some choices in life but it is important to first firm up the golden rule of right and wrong and to know that disagreement is a cornerstone fo r inderstanding and love.

2:52PM PDT on Aug 20, 2009

My 17 year old daughter and I were just talking about this yesterday. We both agree that detention is unproductive and usually results in more delinquent behavior. In particular we were discussing charging children as adults and sentencing them to life in prison. We discussed the option of rehabilitation centers instead of traditional incarceration. Shouldn't we be trying to figure out what causes dangerous and anti-social behavior? Discovering the cause is the first step to the cure.

On a personal note, a teenage boy we knew a few years ago had been in and out of the juvenile detention center. At this time, he had community service hours to fulfill as sentenced by the court. He had difficulty finding places at which to volunteer, because his charges involved drugs. I thought I would help him out and called two large churches in the area, thinking they would be glad to help. After all, isn't service to the community what churches are supposed to be about? Evidently not. I had hoped they would work with, not only this boy, but work with me to start a program with the juvenile court system to provide both a safe and uplifting atmosphere to fulfill teen offenders' community service requirements and mentors to help teen offenders find their way to healthy, lawful and happy living. I guess churches aren't the answer, but I hope there are some organizations out there that would consider helping troubled youth in this manner. They need help not punishment.

2:30PM PDT on Aug 20, 2009

i wonder how many of you who have left comments even have kids or have raised teens. i did spend time with my kids and i did talk to my kids and disapline my kids. i worked with my kids every day with home projects and school work. we went places and spent time together but that still did not stop one son from getting into trouble. we had our chore chart. we grew a garden. we went for walks and caught turtles and snakes and put them back. we went for bike rides.we had loving caring extended family members. we had church activities. it was in my sons personality to try to buck the system. he did have a caring probation officer and it did seem to make a difference. we have to continue to work with our so called times and our kids personalities and their need to fit in or buck the system. it has been the same since the begining of time in some form or another. find help if you need it. the system did work for us. maybe we got lucky and found people who cared. different times, different problems. the system and the parents and the child all need to get on board. my sons famous line was...why should i respect adults who have no respect for me. i have to admit that many times he was right on with that thought.he could not get past the teacher who was there just for the paycheck or the church member who could preach it and not follow it or the police officer who allowed power to go to his head. one son could ignor it but the other could not. its just tough growing up. .

2:30PM PDT on Aug 20, 2009

i wonder how many of you who have left comments even have kids or have raised teens. i did spend time with my kids and i did talk to my kids and disapline my kids. i worked with my kids every day with home projects and school work. we went places and spent time together but that still did not stop one son from getting into trouble. we had our chore chart. we grew a garden. we went for walks and caught turtles and snakes and put them back. we went for bike rides.we had loving caring extended family members. we had church activities. it was in my sons personality to try to buck the system. he did have a caring probation officer and it did seem to make a difference. we have to continue to work with our so called times and our kids personalities and their need to fit in or buck the system. it has been the same since the begining of time in some form or another. find help if you need it. the system did work for us. maybe we got lucky and found people who cared. different times, different problems. the system and the parents and the child all need to get on board. my sons famous line was...why should i respect adults who have no respect for me. i have to admit that many times he was right on with that thought.he could not get past the teacher who was there just for the paycheck or the church member who could preach it and not follow it or the police officer who allowed power to go to his head. one son could ignor it but the other could not. its just tough growing up. .

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