Juvenile System - Like its Clients - Get Bad Rap

This op-ed ran in the Boston Globe on Sunday, July 18, 1999.

One hundred years ago this month, the first juvenile court opened in Chicago. Massachusetts and New York had already separated juvenile from adult trials, but Chicago's philosophy was the first to consciously stress the welfare of the child. In twenty years, all but three states, seeing the wisdom of the Illinois example, established juvenile courts of their own.

Today, the clock seems to have run out on the juvenile court. The public believing that juvenile crime and violence is on the increase has come to demand that juveniles be treated as adults. "Adult punishment for an adult crime" is the all-too-popular refrain. But in truth, violence by young people is declining sharply, despite the flood of sensational media reports and political pronouncements to the contrary.

On this the 100th anniversary of the juvenile court and perhaps on the eve of its demise, a review of its history, and of current misconceptions, is instructive.

The early juvenile courts made no legal distinction between a child who was delinquent and one who was simply neglected. Under the English Common Law doctrine of "parents patriae," or parental role, the state was obligated to intervene on behalf of a child in need of services, and provide the supervision that parents had not. Children considered delinquent (except the few considered guilty of murder) were not accused of a crime; instead, the idea was to set them on the right path, and avert the stigma of a criminal record. Transfers to the adult court were rare, and then only when it was seen as in the child's best interest.

Because the courts' focus was on the welfare of the child, due-process protections were deemed unnecessary; there was no right to counsel, no jury trial, no protection against hearsay and illegally obtained evidence.

Conservatives thought the juvenile system not tough enough. Liberals believed it violated due-process rights by locking juveniles up without a judicial determination of guilt or innocence.

In 1966 and 1967, the US Supreme Court issued decisions siding with those who believed juveniles were in fact being punished rather than "saved" by the court. The high court gave young offenders all the rights afforded adults charged with crimes, except the right to a jury trial. The court reasoned that to grant juveniles a jury trial would "destroy the traditional character of juvenile proceedings."Juveniles, authorities declared, now had the "best of both worlds," receiving due process while still being treated as children in need of help.

From 1990 to 1994, while the overall murder rate in the United States declined four percent, homicides by juveniles fourteen to seventeen years old rose by a dramatic twenty-two percent. These horrifying figures led a renowned criminologist to warn of a coming "blood bath" as the number of juveniles would increase by twenty percent in the next decade.

Alarm spread as another celebrated crime watcher predicted that more than a quarter-million "juveniles superpredators" would be roaming the streets by the year 2010.

Even the highly respected Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention got into the act, claiming that if the upward trends continued, juvenile violence would rise an astonishing 101 percent by the year 2010.

There was, of course, some small truth in all the hype. Juvenile violence had increased. But that obscured a much larger truth: Juveniles remained a relatively small part of the overall problem of violent crime.

According to the US Justice Department's own figures, less than one-half of one percent of juveniles ages ten to seventeen are arrested each year for any kind of violence. These who are usually charged with aggravated assault—which may sound serious, but usually involves merely the threat of violence, or perhaps a shoving match, but little more. Just one juvenile in 10,000 is arrested for homicide.

Indeed, the latest Justice Department crime statistics show that the juvenile homicide arrest rate has dropped for the fourth straight year. Down by more than forty-five percent since 1993. Moreover, since 1995, homicides by fourteen to seventeen year olds have dropped more than in any other age group.

The percentage of violent crimes attributed to juveniles is lower than in 1975, and murder by children under thirteen is at its second-lowest level since this statistic was first collected thirty-three years ago, according to the American Society of Criminology.

But this dramatic drop in juvenile crime has not dampened the political appeal of the "superpredator" myth. Both Democrats and Republicans, eager to take a stand in the wake of much-publicized (but still isolated) school shootings, have proposed legislation to combat what they characterize as a growing threat of juvenile crime.

Congress is considering a bill that adds new offenses to those that automatically trigger transfer to adult court, and requires states to transfer some fourteen year-old children to adult court in order to qualify for federal money. Never mind that research shows no crime-fighting benefit in transferring more children to adult court. Connecticut, for example, has the highest transfer rate in the country, and it has the same juvenile homicide rate as Colorado, which has the lowest transfer rate. Michigan and Massachusetts have nearly the same transfer rates, but Michigan's juvenile homicide rate is among the highest, and Massachusetts' among the lowest.

Moreover, transfer to adult court seems to make young offenders more crime-prone in the long run. In Florida, for example, young offenders transferred to adult court had a thirty percent higher rate of recidivism than those in juvenile court. The higher rate probably reflects the brutal treatment of juveniles in adult prisons.

Further, research shows that most juveniles transferred to adult court have committed property offenses, not violent crimes.

In fairness, it must be pointed out that those few juveniles who commit murder generally do receive a harsher sentence if transferred to adult court. But this could be achieved by limiting transfer to adult court to first-degree murder cases. Or, alternatively, we could achieve harsher punishments for young killers by extending juvenile detention to age twenty-five or thirty. This would also give us time to provide the kind of intervention that could discourage a life of crime when they get out.

The original juvenile court set out to give wayward children guidance and support. There is a lesson in that history. If we are to prevent juvenile delinquents from becoming adult criminals, we will return to the philosophy of setting juveniles on the right path—not to state prison.

Richard Moran is a professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College.