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U.S. teens face rash of get-tough actions as nation's fear grows

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

One evening last summer, 16-year-old Asha Sidhu and her boyfriend were saying good night. Feeling awkward in front of Asha's younger brother and sister, they received permission from Asha's mom, Amber, to sit in their car a couple of blocks away.

Shortly after, a member of the San Diego Police Department pulled up. In an earlier era, the officer might have shone a flashlight in the car and waved the kids home, but not this time: It was after 10 p.m., and Asha was in violation of San Diego's new curfew ordinance. The officer arrested her on the spot.

"I didn't know where my daughter was for hours," said Amber. "I was panic-stricken." To make matters worse, the family had gone rock-climbing the day before, leaving Asha's fingertips roughened. While in custody, the police accused her of using acid to remove her prints, and subjected her to interrogation about various crimes. Asha, an honors student, was eventually released, but her mother still seethes over the incident. "Why couldn't the officer have just brought her home and asked me what was going on?" she asked.

Getting tough

The answer lies, at least partly, in the get-tough approach to teenagers that has swept America in the past decade. A national mood of concern about youth crime, coupled with demographic projections showing a boom in the teenage population, have given rise to a host of measures designed to crack down on kids. Consider these signs of the times:

  • Cities are dusting off existing youth curfew ordinances or writing new ones at breakneck speed. Indeed, the lust for action is sometimes so overwhelming that elected officials don't even bother to check the statute books to see what's already there. One New Jersey city council has passed a curfew ordinance three times, each time forgetting about its previous vote.
  • Increasingly, states are treating juvenile offenders as adults, and the federal government is also getting in on the act. The 1994 Crime Bill expanded federal authority to prosecute juveniles as adults despite research showing that placing juveniles in the hands of the adult system actually makes them more likely to commit serious crimes later.
  • Youth boot camps are growing in popularity. Florida leads the nation with six fully operational sites. The camps emphasize military-style discipline and a punitive approach to misbehavior.
  • Zero-tolerance policing is being practiced in many communities, a program in which police do not tolerate even minor infractions by teenagers (such as having a radio up too loud). The result in some inner-city neighborhoods is nearly constant police supervision.
  • In perhaps the most extreme example of this get-tough trend, several states, including Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and California, have considered legislation authorizing paddling as a response to juvenile crime.

The California ordinance, which passed two Assembly committees before narrowly losing on the floor, would have required the paddling to be administered by a parent in front of a judge, with the bailiff ready to step in should the parent prove insufficiently energetic.

Taken together, these measures express America's growing fear of its own children. A 1994 Gallup Poll revealed that the average adult believes juveniles commit 43 percent of violent crimes, when the actual figure is just 13 percent.

Politically appealing

Given this national alarm, it's no surprise that get-tough measures enjoy political appeal. Youth advocates are worried about their long-term consequences, however, not just for those teens caught up in a juvenile justice system now more interested in punishment than rehabilitation, but also for the vast majority of non-offending adolescents whose real needs are ignored by a law-and-order emphasis.

Despite concerns about the dangers of a punitive approach, no one disputes that youth crime is a serious problem. "During a six-year period from 1985 to 1991, the rate of homicide committed by 13 and 14 year-old boys was up 157 percent; the rate of homicide committed by 15-year-old boys was up 212 percent," said Jack Levin, director of the program for the study of violence and conflict at Northeastern University. "These statistics tell us that something's wrong."

The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta reports that arrest rates for homicide among youth 14-17 years of age increased 41 percent between 1989 and 1994, compared to a decline of 25 percent for adults during the same period.

Making these figures all the more alarming for advocates of a crackdown on youth violence is the projected spike in the teenage population over the next 15 years. The number of 14- to 17-year-olds in America is expected to rise from 14.6 million in 1995 to 17.4 million by 2010, a 19 percent increase, according to Census Bureau data.

This trend has prompted speculation about a future in which hordes of "super-predator" teenagers fill hospitals and morgues with their victims, an apocalyptic scenario that has generated strong popular support for get-tough approaches. In one telling development, the Democratic speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, recently reversed his long-standing opposition to punitive measures for kids. In fact, Silver has gone even farther than his Republican critics in insisting that every juvenile offender, no matter how trivial the crime nor how understandable the motives, must receive some "taste of punishment."

Supporters of this approach point to the most recent statistics, which suggest a downturn in juvenile crime. From 1993 to 1995, juvenile homicides fell 10 percent nationally. Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith of the Harvard school of public health agrees that the most recent news is encouraging, pointing to Boston, which has not had a single juvenile homicide this year. Just three years ago, it had 16. Advocates of curfews, paddling and the like see in these numbers a vindication of the deterrent value of swift and sure punishment.

A little guidance

Others, however, are not so sure. "A lot of the get-tough stuff works, but not for the reason that people think," Levin said. "It's not that they're so tough, not that they're punitive, it's that they supervise youngsters. For the first time, we're actually paying attention to what teenagers do. We're giving them a little guidance, supervision, control. ... For the first time in 20 years, we're giving them direction for their lives, providing them with role models," he said.

Levin's analysis points to the force many observers see as the root of teen crime: the withdrawal of adults, especially parents, from the lives of children. "Teenagers today lack the stability that only strong adult role models can provide," said Fr. Michael Scully, pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Hays, Kan., and author of several books on youth ministry. "Adults have to take an interest."

Levin agrees. "For 20 to 25 years, we have permitted our teenagers to raise themselves," he said, citing that 57 percent of children lack full-time adult supervision. A lack of concern on the part of the adult population, Levin argues, and not anything inherently evil about this generation of teenagers, has produced such high youth crime numbers.

By the same logic, the get-tough approach works because it signals a return of interest, albeit driven by fear, on the part of adults in what's going on in the lives of their teenagers. "For 15 years, thousands of people in Boston have been working on violence prevention. In general, the community has made a serious commitment to dealing with the problem and it's paying off," said Prothrow-Stith. "This is what's helping, not stricter punishment."

Although any decline in youth crime is good news, observers such as Levin and Prothrow-Stith worry that if the crackdown mentality gets the credit for it, Americans may come to believe that the problems of the young can be solved by a few good, swift kicks, rather than the longer-term, hard work of rearing them well. Such a belief could bode ill on many fronts.

For one thing, in the present climate, the future is bleak for those relatively few youngsters who do engage in serious crime. Given that most of these kids are in the inner city, a law-and-order approach inevitably means more incarceration for the poor and minorities. It is now possible for a young person to enter the prison system as a child and never come out.

"The get-tough attitude is going to mean that some individuals will be under the supervision of the government from the cradle to the grave," said Kenneth Adams, a professor of criminology at Sam Houston State University. "That should worry us." Fr. Scully agreed, saying, "Kids are going to make mistakes, but we must never desert them."

Restricting liberties

For the vast majority of teens who do not engage in serious misconduct (according to one statistic, only 0.5 percent of young people commit violent crimes), the get-tough wave means widespread restrictions on their civil liberties. Curfews are one example. "The police already have the ability to arrest teenagers involved in real crime. The curfew adds nothing more than the obligation to arrest the innocent as well," said Jordan Budd, staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

In another instance, the Supreme Court has authorized random drug-testing of students in public schools, overturning an earlier standard that had required individualized suspicion before such tests could be administered. In effect, the court held that it's reasonable to suspect all teenagers of drug use. The cumulative effect of such moves, observers say, is to convince youth that they are second-class citizens, making them even less likely to develop a stake in adult society and less likely to respect its institutions.

According to some experts, the greatest danger of the crackdown mentality is that it obscures America's vision of what is really needed to help kids: time, energy and resources. "The get-tough approach is an indication that we've lost our way, that we don't know what to do," said John Roberto, director of the Center for Ministry Development in Naugatuck, Conn. "We should focus on the work that needs to be done to build the assets of young people."

Roberto, whose youth ministry programs serve over 100 dioceses across the country, said, "The blame-the-kids approach resorts to slogans and quick fixes. The real answer -- building communities -- is long-term hard work."

Church efforts succeed

The irony, Roberto points out, is that plenty of well-known strategies exist to address the problem. He pointed to a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which confirmed the success of several programs designed to nurture healthy young people. "It's not like we don't know what works. What we need is the will to do it," he said.

Levin agreed that models do exist that point the way to a society willing to care for its children. He pointed to midnight basketball programs, gun buy-backs, toy gun buy-backs, active PTA/PTO organizations, peer mediation programs, programs in which college and university students serve as mentors, businesses creating summer jobs and community centers as measures with a track record of success.

Like Roberto, Levin sees will, not ideas, as the problem. "We have to reach our youngsters before they become criminals," he said. "We have to spend time with our kids and re-establish the credibility of our institutions -- our families, our churches, our businesses, our universities, our schools. That's what we really have to do."

Rebuilding that credibility is both an individual and a social challenge. Programs such as those called for by Roberto and Levin will cost money, and given the anti-tax mantra adopted by both Republicans and Democrats in the most recent election, generating support will be difficult. Even more important, however, is that adults sacrifice time as well as dollars. "Teenagers need adults to be involved in their lives," said Fr. Scully. "We need to figure out where teenagers are coming from," he says, "and only sustained involvement can make that happen."

"Teens need time and energy from adults. We've pigeonholed it to the professionals, but everybody has a role to play," said Roberto. He also argues that the church must be a voice crying in the law-and-order wilderness. "The church has to take up this call and act more thoroughly. We can be a voice for young people. If we took up the call for young people, we could make a sizable difference," he said.

As long as America relies on law enforcement to deal with its kids, however, the more fundamental issues remain on the back burner. "In Dallas recently, they conducted a curfew sweep, and for 25 percent of the kids they could not locate a parent," Adams said. How, he asks, will "get tough" help solve that problem?

Blame is easy

For a society unwilling to invest the resources necessary to get at root causes, punitive measures may offer some comfort. "People feel insecure economically, and so there's resistance to dealing with delinquency through measures that require an investment, such as education, after-school programs and the like. In this climate of thought, it's a helpful belief to say 'It's their fault,' " said Professor Steven Kleinberg, a sociologist at Rice University.

The current national discussion about youth crime seems to take a "blame the kids" stance for granted. The terms of the debate boil down to what hour the curfew should be set (President Clinton favors 8 p.m.), and how many more jail cells to build. However understandable, Prothrow-Stith sees this approach as dangerous. "It's like trying to prevent lung cancer with better chemotherapy, or new surgery techniques," she said. "It can't be done. The severity of punishment we mete out isn't the issue. We have to get to kids before the problem develops."

For Levin, it's another analogy that troubles him as he surveys the adolescent landscape. "Building prisons to fight crime," he said, "is like building cemeteries to fight disease." Unless America rethinks its approach to youth issues, observers such as Levin fear, we may need plenty of both.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997