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Excesses mark new hysteria over youth crime

McMinnville, Ore., has a four-day "tough love" session in its county jail for 12- to 17-year-olds. The kids are shackled to a stainless steel bench during processing, strip-searched, kept in a double-occupancy cell without any reading material except for religious texts and forced to take part in a daily drill called "kiss the linoleum," in which inmates lie spread-eagle on the floor face-down for as long as the guards determine is necessary.

In itself, the experience is probably over the top -- more "tough" than "love." But the clincher is that kids put through this ordeal are merely "awaiting adjudication," a euphemism that means they haven't actually been convicted of any crime. Officials quoted in The New York Times claim the program is designed to "garner respect," but it's hard to see what this kind of treatment is teaching kids to respect. Certainly not the Constitution, which says something to the effect that you can't be deprived of liberty without due process of law.

The Oregon program is another expression of growing national hysteria about youth crime. Fueled by media reports of "super-predator" teenage criminals, the public has been led to believe that young punks are running wild in the streets and that we have to crack down before America is one big, automatic-weapons version of Lord of the Flies.

Sensing this national mood (and perhaps abetting it), President Clinton has declared a new juvenile crime bill his "top law enforcement priority" this year. The legislation would allow federal prosecution of children as young as 13, and require adult prosecution of those 14 and older who are charged with certain violent offenses. It would require states to try children 15 and older as adults if charged with the same crimes. The bill would also ease rules against mixing children with adult prisoners, barred by federal law since 1974.

Debate over the bill, predictably, centers on whether it is tough enough. House Republicans are insisting on even sterner measures, and odds are they'll get them, since no one wants to look "soft" on the crime issue.

Despite the hoopla, the truth is that crime, especially violent crime, is down in America. Juvenile crime has dropped as well, down 10 percent in the period 1993-95. The raw number of crimes committed by teenagers is up slightly in some places, but the increase is due to the growth in the teenage population -- an aggregate increase, in other words, not a change in the likelihood of an individual teenager becoming violent.

Nevertheless, America has adopted an increasingly punitive approach to dealing with young people. Virtually every urban area in the country has adopted some sort of curfew measure making it illegal for teens simply to be out in the open during certain hours -- in effect, sweeping them under the rug.

Such measures do remarkably little to lower youth crime. No research has yet established any significant link between curfew ordinances or trying juveniles as adults and levels of juvenile crime. Boston is one city that has made a concerted and largely successful effort to attack the problem. What's worked there has been a combination of community outreach and zero-tolerance policing, which calls on beat cops to intervene when kids are committing even minor violations, such as playing a boom box too loud. The common element is that both aggressive policing and expanded outreach gets adults involved in an up-close-and-personal way in the lives of kids.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, then, the fault is not in our kids, but in ourselves. Too many Americans have abdicated responsibility for raising kids. Sociologist Jack Levin of Northeastern University estimates that 57 percent of teenagers in the nation lack full-time adult supervision. Those who work with kids on a daily basis -- teachers and youth ministers, for example -- can tell story after story about kids whose parents or adult caregivers neglect them in all kinds of ways. Lots of kids today are effectively on their own. That such kids engage in inappropriate behaviors should come as no surprise.

When a society relies on its legal system to do the hard work of raising kids, something is deeply amiss. Rather than devising new ways of turning the screws in response to a nonexistent crisis of youth crime, perhaps our national energies would be better spent rearranging our schedules so we all can spend some time with kids. Let's try more "love" for a change and less "tough."

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1997