National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  April 23, 2004

Juvenile justice

Speakers at California parish strip away illusions of fairness of U.S. system

A two-part series on injustices in the U.S. juvenile justice system.
Part One: A parish examines the issues. Eight-year-olds in detention. And the Mario Rocha case (see accompanying story).
Part Two: Delinquents at the altar. A Catholic detention minister ranked a world class citizen by Human Rights Watch. And Los Angeles County’s highly rated juvenile camps under threat of closure from state budget shortfalls.

South Pasadena, Calif.

No child whose feet can’t touch the floor when seated facing the judge in chambers should be behind bars, said Cristine Soto. In fact, said public defender Soto, kids 8 years old and up are being arrested and held for trial “on charges you and I would assume they’re being grounded for.”

Statistically, she said, in 94 cases out of 100, “they’re not in court for murder, car jacking or robbery. They’ve tagged the gym wall at school, or been in a fight after school or taken a CD from Tower Records.”

Soto was one of a series of speakers earlier this year when parishioners for four Thursdays in a row filled Holy Family Parish hall to hear top names in juvenile justice -- advocates, prison ministers, judges, prosecutors, chiefs of police -- delve deeper into the topic.

Nationwide, more juveniles than ever are being sentenced as adults, judges lament a lack of sentencing flexibility, and state-mandated sentences have grown harsher.

  • In 1995, the last year for which U.S. statistics are available, more than 1.7 million juveniles -- children 17 and under -- were being detained annually, either to await sentencing or as adjudicated cases.
  • In 1997, the National Institute for Justice reported that statistically there were 14,500 juveniles in adult facilities “on any given day” though “the actual number of juveniles in adult prison is much higher than the daily count. There are no current estimates of the number of youth admitted to jail each year.”
  • The institute listed the top four states incarcerating juveniles in adult prisons as North Carolina, New York, Illinois and Florida. Those with the most juveniles 13-15 in adult correction facilities were Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas and Georgia.
  • Nationally, there were a half-million incidents of children placed in solitary confinement. Prisons everywhere are overcrowded. The California Youth Authority, with 4,300 juveniles in detention, has 25 percent more inmates than the facilities were designed for.
  • In a searing November 1998 indictment, “Betraying the Young: Children in the U.S. Justice System,” Amnesty International reported that American children in custody have been “subjected to brutal physical force and cruel punishment” and “excessive use of detention.” Cases listed included children held in custody for threatening a teacher, painting graffiti, running away from a troubled home or foster care, and held for “ ‘terrorist threats,’ which often involved swearing at a teacher.”

In Holy Family Parish hall, Superior Court Judge Joseph Brandolino, who serves on the California Governor’s Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, charted the uniqueness of the United States in developing the Western world’s first separate juvenile judicial system -- and then mapped its decline.

Bernard Parks, former Los Angeles Police Department chief, now a city councilman, knows all sides of the issues. His teenage granddaughter was slain on the public sidewalk, a random innocent victim of gratuitous street violence. Today, said Parks, violence begins in the home and spreads into the streets. A vital part of the answer to gangs and juvenile crime, he said, is better education, better housing and more parks.

Leslie Neale, whose latest film, “Juvies” was shot in California Youth Authority facilities, stripped away any illusions listeners might have had about the fairness and authenticity of how America now handles its juvenile offenders: “I’ve had a DA tell me, off the record, that one of the girls sentenced 27 to life was not the murderer, but that ‘someone had to go down for the crime.’

“I’ve watched kids navigate alone through the criminal justice system, not being permitted to consult with their parents. I’ve seen kids confused about their charges, their case, their court dates,” she said.

“I’ve talked many through suicidal thoughts, knowing that if I told the authorities the kids would be locked in solitary rather than spoken to with heart and love.

“I’ve heard the fear in the voice of a young man telling me he was tied up to the bunk for fun by his adult cellmates, the fear as a kid describes listening to the cries of someone being raped, girls who take ‘wives’ so they can be taken care of with sundries such as shampoo and soap,” Neale said.

“I’ve learned that the word rehabilitation was written out of California’s Code of Corrections in 1987, and that although kids do need to pay the price for the crimes they commit, we throw kids into an arcane system bent on excessive punishment, where many kids sit in small cells, locked down 80 to 90 percent of the time, lucky if they have a TV or radio. ...

“I’ve had judges order me to the bench to ask me why I’m in a courtroom for three Asian punks. Because of my husband’s connections to the music industry, I’ve been asked to help secure a record deal for a judge who really wanted to be a rock-and-roll star rather than speak seriously with me about the redemptive qualities of a 16-year-old boy being transferred to adult court.

“I have witnessed more than I could ever tell in a film, mostly due to the fact that no one would believe me.”

How does Neale personally handle what she has seen, the echoes of the anguished conversations of the kids inside? She told NCR, “I remind myself how incredibly blessed I am to be able to walk this road and bear witness to the injustices our youth face in our criminal justice system. I cry, I laugh, I pray.”

The irony as more young Californians are incarcerated is that the system got tougher at a time when, according to the federal National Center for Juvenile Justice, their crime rates were declining in all major categories:

  • Since 1994, the juvenile arrest rate has fallen 44 percent and by 2001 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) had reached its lowest level since 1983.
  • FBI tracking shows that the four offenses in the juvenile violent crime category -- murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- have also declined steadily since 1993. The murder rate has tumbled 71 percent since its 1993 peak.
  • The number of juvenile arrests in 2001 -- 2.3 million -- was 20 percent below 1997 levels.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

For more information

For more on the documentary film “Juvies”:

For juvenile justice national statistics:

Contact Allis Druffel, Holy Family Parish director of human services, to learn how to study juvenile justice issues:

To obtain copies of videos of Holy Family’s four nights on juvenile justice, contact Holy Family Bookstore:

To reach Presentation Sr. Janet Harris regarding Mario Rocha: (323) 256-4971

For more on the Mario Rocha documentary:

For the Amnesty International Report, “Betraying the Young”:

For reports on the incarceration of youths of color and other studies:

For more on California’s tough on crime approach: Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America’s Golden State, by Joe Domanick (University of California Press)

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004

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