Arrested Development

Juvenile justice reforms need to dig deeper.


In Chicago, a 14-year-old girl is shot to death by an 11-year-old gang member who is in turn found dead a few days later, two bullets in the back of his head; his suspected killers are 14 and 16. In Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, a 13-year-old boy is accused of beating a 22-year-old female neighbor with a mop handle and then raping her. In Somerset, Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old is charged with hammering nails into the heels of a younger boy.

These hellish snapshots flesh out the disturbing statistics on juvenile crime rates: Between 1983 and 1992, reports the FBI, juvenile arrest rates for violent crime jumped 128 percent for murder and non-negligent manslaughter (versus 9 percent for adults); 95 percent for aggravated assault (versus 69 percent); and 25 percent for rape (versus 14 percent). Adding to the fear is the sense things are only going to get worse.

As a Washington, D.C., Superior Court judge told Time, "Youngsters used to shoot each other in the body. Then in the head. Now they shoot each other in the face." Little wonder then that, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, "the rising demand for a crackdown on juvenile criminals" is "one of the most powerful trends in campaign 1994."

But it is far from clear whether the most politically salable reform, lowering the age at which offenders can be tried as adults (as 20 states did in the past year alone), will have much, if any, effect on violent juvenile crime. Designed to let courts impose longer sentences on children (typically, convicted juveniles cannot be incarcerated beyond their 25th birthday, regardless of the crime), it is inherently a rearguard action.

"The more draconian the sentence," writes UCLA criminologist James Q. Wilson, "the less (on the average) the chance of its being imposed; plea bargains see to that … The most draconian sentences will … tend to fall on adult offenders nearing the end of their criminal careers and not on the young ones who are in their criminally most productive years."

What is needed instead is a juvenile justice system that teaches young criminals responsibility for their behavior at every turn, rather than exculpating juveniles categorically until a final heinous act is committed. The current system, an artifact of Progressive-era politics, sees juvenile status as a defense against criminal responsibility. Accordingly, youthful offenders are usually given a number of "free rides" or "diversions" before any serious punishment is meted out. When sentencing does take place, the courts are often barred from using previous arrests and convictions in deciding on punishment. And since virtually every state seals or expunges juvenile records, offenders need not worry about prior convictions haunting them in the adult world.

This is exactly wrong. As Peter W. Greenwood of the RAND Corporation notes, "Studies of responses to punishment suggest that initial low levels of punishment and gradual escalation desensitize subjects and make them less likely to respond."

There is nothing particularly mysterious or elusive about reducing the incidence of juvenile crime. It will respond to the same thing that works with "adult" crime: raising the costs of criminal behavior, thereby making it less attractive as an alternative to lawful behavior.

Between 1950 and 1992, according to Justice Department statistics, the number of serious crimes per 100 people rose from 1.2 to 5.9, while the expected days in prison (the average sentence for serious offenses adjusted for the probability that offenders are actually sent to prison) dropped from 24 to 8. The only time during that period that serious crime rates (including juvenile ones) slowed was during the 1980s, when expected days in prison rose. Such consistent inverse correlations suggest that criminal behavior is ultimately a choice, not an inevitability.

It is particularly important for youthful offenders to learn that criminality is a choice, since long-term patterns of violent criminal behavior generally begin during the juvenile years and grow in intensity—it is rare when a murder, rape, or assault is a criminal's first crime. About one-third of all boys in the United States will be arrested before turning 18. While most will not be arrested again, for those who are, each successive arrest places them at higher and higher chances of being detained in the future, culminating in 90 percent probability for those with five or six arrests. University of Pennsylvania criminologist Marvin Wolfgang has identified the latter as the "chronic offenders," the 6 percent of boys who account for more than 50 percent of all arrests.

Each arrest, then, is an opportunity to deter the educable and incarcerate the incorrigible. By taking past criminal behavior and other meaningful contextual information into account at the sentencing stage and by maintaining a permanent, open record, the juvenile justice system can teach the youthful offender that "present-orientedness"—a trait common in criminals of all ages—is a weak guide at best, a self-defeating one at worst.

A variety of well-defined and sequenced sanctions, including individual mentoring, formal probation, at-home supervision, community service, non-secured group homes, and short-term incarceration in military-style boot camps or locked facilities, would allow the system to screen out salvageable offenders while providing long-term lock-up for those who remain a violent threat to society. These reforms come neither easily nor cheaply, but they are effective.

"We are terrified," writes UCLA's Wilson, "by the prospect of innocent people being gunned down at random, by youngsters who afterward show us the blank, unremorseful faces of seemingly feral, presocial beings." Violent youthful offenders are indeed "presocial beings." The current juvenile justice system does little to change that.