The Throw-Away Generation

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 expires this September. Proponents of the law believe the majority Republican Congress wants to scrap the rehabilitative nature of the current juvenile justice system for a more punitive structure that includes:*Expanding prosecution of children in adult court. *Easing pre-trial restrictions on housing 13- through 15-year-olds with adult inmates (if a juvenile facility is not available, which is very possible since these facilities need to be built).*State-mandated prosecution of children in adult court, automatic punishments for children and elimination of confidentiality for juvenile records and proceedings.*Abolishment of the privacy of juvenile court records.*The execution of 16- and 17-year-olds under federal law, which is included only in the Senate bill.The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Juvenile Crime Control Act of 1997 in May. Last week, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate held a mark up session of the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act of 1997; a mark up session is when a bill is put into final form before it is reported out. Both bills contain similar punitive measures as those listed above.We talked to teenagers, social workers, politicians and sociologists in an effort to present several viewpoints on this important issue. This shift in juvenile justice policy has been largely kept out of the headlines by a prize fighter chomping off an ear and a space mobile bumping into Martian boulders. Unfortunately, this is nothing new when it comes teenagers. They are often forgotten. Early evening. The White Plains office of the Westchester People's Action Coalition on Grove Street. A journalist sits in a semi-circle with 14 teenagers. Battered, plastic chairs lend little comfort. Some of the teens look like refugees from a Grateful Dead concert that never happened. Others wear standard preppy summer gear. All of them belong to WAY -- Westchester Activist Youth. The journalist informs the teens of New York State's Zero Tolerance law -- which punishes underage drinkers who drive with any alcohol in their system -- and a national curfew proposed by President Clinton. For some reason, the first teenager called on veers off the subject. Sarah Yahm, 17, Rockland County resident: There's all these laws in Seattle, especially against Seattle homeless youth. Because there's a lot of youth attracted to the music scene. There's one that says you can't use a shelter unless your parents are notified. So what it's doing is keeping kids out of shelters. What's interesting, though, is that youth is organizing against that law.(Journalist nods and asks about the Zero Tolerance law and curfews again.)Debbie Berliner, 18, Ardsley: They're just making sure there aren't bad outcomes before it starts.Blonde Girl: Why are they doing this to us? They didn't have curfews. They were hippies, and now they're doing this stuff to us. I don't understand it.Berliner: The curfew does assume you're going to do something, which isn't right. But the tolerance law goes after you if you've done something.Another Anonymous Teen: (blurts) IT'S DISCRIMINATION! (Most of the group doesn't have a problem with the Zero Tolerance law. They believe teenagers shouldn't be drinking in the first place, so the law goes after lawbreakers. Then a dissident speaks up.) Yahm: It seems that they're picking on an age arbitrarily. After you're 21 you're mature. Before that you're immature. It doesn't seem fair. You can fight in the Army when you're 18.Karen Shaviv, 17, Mount Kisco: The whole country has become more conservative, and we've become the scapegoat. Vincent Romano, 21, White Plains: Don't forget the corrections industry is one of the fastest-growing markets. So the youth are needed for the politicians and for the market.Shaviv: People want politicians to get tough on crime so they're taking it as far as they possibly can.Next day. Inside the cool confines of a newspaper office. Green carpet and a voice mail system on the fritz. The journalist gets a tip and calls Mildred Kibrick. Kibrick is a retired probation officer of Yonkers Family Court and currently sits on the board of the Westchester Council on Crime and Delinquency. In 1944, Kibrick started her juvenile justice career in New York City.The journalist asks when zero tolerance of juvenile delinquents first started in New York State. Kibrick thinks in terms of the recent future, even though in 1978 New York passed one of the toughest juvenile offender laws in the nation. Children as young as 13 who commit violent crimes can be prosecuted in adult criminal court. Mildred Kibrick: It started a couple of years ago when Gov. Pataki proposed toughening penalties for juvenile offenses. The assembly of the state of New York opposed him and was able to oppose the proposed legislation that he wanted.But he proposed it again this year, and this year Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver went along with some of it. So the trend is certainly towards tougher penalties for juveniles and less tolerance for juvenile delinquents.The tendency is not to see juveniles as children, but to see them as criminals. The majority of juvenile delinquents need more support services and more prevention services.(The journalist asks Kibrick about her career in the juvenile justice system, and what she saw on the job.)Kibrick: I worked in the Family Court for many years, and I know the kinds of kids that come in. And if you sit in the Family Court you'll see most of them are just troubled kids or [they] come from dysfunctional families.And most of them, if they're given the kind of help and support and role models that they need, turn out OK. It's a very small percentage that are very violent.The only thing that works is prevention. They need treatment and rehabilitation. Like mentoring, after school, tutoring and recreation programs. These things work.Leslie Mantrone is the director of the Westchester Center for School/Community Partnership, a collaboration of the Westchester Children's Association and the Westchester Council on Crime and Delinquency. It is one of the preventive programs Kibrick and others argue that the nation's youth need.(The journalist asks why and how the center was created.) Leslie Mantrone: We were concerned what kids do after school, and the emphasis on prison expansion and making laws tougher that aren't deterring crime. The School/Community Partnership is trying to have communities fully utilize school buildings and keep them open from early in the morning to late at night, and make school buildings the center of communities. To have community agencies run their services out of the schools.I'm working directly at a school in Yonkers. The other two communities we're working with are in Tarrytown and Ossining, NY. But there's some other examples around. There are two in Mount Vernon, NY, that have elements of what one would call a community school, and they see themselves as community schools as well. In Westchester, NY, we don't have the fully developed models that are in existence around us. We're behind the times in Westchester by a good 10 years.(The journalist asks Mantrone why zero tolerance seems to be the reigning mindset in American society, especially when it involves youth.)Mantrone: There's a difference between public perception and the reality of how dangerous it is out there.Journalist: What causes this difference, the media? Mantrone: I have heard from a lot of politicians saying that they're getting their sense of the pulse from the media. It all kind of feeds on that. And the media is feeding on not always the reality. They're feeding on perceptions as well. So it's important to do research and then promote the findings of that research. Politicians are looking to the media to where public opinion lies.(The journalist does not mention the public opinion polls many politicians rely on, but he understands Mantrone's point. The journalist says thanks. It is almost the end of the day, but he makes a call to the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington D.C. The phone call enters voice mail territory. The voice of Mark Kappelhoff asks the journalist to leave a message after the beep.)The phone call is returned. Mark Kappelhoff, legislative counsel for the ACLU's Washington National Office, flashes on line No. 1. Kappelhoff speaks in a stern voice. The journalist cannot imagine a smile on the other end.The journalist asks a question about the House bill, but Kappelhoff answers something else. The counselor is determined to get the word out. His word out about H.R. 3.Mark Kappelhoff: I don't know about that, but I can tell you this: It amounts to playing politics with our nation's children. That's what your politicians are doing with this. It sounds tough, it sounds like tough talk, but in reality it's not sound policy. (The journalist goes with the flow. He figures he can play the game, too.)Journalist: You know, I was wondering if someone is making money off all these zero tolerance laws?Kappelhoff: In one area they're making money is the area of prisons. We've created essentially a prison boom in this country that's being driven by our criminal justice policy. (A 1998 fiscal request by the Federal Bureau of Prisons asked for $3.2 billion.) And unfortunately it drives economies of too many cities and counties around the country. So we end up with a prison-industrial complex, where we have prison construction, and we have to staff those prisons with employees. Journalist: So it's not only for the votes that politicians get tough, but for the money?Kappelhoff: It is for votes, but, remember, the [young] folks who are being locked up aren't voting. [The bill] is barbaric. Housing juveniles with adults, prosecuting 13-year-old children and sending them into the adult criminal justice system is unconstitutional. And there's no reason for it.(The day ends with that phone call, which ends on that last sentence. But the suicide of Rodney Hulin Jr. stays in the journalist's mind that night. At 16 years old, Rodney Hulin was charged with arson in a fire that caused $500 worth of damage to a fence. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison. In November 1995, Rodney was sent to an adult prison in Brazoria County, Texas. Two weeks later, he sent a letter to his father -- he had been raped by another prisoner. By January, Rodney was dead. He hung himself in his cell.) Another next day. The journalist receives orders from the Editor: Talk to the policy makers! The journalist quickly obeys and calls Republican members of Congress Christopher Shays and Sue Kelly. He also calls two Democrats. The day goes by with only one call back -- Congresswoman Kelly calls when the journalist is out. Night comes, and a ring. The journalist is told by a press secretary to hold on, Congressman Shays is coming to the phone. Shays gives the journalist a warm hello. The journalist smiles on other end, but remembers Rodney Hulin Jr. He asks the Congressman if young people should be housed in adult prisons. Christopher Shays: That's discretionary, and there are some 16-year-olds that are so hardened and so much like adults that putting them in a juvenile setting is just going to have a negative effect on the other juveniles.(To make this clear, we have to realize the intent of H.R. 3. Essentially, the bill wants to have three different facilities for three different categories of criminals -- which gives credence to Mark Kappelhoff's remark of a "prison industrial-complex." There will be juvenile detention centers, juvenile prisons and adult prisons. The juvenile prisons will house a juvenile tried and convicted as an adult or who is waiting to be tried as an adult. Since this type of prison does not exist, it has to be built. In the states that do not separate juvenile delinquents from juvenile "adults," the bill allows juveniles to be imprisoned in adult facilities. The juveniles will not necessarily be in the same cell as an adult prisoner, but the juvenile will have to take showers and meals with the rest of the prison population. There will be plenty of opportunities for a Rodney Hulin incident.) Shays: What we allow in this legislation is for 14-year-olds, treated as adults because of an adult crime, will not be in an adult prison. They'll be in a juvenile prison.(This is why the House bill offers $1.5 billion in block grant money. Much of the money goes toward "building, expanding or operating temporary or permanent juvenile correction or detention facilities," as stated in H.R. 3. The money also finances the hiring of judges, probation officers prosecutors, prison guards, etc. No preventive measures are on the bill. Neither will there be any on a bill called the Juvenile Crime Control Act. The mission statement of the Juvenile Crime Control Act reads, "An act to combat youth crime and increase accountability for juvenile criminal offenses." In a recent survey conducted by Northeastern University's Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research -- which polled police chiefs of large and smaller cities across the nation -- found that nine out of 10 police chiefs believed prevention programs for kids could sharply reduce the juvenile crime rate. The Crime Control Act will fund no preventive programs.) Shays: (continued) But the issue is do you want a 16-year-old, who is an hardened criminal, to be put into a juvenile prison with a 14-year-old who may have a tremendously adverse effect on that 14-year-old? So the 16-year-old, it's discretionary.(We now jump ahead in the discussion. The topic is still the same: Should young people be housed with adult prisoners? Congressman Shays gives his reasoning.)Shays: I happened to be in prison for seven days in the Bridgeport Correctional Facility when I got in a dispute with a judge when I was a state legislator. During that experience, I was told that the most difficult prisoners were the young prisoners. Because they are simply feeling their oats, they don't know how to fit into a prison setting. Journalist: Well, what do you say to people who believe there should be more preventive measures in the bill?Shays: I totally agree with that criticism. There are two issues. First and foremost, I believe the best deterrents to crime are preventive programs. In Fairfield, Conn., for instance, a kid in school has the pressure of what doesn't he do after school. They have all the activities they can choose. A kid in Bridgeport after school, his challenge is what does he do after school. It's the exact opposite problem. A kid in Bridgeport simply doesn't have a lot of opportunities after school activities. And chiefs of police of Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford have all said to me: 'The best help in getting at juvenile crime is preventive programs."(We jump ahead yet again. The journalist tells Congressman Shays what Karen Shaviv said at WESPAC: Politicians just want to look tough.) Shays: The shame is that we politicians have made the problem worse by not having preventive programs and by letting kids get away with smaller things that ultimately get into bigger things and bigger things. We have people who are dead because of it, we have people who've been raped because of it, and we had people robbed because of it. (Another next day is a few hours away. In the meantime, Malcolm Shabazz waits in a juvenile center for another hearing in Family Court. He will soon plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter of his grandmother, Dr. Betty Shabazz.)Dr. Donna Gaines teaches "Sociology of Youth" at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City. She is also the author of Teenage Wasteland. After the 1987 suicide pact of four "heavy metal" kids in Bergenfield, N. J., Gaines hung out with the kids' friends as an assignment for the Village Voice. Gaines was once a social worker and went on to teach sociology as well as write music and cultural criticism for the weekly newspaper. Gaines is a nationally recognized sociologist and no bullshit critic of the nation's juvenile policies. Journalist: What's with the kids of the '90s? Dr. Donna Gaines: In the 1980s, kids were angry and felt hopeless and helpless. And in the '90s, as a result of seeing the ruthlessness of downsizing, young people aren't morally connected at all. It's worse than the '80s.People who are teenagers today are seeing devastation not only among impoverished people in the working class, which is what I wrote about, but now they're seeing it in the middle-class and upper-middle-class. So when I'm dealing with elite kids in an Ivy League setting, it is not uncommon to find 35 percent of the class having eating disorders. Whatever it was it has bubbled up. In other words, the street kids -- the throw-away, runaway kids and ghetto kids who didn't have stable families or supports -- they fall through the safety net first. Then came the working-class kids. The white kids, the metal kids. Now we're really seeing the middle class kids have a hard time. Journalist: So color has nothing to do with what you're talking about, it's just class?Gaines: Class is the only thing that matters. Race means nothing without class. Right now what's happening -- because of multi-culturalism and the case of Tiger Woods -- it's not just black and white. Now that we're really seeing that, race at some point will wash out. And we're going to see class war. We can use this kind of inflammatory rhetoric, right? Journalist: Absolutely, I used to work at the Voice, too, remember? Gaines: That's right! So I think kids in the '90s are showing rage in another way. And I don't want to downplay all the good stuff kids are doing. Kids are really trying hard, and that's the majority of kids, but when you see these heinous crimes -- like prom mom, and prom mom was a Metalica fan, and I'm sure there are mitigating circumstances -- but not to the extent that we're seeing these crimes. Like the Central Park kids. Journalist: Are tougher penalties going to make a difference? Gaines: It's not going to accomplish anything except to lower the age at which we throw a kid into the garbage pail. This has been a long-term problem, but instead of even looking at why kids are getting pregnant younger, killing younger, being killed younger...we're just saying once they fall through the cracks they're just toxic waste -- let's dispose of them. We've been doing this to people over 18, so now it's just going to increase that population. At some point 9-year-olds are going to be the ones we target. And I'll even say in 10 years we're going to be looking put 9-year-olds in these prisons.Journalist: That's interesting, because that's what a teenager kind of told me the other night.Gaines: The fact that the kids know and understand the real motivation behind this is not any kind of social justice or any kind of socially positive move on the behalf of young people, they just perceive it as greater aggression and hostility from the state against young people who are poor and disproportionally non-white. In other words, it's only going to diminish young people's ability to hope and ability to rise above adverse circumstances. The attitude toward young people is hyper-punitive -- I just made that word up -- and it's only in the long run going to be self-defeating to the social order. Journalist: So we haven't done anything well concerning juveniles? Gaines: No, it's brutal. We don't do anything well with regards to young people at ALL. We don't care about them. We only care about them in utero, and we don't care about them from the day they're born. All we want to do is throw away anybody who's not cooperating, but we're not giving any support. They just closed down a women's shelter next door to me, and they're building a Marriott hotel. That's priorities. Reap what you sow, motherfucker!Dean Charles Frazier is an associate dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida. He co-authored a study that is often cited in the juvenile justice debate. The study, through a matched sampling of 2,738 Florida youths, found that juveniles transferred to adult criminal court re-offended more quickly and committed more serious crimes than did juveniles sentenced in the juvenile justice system. Dean Frazier is a sociologist and criminologist.Journalist: Because of your training and through your own work, can give me some insight on why our society seems to have a zero tolerance mindset?Dean Charles Frazier: It's been fueled by a number of things. Obviously, a deepened and continuous concern about juvenile crime and the severity of juvenile crime. The real numbers in terms of gross rate are not nearly as bad as the public believes; that is, the general rate of delinquency is not on an accelerating or high slope path. It's flattened out and fairly leveled and there haven't been the crime waves that we've been expecting. That said, within the juvenile crime rate there are indications of higher rates among some offense categories. There are some increases among juveniles in violent crime rates, and the severity of violent crimes that have been reported. The proportion of those crimes that are violent, though, seem to be fairly consistent -- people want to talk about what violent crimes looked like in the earlier times. But there is some reason to look at the severity of some juvenile crime with concern. But to take that picture of a small percentage of all the juvenile crime and think it out as being generally applicable doesn't seem to be warranted. The general juvenile crime problem doesn't seem that much different. Journalist: When I was researching juvenile crime, your study was often cited by different people. What is the moral behind your study? Frazier: If you're interested in the utilitarian value of harsh, criminal justice responses to juvenile crime as compared to those that are characterized as more rehabilitative by orientation, like the juvenile justice systems, that our evidence doesn't suggest one is better than the other.And anytime you make a paradigm shift in anything, there is great hope that once you go through all the effort and expenditure to change something that it will reap large, significant results. What our data shows is that based on identified transfers [to adult prisons] and identified non-transfers, matched as best we can, that according to the data there is not a significant difference in the outcome. Or if there are significant differences the transfers do worse. That is, those who are treated harshly tend to do less well than those treated less harshly.Journalist: What is the most effective way of dealing with juvenile crime?Frazier: The best way to do it is to prevent it from happening in the first place. So all the things that feed into juvenile crime to begin with, and eliminate or reduce those circumstances to begin with, will greatly reduce the crime rate and the cost of addressing the crime rate. There needs to be the kinds of programs and facilities and community and neighborhood-family involvement that allows and ensures an environment that helps them become law-abiding citizens. The oddity is that medical science seems to understand the relationship between prevention and health much better than we understand in criminology the relationship between prevention and low crime...We have to provide facilities and opportunities and the situations that create good, law-abiding citizens.Congresswoman Sue Kelly represents some of the major prison towns in Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties. She voted yes for House bill, H.R. 3, also known as the Juvenile Crime Control Act. The journalist apologizes to the Congresswoman for not being at his desk for two previous calls. She says nothing, except: "I have very little time, so you can ask your questions now." The journalist becomes nervous, but he also feels more confident.(We jump to the second question asked by the journalist: Shouldn't H.R. 3 have programs to prevent 13- and 14-year-olds from killing? The journalist asks this question because the Congresswoman kept talking about putting away teenagers for murdering and raping. The journalist figured the bill should include something to keep those teenagers from being so violent.)Sue Kelly: That particular bill doesn't, but the other bills that I'm working on and I'm signatory on that I co-sponsored that would start...we just had a hearing today on working with children, trying to craft laws that would start working with children zero to 3. Because we know now the earlier you start working with children the better. This bill was aimed strictly -- it may have been called the Crime Control Act -- but basically what it's doing is the punishment of juvenile crime. It's not a prevention measure at all. That was not where it was headed. At least, that was not my impression from the people who wrote the bill. When they spoke on the House floor.Journalist: That seems kind of weird. When I talked to Christopher Shays he said he was upset the bill didn't have preventive measures, and that he'd fight to get some on the bill. So what you're saying seems weird. Kelly: I agree with Chris. We got to prevent this kind of crime. And there's a lot of things we can try to do. But on the bottom line we also have to tell our kids who are doing these crimes -- if you're 17 years old and you want to murder and rob, you go out there and rob and kill, being 17 ought to be no protection in the eyes of the laws. You're committing adult crimes, and you doggone well know it when you're 17. (Congresswoman Kelly always mentions the age 17. Never 13 or 14. She also always mentions murder, rape and robbery. But the House bill also includes punishment for kids who may not have done anything but were part of a "conspiracy. The bill also punishes kids for non-violent felony drug offenses. So instead of treatment, the kid goes to jail. We move to the last question, where Congresswoman Kelly gets the last word. By this time at night, both the journalist and the Congresswoman are tired. But they stick it out for the sake of professionalism. As the journalist listens to the last few words, he wonders if Malcolm Shabazz was the victim of an open court, which is what Congress hopes to make law. The media was allowed inside the courtroom, and Shabazz's lawyers -- who previously hoped to fight the manslaughter charges -- did not want the trial to turn into a public spectacle. So Percy Sutton, Malcolm's lawyer, was backed into a corner. He made a deal with the prosecutor, but Malcolm will now be known as a convicted murder, despite his obvious psychological problems.)Journalist: Why is the zero tolerance mindset so prevalent in today's society?Kelly: I think it's about time we have a zero tolerance mindset for a lot of other things. I think that for too long we tolerated bad behavior, bad-mouthing. We sit around and laugh at this. We watch it on television, and it's our daily feed as a nation. That isn't real life. Real life, for most people, has become a hollow existence, and they wonder why. And I would say to people like that: Get outside and feel life. Feel life. Feel what real life ought to be. Go volunteer. Go to church. Smile and talk to your neighbors. Do something kind. Spread a random act of goodness and see what it does for your inside.I truly believe that we have reached the state where we've got to tell juveniles what they've been seeing on television, what they may be hearing on the city streets in major cities, that isn't real life. And they know that from the person in their life who is bringing them up. Most of them has somebody who loves them, and they know that.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.