Kids used to play post office. Now they're just going postal, or so it seems. You can't open the newspaper these days without reading about a disturbed, devil-worshipping, gun-brandishing tot who turns a quiet town into a blood bath. It's a Norman Rockwell painting gone horribly wrong.
How to deal with this evil gurgling forth from the American playground? Politicians and bureaucrats, both federal and state, are calling for ever harsher punishments: "adult crime, adult time" has become the mantra of the day. In Congress, Senator Orrin Hatch used the recent shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Springfield, Oregon, to plug a bill that would, in exchange for federal grants, require states to try juveniles 13 and older as adults, and eliminate the separation of juveniles and adults in prison. In Texas, State Representative Jim Pitts is proposing to lower the state's death penalty qualifying age to 11. And all across the land—in juvenile courts, public schools, on city streets—officials are adopting "zero tolerance" policies designed to crack down on kid violence. As Annette Fuentes writes in the Nation (June 15, 1998) "to be young is to be suspect."
But are such draconian measures warranted? Though recent events seem to indicate a disturbing downward spiral, a youth culture that is getting more violent with each passing day, the numbers tell a different story. A 1997 study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice concluded that "today's violent youth commits the same number of violent acts as his/her predecessor of 15 years ago." And violent juvenile offenders, according to a 1997 Justice Department report, "are not significantly younger than those of 10 or 15 years ago." In fact, there were 6 percent fewer juvenile arrests for violent crime in 1996 than in 1995.
In light of the data, our eagerness to crack down on troublesome kids is curious. Even more curious is our use of the aberrations in Springfield and Jonesboro as the basis for putting the screws to young people. "It's as if a handful of children . . . are absolving adults of having to deal with the problems of children," comments Robin Templeton in Pacific News Service (May 22, 1998).
And you can argue that it's the problems of children that most clearly lead to youth violence. Fuentes cites a Justice Department report that spells it out clearly: Between 1986 and 1993 the number of abused and neglected children doubled to 2.8 million. Just three years later, the total of all juvenile arrests was—you guessed it—2.8 million.
The crackdown on kids might be justified if it straightened them out, but study after study shows that the juvenile justice system fails to rehabilitate. In some of the larger youth prisons, the recidivism rate reaches 80 percent. Recidivism is also the likely result when the young are sent to adult courts. "Sending youthful offenders to jail will take them out of circulation for a while and give people the momentarily gratifying feeling of having taken a stand, but it doesn't seem to be much of a solution in the long run," writes Mary Sykes Wylie in Family Therapy Networker (May/June 1998).
What to do with the bad seeds, then? Send them to bed without milk and cookies? There's no magic bullet, but success, says Wylie, has been found in programs that "reject the widespread pessimism that writes off violent delinquents as sick, disturbed, hopelessly deviant and deficient little psychopaths." These programs, both residential and home-based, use such methods as "positive peer culture" (if peers can be a corruptive force, they also can be a positive influence) and "pragmatic family therapy" (changing behavior by rebuilding the family). The best of these approaches have been shown to reduce recidivism by about 30 percent.
This may not be a stunning victory, but it's miraculous given a society that seems unable to nurture its children. Then again, it depends on how you look at things. "If the goal of the crackdown on youth," writes Fuentes, "is to divert attention from the real crimes plaguing the nation—child poverty, failing educational systems, 15 million kids without health insurance—then it's a success."