Celebrating the American juvenile court system

When 1968 Olympic Gold-medalist and record-breaking long-jumper Bob Beamon was only 9, he first began getting in trouble with the law. When Justice Department official and former marine Ron Laney was 17, he had so many arrests, he was almost tried as an adult. San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan got into so much trouble as a kid he was banished from his home county at age 17.

Aside from their youthful problems and adult successes, Beamon, Laney, and Hallinan have something else in common - they all benefited from the treatment and protection of the juvenile court.

America's juvenile court system turns 100 this summer. In the late 1800s, a group of Chicago women, led by Jane Addams and Lucy Flower, were appalled by conditions in adult jails, where they found children as young as 8 alongside adults. They successfully advocated for the creation of the first juvenile court in the world.

The court was part of a series of century-shaping reforms inspired by the work of the Chicago reformers, including compulsory universal education, child labor laws, and the development of parks and recreation spaces for children. The court's founders believed childhood to be a sacred time during which young people needed to learn from, but not be crushed by, their mistakes. The court was built on the foundation of rehabilitation; it separated juveniles from adult offenders; and its proceedings were confidential so that youthful indiscretions would not ruin young lives.

The concept was wildly successful and is arguably America's most widely replicated justice system reform. By 1925, 46 states and the District of Columbia, along with 16 countries, had established separate courts for children where none existed before.

Ironically, as the court celebrates its centennial and the vision of its founders, Rep. Bill McCollum, (R) of Florida, would end it. His controversial bill, which recently passed the House, allows 13-year-olds to be jailed with adults, gives prosecutors non-reviewable discretion to try juveniles as adults, and erodes the confidentiality rights of young people. Last year, more than 17,000 juveniles were imprisoned in adult prisons - 3,500 of them general population with adults.

Would Bob Beamon have brought home the gold if he was sent to an adult prison instead of an alternative school? Would Ron Laney who, as a marine fought and was wounded in Vietnam, have been able to serve his country if he'd been tried and convicted as an adult? Would Terence Hallinan have gone to law school and on to help reduce San Francisco's juvenile crime rate by 27 percent through a combination of new programs and prosecution if McCollum's bill were law when he was a teen?

Common sense and hard data tell us that, as imperfect as the juvenile court system is, it is a whole lot better than the adult system. When we sentence youths as adults, as McCollum would have us do, they get re-arrested more frequently, more quickly and for more serious offenses than similar youth retained in the juvenile justice system. When kids are locked up with adults, they are sexually assaulted five times more frequently and commit suicide eight times more frequently than youth detained in juvenile facilities.

Addams and Flower were right and McCollum is wrong. Their 100-year-old experiment has as much relevance to young people today as it did then.

As Congress contemplates reverting to a 19th-century system of juvenile justice, it should expect no better results than Addams and Flower found 100 years ago. Instead, today's Beamons, Laneys, and Hallinans deserve the same chance to turn their lives around as the young people of previous generations, through a strengthened juvenile court, with the kind of resources it needs to work with today's young people. That's a 20th-century reform that would be worth supporting.

*Vincent Schiraldi is director of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, which published his book, 'Second Chances.'

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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