Finding better paths to justice

Society is developing smarter, more compassionate, more effective ways of reforming juvenile offenders. 


Many of the anecdotes adults enjoy telling about themselves involve daring, rule-bending adventures they engaged in when they were young. These stories demonstrate that the upstanding, buttoned-down person you see before you today was once a bit of a bad boy or girl. Lesson: Don’t worry, everybody grows up.

Plenty of people pass through their teens serenely, thoughtfully, and not needing to rebel. Bless them. Plenty rebel, questioning social mores and conventional wisdom, testing the boundaries of propriety, legality, and tolerance. I’m not talking about my generation as the only one that was born to run. Long before James Dean and Katniss Everdeen, adolescent rebellion was tolerated, even celebrated, for sparking change and re-energizing society.

Some teen spirit goes too far. It becomes threatening, harms others. The problem is that while crimes committed by pre-adults can be as atrocious as those committed by adults the mental states of pre-adult and adult are not the same. Scientific researchers, criminologists, social workers, and judges concur that adolescents are not fully mature. An 18-year-old might have the look, strength, and mental simulacrum of an adult, but he or she is often still underdeveloped in categories that matter most – common sense, morality, respect for oneself and others. 

In a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), Stacy Teicher Khadaroo explores new approaches to juvenile justice that move beyond the zero-tolerance mentality of recent years and recognize that young people who have broken the law also have a capacity for change. That, after all, is the through line for those “when I was young and foolish” stories that solid citizens tell and presidential candidates divulge before someone else does.

Incarceration rarely fosters change. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, locking someone up “increases the feeling of estrangement; it strengthens the power of resistance.” That is as true for revolutionaries as for terrorists, for mobsters as for juvenile offenders. Punishment keeps bad guys off the street, but it rarely turns a felon – especially a young felon – into a better person. Plus, it is costly. Counseling, drug treatment, and other forms of juvenile reeducation and rehabilitation are more effective, less expensive, and don’t run the risk of turning a young offender into an adult criminal.

Youth doesn’t entitle the young to a “get out of jail free” card. It entitles them to something more constructive: the opportunity to grow up.

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Corrections: In a recent column, I incorrectly described Columbia, Md., as a community inspired by Jane Jacobs. She disagreed with Columbia developer James Rouse about the merits of such planned communities, though Rouse developments such as Faneuil Hall in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York did much to attract people back to urban areas in the 1980s and ’90s. In another column, I referred to an old saying that “no human has ever washed a rental car.” That’s the saying, all right, but workers at rental car companies wash cars every day. Some self-respecting renters do, too. I’m tossing that one into the dustbin of old sayings.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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