In New York Homicide arrests of kids, ages ten through fourteen rose from 194 to 301 between 1988 and 1992 (Minerbrook, Page 36). In 1986, a majority of cases in New York City+s family court were misdemeanors; today more than 90 percent are felonies (Minerbrook, Page 36). No end to this dramatic increase in violence seems to be in sight. Youngsters used to shoot each other in the bodies, then the head. Now they shoot each other in the face. (Samuelson, Page 26). No segment of society is immune to the problem. With gang members as the playmates of choice, the inner cities have become a deadly playground. Fire trucks and sand castles have been replaced with guns, drugs, and theft. Five-year-old children steal with abandon for the promise of a brand new pair of tennis shoes that their poverty can+t afford. Children involved in the drug trade are forced to carry guns in order to defend themselves against older, more vicious kids who demand their money.
With our present plan of leniency producing negative results it is time for the punishment to once again fit the crime. With an overwhelmed system and a nation in panic, there are some who would still call these gun-wielding teenagers innocent. They do not see that while the basic destructive impulses of rebellious young men remain unchanged, the methods of rebellion are now far more dangerous (Gest, Page 26). Guns are now the weapons of choice for youth. Gun homicides by juveniles have tripled since 1983, while homicides involving other weapons have declined. From 1983 through 1995, the proportion of homicides in which a juvenile used a gun increased from 55 percent to 80 percent (http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org/facts/ezaccess.html).
The availability of guns in our nation and our youth s relentless desire to obtain them has turned our streets and schools into a battleground. We have long been at the mercy of sixteen-year-old gunmen acting out the most violent lyrics of their favorite music of the day. With some inner city teens considering gunplay to be a way of life or just another part of growing up, the goal would be to replace the system with one that protects society from violent juvenile criminals and efficiently rehabilitates youths who can be saved and can differentiate between the two. Perhaps the ineffectiveness of our present system can be best illustrated by this all to common case.
Percy Campbell is a twelve year old arrested for attempted burglary in northwest Fort Lauderdale. When arrested he had more than thirty arrests, for a total of fifty-seven crimes on his rap sheet, some of them felonies. No surprise — he had a mother in jail for murder and an uncle who had taught him how to steal cars. The records of young offenders are generally closed so previous offenses aren t always disclosed to judges who rule on subsequent ones (Minerbrook, Page 37). A religious leader took Percy under his wing, arranged for Percy to live with his grandmother, relocated the grandmother from he crack-infested neighborhood, and worked for Percy s rehabilitation. Within months, Percy broke into a neighbor s home and his grandmother was arrested for shoplifting. The county judge now has to decide whether or not to try Percy as an adult.
Percy s case highlights a key dilemma: how to distinguish kids who may be beyond change from the ones who aren t. The inadequacies of the system inspired Justice Michael Corriero to take on only juvenile offender cases in the Manhattan Supreme Court. His job is to decide if these kids are salvageable. Corriero wants to return all the cases to family court but gives judges discretion to bat the worse kids back to stand trial as adults. He complains that even though the legislature gave us the bodies of these kids, they gave us no support services. An opponent of the judge states that the judge s solution loads too many desperate characters into a system unequipped to deal with them. I don+t know what the solution is , says Reinharz, but I can tell you what it isn t. You+re looking at it–the existing judicial system.
It seems clear that due to the violent nature of the crimes being committed, the youth must be judged as adults. However, as a society we have a responsibility to the monster we have created. Punishment for these youth needs to be restructured or they will be in prison during the impressionable years when psychologists tell us they are forming their values. However, as the age lowers, one has to consider that a child, judged as an adult and sentenced for twenty years at the age of six, will spend his formative years in a prison environment. Clearly, that child has no option other than to return to society at the age of thirty-six a hardened and amoral individual, the likes of which this society has probably yet to see. Prison doesn t usually last forever, and life on the outside is an open invitation to do badly again (Minerbrook, 33). The house was dirty when you left it and it s dirty when you come back (Impoco, Page 70).
The pages of history, sociology, and psychology, and education books are covered with the injustices children have had to endure throughout the centuries. Indeed, one very strong barometer by which we judge how humane and civilized our society has become is by the rights we have given to today s children. As in the case of Percy, the humanitarian would return children to their families as, indeed, the courts and juvenile authorities often do. However, more than half the kids in long-term juvenile institutions in the U.S. have immediate relatives who have been incarcerated (Minerbrook, Page 30). The educator would argue the case of educating these youth in such federally funded programs as Head Start. Public education faces all kinds of class actions suits if the rights of a youth are violated. Yet the system faces a vicious cycle. If a youth is considered violent, he should be classified under a severe behavior disorder and get some help with the problems that plague him or her. Yet, the reality is that schools do not label violent youths as sever behavioral problems. For if they do and that youth commits a crime then he or she cannot be suspended for more than ten days and certainly not expelled because their actions are now seen as a direct result of their dysfunctional behavior. With no time, space or money for them in school these kids left in the hands of the judicial system and the police who would argue that jail is justice. Still, once within the hands of an overloaded judicial system, they are most probably out on the streets within eighteen months with the only real education they ever absorb coming from hardened criminals behind bars.
Finally, the federal government has taken its first step towards a solution with tighter controls on the transfer of weapons to kids. They are offering federal funding for schools that stay open later hours in order to keep the kid on the basketball court and off the streets. Ads for such schools roll across the T.V. screen nightly as community service messages. Still the society remains at the mercy of an armed youth, and perhaps, even more important, is losing what should be one of its greatest resources and hope for the future of the nation. It s children.
In conclusion, it is my belief that a restructuring of our present juvenile judicial system and the additional incorporation of educational programs and disciplinary sentences rather than jail terms will assist in making the trying of our children as adults a success. Exchanging leniency for harsh penalty will instill a fear into the youngsters that has previously been untapped by our present system. While serving their sentence children will be taught the ways and values of a reward and punishment system. The same and very much needed concept that was absent from their upbringing. The distinguishing between the salvageable and the unsalvageable is a harsh decision that needs to be made by the better judgment of our judicial system. Policies such as the three strike program and unlimited access to an offender s family records will assist in this decision making process. Attaining an understanding of the value of human life, children must, once again, fear the law more than anything. As Americans, and as the parent s and neighbors of these children it is our duty to find a workable solution to this seemingly endless turmoil. For if we don+t… our future is lost.