little criminals

Peter Reinharz, Chief, Family Court Division, The City of New York

What do we do about violent juveniles? What are the public policy aspects of this issue?

Since I am a prosecutor in the criminal justice system, I don't feel qualified to answer the other questions relating to predictors of violent behavior and the research.

I do believe, however, that the best predictor of adolescent violence is history. It is important that prosecutors and judges have accurate histories of the youth's conduct. It has become clear to most of us in the juvenile justice process that the confidentiality that was originally designed to protect the youth from being labeled as a career criminal, has served to keep different parts of the government ignorant about an offender's true history. As the new legislation in Congress makes clear, information sharing is an important step towards curing one of the major ills of the youth crime problem.

It is therefore important to redesign the juvenile court process to allow for the accurate sharing and storage of juvenile records. Young offenders have to be fingerprinted and photographed when they commit crimes. These records have to be made available to law enforcement so that crimes can be solved and so that youths can be held accountable for their actions. Until last year, young offenders arrested for possession of loaded firearms could not be fingerprinted in New York. Photographs were also forbidden. Thus, law enforcement in New York could not place photos of gun toting teens into photo arrays to close out armed robberies. The New York Assembly, by refusing for over ten years to allow for the fingerprinting and photographing of young gun offenders, effectively created a qualified immunity for armed felons in the State of New York.

The juvenile justice system needs to reexamine its mission. The present system--even in jurisdictions which acknowledge the need for community projection--deals with juvenile violence via balanced approach. That method seeks to weigh public safety against the best interest of the offender. Yet this view really abdicates the primary purpose of the criminal justice system--to provide public safety. Where young offenders are terrorizing communities with gun related violence and with other types of violent crime, the obligation of the government--first and foremost--is to remove these offenders from the community to ensure public safety.

This is not to say that efforts to modify behavior should not be important. Young offenders who have been incarcerated should have the chance to turn their lives around. Similarly, efforts at prevention of violence are important. Intervention in early stages of child development may decrease the potential for adolescent violence. Yet there must be a system in a place that can effectively deal with youthful offenders who commit violent crimes. This system must ensure that the offender is accountable for his violence, and that the community does not bear the brunt of this offender's propensity for violence through an ill advised community based program.

Young offenders have to know that there will be definite consequences for their violent actions. Teens who commit serious crimes need to be incarcerated for longer periods of time than the present laws allow. Recently in New York a youth was sent to a limited secure facility for burning a homeless man to death. The youth, along with others, beat the man in a park and poured an accelerant all over is clothing. The man was lit on fire and died an agonizing death. For this crime of unspeakable violence, the youth received the maximum term of incarceration--a period of up to 18 months. It is likely that the offender will serve a mere ten months for this crime.

Yet over the last decade our society has not met the challenge to reform juvenile justice laws to reflect the violent nature of juvenile crime in America. Vicious juvenile crimes like robbery and felony assaults have increased about 200% in New York City since mid-1980s. Yet the New York Assembly--despite being asked annually to provide intelligent reform to meet the need to deal with violent young offenders--has made virtually no substantive changes to the juvenile justice code in New York. Unfortunately, their inaction and the inaction of legislators all over America has come at the expense of crime victims everyday.

It is clear that the concept of "punishment" needs to be reintroduced into the Family Court system. Children respond to punishment--it is a tried and true method of child rearing. Yet the concept of punishment has been lost in juvenile justice because of a concerted effort by activists to look behind every crime to seek a reason for the behavior. While there may be a thousand reasons for a criminal act, unless those reasons qualify as defenses at a trial they are not important in the adjudicatory process. Unfortunately, the reasons for the behavior of young offenders has often served as excuses for the crime. Accountability needs to be reintroduced into the systems so that young offenders are forced to realize that they alone will pay for their crimes. Even if such a view does not deter all juveniles, it does communicate an important lesson which hopefully the youth will recognize later in his life.

Without communicating to all offenders--young and old--that public safety is our paramount purpose in the criminals justice process, we will continue to suffer the woes of a failing criminal system. Longer periods of incarceration, removing the cloak of confidentiality and individual accountability need to remake the juvenile justice process. For too long the crimes of young offenders have been seen solely as a social service problem. Yet, the need to remove these offenders from our midst has become clearer in light of the fact that juveniles have the highest rate of recidivism among all offenders. Incarceration--with schooling and counseling--needs to be done to protect society as well as protect juveniles from their own behavior. Until the social engineers who drive the juvenile justice system stop seeing "rehabilitation" as another government service the juvenile justice system will not work. Changing behavior in violent offenders is not rewiring a toaster or tuning an engine. Changing behavior starts and ends with commitment from offenders. Those who make that commitment deserve a juvenile justice process that will give them another chance. Those who refuse to make the commitment, however, need to remain out of our community as long a possible. Our future and the future of our children depends upon our making these changes.

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