Ours is not the first era in which adults have persecuted the young and criminalized them. But in this country it’s not been done before with such methodical zeal, ever since that salesman of the virtues, Bill Bennett, co-chaired the Council on Crime in America and issued a 1996 report titled The State of Violent Crime in America containing these ominous words and utterly inaccurate predictions: “America is a ticking violent crime bomb. Rates of violent juvenile crime and weapons offenses have been increasing dramatically and by the year 2000 could spiral out of control.”
These were the years when headline-seeking criminologists like John DiIulio of Princeton and Northeastern’s James Alan Fox painted lurid scenarios of “superpredators”, meaning urban youth of color, swelling Generation Y by as much as 24 per cent. In 1997, Congressmen William McCollum of Florida stated during a floor debate that today’s youths are “…the most dangerous criminals on the face of the Earth.”
A slice of the crude, unlovely obvious: It’s not the criminalization of youth, it’s the criminalization of youth from certain neighborhoods, of certain ethnic origins. Did you know that what neighborhood you live in is now an element of probable cause? Yes, indeed, if you live in a “high crime” neighborhood, they can search you with less evidence you’ve done anything wrong. Hence, people in bad (read: poor) neighborhoods have less of a 4th Amendment than the rest of us. Three-quarters of the youth who are incarcerated are black or Hispanic kids of color. A black teenager is 6 times more likely to be incarcerated for a first-time violent offense than a white kid. A black teenager is 48 times (yes, you read that right, 48) more likely to do time for a drug offense than a white kid.
“The law has taken many terrible turns in the last few years, and the pit of the law is the juvenile justice system.” This is Catherine Campbell, a civil rights attorney in Fresno.“It stinks. It’s rotten to the core. It should be wiped away and started over. A lot of it begins with putting the kids of poor parents into foster care. That’s how authorities inspire hatred, anger, frustration and feelings of worthlessness. It’s the ‘I don’t give a fuck zone’, and with only a few months of that, most kids are pretty much destroyed. They are ‘criminalized’ when their behavior crosses over the almost unavoidable line of criminal behavior.”
We’ve made criminal behavior that wasn’t criminal ten years ago. Statutory rape is the latest craze – they had a little trouble figuring out what was wrong with an 18-year old having sex with a 16-year old, but then they decided it was too many teenage pregnancies, (Bill and Hillary Clinton’s prime obsession) and bammo, they were out looking for boys to bring in for statutory rape.
All kids commit crimes. Most adults commit crimes. We smoke joints, we have stolen if we don’t steal now, we walked the streets in groups (now called gangs, and just being in one is illegal), we lie on our tax returns, we commit crimes all the time. The point is not that youth is criminalized, but that only certain kids are criminalized, and these are kids from bad neighborhoods.
Campbell again: “The laws have changed, and they are so awful. Take civil commitment. Used to be the wisdom was you can’t predict criminal behavior. Now the wisdom is that a criminal is someone who committed a crime. He’s a criminal now, and will be forever. Nowhere is this theory more controlling than as to sex crimes. I had a client who at age 15 had sex with a 7-year old. Both boys. In the bathroom, at church. He was charged and convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior. He went to California Youth Authority. There he was diagnosed by diabolical, incompetent shrinks as a sexual psychopath, and they kept him in two years longer than his sentence based on our state’s new civil commitment laws that allow that to happen. He finally got out when some shrink (he won’t last) said the kid’s gay, let him go. They extended this kid’s term every time he had sex (he lived with other gay boys) or masturbated! Can you imagine? Six more months in the slammer for jacking off?
“They get them, and then if they’re the right kind, if they’re poor, of color, angry, and unsuccessful in school, they keep them. Through all means available, they keep them in the system. They search them, harass them, follow them, watch who they talk with, what they wear. The most minor infraction, they are back in jail, then they are sent away, or placed on probation, and then they are watched more.”
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Do people realize how many “crimes” are committed in jails, juvenile facilities and prisons. A kid can go to California Youth Authority (CYA) for a burglary when he’s 16, and 4 years later he gets his third strike and he’s never even seen the streets. His entire adult life will be prison. There are no middle-class gangs, there are only lower-class gangs. And it’s a crime to be in a gang, and it’s more time in jail or prison if a crime is gang-related. You can’t really survive on the streets in those bad neighborhoods without being in a gang (if you’re male) so you’re criminal just because you’re alive and leave the house. Walk out the door, commit a crime. And of course the age at which you are an adult for jail and prison eligibility is lower every year. That’s part of that ugly companion to California’s Three-Strikes, Proposition 21, the anti-youth crime bill.
The drug laws are of course key to Criminalizing Youth. The trick is to take something almost everybody does, and then make it a crime. That way you can pick and choose who you want to mess with. Kids from all backgrounds use drugs, but again only kids from bad neighborhoods get criminalized for it. It gets a kid into the system, and once in he won’t get out unless he’s exempt, and an exemption is given to the kids with aggressive, middle class parents, who have good or passable grades.
The hysteria and lies about youthful criminals goes virtually unchallenged. There are some worthy souls, like UC Irvine’s Mike Males who published the excellent Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents, back in 1996 and who has run a one-man truth squad on the actual stats ever since.
“Now,” Males writes, “the latest panacea for society seems to be restricting youths’ access to media and entertainment. One leading authority, former West Point psychologist David Grossman, argues that violent video games, movies and music make today’s teens more violent, even murderous. Certainly violent games (or Beatles music or even the Bible) might incite a disturbed individual, but Grossman and other media critics claim they’re warping an entire generation. Yet, the evidence cited is peculiar: Grossman blames violent media for the increase in aggravated assaults over the last 35 years, but he fails to note that assault rates peaked in 1992 and have since fallen sharply.
“A curfew can create vacant neighborhoods, which offer better opportunities for crime, while occupying police with removing law-abiding teenagers from public. In Vernon, Conn., among 400 curfew citations, police reported virtually no criminal activity, intoxication or other misbehavior by youths they cited and sent home.”
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Back in 1997 California’s Office of Traffic Safety, warned that an “alarming population trend”–meaning more teenagers–would increase highway deaths and drunk-driving accidents. But teenage traffic deaths had been falling for two decades.
In fact, violent juvenile crime rates have plunged during the 1990s. Today’s teenagers, Males points out “are not more criminally prone than past generations. Youth felony arrest rates declined by 40% in the last 20 years while felony arrest rates for over age 30 adults increased. In addition, California’s general population aged by three years from 1978 to 1998, but its violent and felony arrestee population aged by six years. In 1978, the average violent crime arrestee was 21.5 while in 1998 the average violent crime arrestee was 27.7. Juveniles comprised 30% of California’s felony arrestees in 1978 but comprised less than 15% in 1998.”
Elsewhere Males notes that “older white adults display drug overdose death rates five to seven times higher than younger people of color, including for the major illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine (including crack), methamphetamine, and hallucinogens. However, young people of color are three times more likely to be arrested for drugs and sent to prison for drug offenses than older white adults. The result is that at all ages, a Californian of color is four to five times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offense than a white compared to their rates of drug abuse. In fact, young people of color display the largest declines and lowest rates of drug abuse of any group.”
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You’ve heard about the race to the bottom. Well, how about the race to the cradle? On November 16, Ohio legislators passed a bill authorizing the jailing of children as young as 10 years old. California’s legislators had better look to their laurels.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: email@example.com.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the December 2000 edition of CounterPunch.