OP-ED: Helping Kids Through the ‘Age of Stupidity’

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Some things in life can’t be explained.

Whether it’s the Bermuda Triangle, the origin of the “Big Bang” or the construction of Stonehenge, we come up with theories but the truth escapes us.

My wife sometimes asks, “Why do you love me?”

I recite the litany of things about her that excite me, but the truth—I don’t know. I can’t explain the chemistry between us; it just is!

It used to be that way explaining why teenagers do stupid things. We assumed their immaturity stemmed from their short stint on this earth—lack of brain development.

As technology advances, so does our understanding of the once unexplainable. The adolescent brain is one of the theory-to-fact instances proven by technology—magnetic resonance imaging of the teenage brain. The teenage brain is under neurological construction through age 25.

We hug our kids at high school graduation, send them to college proud of their achievement, but are dumbfounded when they call for help. Whether it’s a fraternity hazing incident, disorderly conduct arrest during Spring Break or the credit card companies found your child, parents don’t stop parenting at age 18.

Parents of teenagers are scared. They just want to get their kids through the “Age of Stupidity”—but so many adults over our children view stupidity and criminality as synonymous when other alternatives would suffice.

It causes me to wonder if these adults have not yet left the “Age of Stupidity” themselves.

You know what’s sad? These adults know that kids are immature, that their brains are still developing. They know kids make poor choices–that they get into fights, get mad and cuss, throw stuff across the classroom and a bunch of other really dumb things.

These adults also know that with age comes growth. With growth comes maturity. With maturity comes fewer stupid stunts.

We call this “aging out,” and this is why progressive juvenile justice systems emphasize restorative justice approaches in the handling of these stupid stunts. These same systems work collaboratively with schools and police to find alternatives to arresting the kids that make us mad, reserving the strong arm of the law for the scary kids.

I recall fights at my school in the early ‘70s. A student brought a gun to school. Marijuana was the drug of choice and the cafeteria was the venue for buying a joint for dessert. I recall my principal chasing a student down the hallway or outside my classroom window, always in awe of how this man of small physical stature possessed so much athleticism. I once saw him catch a student twice his size running across the baseball field. The kid didn’t stand a chance.

Most of these pot smoking, fisticuffing and class disrupting clowns went on to graduate and do well in life and the police were never involved. They didn’t go to juvenile court.

How is it different 40 years later? We still have the pot smoking, fisticuffing and disruptive classroom clowns. True, there is more of it, but that’s about math. Our population has grown exponentially, as evidenced by the construction of five more high schools.

But our juvenile justice system has grown along with the population—not just in numbers, but in understanding adolescent development, identifying delinquency risk factors and the best practices in re-directing kids.

One thing is for sure: we had to stop treating every pot smoking, fisticuffing and classroom disrupting clown like a criminal and devote our resources to the kids that scare us—the burglars, the car thieves and those wielding guns. They were not getting the supervision and treatment necessary to stop their reoffending because we were spending more time watching the kids that make us mad.

And there are still some who say, “But Steve, don’t most of these pot smoking, fisticuffing and disruptive classroom clowns become the scary kids?”

The answer is the same as as it was in my day: “No.”

I negotiated a protocol to stop most misdemeanor school arrests and created a “Restorative Justice” division in my court devoted strictly to diverting delinquent acts that can be classified as “typical juvenile behavior.”

Recently, a three-year recidivist study was performed on kids diverted from the court using restorative programs in the community. In 2010, 714 kids were diverted into restorative justice programs. We never saw 528 of them again. Of the 186 that returned most were misdemeanors typical of juvenile misconduct. Most of them were diverted to other restorative justice programs and the vast majority we have not seen again.

This system has allowed us to devote all of probation to only the scary kids and this is critical knowing that these kids make up the bulk of juvenile crime in the county. The creation of our Restorative Justice Program is an essential element to a 60 percent decline in juvenile arrests—we are spending more time with the scary kids!

Like Elizabeth Browning’s poem, I can easily explain how I love my wife by counting the ways, but I still can’t explain why. It’s just magical chemistry.

But there is nothing magical in the treatment of our kids, we do know the how and whys of effective treatment—some of us choose to ignore it.


4 thoughts on “OP-ED: Helping Kids Through the ‘Age of Stupidity’

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Legislative Advocacy: Teenage Behavior and “The Law” | Promise the Children at UUCA

  2. Thanks. I think this question deserves more detailed consideration than feasible here. The US incarcerates far too many youths and adults for lesser offenses better handled through alternative strategies. The ideal is individualized justice based on the unique characteristics of each defendant and offense, not blanket judgments based on prejudices about the defendant’s demographic group that lead to youths getting arrested more for lesser offenses and and locked up longer than adults for the same crimes. In contrast, individualized justice accounting for first-time offending and negative conditions forced on a defendant naturally produces more benign treatments for youthful offenders in particulcar. Recall the “Radical Non-Intervention” study of the 1970s, which found juvenile offenders recidivated at about the same rate (25-30%) whether randomly assigned to traditional juvenile courts, community programs, or nothing at all? Interestingly, Judge Tesky’s restorative approach has the same recidivism rate (27%)! Restorative justice (or nothing at all) may be appropriate for more defendants, but reframe it as “mutual apology justice,” since the typically abusive and disarrayed parents and nearby adults owe the youth offender as much remorse as the other way around.

  3. This kind of commentary, from a juvenile court judge I realize is a liberal attempting to win more humane treatment for youthful offenders, leaves me in despair. Is the “adult brain” capable of rational discussion of teenagers and incorporation of real trends that affect them? I invite the judge to step outside juvenile court and catch up with the trends in adult criminality over the last 30 years. Specifically, the EXPLOSIONS in drug abuse, serious crime, and violence arrests among ages 40-59, the age to be parents to teenagers. Today, more 40-49 year-olds are arrested for violence and drugs than juveniles, unheard-of 40 years ago but reality now. The “age of stupidity” is not adolescence, but middle age, and benignly condescending homilies like this judge expresses are frightening in their ignorance of the fact that far more youths grapple with parents, other household adults, and community adults “who do stupid things” than the other way around. The judge should broaden his view of brain imagings and neuroscannings beyond disparaging teenagers and toward the more disturbing loss of memory and learning genes and cognitive abilities after age 40. Can the aging adult brain cope with new realities and ending traditional prejudices? This commentary suggests than even among the more humane ones, the answer is very much in doubt.

    • Mike, is it possible that we have, even mistakenly, hit upon a more effective and humane way to deal with criminal behavior, and that society is simply more willing to extend opportunities like this to kids because of traditional views of adolescence? My own desire is to see a lot of the work being done with juvenile offenders extended to people of all ages. I know this isn’t exactly on topic, but I welcome your thoughts on this idea.