A forum provided by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange features a great deal of emphasis on biological factors in youthful offending, most prominently the issue of adolescent brain development. Some of the titles suggest where the emphasis lies: “Brain Development Should Play Bigger Role in Determining Treatment of Juvenile Offenders” and “National Academies Report Says Teen Neurology Should Shape Juvenile Justice Reform Efforts.”
In another op-ed in this series, Susan Broderick adds another dimension to the “adolescent brain” issue, stating that: “Too many kids are starting to use alcohol and drugs, addiction rates are soaring and lives are being destroyed. Now is the pivotal moment to bring these issues front and center.”
Not only does the latest research fail to reveal any such trend (in fact, there has been an overall downward trend in drug use since the mid-1990s), the stampede to embrace premature, exaggerated “teenage brain” speculations downplay crucial environmental contexts.
In recent op-eds, Judge Steven Teske has carried these ideas still further, writing that teenage crime is mainly a feature of their innate “stupidity” and that local, private collaborations are the solution: “Any large scale social problem cannot be solved solely by government action. On the contrary, government solutions are no solutions.”
More than 100 years of social science research has confirmed without any doubt that the major factor influencing delinquency has been poverty. Indeed, starting around the early 1900s sociologists at the University of Chicago began collecting large amounts of data on delinquency and found consistently that the highest rates of delinquency occurred within the most impoverished portions of the city. Within these areas existed the highest rates of other social problems, such as single-parent families, unemployment, low incomes and low levels of education, among other problems. As several gang researchers have noted (for a review click here), some gangs have existed for as long as 50 or more years in certain neighborhoods, often spanning three generations.
What we desperately need is to address some of the serious social problems that impact young people, especially people of color. The latest issue of Kids Count Data Book illustrates the extent of the problems they face. Among the facts cited include these (2012 data):
- 23% of all children under 18 live in poverty; for blacks it is 40%;
- 31% have parents without secure employment; among blacks it is 49%;
- 19% do not graduate from high school on time; among blacks it is 32%;
- 35% live in single-parent families; for blacks it is 67%;
- 13% live in “high poverty areas”; for blacks it is 30%.
While it is true that the government cannot do everything, to say “government solutions are no solutions” ignores the central role of government in the juvenile justice system (e.g., civil rights legislation, the New Deal, etc.). To address the problems noted above, we need something like a New Deal. Such a proposal even appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago and has been advanced by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), as well as the Campaign for America's Future.
Addressing the multiple issues that impact youth behavior is the primary purpose of the juvenile justice system and those issues are nearly always related to poverty. Ignoring this fact in favor of placing blame on the presumed mental incapacity of an entire class of people simply allows the juvenile system to abdicate responsibility for addressing the broader social issues.
Randall G. Shelden is a senior fellow with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He is the author or co-author of more than 15 books, including “Delinquency and Juvenile Justice in American Society” (second edition, Waveland Press) and with Meda Chesney-Lind, “Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice” (fourth edition, Wiley Blackwell).