By Gluck, Stephen
Corrections Today , Vol. 59, No. 3
A little human touch can go a long way toward improving the behavior of troubled youth. Or so believes Carl Oliver, the retired superintendent of a juvenile detention center just outside Washington, D.C.
Oliver tells the story of one youth under his care who, with some encouragement, became the institution's artist-in-residence. According to Oliver, the boy had refused to pay attention in class, and was ordered to stay behind each day to make up for the time he had wasted. To alleviate his boredom, the boy doodled in his notebook. Oliver saw creativity in the drawings and encouraged him to continue. It wasn't long before the boy was commissioned to decorate the school's walls. He also stopped acting up in class and became a better student.
"Kids need recognition and new experiences," Oliver says. "Get them in a situation where there is understanding, and changes can take place."
Since the 1950s, many changes have taken place at juvenile detention centers. The cottage-type facilities from Oliver's time have given way to the more institutional-type settings common today. At the same time, the number of offenders, and the severity of their crimes, has increased.
The New Breed
In the past, many of the juveniles in the system were not considered hardened criminals, but simply wayward youngsters who had strayed from the right path. Today, buzzwords such as "super predator" are used increasingly in the press and by politicians to describe the new type of youthful offender - ruthless young men and women who see crime as a rite of passage and who are unconcerned about the consequences of their actions.
Television news splatters images of heinous Crimes perpetrated by youthful offenders; and politicians, eager to look tough on crime, issue promises that they will cure America of this disease by severely cracking down on juvenile delinquency. Although the attacks win political points, not everyone is convinced of their merit. Juvenile justice experts say these attacks can be destructive.
"I thought it was deplorable the way the president and Mr. Dole went on about kids," says John Sheridan, speaking about Bill Clinton's and Bob Dole's tough talk on youth crime during last fall's election campaign. "That kind of talk and fear-mongering will make the situation worse."
Sheridan, a retired administrator of residential services in Concorde, N.H., says the media and politicians need to get their facts straight.
"No question there are more violent crimes today than there were 10 years ago," Sheridan says. But instead of blaming the youth, the media and politicians need to look at the root causes of juvenile delinquency - in particular, the breakdown of the family, child abuse, poverty and the ready availability of guns.
The atmosphere of blame has pressured justice departments in many states to ignore the causes and concentrate mainly on the crimes. As a result, more youths are being tried in criminal courts and sent to adult prisons. This is a departure from the way juveniles were handled in the past.
The Early Years
According to Joanne Perkins, deputy director of the Juvenile Division of the Illinois Department of Corrections, the youths sent to institutions 40 years ago were mostly incorrigibles - runaways, prostitutes and children who could not be controlled by their parents. The facilities were low security and generally run by parents - a husband and wife who lived with and supervised children in the facility.
John Platt, an administrator of juvenile community services in Illinois, says the cottage environment of the older juvenile facilities attempted to make living arrangements seem as close as possible to life at home. The children lived dormitory-style in the cottages and meals were prepared and served by the cottage "mother." Maple Glen School, where Carl Oliver worked, had a setting similar to this.
Oliver says that at his facility in the 1950s, youths were kept busy with a full day at school and extensive recreational activities. …