A Free Ride for Juvenile Offenders

By Thomas A. Vonder Haar | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 2, 1995 | Go to article overview
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A Free Ride for Juvenile Offenders


Thomas A. Vonder Haar, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Students riding on a school bus a few weeks ago were getting increasingly unruly, and, after the driver was hit in the back of the head by a book, she called the police. When an officer arrived and tried to restore order on the bus, he was, according to news reports, taunted by the children: They pointed out to him that they could do whatever they wanted, and he could do nothing about it.

The kids knew their civics. They knew that the officer had no choice but to stand there as they jeered at him. As juveniles, they can break the law with impunity. In fact, they can just about get away with murder.

The juvenile justice system, as it now apparently operates, does not hold offenders accountable for breaking the law. Because the proceedings are secret, it is not possible to know exactly how or whether juvenile criminals are being dealt with appropriately. If you judge the criminal justice system by results, however, it fails.

No one is surprised that, according to a study by the Missouri Bar, the number of kids being referred to the juvenile courts has doubled in the last 10 years and that the kids are becoming more violent. The number of juvenile referrals relating to violent crimes has more than tripled.

People are wondering what is going on. According to a Gallup Poll taken last September, 72 percent of respondents have no confidence in the juvenile justice system. They believe that efforts at rehabilitation and protection by juvenile authorities have failed to stem juvenile crime; and, of course, they are right. The juvenile justice system is run by special judges and social workers whose efforts at rehabilitation are based on counseling and therapy. It's not working.

Don't bother looking for explanations in social work literature. In the textbook "Social Work Treatment," Ray J. Thomlison, dean of the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary, puts it succinctly: "Complete and accurate data regarding the incorporation of behavior therapy in social work practice is not available."

The social work profession doesn't even try to systematically validate its treatments and practices. Professional literature contains many case studies and much theorizing, but there are no data showing that behavior therapy, especially as applied to juveniles, has productive or positive outcomes.

When Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. proposed spankings for juvenile offenders, the reaction was mild bemusement. It will never happen, of course. Liberal do-gooders will whine that the practice would teach that "society condones violence," or that "violence should not be construed as a solution to a problem." Spanking would at least demonstrate that society will impose sanctions on criminal behavior. It would also forestall the public's frustration and anger at the manner in which juvenile crime is being handled by government. A military-style reform-school system run by veterans would probably be more palatable than spanking, however, and would be more effective in reducing juvenile crime.

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