Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

When Getting Tough Means Getting Tougher: Historical and Conceptual Understandings of Juveniles of Color Sentenced as Adults in the United States

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

When Getting Tough Means Getting Tougher: Historical and Conceptual Understandings of Juveniles of Color Sentenced as Adults in the United States

Article excerpt

The peculiar philosophy of contemporary justice and its accompanying reforms to rehabilitate the system have had contradictory effects on juveniles of color. The unique issues that affect these youth go beyond the traditional questions and concerns that have plagued the juvenile court for 100 years; instead, the problem of youth criminality, deviance, and discipline for juveniles of color compounded with historical debates and discussions reveal pecularities around the issue of sentencing youth as adults when exposed to ideology, hegemony, and race. The problem of juvenile crime and justice for the juvenile of color is a particular one that only highlights the recurring criticisms of the juvenile court in recent years, illustrative through critical race theory and recurrent trends, patterns, and selected cases.

Having commemorated its centennial anniversary in 1999 amidst unprecedented criticisms and attacks, the American juvenile court is characterized by supporters as in need of major repair and by opponents as in need of abolishment. That the juvenile court is being perceived by both proponents and opponents as a system gone awry is revealing, typifying the uphill battle around juvenile justice reform in this country. The juvenile crime and juvenile justice problem in the United States is a multilayered and complex one, exacerbated by what Feld (1999) portrays as the larger society's desire to "get tough" as evidenced by the "public frustration with crime, fear of recent increases in youth violence, homicide and offenses involving guns, and the racial characteristics of many violent youth offenders" (p. 189). The trends in juvenile delinquency and crime, by most estimates, indicate that the seriousness of youth criminality and the number of adjudicated juveniles has reached epidemic proportions.

Some of the most vivid statistics and profiles of our nation's youth reinforce Feld's (1999) characterizations: An increase of state juvenile court delinquency caseloads (in 1994, up 280% from 1960);

The concentrated nature of juveniles in custody in states such as California, Ohio, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois;

An astronomical number of arrests (3 million) of persons under 18 years of age;

A 70% increase of juveniles transferred to adult court between the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s;

Disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Native Americans arrested and processed through the justice system; and

The growing number of violent cases handled by juvenile courts and the more violent nature of juveniles (Butts, 1997; Moone, 1997; Parent, Dunworth, McDonald, & Rhodes, 1997; Poe-Yamagata, 1997; Scalia, 1997; Sickmund, Snyder, & Poe-Yamagata, 1997,1997; Snyder, 1997; Snyder & Sickmund, 1999).

While these statistics paint a grim picture of the juvenile crime and juvenile justice problem in the United States, a racial double standard haunts the juvenile justice system in its treatment and incarceration of African American youths. These youth offenders find that "get tough" laws in the last couple of decades have become even tougher on them. They find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in their efforts to receive equal protection under the law and the right to effective counsel. As a result, they matriculate to a criminal justice system that mirrors the juvenile one (Daly, 1994; Fagan, Slaughter, & Hartstone, 1987; Federle & Chesney-Lind, 1992; Krebs, 1999; Nolan, 1997; Sampson & Lauritsen, 1997; Tonry, 1994).

We argue, much like Le Flore (1987), that the peculiar philosophy of contemporary justice and its accompanying reforms to rehabilitate the system have had contradictory effects on juveniles of color. The unique issues that affect these youth go beyond traditional questions and concerns that have plagued the juvenile court for 100 years; instead, the problem of youth criminality, deviance, and discipline for juveniles of color compounded with historical debates and discussions portray unique and foretelling discoveries around sentencing youth as adults when issues around ideology, hegemony, and race are exposed. …

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