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Juvenile Justice: Contradiction and Failure

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James H. Lilley

            What is justice for the youthful offenders?  And, by youthful offenders I mean those young hoodlums, male and female, who continually commit crimes of violence, beat and main others, with some now filming the act for their amusement, and the entertainment of others who will later view the violence on the internet via YouTube.com or MySpace.com.  They are car thieves, drug dealers, burglars, and vandals with no morals, or purpose in life.  But, in that same definition, I also include those who fill our schools with no desire to learn, and find further recreation in disrupting classes, terrorizing teachers, and those students who aspire to make something of themselves.  These offenders come from every segment of our society, without regard for race or social standing.  They attend public schools in the inner cities, and the suburbs, while others go to private schools and elite academies.  What is justice for these individuals when they commit a crime?   From where I stand, it seems to be no more than a slap on the wrist, be a good boy or girl, and go on committing those acts that amuse you.  Cynical belief, or cold fact? 

            The revolving door within the Criminal Justice System exists at all levels.  But, when it comes to youthful offenders, it appears as though the system is often willing to dole out more opportunities for the offender to continue a life of crime.  First time defendants are often given a lecture regarding their “misbehavior” by the Judge or Juvenile Master hearing the case, and sent on their way.  But, when they come back for a second, third and fourth visit to the courtroom, too often the same lecture is given.  By

now, the young thug knows the system is a joke, but plays the role of remorseful soul and might even shed a few tears of “sorrow” to convince a judge and everyone connected to Juvenile Services that he or she is truly “reformed.”  Rest assured that these penitent sinners are laughing on the inside as they listen to the speech, and will laugh loud and long the moment they are in the company of their hooligan friends.  And, don’t be fooled by those tears of sorrow.  They are sorry only because they were caught and arrested.  Each new appearance and release elevates them to a higher level of reverence in the eyes of their friends, and the wannabe thugs searching for a “role model” to emulate.  And, why not?  After all, they have once again beaten the system. 

            So, it would seem the word “justice” is a contradiction.  Justice would be the passing down of a sentence befitting the crime.  Handing down a sentence suitable for the crime, even for first time offenders, would also provide a measure of justice for the victims and their families.  But how often does this really happen?  And, when the system fails, it only encourages those who have gotten away with a crime to go on doing as they please.  These failures also imply to the victims that they have no protection from the system despite the acts committed against them.  Yet, if in their frustration, they fight back against those who have wronged them, then it is they who are punished.  Defense against a violent act can often be justified, but when a person lashes out at those who continually terrorize them through acts of vandalism or threats, they feel the full wrath of the justice system.  This too is a failure on the part of the courts and juvenile services.  If they had taken appropriate legal steps to stop, or punish the actions of the offender in the very beginning, maybe it would not be necessary for victims to take the law into their own hands.

            The Juvenile Justice system fails law-abiding citizens ever day.  Look no further

than Zack Sowers of Baltimore, as a perfect example of its failure.  Mr. Sowers was beaten into a coma by a gang of young thugs who were in the act of robbing him.  He never regained consciousness, and it was a medical fact that in time he would die.  Yet, the City of Baltimore agreed not to prosecute the perpetrators for his murder, and they escaped with a meaningless sentence.  Not long after they received their inconsequential

slap on the wrist, Mr. Sowers died.  Now they laugh in smug arrogance, knowing that they have gotten away with murder, and in a matter of time, they will be free to commit further acts of violence.  Oh, and let’s not forget that they now have bragging rights among the ranks of other “esteemed bad asses.”  They can boast, and you can bet your life’s savings that they are, that they’ve beaten a man to death.  Yet, for the Sowers family, they have only a future without a loving husband and son.  There was no justice, or satisfaction for his family and friends, only another failure by the court.         

            The Baltimore City schools have reported over 100 acts of violence this year.  How many have gone unreported?  I hope no one is foolish enough to believe that the school principals and administrators report every violent act, or other crime to the police.  I assure you, many incidents go unreported because principals and administrators don’t want a blemish on their records.  Teachers, who are willing to talk off the record, will tell you exactly what goes on in the schools.  But, only off the record, because they fear reprisal from their superiors.  At the same time, there is a complete lack of discipline in the schools.  Those who cause problems are often not suspended for their actions because principals don’t want to look bad, and fear the mark on their record.  Taking a tough stand against disruptive behavior, and criminal acts can make them look bad???  Isn’t it their job to ensure that the school runs smoothly and efficiently?  Isn’t it part of their job to assure parents that their children will be safe, and receiving the best education possible while under their care and supervision?  And, don’t these same principals have an obligation to the teachers, to guarantee them their support and protection from acts of violence?  The lack of courage in the schools to take a strong stand, when it comes to criminal acts, and rebellious behavior by students, is just one more failure of our process.

            What about the teachers?  Their hands are tied, and they are at the mercy of the students and their superiors.  A teacher was attacked and beaten by a 10th grader, while fellow students looked on and encouraged the attacker to continue his beating of the woman.  Again, this was filmed by cell phone, posted for the “viewing pleasure” of others on the Internet, and subsequently shown on news broadcasts.  Administrators are saying the actions of the teacher and student will be investigated to determine what happened.  Surely, I must have missed something in all of this.  There are recorded images, documenting the attack on the teacher by a student, and taped voices of those who cheered him on during the beating.  Why is an investigation, surrounding the actions of the teacher appropriate?  It indeed looks to me like the teacher is the victim of a violent assault by an out of control student.  Exactly what is the school superintendent looking for?  An avenue to blame the teacher?  Teachers are being assaulted by students, and threatened by parents almost every day, but are left standing alone to defend themselves, when they are, in fact, the victims.

            A group of nine middle school students attacked and savagely beat a woman on a bus, but then accused her of instigating the confrontation, and saying they were simply defending themselves.  When was the last time anyone of sound mind, and outnumbered nine to one, provoked a fight? 

            In Florida, a gang of girls attacked and brutally beat another girl, who was a fellow classmate and cheerleader.  Two boys, one of them an adult, acted as lookouts while the group took turns beating the victim.  This act too was filmed, shown on the Internet, and later on news broadcasts.  When the girls were taken into custody and brought before the court, they showed no remorse and joked that they wouldn’t be going swimming on Spring Break.  Was their almost jovial attitude because they have no fear of punishment for their crime?  But, unlike so many other states, Florida allows the names and photographs of the juvenile suspects to be released to the press.  And, this is as it should be nationwide.  Those youths that commit crimes, regardless of age, should be held up to the public eye.  Those involved in the incident face misdemeanor and felony charges, but what will the courts do when they appear for their trials?

            Another side note to the Florida beating is that the staff from Doctor Phil McGraw’s show have gotten involved and posted bail for one of the teens.  To me, this is no more then a grandstand play for ratings, and hopes of grabbing another sob story for the viewing public.  My thoughts for Doctor Phil and company—butt the hell out.

            I have found some justice for young offenders in the Great State of Texas.  A group of high school girls, who called themselves “The Queens of Armed Robbery”, were arrested after they had planned and executed several robberies.  They utilized a handgun in the commission of their crimes, and the ringleader was only16 years old.  Two of the girls decided to throw themselves on the mercy of the court and pleaded guilty to their crimes.  They did so, hoping the jury would be more lenient with them than the judge.  In this case, the judge would have had to sentence them to a minimum of five years for their offenses, but in Texas a jury can pass a lesser sentence.  The jury however, decided that five years wasn’t enough for their crimes, and sentenced them to seven years.  The 16-year-old ringleader decided to plead not guilty and her attorney asked for, and received, a change of venue.  This young lady was from a family of means, and I guess it was assumed that daddy’s money could buy her freedom.  He hired the best attorney his money could lure, and the young lady sat through her trial with a look of smug arrogance plastered to her face.  Well, the jury saw fit to find her guilty and sentenced her to seven and a half years.  Texas Justice prevailed over money and arrogance.  In both cases, the judges told the girls they didn’t care if they were wealthy or poor, and their tears meant nothing.  They had broken the law, terrorized their victims and would be paying the price.  Jurors agreed, saying the girls did not deserve leniency because they had committed multiple crimes before their capture.  One juror said if they had committed only one robbery, turned themselves in and asked for mercy, he might have agreed, but not with multiple offenses.  Thank you, Texas.  Justice Texas Style should be established as the rule across the country.  Perhaps a harsh message sent out to all first time offenders, wannabe thugs and gang-bangers, would make a far more lasting impression than the “naughty boy or naughty girl” slap on the wrist.             

            Where do the failures in the system begin?  No, let’s not merely look at the Juvenile Justice System as the root of the problem.  Let’s examine the complete picture, and when we do, the first place to look is in the home.  Teaching discipline, respect for others, and the law begins in the home where the child is raised.  The teaching of values and respect has to begin immediately, not when the child is 14 and already a familiar face to police and the courts.  It’s called parental responsibility, but unfortunately too many don’t give a damn about their obligation as parents, while others believe the burden to teach their child right from wrong, and respect, rests with someone else.  Then too, there are those parents who teach their children to hate their fellow human beings, and lead them into a life of crime through example. 

The breakdown begins in the home, regardless of whether those homes are situated on inner city streets, or million dollar homes on tree lined roadways in the suburbs.  The collapse of the system continues its downward spiral with the offering of excuses and finger pointing.  Parents who continually offer excuses for their child’s

behavior, or blame someone else, including the schools, the police and peers, is simply teaching the child to do the same.  It’s part of the ongoing, and ever growing, trend of failing to accept responsibility for one’s own actions. 

Maybe there should be more rigid laws passed holding the parents responsible for their child’s actions.  Some states have such laws on the books, but they don’t go far enough.  So, I mean, very strict laws.  How long would a parent continue to allow their child to perpetrate a reign of terror, in the neighborhoods and schools, if they were sent to jail for the child’s crime?  Not long, I’m sure.  But, you can believe the ACLU would go positively insane if anyone even mentioned passing such laws.  Oh well, there’s no harm in dreaming.  But, in truth, the time is long overdue for everyone to stop pampering the young criminals in our society.  Stop sending them the message that it’s okay to murder, rape and terrorize.  Responsibility for curbing the spread of juvenile crime rests on the shoulders of everyone, but it begins with the parents.         


About the Author
James H. Lilley was selected as the 2008 Police-Writers.com Author of the Year.  The author of the year selection was based in part on writing ability and in part on career and community service. 
 

 

James H. Lilley began his lifetime as a United States Marine in 1961.  Shortly after his discharge, he joined the Howard County Police Department (Maryland), graduating first in his class.  During his career his received numerous honors such as Medal of Valor, four Bronze Stars, four Unit Citations and the Governor’s Citation.   James H. Lilley has published six novels, articles in Police Chief Magazine and authored an International Association of Chiefs of Police training key.  Moreover, he began studying Martial Arts in the early 1960s and is a 8th Degree Black Belt in Shorin Ryu Karate; the first American to achieve this recognition and honor from Sensei Takeshi Miyagi.

 

James Lilley submitted as an example of his work The Eyes of the Hunter (PublishAmerica 1997).  One of the Police-Writers.com judges said of James’ writing, “He is a mature writer with strong plot, character and story development.”  Another judge said, “easy to read, and it was very good escapism. The writer has some absolutely beautiful passages wherein he describes a sound or a vista.  The sex scenes are pretty hot, too.”

 

 

 

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