Edward Humes spent a year in a world usually closed off to outsiders - Los Angeles Juvenile Court. In addition to spending hours in court, he spoke with judges, probation officers, lawyers, parents, and the kids. He also ran a writing program for children at juvenile hall.
The result is a grim picture: a system that despite it's best intentions is flawed. The goal of the system is to rehabilitate children. However, it's underfunded, overwhelmed and embattled. Children are given minimum time or no supervision for early offenses. Probation officers have hundreds of children to track. Oftentimes children commit multiple offenses, only to receive attention when they've committed a major felony. And the system's lofty goals are obscured by legal maneuvering and the system's adversarial nature. Those within the system are stressed, conflicted about whether they're even having any effect.
One boy talks about how when he was bounced around in the foster care system, his luggage was a black plastic garbage bag. It wasn't long before he began to think that's how others perceived him ... garbage.
While the boy who killed his two bosses while they were driving him home from their ice cream parlor, will be out by the time he's 25 or earlier, the boy who was with a friend when he attempted a botched robbery faces significant time in adult jail. There are no easy answers, no easy solutions. Just a lot of troubling stories and even sadder statistics.
"Projections for the year 2000 put LA area gang membership at 250,000. Based on current trends, 90 percent of these kids can be expected to have been arrested at least once as juveniles, 75 percent arrested twice. Sixty percent will be dead or in prisons by age 20."
My take after reading this book was that the system's ideals are good. Children should be treated different from adults because there's still time to hopefully reach some of them and a children's understanding of crime and consequences are different than an adult's. But, as Humes points out, it's through preventive programs, probation, and counseling/therapeutic programs. Not through more prison cells.
"That is the heartbreak of Juvenile Court, the wonder of it, and the scandal. Heartbreak, because not every kid can be saved. Wonder, that this broken, battered, outgunned system saves even one child. Scandal, because it so seldom tries to do anything at all."
For those interested in the law, I would also recommend Courtroom 302 by Steve Bogira, who spends a year in Cook County Criminal Courthouse, "the biggest and busiest felony courthouse in the nation."