Friday, December 31, 2004

No Matter How Loud I Shout

No Matter How Loud I Shout by Edward Humes follows the cases of seven teenagers in juvenile court. Because the court is in L.A., nearly all the cases involve gang-related violence.

According to Humes, the juvenile courts used to focus on rehabilitation. Kids got into the system early for minor offenses like skipping school. The court system gave them the opportunity to straighten out before they got in more serious trouble. But in 1967, the Supreme Court considered the case of Gerald Gault (In Re Gault). Gault was a teenager who was arrested over a lewd prank call to a neighbor. Because he was a juvenile, his trial took place with no lawyer, jury, or testimony from the neighbor. His parents were not notified of the charges, there was no record of the trial, and he had no right to appeal. He was sentenced to six years at the State Industrial School. An adult would have received a $50 fine for the same crime. The Supreme Court decided that Gault was denied due process. This decision dramatically expanded the rights of minors in the juvenile court system.

Humes concedes that due process rights for minors is a good thing, but views In Re Gault as a net negative for the juvenile courts. Instead of catching troublemakers early, judges' hands are tied. They cannot bring kids into the system until the kids commit an actual crime. So, post-1967, kids in juvenile court have a long history of warning signs leading up to a robbery or assault charge. Humes argues that the old system, while sometimes meting out overly harsh punishments, was able to help children, preserve family relationships, and prevent future crimes. A rebellious ten year old is more impressionable than a fifteen year old who already has gang tattoos and has seen friends get shot.

No Matter How Loud I Shout portrays a system that doesn't work. A wealthy Asian teenager from the suburbs get off with a light sentence because his family and background make him more likely to turn away from a life of crime. A black teenager, who's been abused and neglected from a young age, goes to jail. The Asian kid commited armed robbery; the black kid was on the scene when a friend shot someone.

In many cases, the adversarial system exacerbates the problem. The PD has to try to send the minor home. The prosecutor has to try to put him in jail. Both of them (if they have time to actually read the file and talk to the kid) know that the best solution lies somewhere in between, and they need to rely on the judge. But the judge is bound by state rules governing disposition (sentencing, in juvenile court terms).

The take-home message is that the juvenile court system focuses too much on punishment, and not enough on taking measures to help the minors involved. It's a tough problem to remedy because politicians all want to look like they're tough on crime. It's more politically expedient to build a jail cell than to spend money on preventive programs. And you can measure the number of people locked up, but not the number of kids who didn't commit crimes.

This is the first book I've read about the juvenile justice system. Humes does not pretend to give a complete picture of the system, so I don't have much context. His one-sided critique of the In Re Gault decision in particular makes me wonder about the other side of the argument. The changes to the system can't be all bad.

Arguments aside, the book was a good read. The kids' stories were depressing, but familiar. I've read many similar stories in Represent, a magazine by Foster Care Youth United. Ultimately, both the magazine and this book are about the same thing -- breaking the cycle of poverty and violence, and how the system helps and interferes.