January 6, 2001
The nation lost a visionary earlier this month when Pulitzer-prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks passed away at 83. Brooks may be remembered most fondly for her ability to portray the experience of America’s young black people with honesty and compassion. She often wrote from her own experiences on Chicago’s South Side, explaining, “I am interested in telling my particular truth as I have seen it.”
Far too often, the truth about juvenile crime is obscured by clichs and paranoia. Last week the U.S. Department of Justice released new statistics demonstrating that juvenile crime has dropped for the sixth straight year. From 1993 to 1999 there was a 68 percent decline in the juvenile arrest rate for murder, while the arrest rate for violent crime dropped 36 percent from 1994 to 1999.
Sadly, the public’s perceptions of juvenile crime completely miss the encouraging reality described by the Justice Department. Polls help measure the degree of public confusion. In 1996 a survey by the California Wellness Foundation found that 60 percent of respondents believed youths “committed most crime nowadays.” Even though in fact less than 17 percent of arrests in California that year involved people under age eighteen. In 1998 a national poll by the Justice Policy Institute found that 62 percent of respondents believed youth crime was on the rise. Even though a U.S. Census Bureau survey that year documented that youth crime had fallen to its lowest rate since 1973.
This divide between perception and reality causes us to shrink from the young people Ms. Brooks lived with and embraced. We are quick to attach ferocious, explosive labels to adolescents that purport to explain their behavior but instead reinforce our impulse to pull away from our kids. What drives this impulse is a pervasive, but nonetheless unfounded, fear of adolescents.
Race and racism only complicate the story. It is well documented that black and brown teenagers nationally receive more severe treatment than white teens charged with comparable crimes at every step of the juvenile justice system. Los Angeles county offers a case in point. There, according to a report by Building Blocks for Youth, minority youths charged with violent crimes are far more likely than their white counterparts to be tried in adult court, where they face more severe penalties. Notwithstanding this reality, this year California voters passed Proposition 21, making it even easier to try juveniles as adults. When San Diego prosecutors used the new law to level adult assault charges against several affluent white kids, a new community experienced the system’s force bearing down on narrow shoulders. Vocal opposition to both juvenile transfer to adult court and Proposition 21 emerged from white parents and neighbors who for the first time confronted the dilemma experienced daily by black and brown parents in most urban centers.
All kids, regardless of their economic or racial backgrounds, deserve a chance. Assume the best about them, not the worst. Ms. Brooks showed us that one person’s “thug” may be another’s poet when she invited members of a notorious Chicago gang into her home for poetry workshops. She also established the Illinois Poet Laureate Awards in 1969 – presenting winners with personal checks for $50 – to encourage elementary and high school students to write. Not only did she see potential in kids, she used her unique talent to help them see it as well.
This latest batch of juvenile crime data, illustrating a continuing drop, is more than simply numbers on paper. Despite the picture painted in the media and by certain law makers kids still are not the enemy. Policies that give up on them are. Ms. Brooks’ life and words teach us to pay close attention to children and to hold them just as near. Her poetic justice should serve as an example to us all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kirsten Levingston is Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.