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The juvenile justice system, whether it knows it or not, fits into America’s "historical context of racism and social class exclusion and oppression." (Photo:

Juvenile Justice and the War on Teens

Robert C. Koehler

“Fundamental to this process is the idea of ‘collective responsibility’ . . .”

The study, released earlier this year, is called: “What Can the Cook County Juvenile Court Do to Improve Its Ability to Help Our Youth? A Juvenile Justice Needs Assessment.”

Compiled by two Chicago institutions, the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation at Roosevelt University and the Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice at Adler University, it’s a well-documented plea for sanity.

Its fundamental finding will hardly be a surprise to anyone involved with the juvenile justice — or any other kind of justice — bureaucracy. Despite the enormous investment by governments at every level in court and penal systems, they don’t work. That is to say, they make matters worse:

“In 2012, there were 29,822 juvenile arrests in Cook County. . . . While court intervention is intended to reduce the likelihood of future offending, research findings suggest that, in fact, the opposite is true.

“. . . when compared to youth with comparable risk factors of adverse behavior and/or delinquency histories, but no juvenile court involvement, youth who appeared in court and received mild sentences (such as counseling, community service or restitution) were still 2.3 times more likely to incur adult criminal records; youth placed on probation were 14 times more likely to incur adult records; and, youth placed in a juvenile correctional institution were 38 times more likely to have adult records.”


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In other words, when kids start to go astray, the official reaction — at a cost of multi-billions of dollars a year nationally — is to push them further astray, intensifying the suffering of all involved, and, of course, wrecking whole communities. And, since the era of “zero tolerance” and “tough on crime,” matters have only gotten worse.

Bureaucracies are nothing if not self-justifying, so there’s no chance of core change emerging from the system itself: no chance of awareness that the principles of punishment and domination are antithetical to healing. Yet until a certain level of awareness enters the court system, what is called juvenile justice should more accurately be called a bureaucratic war on young people — in particular, young people of color.

According to the study, pushing teenagers into the penal system: A) disrupts their connection to school, in particular, any special-ed services they might be entitled to; B) exacerbates any mental health issues they might have, increasing their risk of suicide; and C) increases their acceptance of criminal thinking and, what is obvious to everyone except the keepers of the system, substantially increases the likelihood that they’ll break the law again and be back in court.

“Furthermore,” the study points out, “participants identified the paradox of not being able to receive any preventative services for themselves and/or their children without first becoming involved with the juvenile justice system.”

The fundamental lack of awareness that is manifest in the Cook County juvenile justice system cannot be tweaked into sensible behavior. Change to the system must be profound. The study all but cries for “a fundamental shift of mindset.”

“Specifically needed,” it states, “is a universally held agreement among court personnel and all juvenile justice stakeholders about the young people they serve. This process would be aimed at creating a shift in the mindset about how young people become touched by the system in the first place, including how particular communities of young people are systematically being prepared for the prison pipeline versus productive adulthood.”

The system, whether it knows it or not, fits into America’s “historical context of racism and social class exclusion and oppression.”

The study proceeds to envision something extraordinary: a juvenile justice system that disconnects itself from the context of racial, class and economic domination and is not merely accountable to but works in crucial partnership with the communities it serves. More and more Chicago neighborhoods, for instance, are developing restorative justice and other mentoring programs that give young people a chance to express themselves fully and build peaceful relationships with one another. Juvenile Court, instead of breaking kids’ ties with their communities, should facilitate the strengthening of those ties.

“Fundamental to this process is the idea of ‘collective responsibility,’ that this shift will require those both inside and outside of the system taking collective responsibility and that both must come together in order for our youth to succeed.

“The philosophical shift,” the study continues, “could be steeped in the concept of Ubuntu, a South African term which reflects the ideas of connection, community and caring for all. It is stated in South Africa’s Interim Constitution created in 1993: ‘There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation and need for ubuntu but not for victimization.’”

Ubuntu . . . a word and idea from tribal South Africa. I’ve heard it translated as: I am because you are. Desmond Tutu describes the concept as “the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself.”

Knowing this, the court will now come to order.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

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