Juvenile Justice: When Poverty Looks Like Delinquency



The essence of the juvenile court idea, and of the juvenile court movement, is the recognition of the obligation of the great mother state to her neglected and erring children, and her obligation to deal with them as children and wards, rather than to class them as criminals and drive them by harsh measures into the ranks of vice and crime.

- Hastings H. Hart, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1910)

“I hate you”, seethes the unkempt fourteen-year-old as he fairly spits the words at the withdrawn mother staring at her weather-beaten shoes. “Look at me when I talk to you. I mean it…I really do hate you…I always have.”

Such vitriol would sear the heart of many a parent, but not this life weary mom. She maintains the cold and silent stare that has for years been the perfect counterpoint to her son’s unholy verbal assaults: she is the implosion to his explosion.

But this is not the first time a parent and at-risk teenager have staged a dysfunctional standoff in the waiting room outside my door. This is a juvenile court. We don’t expect the mostly impoverished, stressed-out kids and moms who come here to be at their best.

Good News, Bad News

I live and work in the second poorest county in Ohio – an Appalachian setting where one out of every three children lives in grinding poverty.

The good news is the professional caregivers and service providers with whom I work are, in the main, a committed and sturdy lot. Few fit the belittling profile of the slacker government employee so often promulgated by uninformed, mostly conservative budget hawks.

The bad news is these women and men toil within the suffocating confines of a child welfare system designed for another era, and another America – a country where wealth was more evenly distributed, cultural/linguistic assimilation was a given, and the American social contract still applied.

When Poverty Looks Like Delinquency

The consequences of this antiquated, serpentine – often dystopian system – affect everyone and everything, so integral are our youth to the nation’s present and future wellbeing.

But the pain inflicted on account of this vexing reality is not evenly spread: the poorer the youth’s economic circumstances, the more likely she or he is to stand before a juvenile judge.

In her August 20, 2012 Juvenile Justice Information Exchange review of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, attorney and educator, Tamar Birckhead, lays bare the relationship between being poor and being in legal straits.

Summarizing her independent study on socioeconomic factors and juvenile court detention demographics, Birckhead underscores the case that youth from low-income environments are at substantially greater risk for adjudication and incarceration:

“Years before they turn 18, millions of children are caught up in the U.S. juvenile justice system, a principal feeder into the criminal courts. Recent research has revealed that as a result of both institutional and structural causes, the standard of proof in delinquency court is determined in large part by the socioeconomic class of the accused…As a result, the state’s burden of proof is lowered for indigent children and heightened for affluent ones. Therefore, in all but the most serious of cases, children from low-income homes do not have to be as “guilty” as those from families of means in order to enter and remain in the system, widening the net of court intervention for the poor.”

To be clear, Birckhead is not positing that poverty causes juvenile delinquency; there is no consistent evidence for that premise, hard though some liberal social theorists may strain to make it so.

But if torturing the poverty/delinquency data in the service of an ideological agenda is a progressive sin against reality, it pales in comparison with the damage done by orthodox conservatism’s boot-strap, God-helps-them-who-help-themselves, secular theology of most things economic – a mean-spirited, “trickle down” paradigm that, when applied to adjudicated youths, labels them morally corrupt, one dimensional, fiscal liabilities.

What Any Moral Nation Would Do

If all this negativity has you frustrated at the overall condition of juvenile justice in America, welcome to the club. The cumulative effect of generational poverty; lack of parenting skills; inflexible schools; sustained exposure to trauma; and widespread substance abuse, is enough to depress even the most optimistic.

But if some proactive government and grassroots reformers have their way, a holistic juvenile justice reboot may be in the works. Envelope-pushing juvenile courts in historically progressive states, such as Minnesota, Massachusetts, and California, are employing a back-to-the-future approach: old school strategies a la the early 20th Century Child Savers (a mostly women-led movement, largely responsible for the creation of a separate court for adolescents); and organic, cutting edge, community-wide programs aimed at reducing poverty, domestic violence, educational barriers, and addiction.

These and other effective pilot programs are in line with the hard data linking poverty with judicial adjudication, increasing the likelihood for start-up funding, both public and private. The models are there. What’s needed now is the political courage and critical mass to do what any moral nation would.

About Don Rollins

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and freelance writer who lives in Tarpon Springs, FL.
Posted in: Law, Society