Experts criticize juvenile justice

by Reena Dutta | 11/2/01 6:00am

Many people have a passion to reform the juvenile justice system -- but because bureaucracy stifles vision and inspiration, few people learn to properly finesse the system in order to achieve positive results, according to adolescent advocate Sister Janet Harris of California.

Two critics of the present juvenile justice system, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Brandolino and Sister Harris came to Dartmouth yesterday to deliver a speech entitled "Adolescents Behind Bars: The Juvenile (In) Justice System."

The talk covered the general history of the juvenile justice system in America, addressed the issues of how to rehabilitate adolescents and discussed strategies of prevention.

Judge Brandalino emphasized how recent trends in the 1980s and 1990s have led juvenile courts to become more like adult courts. He blamed this on the fact that the media over-publicizes violent crimes committed by adolescents. This perpetuates the view that adolescent crime is increasing, even though figures show that this is not the case.

"Our society needs to get resources into early intervention and prevention," Brandolino said. "Once kids are in the system, they're incredibly damaged. Sixty percent of kids who go through the juvenile justice system have mental health issues."

Brandolino suggested the "Wraparound Approach." This technique focuses on a child's environment, physical and mental health. The community is expected to participate in adolescents' lives to deter them from crime or drugs.

Our governments and our society, however, are not willing to devote the amount of resources this strategy would take to succeed, according to Brandolino.

Harris spoke about her anger and frustration with the juvenile justice system.

"I am angry at the justice system, and I hope that 100 years from now, we will look back and hang our heads in shame," she said.

Treating adolescents like adults and punishing them instead of trying to rehabilitate them is inherently unfair, Harris said. She believes that there is an immediate prejudice toward any adolescent from the inner city, citing anecdotal evidence that prosecutors only have to mention that a defendant is part of a gang to receive an indictment.

Brandolino said that it was in the political interest of legislators to be "tough on crime" instead of trying to deal with the issues underlying adolescent delinquency.

Guensley Delva '04 shared a story of a two-year-old girl who died while a 12-year-old boy was wrestling with her. The boy was found guilty of first-degree murder and was given a life sentence.

When asked for her reaction, Harris said, "What occurred there was legalized child abuse."

The talk ended with both Brandolino and Harris urging students at the College to think about the issue of social justice and to fight for whatever they are passionate about.

The speech was presented by the Rockefeller Center as one of many events leading up to tomorrow's Science Congress, in which students will spend a day debating the issue of juvenile justice.