Edward Humes' book follows the cases of seven teenage boys as they work their way through the juvenile justice system. It is clear from the title of Humes' book that something was amiss, something was terribly wrong, in the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles, California, in 1994. Readers don't know what reforms have been instituted subsequent to 1994, but that is not as priority in this assignment. What is being conveyed and critiqued in this paper is what Humes reports from that era, and it opens up numerous issues and questions for an alert reader to contemplate.
The question that will be addressed in this paper is (1): When you look at kids who land in adult court, you often find that they've been bouncing through the system for years, basically getting a free pass for lesser crimes until they commit a horrific act. Discuss how that cycle might be broken."
The Juvenile Justice System is Guilty of Stupidity and Incompetence
Example ONE: George Trevino is a case in point when it comes to juveniles that have spent a goodly amount of time in juvenile justice institutions. In his case, Trevino found himself a ward of the court not through his own doing; he was a "300 kid" because he was abused and abandoned by a felonious mother. He bounced around a number of bad foster homes -- indicating that apparently the juvenile system in Los Angeles was run by a ship of fools who didn't do the research to see if a given foster home was the right fit -- until finally he was linked up with a much better foster home when he was in 7th grade. Hume writes that Trevino's grades were "all A's and B's" and he did not get into any trouble; he in fact became "a top student" and even conducted tutoring for kids younger than he was (111).
That should have been a clear sign that the foster home he was in for that year fit his personality and his aptitude perfectly. Something was very right about this group home he was in because he even dressed with "bow ties and sweaters," looking like a serious student and feeling very good about himself. But wait, due to another wrongheaded move by the Los Angeles juvenile justice system, Trevino's good life was taken from him. He was pulled out of the group home that had helped him become a responsible young man; and instead of a bright future he was placed in a bad spot with relatives that were not positive role models.
As Hume explains, making this seeming idiotic move was in "…keeping with the system's primary goal of bringing families, even abusive ones, together," and so Trevino lands in a home where the male (his uncle) was a drug dealer. That uncle became addicted to drugs and then passed away due to an overdose. The aunt was in trouble with alcohol and drugs as well, so Trevino's instincts were correct when he stayed away from that miserable "home"; he skipped school, his grades took a nose dive, and he joined a street gang.
As to the question of how the above-mentioned cycle might be broken, and without having this paper point to the two lawbreaking instances on page 112 that got him in deep trouble, the last sentence on page 111 helps to answer that how to break the "cycle" question. All of Trevino's troubles vis-a-vis the terrible home situation he had been in, and his gang-banging issues, and skipping school, were not known by the juvenile system in Los Angeles. "The social worker assigned to track George's case somehow never noticed any of this." The way to begin to break the cycle is to hire competent people to make decisions about these kids.
The decision to take him out of the home where he had found great social and academic success was, in hindsight, morally repugnant. But in the first place, notwithstanding the fact that the system tries to place troubled youths with relatives, any half-baked social worker or probation officer doing even a mediocre job could see that placing him with his drug-dealing uncle was a huge mistake. The system has to adjust and be smart when it comes to dealing with young people in the system -- whether they are not there due to their own fault (like Trevino was) or not. Trevino did try, but the system let him down.
Even after his arrest, the system let him down when the "harried-looking young blond woman from the Public Defender's Office didn't find the time to talk to Trevino before the hearing. "It's been really busy," she whispered to him. That is just one more strike against a kid who shouldn't have been in that position in the first place. Again, the cycle can change if qualified people are put into positions of authority and are properly trained to actually help kids get out of the system.
Example TWO: Hume's passage on former governor Pete Wilson is also very telling as to the question of breaking the cycle of young people languishing in juvenile justice systems as wards of the court. Wilson got re-elected partly because of his rhetoric about cracking down on young criminals. On the national level, not mentioned in Humes' book, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan there was a political push to toughen penalties for street criminals dealing crack cocaine. That push was the perfect rhetoric for politicians in the 1980s because the public was weary of hearing about crack cocaine and cracking down on those pushers pleased the voters (albeit, many of those mandatory sentences have subsequently been reduced). As to Wilson, he adroitly used the mothers of children killed by juveniles to help get reelected. Did this help break the cycle of kids in juvenile hall who then commit more serious crimes -- and find themselves in penitentiaries? Certainly not. Wilson's only goal was to get re-elected. "When we punish cold-blooded killers, their age shouldn't matter," Wilson barked (185).
In fact, on page 186, Humes points out that murders make up "…less than 1% of all juvenile cases," but Wilson's media charade gave the impression that fourteen-year-old boys were out killing people and not being sufficiently punished. Humes also notes that the sons were not killed by 14-year-old boys; in fact the juveniles were 16 years of age. But "such bothersome details never come up," Humes continues (186). Wilson's use of the phrase "young predators" and other provocative language was enough power-packed rhetoric -- eaten up by the media -- to get Wilson's message out more boldly than his opponent in the governor's race, Kathleen Brown, who was talking about jobs, education, and the economy.
Example THREE: If the County of Los Angeles truly wished to treat juveniles with the kind of professionalism and consistency that can help them straighten out their lives, they would have reformed the system itself. That means, replacing incompetent probation officers, retraining probation officers that show signs of worthiness, and putting highly competent, well-trained, fully professional supervisors in charge of the probation office in the juvenile section of the justice system. On page 202 Humes writes that probation officers are assigned to every Juvenile Court judge, but "…none of them actually work with kids -- they only push papers."
In fairness to the probation department, it would be impossible for any officer to stay in close touch with two hundred juveniles. As it was at the time this book was published -- and may still be -- the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles is so poorly run that an important issue involving a juvenile "…can get lost for weeks on someone's desk" (203). It is hard to believe that professionals trained and paid to help young people in trouble would become involved in ethnic battles between African-American and Latino probation officers, but that is what happened in Los Angeles (reported on page 203).
Meanwhile Humes reports that rarely do Los Angeles probation officers actually "conduct independent investigations," and that many of them go by what they read in police reports (203). Are police trained as juvenile justice experts? Certainly not, so why would any self-respecting probation officer write his or her report based on a police report? Why would any competent probation officer, sworn to bring justice to kids and help them through the system, fail to check school records, fail to visit the homes and families of "potential probationers," and fail to interview the victims of crimes committed by juveniles?
Once again, it can be emphasized that the way to break the cycle of a kid who has spent years as a ward of the court -- but got little help and was dumped in one miserable hell hole of a foster home after another -- is to hire people who understand hands-on professionalism. The Human Resource departments charged with hiring trained people for these jobs should also be investigated.…