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“I hate you”, seethes the scrawny 14-year-old as he fairly spits the words at his withdrawn mother staring at her weather-beaten shoes.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 pierce 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 agonizing counterpoint to her son’s unholy verbal assaults. She is the implosion to his explosion.

Nor is this 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. Nobody is at their best.

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.

The consequences of this antiquated, serpentine, often dystopian system are far-reaching. But the pain inflicted on account of this vexing reality is not evenly spread: we’ve known for decades the bleaker 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 this 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 US 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 a few liberal social theorists have tried to establish a causal connection.

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 that inflicted by orthodox conservatism’s boot-strap, God-helps-them-who-help-themselves, secular theology of most things economic – a corporate-minded, “trickle down” paradigm that when applied to adjudicated youths labels them one-dimensional, morally corrupt, fiscal drags on the economy;

If all this negativity has you frustrated at the overall condition of juvenile justice in America, welcome to the club. We should and must be disturbed by the generational poverty, poor parenting skills, school truancy, sustained exposure to trauma and substance abuse that are ravaging the lives of our most at-risk young.

But if some proactive government and grassroots reformers have their way, a more 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 promising pilot programs are in line with the hard data linking poverty with judicial adjudication. When coupled with funding from the Department of Justice, sympathetic state policymakers and benevolent corporate donors these and other visionary programs they show great promise.

The models are there. All that’s missing is the political will to make juvenile justice a greater priority – something to keep in mind the next time you and I reach out to our elected officials.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2015


Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652