Juvenile crime is a serious problem. Most young people have engaged in delinquent acts but only a small number are ever caught, arrested or charged with crimes in juvenile court.
Most of us have stories about our deviant “escapades” but our stories don’t include police encounters or nights in a juvenile jail. Why? Because we “only did it a few times,” “didn’t take anything worth much,” we “never hurt anybody” and more. Other reasons seldom mentioned are “white privilege,” our home neighborhoods, and because police didn’t patrol our parts of town.
Most of us were lucky. Religious folks would say we were “blessed,” or “…but for the grace of God go I !” Having two parents who were able to nurture, closely supervise, and guide us through the difficult adolescent years was an advantage. Living in a nicer part of town with no street crime, no drug sales or gangs reduced our risk of “getting busted”. Attending schools in crime-free neighborhoods with higher levels of public school funding were to our advantage.
The award-winning play and movie “West Side Story” depicted a view of juvenile delinquency that reflects criminologists’ findings. The 1957 Broadway play was based on a book by Arthur Laments, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The 1961 musical film was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. The story revolves around two warring New York City gangs: the “Jets,” a white gang led by Riff; and the Puerto Rican “Sharks,” led by Bernardo.
Tony, a former leader of the Jets and Riff’s best friend, sees Maria, Bernardo’s little sister, at a dance. Their eyes meet across the room and it is love at first sight. Despite opposition from both sides they secretly meet and their love grows deeper. The Jets and the Sharks plan one last rumble, and whoever wins gains control of the streets. Maria sends Tony to stop the fight in hope that he can end the violence. His attempts fail, however, and tragedy strikes as the story comes to a climactic and heartbreaking ending.
Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics put to music by Bernstein in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” portray both the stereotypes and established causes of juvenile delinquency.
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand
It’s just our bringin’ up-ke, that gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers are all drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks….
We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood….
Dear kindly judge, your Honor, my parents treat me rough….
They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad! ….
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!….
This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.
Society’s played him a terrible trick, and sociologic’ly he’s sick!….
Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease! ….
Good entertainment? Yes! Besides portraying some of the stereotypes and “bleeding hearts” explanations of delinquency, “West Side Story” portrays some of the problems our nation faces due to disparities in school funding, lack of equal educational and employment opportunities, and our willingness to turn our backs on countless children and their parents, most of whom are doing their best to make it with limited resources.
“Juvenile Justice: The Essentials” (pages 52-53)