Prison Punishment as Profitable Business

     Most states and the federal government have greatly increased the number of convicted offenders sentenced to prison.  Legislators added more offenses to those requiring prison time and increased the length of prison sentences.  “Getting tough on crime” through more incarceration results in overcrowded prisons.  Despite a boom in new prison construction in the last 35 years, many states and the federal government have turned to the private sector for more prison beds.  Private, for-profit prisons are a booming industry.

          Information from “The Sentencing Project”  shows that private prisons in the United States incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, representing 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. The number of people housed in private prisons has increased 47% since 2000.


          States vary in the use of private correctional facilities. New Mexico incarcerates over 40% of its prison population in private facilities, and Texas incarcerated the largest number (13,692) of people in private facilities. Nearly half of the states (23) do not employ any for-profit prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that 27 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group and Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America).

          The 47% increase in private prison commitments compares with just a 9% increase in the overall prison population increase in the U.S.  In six states, the private prison population has more than doubled. The federal prison system showed a 120% increase in use of private prisons since 2000, reaching 34,159 people in private facilities in 2016.  Border patrols have incarcerated 26,249 immigrants –73% of those detained—in privately-run facilities in 2017.  The private immigrant population grew 442% since 2002.  (See the ).

       Criminologists, correctional experts, and administrators of many state departments of corrections are critical of private prison corporations and refuse to contract for their services.  Major arguments against private prisons are that they are not less expensive than state institutions; lower qualifications and salaries for line staff; and any cost reduction is by reducing corrections staff which jeopardizes adequate supervision and safety.  

Churches Call for Abolishing Private Prisons

          The Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] has studied the operation and overall costs of private prisons in America. Based on the findings the General Assembly meetings of the denomination (in 2003 and in 2012) passed resolutions to abolish state and federal contracts with private prison corporations

          The denomination’s recommendations against private prisons include:

  • Ban interstate commerce in private prisoners.
  • Ban construction of speculation prisons.
  • Ban use of private prisons to house juveniles.
  • Prevent renewal of current state, county, and city contracts with for-profit private prison corporations.

          The church’s arguments against private prisons are that:

  • Having the private sector own and operate jails and prisons is an unfair monopoly and therefore undemocratic.
  • In a democratic society, there are certain functions that should never be operated for profit.
  • Contracting with the private sector for jails and prisons is no more appropriate than for operating police departments or the court system.

          The church’s recommendation for abolishing the use of private jails and prisons argues that some things that should never be bought and sold in the marketplace include the powers to:

  • Take away another person’s freedom.
  • Separate them from other human beings.
  • Prevent them from communicating in any way with others.
  • The use of physical force against them, up to and including deadly force.
  • These are the powers invested in those who operate jails and prisons, whether public or private.

      Prison administrators and wardens of nearly half of the states appear to agree with the church’s arguments, refusing to contract with private prison corporations for incarcerating convicted offenders. 

       Besides ethical arguments, what other reasons might be turning many states from accepting the lobbying efforts and offers of private prison corporations?    We will explore some of the untold stories of private prisons, hidden costs, and documented abuses of power in our next weblog.     Stay tuned!

Tags                 The Sentencing Project 

Beating Gun Violence

A new book addresses a major epidemic in our country that touches the lives of nearly every American.  The authors, Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin, are gun owners, avid hunters, and sport shooters. They address the problem of gun violence from a balanced perspective, without pitting one group against another.  They include facts, statistics, and the history of gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership to support their conclusion that America can and must do more to reduce gun violence. 

   A unique contribution of the book is how the authors document a growing movement to put into practice the words of two prophets from the Hebrew (Old Testament) Bible.  I was drawn to this book for the biblical and religious perspective on addressing gun violence.          “They shall beat their swords into plowshares…”         (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3).


      In the book (published by Brazos Press in 2019) Claiborne and Martin document the activities of an organization called RAWtools (“RAW” is “war” reversed).  The authors had a friend who owned several guns, including an AK-47. Following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary he began questioning why we have assault rifles on our streets.  They met with a blacksmith and learned how to create garden tools from that AK-47, and RAWtools was born.  Thus began a campaign to collect assault weapons and other unwanted firearms and turn them into shovels, rakes, and other garden tools.  “Beating” guns is about reducing gun violence; and about literally “beating guns” heated to more than 2,000 degrees on a blacksmith’s anvil, reforming them into tools as described by the prophets Isaiah and Micah.

          The authors do not claim to represent the views of members of the National Rifle Association (NRA); but they note that the NRA represents fewer than 5 percent of gun owners.  As gun owners themselves they take a position like that of the NRA in the 1960s which supported the Gun Control Act of 1968 and focused on sportsmen, hunters and target shooters and had little to do with political opposition to gun control.

          Claiborne and Martin see changes as evidenced by a recent survey in which 74 percent of NRA members supported universal background checks on all gun sales (compared to 84 percent of all gun owners and 90 percent of all Americans—p. 78).* In addition to the biblical and religious perspective on “beating guns,” other highlights of the book are the history of gun manufacturing and ownership which authors highlight with statistical data.  *(Page numbers correspond with the Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader version of the book.) 

Oversupply and Overdemand
<>We manufactured an average of 9,458,172 guns annually in the US from 2012 to 2015.
<>That’s 25,912 per day.   <>That’s 1,079 per hour.  <>That’s 17.9 per minute.
<>That’s 1 gun every three seconds (p. 43)

Enough guns? Or too many guns?  <>We have about 300 million guns in the U. S.            <>That’s about one per person.  <>Each year millions of new guns are added to the arsenal.  <> In 2016, a record 27 million guns were sold (p. 43).  

We have a problem: we’re addicted to guns.  <> 32% of US households have guns.
<> 3% of the US population owns half of the 300 million guns.  <> That’s an average of 17 guns each.  <>  Nearly 2/3 of our guns are owned by 20% of gun owners.
<>  61% of gun owners are white men (white men make up just 32% of the population).
<>  Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths (p. 43).

More Gun Facts  <> The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 42% of the world’s privately held guns.  <>  There are 170,000 guns for sale online.  <>  There are nearly five times more licensed gun dealers in the US than there are McDonald’s restaurants.
<>  Guns kill 38,000 people per year & over half are suicides.  <>  Over 100 people die from guns every day in America.  <>  There are 73,000 gun-related injuries each year in America.  <>  There are over 400,000 crimes involving guns per year.  <>  The US has 29 gun homicides per million people (#1 in world).  <>  Of all children killed by guns in the world’s developed nations, 87% are US children (p. 44).

Records on Gun Sales  <>  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) keeps records of all gun sales through licensed dealers but must destroy them after 90 days (a 2001 law).  <>  The ATF can check gun dealers for illegal sales, but only once a year.  Just 5% of gun shops are responsible for 90% of guns used in crimes, but ATF can’t release that information publicly.  <>  The ATF isn’t allowed to have computers or develop a national database, so by a law pushed by the NRA they have thousands of boxes of paper records (p. 91).  

Registration? <> In the US, we register births, marriages, divorces, deaths, houses, land, trucks, boats, and animals—everything but guns (p. 92).  

Dangerous, with weapons?  <> Folks on the no-fly list can still buy weapons. <>  From 2004 to 2010, persons on that list had background checks 1,228 times; and 1,119 (91%) were approved—only 109 denied.  <> You can’t fly on an airplane if considered “dangerous” but you can still buy weapons (p. 94).  

Rights vs. Responsibilities     “We are better at protecting the Second Amendment than the Ten Commandments, one of which is “You shall not murder” (Deuteronomy 5:17); and Jesus’s declarations in the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5), one of which is “Blessed are the peacemakers” (p. 139).

Gun Violence and Gospel Values

The Church has always existed in an imperfect world with imperfect members.  When the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ fulfills its calling to be the voice, hands, heart, and feet of Jesus it continues his ministry and teachings.  Despite our imperfections we strive to fulfill our calling through worship, prayer, Christian education, and compassion to our neighbors in need of comfort, help, and support. 

     Churches of all denominations have had a major role in America as they have pulled communities together, supporting parents and families in child development, instilling values and developing vital institutions such as schools, colleges, and hospitals. 

          Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly(John 10:10). 

          Christian churches are called to promote abundant life, a task that seems overwhelming and impossible in an imperfect world.  In the face of tragic gun violence incidents that have become all too frequent and common, what are we to do?  After we offer our “thoughts and prayers” for the families of victims of gun violence, what are we to do?  Church denominations have spoken out on gun violence.


    The Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] has for fifty years endorsed recommendations for reducing gun violence.  Ministers and lay commissioners representing the national denomination have passed fourteen different recommendations at their biennial General Assembly meetings.  Recommendations from the 219th General Assembly (2010) entitled “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call” offer examples of what churches can do.


–Build public awareness of gun violence and the epidemic of preventable gun-related deaths, totaling more than 620,000 over the past twenty years.

–Address the temptation to gun suicide and murder-suicide among all people.

–Churches should work at urban-suburban ecumenical partnerships to better understand the problem of gun violence and take effective action.

–Lead in ecumenical gatherings for public prayer at gun violence sites.

–Support appropriate law enforcement gang intervention strategies based on the public health model.

–Work with local law enforcement agencies and community groups to identify gun shops that engage in retail practices designed to circumvent laws on gun sales and encourage full legal compliance.

–Work with colleges and universities to sponsor educational events on gun violence and its prevention.

–Encourage citizens, hunters, and law enforcement officials who regularly handle weapons properly to be wise examples in reducing risks and teaching how to prevent the misuse of deadly force.

–Support recommendations of the International Association of Chiefs of Police to support laws to require judges and law enforcement to remove guns from situations of domestic violence, mental illness, drug use, or previous criminal record.

–Encourage and support lawmakers to draft and pass legislation that will get wide public support on measures such as:

  • Limit legal personal gun acquisition to one handgun a month;
  •  Require licensing, registration and waiting periods for all guns sold;
  • Close the ‘gun show loophole” by requiring background checks for all gun sales;
  •  Ban semiautomatic assault weapons, armor piercing handgun ammunition, and .50 caliber sniper rifles;
  •  Advocate for new technologies to aid law enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety;
  •  Raise the age for handgun ownership to 21 years; and
  •  Eliminate the Tiahrt Amendment relating to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) that limits local law enforcement and the U.S. Dept. of Justice to trace and record gun purchases and owners.

          “Gun Violence, Gospel Values” challenges our fatalism and numbness in accepting the highest gun death rates in the world and proposes a new “spiritual awakening” approach: a church-related, community-based strategy to reduce gun violence. The Presbyterian Church has also produced a documentary film entitled “Trigger” that examines the effects and factors related to gun violence.  The film has brought community groups together to discuss the problem and is available for public viewing.

   America’s strength is taking action to solve problems.  It’s time to stop our acceptance of gun violence.  We’re better than this.  The Presbyterian Church recommendations are an example of what we can do when working together.  Approaching gun violence from public health and community policing perspectives we can together reduce the spread of illegal weapons and their tragic misuse.

Tags  Remembering Sandy Hook     The Church & Gun Violence 

“Trigger”  Gun Violence, Gospel Values 


Cultivating Civil Community

A group of 630 persons gathered on the campus of a small liberal arts university in Iowa this past week for what they call “Synod School.”  It’s like a “summer camp” for kids, parents, and even grandparents– but with better sleeping facilities (and a “step back in time” for those who lived in a college dorm room 50 years ago!).

The gathering of hundreds of Presbyterians from the six north central states comprising the “Synod of Lakes and Prairies” dates back to the 1950s.  This summer was its 66th year!  Persons attending as children and youth are now bringing their own children (or grandchildren!).  It’s a family affair, with activities and classes for all ages.

Synod School brings together some of the best musicians, teachers, preachers and discussion leaders.  Participants spend 8 to 10 hours each day doing crafts and arts or engaging in discussions relevant to the church, world, families, and personal growth.  The theme this year was “Cultivating Civil Community.”


I taught a course on Presbyterians Doin’ Justice” that focused on the initiatives of the Presbyterian Church in the past century to reduce injustice, violence, and inequality in the criminal justice system.  I learned as much as the participants in my class as I gathered materials and read historical documents.    Extensive work is done to support Committee Recommendations to the biennial General Assembly of the PC(USA).  The research and writing are comparable to the quality of most college-level textbooks.

Going back as early as 1910 the Presbyterian Church took a stand for reducing crime and victimization by improving societal attitudes toward offenders and reforming them; pushing for better education, moral training and job skills for youth; and replacing revenge with restorative justice.

The class focused on five criminal justice topics that have received the most attention by the PC(USA) in the past twenty years:

  • Abolition of For-Profit Private Prisons
  • Moratorium on Capital Punishment
  • Gun Violence Prevention
  • Restorative Justice
  • Bail Reform

Criminologists and Criminal Justice professionals agree that citizen involvement and understanding of crime and justice are essential for reducing victimization and improving public safety in America.  “Stay tuned” as we take a closer look in the next few weeks at what we can do about crime and justice in America.  I value your following this weblog, and like reading and hearing your comments.   Thanks!

Tags       Synod School                   Bible & Justice

Church and Gun Violence          Biblical Justice


“A Different Graduation”

One of the highlights of college teaching was the commencement each spring.  Faculty joined university administrators to don academic regalia, exchanging joyful conversation at the end of another academic year.  Watching the graduates march in behind us was special as we reflected on their accomplishments the past four years. They had made sacrifices to achieve this milestone, many of them working extra jobs to pay for tuition, books, and fees.  Commencement is also a celebration for their parents, most of whom had offered emotional and financial support for their proud graduates. (The university president never failed to congratulate the parents along with the student graduates!)


          Two weeks ago I participated in a different graduation.  I drove past the university campus to another state institution.  The old “St. Cloud Reformatory” has a lot in common with the State University on the other side of the Mississippi River.  St. Cloud State celebrates its 150th anniversary this year (1869) and the prison opened just 20 years later (1889).  Both were built from the nearby solid rock quarries that give the “Granite City” its name.  They are among the largest employers in the city. 

          The similarities end as I enter the imposing Gothic structure.  No academic regalia.  In place of pleasant conversation among faculty I am greeted by a Correctional Officer behind bars, where I surrender my driver’s license and immediately remove my belt and car keys before walking through a metal detector.  No cell phones allowed in here. There’ll be no “selfies” to capture the moment in this graduation.

          Once through the metal detector and double entrance gates I’m escorted by the Prison Chaplain down long corridors, past cell blocks, more security gates and watchful  correctional officers monitoring movement of inmates and visitors.  Shortly after our arrival at the prison chapel our “graduates” begin arriving from their cell blocks.


          No academic caps and gowns, no graduation march to the classical “Pomp and Circumstance”—but the small group of participants in the “Prison Fellowship Reentry” program begin arriving.  Smiles on their faces and a bounce in their steps belie the reality of this secure, solemn prison environment.  Today they’ll be recognized for completing the ten-week “Change Plan” class.  For most this was not their first prison sentence.  They had tried and failed to stay straight.  They needed help, better self-awareness and the “tools” to make a satisfactory adjustment to the “free world” again.

          A different graduation, a different place, and a different diploma.  But it brings me as much joy as seeing college students graduate.  These “graduates” are convicted felons, most of them racial and ethnic minorities, from families and neighborhoods that faced difficult challenges. They take responsibility for their crimes (a course requirement !) and are determined to do better.  Most of them have never received a diploma.  This day they received a certificate and diploma signed by the chaplain and the three of us who led the group as Prison Fellowship Volunteers.  The smiles on their faces showed a sense of pride and accomplishment.  Just like a “real graduation!”

Tags     Prison Fellowship Academy          Changed Lives: Theirs & Mine                                            Granite City and Gray Walls

Do We Want to Be Made Well?

Medical science and technology have contributed to extending longevity and reducing the prevalence of life-threatening medical problems.  We are more aware of risks to life and health, many of them caused by human factors and decisions.  Despite the availability of medical advice and information based on scientific research, we continue to see a persistence of persons engaging in unhealthy, life-threatening behaviors.  Americans fear the threat of criminal behavior but a much greater threat to our health and safety are the more common risky behaviors and personal “bad habits.”


   The lectionary text that was read and heard in many churches a couple weeks ago was a story about Jesus approaching a lame man lying beside a pool of water (John 5:1-9).  Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?”  The man replied “Sir, I have no one to put me into the water when it is stirred up, and someone else gets to the water before me.” 

          His response was based on an ancient belief in that time that an angel regularly stirred up the water in the pool and gave it divine healing powers.  His reply reflects the frustration and helplessness he felt at not being able to get into the pool’s healing waters. A contemporary response to the man’s complaint may be condescension for his superstitious belief and for doing little else to deal with his physical condition.

          Are we today much different from the man in biblical times?  Do we apply the medical and scientific findings?  Do our decisions and actions reflect that “we want to be made well?”  Many causes of cancer, heart disease and other risks to health and life are preventable, but we persist in risky behaviors and resist many life-saving changes.  Environmental pollution, smoking, diet and eating habits come to mind.  Multiple injuries and fatalities result from distracted driving and cell phone use.  Thousands die each year from firearms, including accidents and suicides.  Treatment and support for mental health services lag behind other medical services.  Deaths from opioids could be prevented by better regulation of pharmacists and corporate greed.  Many more examples come to mind, such as the refusal to get vaccinations against measles and other common illnesses.


          Many causes of illness and death are preventableDo we want to be made well?

   We do not believe today that pools of water have magical healing powers, but we are ignoring or refusing to adopt changes and policies that couldmake us well.”  Jesus’s question to the man established a connection and began a healing process.  Healing happens today.  We are made well when we adopt laws, policies and regulations to reduce causes of injury and death.    Healing happens when we take steps to reduce unhealthy and dangerous behaviors and conditions.  Healing happens when we connect with others to promote healthy behavior and habits; and healthy, safe and wholesome communities.

“Punishing Kids Like Adult Criminals”

Exploring the criminology and theology connection seeks a better understanding of persons who commit crimes and how a theological perspective may inform our laws and policies to deal with criminals. A theological understanding of “justice” is “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right.” 

Law violators must be held accountable and punished for crimes.  The question is “how much punishment is enough?”  There is no general agreement, but lawmakers believe that punishments must be severe enough to act as a deterrent.  They also believe that repeated criminal behavior is proof that laws are too lenient.  That belief has resulted in millions of offenders incarcerated, in overcrowded prisons, with few rehabilitative programs, at immense cost to taxpayers.  Current sentencing policies have not reduced crime rates.

Previous blog posts (see “Tags” below) noted the number of youth under 18 who are serving sentences with adult criminals.  Separate juvenile laws and courts were established more than a century ago, but many lawmakers view them as too lenient.


Science and Juvenile Laws.  Research in developmental psychology supports separate laws for juveniles based on established adolescent-adult differences:

o lower cognitive development means youth do not process information as well

o adolescents have less developed judgment and emotional and social maturity

o youth are less aware of risks; are more likely to risk harm to themselves and others

o they have a different time perspective; think short-term more than long-term

o they are more prone to peer pressure than adults

o they have less experience in decision-making and make poorer judgments

o neuroscience findings show parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and

decision making are underdeveloped compared to adults.*

The American Bar Association (ABA) supports the reduced culpability of youth based on differences in brain development between adults and juveniles.  The ABA agrees that adolescents are less morally culpable for their actions than competent adults and are more capable of change and rehabilitation.

The idea of not holding violent juveniles accountable the same as adults is difficult for many to accept.  Many believe that committing a serious crime is a sign of maturity.  But according to “brain science” that belief is a misconception.  Violent crimes are not “adult” activities.”  It is illogical to think that a youth who kills is more mature than a youth who steals.

Violent crime triggers a desire for harsh punishment and vengeance.  But under our laws courts must consider the act as well as the level of culpability.  This fact does not excuse adolescents from punishment for violent crimes.  It simply reduces their level of culpability and therefore the extent of their punishment.

Does this mean juvenile laws and courts are less effective in reducing crimeNo.  Research indicates that transferring juveniles who commit serious crimes to adult courts and sentencing them to adult prisons does not reduce serious juvenile crime.  Juveniles who are transferred to criminal courts do not have lower recidivism rates than juveniles who are tried and sentenced in juvenile courts.

This is good news.  Criminology and theology are properly connected here.  A better understanding of adolescent offenders leads to a better understanding of laws that apply to them—laws that are just, fair, and appropriate.  Neighborhoods, cities, and victims of juvenile crime gain through a just system that supports positive change, public safety, and does not make offenders worse.

*[Citations and reference support for facts and findings are available in R. Lawrence & M.Hesse, Juvenile Justice: The Essentials. Sage Publications, 2010, pp. 168-170.]

TagsKids and Adults: Same or Different?                   Adult Time for Adult Crime?

Equal Justice Initiative on “Children in Adult Prisons”

Adult Time for “Adult Crime”?

Young adults have some of the freedom and responsibilities of their parents and other adults.  But there are limits on what youth are allowed to do on their own.  In my previous blog post (Kids and Adults: Same, or Different?) we noted the limits placed on youth under the age of 18.  Laws and regulations on purchase of alcohol, cigarettes, and negotiating contracts reflect our belief that youth are not prepared for such “adult responsibilities.”

Criminal laws pertaining to young people under 18 who commit crimes are a different matter, however.  Contrary to laws and regulations that treat youth under 18 as less responsible, criminal laws allow for juveniles charged with serious crimes to be transferred and tried as adults and locked up in jails and prisons with adult offenders.

Today we have more than 10,000 juvenile offenders incarcerated in adult jails and prisons (according to the Equal Justice initiative).

Law Professor Cara Drinan documents America’s legal contradictions in her new book The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way (Oxford, 2018).


American juvenile justice has indeed “lost its way.”  Beginning with the first Juvenile Court in 1899 juveniles have been tried, adjudicated, and sentenced to correctional and rehabilitative programs in separate courts and institutions from adult offenders.  That changed in the 1980s and 1990s for juvenile delinquents who did “adult crime”—that is, crimes similar to those adults commit.  The “get-tough” punitive approach to crime control replaced the juvenile court goals of rehabilitation and correction in juvenile training schools.  Lawmakers adopted policies of “adult time for adult crime” to appeal to what they perceived was a more “punitive spirit” in America.

To many lawmakers and the general public this “get-tough” approach makes sense.  They believe that it “sends a signal” to young people and will deter serious juvenile crime. Many believe that holding young offenders accountable when they commit “adult crimes” is just and fair.  They do not see a contradiction between other laws that restrict youth under 18 from the same rights as adults.

Cara Drinan and many other legal experts believe the legal inconsistency in laws pertaining to young people is unfair and unjust.  It’s a “War on Kids.”

Criminologists and corrections experts focus on another question beyond that of prosecuting juvenile offenders as adults and sentencing them to prison with adult criminals.  Does it work?  Does punishing juveniles like adults work better to reduce serious juvenile crime?

We’ll address that question next time.  Stay tuned!

TagsKids and Adults:  Same or Different?

Equal Justice Initiative on “Children in Adult Prisons”

Kids and Adults: Same, or Different?

Adolescence is a time in life that we would all just love to go back to, right?  “No, no way!” is how most of us would respond!  Adolescence is when we’re not “children” anymore; but we’re also not adults.  Bodies, minds and emotions are developing.  We’re more than children,  almost adults.  Adolescents begin questioning parents’ authority, seek more freedom, and believe they should be treated more like adults.  …and they are.  Parents expect them to be more responsible, make good decisions regarding behavior, school requirements, choice of friends, and how they spend their time.


Youth are becoming “young adults” with some of the freedom and responsibilities of their parents and other adults.  But there are limits on what young adults are allowed to do on their own.

They drive themselves to school activities, a job, and relieve parents from “chauffeur-duties.”  But they can’t buy a car, register it, or buy insurance on their own.

They can usually be trusted to be at home alone, even overnight when their parents may be gone.  But they cannot leave home without their parents’ permission.  Doing so risks police arrest for being a “runaway.”

Youth under 18 cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes.  Most states and the federal government require parents’ or legal guardians’ signatures for persons under 18 to purchase firearms; to open bank and savings accounts, credit cards, loans, and similar financial transactions; to get health insurance; physician, medical, and hospital care; and to enter into marriage, or join the military.

We place many restrictions on young adults.  Why all these restrictions?  They seem to be physically capable of doing these “adult activities.”  Being “adult” and “responsible” requires more, doesn’t it?  Our laws, regulations, and requirements indicate that we believe young adults are not sufficiently emotionally and mentally mature to be given the same rights and responsibilities as adults over 18.

Inconsistent Laws & Justice Policies

Laws and policies of state and federal governments acted on the same beliefs about the differences between kids and adults—until the 1980s and 1990s.  Did kids all of a sudden become more mature?  No.  No changes in adolescent maturity or development.

What did change was lawmakers’ attitudes and beliefs about youth crime and the proper responses to those crimes.  Until the 1970s juvenile offenders were tried under laws and courts that took account of the differences between youth and adults. Today we have more than 10,000 juvenile offenders incarcerated in adult jails and prisons (according to the Equal Justice initiative).


So what’s the problem? What’s the point?  Those kids must have done a serious crime to be in there, right?   The problem is our inconsistency in how we treat youthful offenders compared with how we hold youth responsible for all other behavior and activities.  This inconsistency bears further examination and discussion.  Stay tuned!

Tags       Equal Justice Initiative           Juvenile Delinquency & “West Side” Story

Does Our Past Define Us?


Juvenile Delinquency & “Westside Story”

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 jailWhy?  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.

Gee, Officer Krupke

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)