An investigation of the American juvenile justice system, seen as too fundamentally corrosive to be reformed.
“The story of juvenile justice,” writes Bernstein (All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, 2005), “is often told in terms of pendulum swings between the opposing goals of rehabilitation and punishment.” Today, although cash-strapped states have incentive to modify restrictive facilities, the retributive attitudes formed during the tough-on-crime 1980s and ’90s are more resistant to change. The author argues that even as rates of violent crime committed by juveniles have fallen, an obsession developed for punitive confinement of what she terms “other people’s children,” epitomized in the ’90s by the debunked “super-predator” theory. She notes that over the past several decades, most states have expanded their juvenile detention systems so that they now resemble adult imprisonment. In addition, such confinement is generally reserved for the poor and minority youngsters, whereas white and suburban kids are usually allowed to “grow out” of their juvenile infractions—“for poor kids of color, getting locked up takes appallingly little.” While Bernstein argues the fundamental wrongness of treating children like adult offenders, she is more outraged by the actual conditions that have persisted through sporadic periods of investigation and reform in many state systems. She documents a disturbing litany of violence and endemic sexual abuse, frequently at the hands of guards: “Unprotected, young people learn they are unworthy of protection.” The many former prisoners whose experiences Bernstein documents convince her that the system is beyond repair, even though she encounters compassionate administrators who concur that “understanding the nihilism that can afflict traumatized children opens the door to imagining alternatives” beyond incarceration. The author concludes by asserting that despite massive investments, the current system “[does] not recognize these children’s fundamental humanity.”
The combination of muckraking research and absolutism make the book passionate and convincing as advocacy, though conservative readers may be less moved.