THE CHILD SAVERS: Juvenile Justice Observed by Peter S. Prescott

THE CHILD SAVERS: Juvenile Justice Observed

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Observed"" is an understatement. Newsweek's Prescott spent two years sitting in New York City's Family Courts; the result is a vivid, horrifying portrait of a system falling to pieces. The problems seem overwhelming--an enormous caseload, administrative confusion, insufficient prosecutorial resources, eccentric judges, incompetent private attorneys, an overburdened probation department, and grossly inadequate ""correctional"" facilities. Against this backdrop Prescott silhouettes telling moments from the god-awful cases that come to rest in Family Court every day: a mother accused of lesbian practices with her four-year-old daughter; the 15-year-old boy, with eight ""priors,"" who beat up a store owner with a club; the father who put his infant son in a pot on the stove, to burn. Somehow, people have to deal with this, the calendar has to be gotten through, and ""justice"" has to be done. The regular players--judges, Legal Aid attorneys, prosecutors, probation officers--see it all, and Prescott has a fine ear for their differing viewpoints. Long ago Legal Aid discarded ""best interests of the child"" paternalism; their self-image is that of defense counsel. ""I don't have any idealism,"" says one Legal Aid lawyer. ""I see what I'm doing here is getting people off."" (Of course, arguing for what the child wants can become awkward in some abuse cases--""What do you do with the kid who has had both his arms broken, and who wants to return home?"") The prosecutors are embittered and dislike the defense lawyers on principle ("". . . to say it's society's fault is ridiculous. You know, we should stop worshipping poverty""). The probation officers are cynics (""I tell you, if A. Hitler walked into this court, they'd parole him""). The judges feel threatened by pressure for illusory productivity (""You're judged by the number of cases. Sheer numbers, that's all. . . . That's nonsense, isn't it?""). Ironies compound ironies: everyone's supposedly working in the best interests of the child, but at cross-purposes, and an institution ""set up by society to ease grief and pain. . . inadvertently, helplessly, knowingly increases the anguish."" Prescott offers no solutions--his pure reportorial stance parallels the ""intense and narrow focus"" of Family Court itself. First-class journalism, and an important book.

Pub Date: May 29th, 1981
Publisher: Knopf