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The Children of Juvenile Court

by William Ayers

Pub Date: June 9th, 1997
ISBN: 0-8070-4402-4
Publisher: Beacon Press

A sympathetic, revealing portrait of young people caught up in the juvenile justice system, and a searing indictment of the society that has failed to nurture them. A former leader of the radical Weathermen in the '60s, Ayers (Teacher Lore: Learning from Our Own Experiences, not reviewed) has spent the '90s working with and observing young people and their teachers in the Chicago Juvenile Court. The largest such institution in the world, the court's original mission was to serve as ``a kind and just parent'' to those youths whose own parents were unable to properly care for them. Today it struggles to deal with hundreds of children and adolescents, predominantly African-American and Latino, many of them implicated in crimes, who have grown up in dysfunctional families in the grim public-housing projects of Chicago. That so many children end up in juvenile court is no surprise—as one judge, who on an average morning sees 30 cases, comments, ``No jobs, no future, no family—and then all they have is guns and gangs and drugs to sell.'' Ayers reminds us repeatedly of the statistical link between abuse, poverty, and the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile. What's particularly perturbing to the author is the media's depiction of these youths as ``superpredators'' who are responsible for the majority of crimes committed in society, while youth under 18 actually commit only 13 percent of all offenses. When Ayers allows the youths to speak for themselves, they emerge as vulnerable and likable, despite their often heinous crimes. Their teachers too are, for the most part, caring, talented professionals who believe in their students' potential to turn their lives around. But the likelihood that few will do so is deeply unsettling. Likely to challenge many of our preconceptions, this is a graceful and passionate vision of the criminal justice system. (For another look at Chicago's troubled youth, see LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman's Our America, p. 612.) (Author tour)