Editorial: Juvenile (In)justice
From the Editor
by Craig Mazer
Juvenile (In)justice and Media Hype
Another child has been lost to the adult prison complex. Nathan Brazill, the 14-year-old boy convicted of murdering his teacher in West Palm Beach, is a victim of our judicial system. That system, in place to enforce the laws of our government, has yet to catch up with the harsh realities of the society it is working within. Worse yet, the media sheds a misleading light on violent crime, and juvenile crime in particular.
Violence runs rampant in today's society. It is cheered on football fields and in boxing rings, amazes us in action movies and impresses us through surprisingly realistic video games. But these desensitizing interactions definitely have an effect on a child's life.
The courts need to recognize this instead of blaming the industry. Trying a juvenile as an adult should be a last resort used only for the most heinous of juvenile criminals. But, despite a sharp decline in juvenile crime throughout the '90s, every state but one enacted or toughened laws during that time, making it easier to try people under the age of 18 as adults; and more than 200,000 juveniles were tried as adults in 1998. According to a 1997 U.S. Department of Justice study, 14,500 juveniles were estimated to be housed in adult correctional facilities on any given day in 1997.
Even Florida Governor Jeb Bush stated, "There is a different standard for children. There should be sensitivity to the fact that a 14-year-old is not a little adult."
You can consider a majority of those 14,500 to now be lost causes, drifting away in adult facilities. The suicide rate for juveniles held in adult jails is five times the rate of those in the general youth population and eight times the rate for those in juvenile detention facilities according to the Community Research Center in 1980. And while I couldn't find any statistics to prove it, I figure that the recidivism rate for juveniles housed in adult facilities is much higher than those housed in youth facilities. I imagine that when you're in the company of career criminals for an extended period of time, it's hard not to become part of that culture.
Before a child becomes a criminal, he's been shown the bleakness regularly on the news. The media skews the perception of violent crime. For example, while there was a 33% decline in homicides between 1990 and 1998, there was a 473% increase in homicide coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news programs. While homicides made up 1-2% of all arrests, homicides made up more than a quarter of the crimes reported on the evening news. This remains true today.
Worse yet is the depiction of youth crime. One study referenced by an April 2001 Los Angeles Times article ("Off Balance: Media Coverage of Youth Crime" By Lori Dorfman and Vincent Schiraldi) showed that 68% of local TV news stories about violence in California involved youth. However, youth made up only 14% of violent crime arrests in California.
This imbalance of reporting goes lengths to desensitize young people. There were 16 killings amongst 52 million school students in the U.S. in 2000. Yet, school-shooting sensationalism made it seem like these occurrences were happening daily. Instead of offering up positive images of students, children are constantly shown negative situations.
So, where does that leave today's youth and what can be done? First of all, don't blame movies and video games. They are just two of the many violent influences children are exposed to. The bigger problem lies with the news media and the judicial process. The judicial system needs to clearly recognize the difference between a child committing a crime and an adult. They also need to recognize the effect of violent images and take this into consideration when trying juveniles. Those images have a far different affect on children than adults. And adults, those running the news media, need to work at showing more uplifting images of youth on the news instead of the dreary and repetitive images of juvenile crime. Screw ratings, have compassion. The media has a powerful voice in shaping lives and minds.
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