Weekly readers and kids in Juvenile Hall share their thoughts on the social attitudes and economic realities that feed youth violence.
Thursday, May 18, 2000
| "I think by trying teens as adults it will wake some up, but not all. Me myself I think it is kind of too late to be trying to make all these laws and changes. They should have started this a long time ago, because for a lot of teens they are at the point of no return." |
K. S., age 17, Juvenile Hall
It was just over a year ago that the nation was sent reeling from the shock of the slaughter of 12 Columbine High School students at the hands of two fellow classmates. The killing spree was a grisly finale to what had been a year of horrific shooting incidents at schools in Oregon, Tennessee, Pennyslvania, Arkansas and Michigan.
In an effort to understand what led up to Columbine, the Weekly published a feature story in May of 1999 in which our readers shared their thoughts on youth violence. As might be expected, the responses focused on the prevalence of violence in the media, the absence of parental guidance in many children''s lives, the ready availability of guns, and a lack of religious values and moral leadership.
It''s been another difficult year. In the aftermath of another shocking murder last November in which a 6-year-old Michigan school boy shot and killed a female classmate, not to mention the recent spate of youth and gang-related crimes in Salinas and Seaside, we find ourselves asking yet again, "Why the violence?"
This time the plot has thickened. With the passage by California voters of Proposition 21, a law that grants prosecutors the authority to try juvenile offenders as adults (the decision previously rested with judges), the debate over how to address youth violence has grown more impassioned than ever. So earlier this year, the Weekly asked readers once again to share their thoughts on youth crime and violence.
The most compelling responses we received were from a group of juvenile offenders who wrote to us as a class exercise. These students attend the Wellington Smith School at Juvenile Hall in Salinas. Some are in detention awaiting court dates, some are awaiting sentencing, others are waiting to be sent off to a group home, the California Youth Authority or the Monterey County Youth Center.
We decided to follow up on their responses and sent writer Rebecca Crocker and photographer Richard Pitnick to Juvenile Hall to speak directly to them. What follows is a mix of letters from adult readers and underage offenders, statistics on youth violence, and one-on-one interviews with kids in Juvenile Hall, all of whom are paying the price not just for their own decisions but for the kind of world we have created for them.
The Media Is The MessageFor some of our respondents, the media and media stars profoundly influence youth violence. It is not just the violent images being portrayed and celebrated in movies and on TV news, but the broader cultural values expressed in the media that are contributing to the problem.
"The phenomenon of youth violence in American culture is the natural progression and product of a society that holds materialism as its central focus. The American value system is a race- and class-based system which, by its very nature, gives its members either a false sense of superiority or inferiority. Because an individual''s worth is determined by race, gender and other criteria that do not take into account a person''s value as a spiritual being, what develops as a result is what I call the dysfunctional ego, which creates a cycle of dysfunctional families that make a dysfunctional society inevitable.
| More California kids are killed by handguns than by car crashes,disease, or drugs.
There are eight times more gun dealers than McDonald''s in California.
Persons under the age of 20 are almost 10 times more likely to be victims of crime than persons over age 65.
"Youth violence is simply acting out behavior to compensate for an unharmonious inner world which is fraught with feelings of anger, low self-worth, and abandonment. These feelings find their origin in values that de-emphasize spiritual development, and emphasize things like power over others, material possessions, vanity, fame, fortune and status. America''s youth are giving back what America has imparted to them through all of her institutions."
--Anthony Gilchrist, Del Rey Oaks
"Children imitate role models. It''s just one of those truisms of life. Who do today''s kids look up to as role models? If kids'' role models act in violent ways, kids will by nature imitate those actions. The Coast Weekly asks, ''Are today''s kids more violent than they were in the past?'' One of the answers may be the question, ''Are kids'' role models more violent now than they were in the past?''"
--Frederick McGarrity, Pacific Grove
| Youth felony arrest rates declined by 40 percent in the last 20 years while rates for adults increased.
Juveniles comprised 30 percent of California felony arrestees in 1978, and less than 15 percent in 1998.
In 1978 the average age of a violent crime arrestee was 21.5. The average age in 1998 was 27.7.
"Say you are about 10 or 12 years of age. Are you more likely to want to be like your father, the man who leaves for work at 8am and comes home late every night just to make ends meet? Or are you gonna want to be like the gangster down the street that''s always kicking back in front of his homies, having fun, making his money by selling drugs? The guy up the street always has a lot of cash, nice cars, girls and so forth, but doesn''t seem to work anywhere near as hard as your father. This guy seems to have it made and you think what he is doing is worth the risk and more, although your father is making honest money and taking care of his family the way a real man should. The more flashy limelight lifestyle of the thug up the street is far more appealing."
--M. A. C., age 17, Juvenile Hall
The Ties That BindAs many of our readers see it, the problem of youth violence begins at home. The legacy of broken families, abuse and neglect and the struggle for single- and even two-parent families to make ends meet means kids don''t have the kind of discipline or support they need to make better choices in life.
"I have worked at the Sherwood School for 12 years, and I am shocked and dismayed that the parents of my students cannot get their basic needs met. Most of the people who live in my neighborhood are people just like you and me. The thing is they don''t get paid a living wage for the work they do. There is no affordable housing, no quality day care, no services that these parents can rely on to help them live in peace in a community.
"Their hope of ever owning a house is forever being dashed as yet another unaffordable housing project is started. Since they have to work twice as hard just to share a small living space with many others in the same position, they often have to work two jobs, and often their children are left in the care of questionable caregivers."
--Alana Ortiz, Seaside
"To the people who their parents give them everything in their mouth and commit violent crimes, it is because they have not suffered at all. And their parents do not show them you have to suffer a little before you do whatever it is you wanna do with your life.
"If a child does something wrong when he is young and their parent don''t tell them nothing, he will grow up thinking that is a right thing to do. But if they sit down and have a serious conversation with them and give them consequences, then the kid will get it through his head that you have to have self-control or else they will regret it later in life."
--J. P., age 17, Juvenile Hall
"I do not believe that we can blame a teenager''s actions on anyone but the teen. People make mistakes, but violence is not a mistake but a thought-through behavior. Only serving consequences themselves can change those thoughts, and sometimes even then, it just doesn''t work.">
--C. F., age 13, Juvenile Hall
| The state spends $33,500 per year to house one youth at the California Youth Authority and only $5,000 to educate one in school.
Juvenile crime and violence triple in the hour immediately after school.
"I''m 17 years old and I''ve been in and out of Juvenile Hall the last five years. I chose to go the wrong way, even though my parents were both there. They gave me support and attention, they did their jobs as parents but for some reason I failed to do my part. Now my life is dedicated to change, which is available in every person''s life."
--A. A., age 17 Juvenile Hall
Crime and PunishmentSeveral respondents contend that strong sentencing is the only remedy for youth violence. But for as many kids in Juvenile Hall who agree that tougher punishment may be the answer, there are those who believe laws like Prop. 21 could create a backlash.
"Trying a murderer or thief, regardless of age, is always the appropriate thing to do. The difference between juvenile crime and any other kind of crime should be erased. I believe if a 10-year-old kid shoots and kills my wife, has this child not committed murder? Long ago wouldn''t such a child be ''stoned to death'' by his community? Why is it not acceptable now? Teenagers, with a hormonally spurred sense of ''immortality'' are enticed by this country''s berserk legal system to ''let go'' and become ''all they can be.'' Our legal system gives children a ''free pass'' to raise hell until they reach a certain age and thereafter expects adolescents to ''act right.'' This insane system of ''age discriminatory'' jurisprudence must be ended for everyone''s sanity and general welfare."
--L. Warren & Beatrice Rogers, Salinas
"Some psychologists say a young person reaches an age of reasoning capability by the age of 7. I say if a person is old enough to kill another person without compunction, punishment should be equal for all."
--Zane Jacobs, Seaside
| Since 1992, 47 states have expanded their laws to punish more juveniles as adults.
Three out of four youths imprisoned with adults are minorities.
"Trying us as adults will scare a lot of us. A scared straight program, touring prisons, etc., would help greatly. I believe kids are becoming more active in politics and want their opinions to be heard. Government is changing, laws are changing, but seldom do adults, who ''know what''s good for us'' listen to us. It is and always will be hard being young. Violence is a cry for help. Listen!"
--Ossie, Salinas High, age 17
"Prop. 21 is not right, and that''s why all these homicides are occurring in Salinas. The juveniles are very upset and I honestly think these murders are gonna continue. I don''t think the adults were thinking when they voted [for Prop. 21] so I think the adults are kinda regretting that they voted for this. I think trying teens as adults is gonna increase the violence with the youth these days. One reason is the youth is gonna go to prison and it''s more violent in the penitentiary. So when the youngsters get out, they''re gonna be more violent than when they went in."
--L. D., age 17, Juvenile Hall
"Trying teens as adults will not stop violence cause they don''t think of life in prison when they are doing the crime. They think they will not get caught. Trying kids as adults is stupid, what is that going to solve, putting youngsters with adults? They should just give them death than life in prison. It''s too much for a teen to handle what happens in prison to be fair justice. If people think locking us up for life and forgetting about us is going to stop violence, you''re wrong."
--C. A., age 17, Juvenile Hall
"The way kids think is if we''re getting tried as adults, then make the crime worth it."
Statistics on California youth and adult crime patterns taken from studies by the Justice Policy Institute and Resources for Youth. Statistics from The National Council on Crime and Delinquency.