An Early Vision of PYD in Juvenile Justice

pyj_ydd2000picSchwartz, Robert G. (2000). Juvenile Justice and Positive Youth Development. In Youth Development: Issues, Challenges and Directions (pp. 233-279). Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

The American system of juvenile justice has existed for 100 years because of two beliefs that have remained relatively constant: (1) that youth are not as culpable for their conduct as adults; and (2) that youth are more capable of change and need room to grow.

Though those two beliefs have been the bedrock of the juvenile justice system, their application goes through cyclical changes. Sometimes the system is perceived as being too harsh, sometimes too lenient. During the last century it has often been shaped by new ideas of the day, by theories that infused the culture at large. These have been doctrines of rehabilitation, or of due process, or, most recently, of accountability. Now, as we approach the millennium, “positive youth development” has found a receptive audience in the fields of youth employment, community-based services and early adolescent initiatives. But how will it be received in the insular world of juvenile justice?

Consider Gabriel, a 14-year-old boy who lives in a drug-infested neighborhood in Steve Lopez’s first novel, Third and Indiana. The fictional Gabriel is a brilliant artist with a photographic memory. His father has abandoned the family. To raise money, Gabriel begins serving as a lookout for a gang of drug dealers. Unlike his schoolmates, the gang recognizes Gabriel’s strength:

Gabriel, who’d always had a good memory, was an especially good lookout because he never forgot a face or a vehicle. If plainclothes cops jumped out of a car at the next intersection and threw a drug crew against a wall…Gabriel would wander in close enough to study the faces of the officers…Sometimes he drew sketches for the crew supervisor. He drew sketches of the unmarked cars, too, detailing a small dent, a missing hubcap…That’s why he was being promoted. Gabriel was looked upon in his drug gang as something of a rising star (Lopez, 1994).

A boy like Gabriel is a challenge to the juvenile justice system. He represents everything that the newest version of juvenile justice is designed to punish: a drug-dealing gang member who later, for protection, carries a gun. In today’s climate, he will be a candidate for transfer to the criminal court, where he will face a mandatory sentence for his use of a gun. At a minimum, he would be removed from his mother’s home and placed in a residential treatment facility. Whether anyone recognizes his talent will be a matter of luck, not design.

Thus, the two questions that are the focus of this chapter apply to every Gabriel who comes in contact with the law: (1) Is there a place for positive youth development in juvenile justice, a system that exists to respond to negative behavior and is not uniformly adept at discovering talent? (2) If so, is there any chance that positive youth development will become central to the juvenile justice culture—as opposed to a characteristic of an exemplary program here or there—so that every Gabriel will be its beneficiary?

In the end, the paper concludes that the tenets of positive youth development are more applicable in work with children who are at risk of entering the juvenile justice system than with those who are already inside the formal system itself. Diversion programs for all children are more promising than a formal juvenile justice system that is organized, staffed, funded and regulated by law in ways that, for the most part, work in opposition to positive youth development.

However, the formal system is not hopeless. There are a few chinks in the system’s seemingly sheer wall, and it is there that advocates of positive youth development must apply piton and hammer if they are to have any chance of scaling the barrier that juvenile justice represents to the field.