Wasted Youth: “What’s Left?” June 2012, MRR #349

I recently saw “The Kid with a Bike,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Movies by the Dardenne brothers are art house faves and raves but, in my opinion, they are also slow and a tad boring. The story is about an 11 year old boy whose mother has deserted the family, and whose father has recently abandoned him. The kid, named Cyril, is eventually fostered by a kind-hearted woman who is a hairdresser in the projects-like apartment complex where Cyril and the father used to live. But the kid gets in with a bad crowd, an older criminal kid who puts him up to the robbery of a local newsstand owner. Cyril knocks out both the owner and his son in the process of the robbery.

Now, here’s the interesting part of the story. Cyril eventually gets caught, and taken before what I presume to be a Belgian judge. There, he agrees to apologize to the newsstand owner whom he robbed and hit, and with his foster parent, the hairdresser, to pay restitution to the man.

It’s an amazing, enlightening, little scene, which I presume is fairly accurate. In the United States, its likely the kid would be tried as an adult, sentenced as an adult, and sent to adult prison where he would be turned into a hardened criminal and become a repeat offender for the rest of his life. I hardly exaggerate. The American criminal justice system is that punitive, and that primitive. And before someone takes me to task for unduly elevating those bleeding-heart liberal-socialist Europeans for coddling their juvenile criminals-in-the-making, consider that the Belgians have been around for a few thousand years. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that they’ve learned a thing or two about criminals and criminal justice, and that rehabilitation and restitution might just be a better way to go in many cases, particularly with kids?

I was 16 in 1968, arguably just past the crest of the hippie countercultural wave, when I got turned on to Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s. And I was 26 in 1978, the initial swell of punk rock, when I was blown away by the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia. Two rebellious youth movements, so it seems only natural to me that kids are always at odds with adult society. As Marlon Brando’s character in the film The Wild One says in response to the question what he’s rebelling against: “What do you got?” That’s a far cry from seeing young people as potentially, or rather, inherently criminal though. But somewhere along the line, society started assuming the worst about kids.

I grew up in California, before the Proposition 13 axe fell, when high schools had plenty of money for education. I took art and music classes, and when I couldn’t stomach regular gym, I took archery and bowling. There were shop classes, and drivers’ education classes. Yes, I was on a college prep track, and took academic electives by the score. But I also took creative writing, and worked on the high school literary magazine. There were no overt gangs and guns at my high school, and no guards or police either. It was the 60s, so we were rebelling against dress codes and speech codes. We fought for and won the right to have an open campus at lunch, when we could leave the school and eat at neighboring businesses. We also published and distributed an underground newspaper, and protested against the Vietnam war by wearing black Moratorium armbands, both free speech issues.

Nowadays, high schools resemble prisons in lockdown, with guards patrolling the halls, and police on call to arrest students for the slightest infraction. Gangs and guns are rampant, and to enforce discipline, more and more schools are adopting dress codes and school uniforms. Hate speech is strictly prohibited, as is other suspect behavior, though this doesn’t seem to protect the weaker or gay kids from being bullied. School budgets have been cut so drastically that parents, even teachers, have to contribute money in order to give their children a halfway decent education. And still our schools are failing. And still our schools are flunking or abandoning kids left and right. And still our schools are better at teaching children crime then academics.

Now, of course, I acknowledge that the times have changed. Whereas someone might have brought a pistol to school in my day, today its likely to be a bomb or an AK47. Whereas parents and school administrators worried that kids were puffing marijuana in the bathrooms in the 60s, today its much more serious drugs, beginning with methamphetamine, and continuing down a long list of designer pharmaceuticals, not to mention the drugs the kids manage to steal from their parents medicine cabinets. Whereas sex education was a great controversy and sneaking a Playboy into a school locker was the height of scandal when I went to high school, now everything is hypersexualized, with teen sexting/cybering commonplace. Yes, indeed, times have changed, but it doesn’t help much to blame complacent teachers with seniority, or education unions. Take a close look at the record of charter schools, supposedly the grand alternative to public schools, where unions are banned and teachers are hired and fired at will. Charter schools, on average, do no better than the public education system in graduating kids from high school, let alone preparing them for college, or the real world.

In my opinion, the biggest change since my own high school days is that young people now are treated as if they are overt threats. The criminal justice system, in routinely trying, convicting and jailing juveniles as adults, is only the most blatant example of this. Consider the amount of tracking and spyware parents install on their kids computers, if they can manage to outwit their tech-savvy children. Consider the regular monitoring of kids’ cellphones and facebook pages, not just by parents, but by school administrators, employers, and police. Consider that parents are even surgically implanting RFID chips into their toddlers, not merely to prevent kidnapping, but to keep tabs on their kids at all times. My generation rebelled against the stultifying monotony and corporate conformity of the Eisenhower 50s. Is it any wonder that Columbine has become the symbol for our age?

Enough of this rant.

There’s no way to go back to some golden age, whether it’s the 1990s, the 1960s, or the 1930s. Instead, I’d like to move forward, with a criminal justice system that practices rehabilitation and restitution, rather than retribution and punishment, at least for kids. For all the blather about violent crime being down in this country, the United States has just 5% of the world’s population, yet it has nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. That’s because of all the people we throw in jail for drug possession, small-scale theft, and petty crime. America’s prison population is disproportionately black and brown as well, amounting to the criminalization of youth by race, with black youth suffering the most.

No doubt, the outcry will be that do-gooder liberal criminal justice reform was tried in the 60s and failed, or that juvenile delinquents will learn how to play the system and, literally, get away with murder. The so-called 60s reforms were actually a confluence of several factors. The “liberal” community relations and community policing programs that came out of the 1950/60s civil rights movements and violent urban unrest are still with us today, whereas “liberal” flexible sentencing practices and criminal rights campaigns have been thoroughly routed by determinate sentencing statutes and victims rights advocacy. However, the idea that kids should be absolved of personal responsibility for their crimes because they are psychologically disturbed and society is to blame is a hoary old chestnut. If you doubt this, check out the lyrics to the classic West Side Story song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” copyright 1956.

What has never, ever gained traction is that restitution, and in particular, rehabilitation should replace retribution and punishment with respect to dealing with young people. When the simple human desire for vengeance is set aside, a number of reasons for not taking criminal justice in a rehabilitative direction are typically given; the lack of scientific research into the efficacy of rehabilitation programs, the inability to parse out individual criminal motivation in relation to such programs, and the complexity and expense of rehabilitation as a strategy. It doesn’t seem appropriate for the United States to follow the lead of other countries with many decades of experience in criminal justice reform. Instead, what is considered appropriate is for this country to expend exorbitant amounts of funding to build prisons and militarize police forces in order to squander astronomically more money to keep nearly 4% of the American population under some form of correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, prison).

What a waste, not of dollars, but of lives. Young lives.

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