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The Life–Style Violent Juvenile

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in 5/1 Change 10, 1981.


Throughout history, all organized human societies have feared danger and hated evil. As our perceptual systems have evolved, so have our concepts of what is frightening to us: where humans once feared dinosaurs, we now fear cancer. And where we once feared evil spirits, we now fear the looming specter of the "violent juvenile offender." No single category of human life–form has generated more of an unfocused and indeed counter–productive response than the image of the rampaging urban juggernaut of destruction, this "violent juvenile offender," and no other type of individual has caused so much reaction without result.

And why not? Is there any concept more frightening than murder, rape, or robbery at the hands of our own children?

As with the great majority of "solutions" to social problems, rhetoric has run far ahead of reality. We conveniently forget the bitter lessons of our own history and loudly demand a return to the "good old days" which our citizens now perceive as having produced a vastly different breed of juvenile "delinquent" than the vicious savage who currently roams our streets with impunity, ignoring our social mores and institutions and laughing at the futility of the "juvenile justice system."

Our societal response to this omnipresent threat of juvenile violence has been a perfect circle of impotent futility. We first fail to distinguish between adult and juvenile offenders: if you can do a man's crime, you can do a man's time. And we observe the natural fallout from such a system with horror, some children simply fail to survive adult incarceration, and those who do survive rejoin society well–equipped in the tools of criminal violence. So we self–righteously proclaim that we will no longer co–mingle adult and juvenile criminals and we establish a separate (but hardly equal) system for our youth. And we soon learn that juvenile incarceration runs like a blood–red thread through the fabric of the lives of virtually every violent professional criminal this country has produced: from Dillinger to Panzram to Chessman to Manson. The conclusion is inescapable: juvenile prison systems are criminogenic in the extreme. Nothing more than crime factories and sodomy schools, they are breeding grounds for the violently recidivistic career criminal.

So we quickly proceed to "deinstitutionalization." And just as quickly learn that some juveniles represent such violent unchecked whirlwinds of destruction that some form of incarceration is a minimal requirement. And then we come full circle to the panoply of "waiver" laws by which we will once again treat some juveniles as adults in the pitifully uninformed belief that juvenile crime is a new phenomenon which will respond to old solutions.

The truth is that the juvenile–justice "system" is nothing more than a knee–jerk political response to a problem that has now reached epic proportions in America. The "individualization of the offender," so beloved to social workers and Juvenile Courts alike, is nothing more than a myth: verbally worshipped but legislatively and practically ignored.

The truth is that the overwhelming majority of juvenile offenders would respond to non–institutional alternatives, but also that a tiny percentage of such youth require incarcerative, institutional treatment if they are to have a hope of re–entering society without a commitment to criminal violence as a career.

The truth is that a tiny minority of juveniles has inspired the majority of legislative responses to juvenile crime as a whole. Until we begin to realistically analyze the special characteristics of this minority, the juvenile justice "system" will continue to be the playground of the proposal writers and the politicians, with the public as the loser.

A Proposed Definition

To promote the dual ends of description and analysis, we call our target offender the life–style violent juvenile. In doing so, we seek to avoid the murky, ambiguous classifications of the past and focus on what should be the objectives of the current system. This youth exhibits a criminological, social, and economic life–style indelibly marked by chronicity and often–escalating violence. A single episode of violence will not suffice to bring a juvenile within the ambit of this classification. This target population is characterized by a distortion of societal values, a commitment to immediate gratification, and a (continually reinforced) alienation from societal structures and institutions.

A member of this group will most likely have been previously institutionalized, will almost certainly have functionally, if not actually, left school for some time. Regardless of his personal family constellation, he will most likely relate to a group or gang of similarly–inclined youth as the major focal point in his life. Traditional concepts will be redefined by his peer group so that they surface in aberrant ways. To such a juvenile, gang rape is not antisocial, mugging is not wrong, and tomorrow is dimly, if at all, perceived. His life is controlled by anonymous institutions and agencies: landlords, the welfare department, the police, and the judicial system. Life is a lottery and gratification delayed is probably gratification denied. Role models are armed robbers, pimps, narcotics dealers, and extortionists, and emulation of such models begins as fantasy, proceeds to peer–level imitation, and finally culminates in active participation.

When the juvenile–justice system does intervene in this ugly chain of inevitability, it tends only to reinforce the viability of this juvenile's role models, and he is bombarded with similar, non–competing messages through the years in the "system." If a juvenile is incarcerated because of violent behavior and finds himself in a "helping" institution where physical violence is the only way to avoid sexual exploitation by others, the "might makes right" lessons of the street are reinforced by the professional "change–agents" who hold him in custody.

The life–style violent juvenile perceives few options in his world: he will either exploit or be exploited, and the way to avoid the latter is to acquire sufficient skills in the former. There is a powerful emphasis on advertising that one is not a member of the exploited class: symbols such as clothes, jewelry, and cars are worshipped with a zeal even the most upwardly mobile might find incredible. Life is a mystery; he sees no causal relationship between acts and consequences. In his world, everybody commits crimes: some are caught, even fewer are punished.

When such a juvenile is blithely co–mingled with a population of youth less acculturated to violence, he runs amok. Confronted with a juvenile ready, willing, and able to commit violent acts, institutional staff generally respond by treating the life–style violent juvenile as a special case, with special privileges. His role? To halfway staff–manage the institution. In so doing, he employs the tools with which he is most familiar, takes his place within the inmate–exploitation hierarchy, and helps turn the institution into a living hell for those juveniles who shouldn't have been there in the first place.

Needed: A Realistic Classification System

The life–style violent juvenile is the Achilles heel of proponents of deinstitutionalization. They have no answers for such an individual other than to occasionally proclaim he doesn't exist, just as equally uninformed individuals on the other end of the political spectrum proclaim that he represents the "atypical" delinquent. The truth is that deinstitutionalization is not an "all or nothing" concept requiring total adoption or total abandonment. In fact, deinstitutionalization cannot hope to succeed without a secure treatment unit somewhere well established within the network of services required by a functioning juvenile justice system.

A functioning system will take collective responsibility for all juveniles, regardless of criminal background. This mandates nothing less than a maximum security institution somewhere within the continuum of services provided. And it means maximum security in a literal sense, not just a system to maximally ensure society that its inmates will not voluntarily depart, but a system within which the inmates themselves are maximally secure. While the profession seemingly endlessly debates a juvenile's most fundamental rights away, we ignore the most fundamental rights of all: the right to be free of violence, forcible rape and an existence so devoid of hope that too many juveniles each year opt for suicide as an exit visa.

In short, what is proposed is a classification system of juvenile criminals based on reality, not rhetoric And a systemic response to such individuals by creating specialized treatment units, run along unique but time–tested lines, that will support the concept of deinstitutionalization while simultaneously protecting society's short– and long—term interests.

The juvenile justice profession has already tried "get tough" and "get soft" responses to juvenile crime. Both have failed. It is crystal–clear that it is time to "get smart."

© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.


Andrew Vachss is a practicing attorney in New York City. He is the author of The Life–Style Violent Juvenile, published by Lexington Books in 1979. Though that book is long out–of–print, you can view online the architectural guides for a Secure Treatment Unit; read an excerpt from the book online, and find out more information here at the website. Mr. Vachss has had extensive experience both in institutions serving delinquent young people and community organizations concerned about child abuse.



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