The American system of juvenile justice is one of those festering national scandals which occasionally attract public attention—generally after an especially odious case of injustice or brutality—and then sink back into the hidden corners of routine neglect and abuse. Since the Supreme Court decision in the Gault case (1967), juveniles have been given some of the rights of due process guaranteed adult defendants in criminal cases (the right to counsel and to an adversary proceeding in court); but they still fall under the shadow of a legal doctrine in which the court, the probation officer, and the correctional institution are supposed to protect and “treat” those who come under their jurisdiction and formal criminal proceedings are regarded as inappropriate.
All juvenile court proceedings are technically civil cases. As a consequence, juvenile courts routinely sentence minors to extended terms of “supervision” and “treatment” for petty offenses. If these were committed by an adult, many would result in no more than a fine or thirty days in jail. In cases of truancy, running away from home, or “incorrigibility,” they would not be regarded as offenses at all. The quid pro quo for this loss of liberty was supposed to be the treatment itself. As often as not, the treatment consists of a combination of psychoactive drugs, brutality, and neglect.
On August 30, while the national press was looking the other way, a federal judge in Tyler, Texas, handed down a decision which is likely to shake up not only the juvenile justice system but a good many other institutions, including state mental hospitals and possibly even the public schools. The judge, William Wayne Justice, a Johnson appointee, ordered the Texas Youth Council to close down the state’s two major training schools for boys and to collaborate in a plan for adequate treatment in other state institutions and in nonresidential settings.
Young people in the two schools, according to unrefuted testimony, had been systematically kicked, stomped, and beaten with sticks and fists. They were routinely forced to do meaningless work for as long as six hours at a time (e.g., pulling blades of grass without bending their knees, or standing in four feet of sewage in open trenches shoveling slime). Some were injected with powerful tranquilizers without medical supervision (and then beaten for falling asleep), forced to sign false “incident reports” to explain injuries inflicted by guards. Others were locked in solitary cells for as long as thirty days at the discretion of their keepers. Some of these children were under twelve years old.
Such institutions, said Judge Justice, “are places where the delivery of effective rehabilitative treatment is impossible…. The court finds specifically that no reforms or alterations can rescue these institutions from their historical excesses.” He ordered the parties in the case—lawyers for the inmates, a number of professional and civil liberties groups, and the Justice Department, which joined the case as amici, and the Texas Youth Council—to produce a plan for improved …