American Youth Violence.

AuthorFrantz, Carolyn J.

AMERICAN YOUTH VIOLENCE. By Franklin E. Zimring. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998. Pp. xiii, 209. $29.95.

Few issues have occupied the public mind so much in recent years as the problem of youth violence. Due to sensational school shootings and public paranoia about the violence of youth gangs, America is concerned -- very concerned -- about the growing criminality of its children. In our concern, we find ourselves caught in the classic conundrum of criminal responsibility: reconciling the unavoidable knowledge that much of human behavior is determined with our strong instincts about free will. We blame violent television and video games, we blame single mothers, we blame low church attendance, but when all is said and done, we punish the child. The concrete response to our fears about increasing youth violence has been increased accountability for young offenders, and growing rhetoric about the genuine evil that exists even in seemingly innocent youth.

Franklin Zimring(1) confronts this trend of "getting tough" on young offenders in his most recent book, American Youth Violence. The basic aim of his project is to quell the storm of youth crime policy motivated by "fear and hostility" towards young offenders (p. xiii). Increased length of punishment, as well as abandonment of efforts at reform, have characterized the recent moves in juvenile justice. Zimring argues against these trends.

Zimring approaches the problem of youth criminality in a remarkably comprehensive manner. He comes at the issues from all angles -- he is at the same time a social scientist, a policy specialist, and a legal philosopher. He uses empirical data to challenge (quite convincingly) the perception that American youth are increasingly violent (pp. 31-47). He uses his empirical findings to suggest reforms, such as changes in firearms policy, that would be likely to make a difference in the degree of violence among young people (pp. 89-106). Most impressively, Zimring ties all of this together with deep legal and social debates about youth criminal responsibility. He not only tells us what the data say, but what they mean.

This impressive integration of views leads Zimring to a unified perspective on American youth violence that is rational and coherent. His main critique of existing means of dealing with youth violence is that they are illogical. He argues, for instance, that if a certain large percentage of youth who commit isolated violent acts never repeat them in adulthood, then violence is, by and large, "kid stuff" (p. 84). For Zimring it is silly and counterproductive to follow recent trends and put these kids in jail for some extended time, impeding their normal development, and it is wrongheaded to brand them as evil criminal predators (pp. 81-85). Zimring also seeks rational consistency between youth crime policy and other policies concerning youth. He suggests, for example, that our views of the risk of youth crime ought to be in some way informed by our views of the risks of youth driving. If society is willing to bear some risk to public safety in order to allow young people to develop into less risky adult drivers, perhaps it ought to be willing to tolerate the same degree of youth criminality as part of normal youth development (pp. 85-86). Similarly, he analogizes laws relating to alcohol to youth criminal responsibility -- if the trend is to raise the age of legal possession of alcohol, he asks, how can this be consistent with lowering the age of criminal responsibility for commission of crimes (p. 81)?

Zimring's drive towards logic and coherence in social responses to youth violence is admirable and compelling (p. 127). But it raises the question whether approaches to criminality can ever be rational in the way that Zimring hopes. As this Notice will show, the criminal justice system serves an important role in affirming the reality of free will and personal responsibility in society, a role that often conflicts with enlightened viewpoints about acceptable risks and social scientific understandings. What appear to Zimring to be incoherencies are actually crucial strategies for holding the line on personal responsibility in the face of nagging awareness of the degrees to which human behavior is determined.(2) This tension between free will and determinism leads to a constant negotiation between holding responsibility and denying it, the ultimate settlement of which is anything but neatly consistent.(3) By placing free will and determinism at the center of debates about criminal justice, this Notice follows upon the conceptual frame set out by Thomas A. Green in his historical examinations of criminal justice at the beginning of this century.(4) Green has pointed to some of the ways in which the major structures of criminal law during this era can be explained by the tension between the two views of criminal responsibility. This Notice aims to show that this tension must also be addressed when suggesting criminal justice reforms today.(5) Zimring has failed to listen to the lessons of history -- particularly the Progressive Era, when similar attempts to rationalize the criminal justice system failed.(6) Zimring must deal with the debates about criminal responsibility that caused this failure if he wishes his contemporary reforms to succeed.


    Zimring begins his book by highlighting the logical inconsistencies that can be caused by the debate between free will and determinism.(7) He notes the popularity of fears about a "coming storm" of "juvenile super-predators," hardened young criminals.(8) The fears are based on demographics -- assumptions that certain social conditions uniformly produce these kinds of offenders. If we really believe this, Zimring argues, why should our response to the coming storm be an increasing call for treating juveniles harshly, as if they had free will? "[A]rguing that the later course of criminal careers can be predicted long in advance seems inconsistent with doctrines of free will and moral accountability, which are important to the case for adult punishment and responsibility" (p. 11). To Zimring, whatever degrees of determination are reflected in statistics should be compatible with the degree of responsibility assigned to criminals at trial.

    Zimring's logical move assumes that the role social scientists play in society is identical to that of criminal courts. If deterministic insights are accepted within social science, they should also be accepted in the criminal justice system. But there is a difference. Society has strong reasons for wishing to maintain a criminal justice system whose primary philosophy is that of free will, a need that does not extend to social science. It is because of their special role as fora for social affirmation of personal responsibility that courts are required to reflect a belief in free will not necessarily borne out by the social scientific data.

    This need became apparent during the Progressive Era. Positivistic social scientists and jurists attempted to model all of criminal justice to reflect a deterministic vision.(9) Despite relatively widespread belief in the scientific truth of these thinkers' viewpoint, Progressive society found itself reluctant to incorporate those insights into the functioning of criminal courts. This positivist agenda was instead met by fear that bringing such a deterministic perspective into the court system would lead to a wide-scale loss of personal responsibility accompanied by an increase in criminality,(10) as well as a lessening of the psychic(11) and spiritual(12) health of individual citizens. It was not healthy for a society to focus on the excuses that everyone undoubtedly has for wrongdoing. If society did not retain a focus on free will, it was thought, citizens would not feel an obligation to escape the bounds of their own circumstances. Treating people who did not have real choice "as if" they did was good for them and good for everyone else.(13)

    This fear of encroaching determinism in the criminal justice system persists (in fact thrives) today. The popularity of books such as James Q. Wilson's Moral Judgment (subtitled, appropriately, Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System?) is testimony. Many believe that "a sense of personal responsibility ... has withered" in the presence of legal excuses that recognize the possibly determined nature of some adult criminal behavior.(14) Allow evidence of battered women's syndrome and temporary insanity, and what you end up with is the "Twinkie defense."(15) No one could put the response to the Progressive positivists in better modern language than Wilson:

    We are all exposed to temptations, we all on occasion lack self-control; some of us face acute temptations or are remarkably deficient in self-control. It is the task of the law to raise, not lower, the ante in these circumstances.... [I]t is the task of the law not only to remind us of what is wrong ... but also to remind us that we must work hard to conform to the law.(16) Fears of what might happen if the law abandons its commitment to free will in the criminal justice system, remain compelling in the modern context.

    Thus, the justice system must, in some way, preserve the free will-based viewpoint that allows certain offenders to be labeled "juvenile super-predators." While the criminal justice system is there to fulfill the social function of affirming free will, Zimring and other social scientists are free to probe the truth of determinism. When social scientists are carrying out empirical work on potential criminality, their findings are intellectual, largely reserved for specialists in the field. The social need to affirm free will through such findings is not particularly strong. It is primarily the court that speaks to the public.(17)

    The phenomenon is not limited to scientific predictions about juvenile criminality. Lots of research is done every year predicting...

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