Juvenile Transfers as Ritual Sacrifice

Published date01 April 2005
Date01 April 2005
AuthorJordan J. Titus
Subject MatterArticles
10.1177/1541204004273313Youth Violence and Juvenile JusticeTitus / JUVENILE TRANSFERS AS RITUAL SACRIFICE
Legally Constructing the Child Scapegoat
Jordan J. Titus
University of Alaska Fairbanks
This article explores the dramaturgy of juvenile transfer provisions for the vestiges of
ancient practices of child sacrifice that they reveal. Relying on theories by Girard, the
social discord caused by young children who commit violent criminal acts is examined
as a sacrificial crisis. The rhetorical demonization of the child criminal is described as
their expurgation (as “Other”), the means by which their status is converted to scape-
goat for the innocents their surrogacy benefits. Rather than deterrence or retribution
functions, the legal response to children’s normative violations that involves transfer-
ring children to adult criminal court are presented here as an institutionalized and sym-
bolic form of sacrifice to resolve a cultural crisis and ensure societal cohesion.
Keywords: childhood; waiver; transfer; sacrifice
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the United States experienced an intense period of
public concern about violent youth crime. National media coverage of killings by youths in
school settings juxtaposed our conceptions of children as vulnerable and in need of loving
care with views of them as responsible and appropriate subjects of punishment and retribu-
tion. Debates focused on placing controls on juveniles’ movements and activities (such as
curfew ordinances), lowering the age of criminality, and the need for radical change in the
juvenile justice system toward more punitive responses to criminal acts by child offenders.
After two Arkansas boys, one aged 13, the other 11, were charged with killing four students
and their teacher in a schoolyard shooting, some people demanded that they be tried as
adults and be subject to the death penalty (Faltermayer, 1998). A conservative ideology of
deterrence and a general hostility regarding youth resulted in legislation such as zero toler-
ance policies in public schools (Levick, 2000), and the criminalization of the child
(Goldson, 2001).
A deep social anxiety is provoked when a child’s acts violate normative regularities to
such an extent that our incompatible frames for understanding childhood conformity and
aberrance collide. The discordant effect of children’s criminality is conceived here under
the rubric of what René Girard (1972/1977) calls a “sacrificial crisis,” or a crisis “affecting
Author’s Note: A visual essay on an earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Soci-
ety for the Study of Social Problems, San Francisco, CA, August 2004.
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, Vol. 3 No. 2, April 2005 116-132
DOI: 10.1177/1541204004273313
© 2005 Sage Publications
the cultural order” (p. 49). Efforts to restore such breaches in the social order and to “rein-
force the social fabric” (Girard, 1972/1977, p. 8) have resulted in changes in the legal con-
ception of childhood, particularly visible in states’ legislative automatic waiver (or transfer)
provisions that move an accused youth from the juvenile court setting to the adult criminal
court setting.1
Using the framework of Girard’s (1972/1977, 1982/1986) theories, juvenile transfers
will be explored here as modern ritual acts of sacrifice. Other researchers (Beschle, 1997,
2001; Turnbull, 1978) have proposed understandings of the death penalty to be found in its
ritual elements. Here, to uncover features of sacrificial spectacle in juvenile transfers, com-
parisons will be drawn between ancient sacrificial rites of child death and the dramaturgy
(Goffman, 1971) of contemporary automatic waivers.
Justice as distinct from religious acts of sacrifice is a modern idea. In ancient history,
criminals were a deliberate choice as sacrificial victims (Green, 2001, p. 140), effectively
blurring any distinction between mere offenders of the law and sacrificial victims. Roman
justice executed criminals as offerings to the gods whom they had offended (Davies, 1981,
p. 51). In Babylon, during Amazonian Sacaea festivals, condemned criminals were hanged
or impaled in crucifixion ceremonies as sacrificial surrogates for the king (Walker, 1983,
p. 877). In ancient Mexico, criminals were sacrificed by being placed between two large
balanced stones that crushed them to death when they fell together (Frazer, 1950, p. 431).
Mayans tortured and killed prisoners for their blood to offer as food for the gods
(Bergmann, 1992, p. 33). Historically, “sacrifice, vengeance and penal justice were not sep -
arate notions but different facets of the same process, needed alike to protect the state
against the wrath of the gods” (Davies, 1981, p. 52).
The comparison drawn here will reveal how the rhetorical demonization of youth
(Davis & Bourhill, 1997; Giroux, 1996; Goldson, 2001; Triplett, 2000) is one aspect of the
institutionalized scapegoating of an identifiable “Other”: child criminals. When the con-
ceptual boundaries of childhood “exclude as pathological or peculiar those children who
exceed the moral boundaries of what it is to be a child” (Jenks, 1996, p. 126; also see James
& Jenks, 1996), those who are excluded are thereby rendered sacrificable. Their scape-
goating will be shown to rely on and reinforce our cultural distinctions of innocent victims
against evil perpetrators.
As a first step, a brief review of the historical struggle to formulate the child’s nature
will illustrate how our conceptions have oscillated between polarized views of the childas a
channel of diabolical or, alternatively, divine influence. Then, in the context of the social
structure and dominant interests of societies, these contrasting images and their correspond-
ing attitudes toward children are understood to have informed social policies and justice
practices for children. Next, a sketch of Girard’s (1972/1977, 1982/1986) theories of imita-
tive or mimetic violence will be relied on to explain the role that child sacrifice has played in
societies. When juvenile transfers are viewed through Girard’s (1972/1977, 1982/1986)
theories, the conflating of a juvenile’s criminal and sacrificial status will be evident.
Legal Constructions of Childhood
The Child’s Nature: Evil and Innocent
Although the history of children is replete with controversy (cf. Ariès, 1960/1962;
deMause, 1974; Hunt, 1970; Pollock, 1983; Shahar, 1990/1992), scholars agree that child-

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