No matter how loud I shout: A year in the life of juvenile court. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. Edward Humes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, non-fiction, and true crime writer. Of his twelve books, five involve the criminal justice system. In this work, Humes takes on the sizeable task of examining the complicated juvenile justice system, chronicling the stories of several juvenile offenders and juvenile justice officials, and how they navigate the confusing and often arbitrary laws of the California juvenile justice system.
Humes delivers an informative, eye-opening, and often dispiriting account of what goes on in the halls of America’s juvenile courts and correctional facilities. Throughout the book, Humes introduces the reader to several youthful offenders as they pass through the juvenile justice system. These offenders come from a variety of backgrounds, and have committed a variety of crimes, but most of them were involved in violent felonies.
A dividing issue within the juvenile justice system is whether to transfer juvenile offenders to the adult criminal justice system. Humes clearly illustrates that making this distinction based on age- sixteen in California- is arbitrary and flawed. One boy shot the couple that employed him, and that he claimed to love, in the back of the head with a shotgun, point blank. The boy spent his time in court giggling, waving to his parents, lying on the stand, and showing no remorse.
However, because Ronald Duncan was nine days shy of sixteen when he committed this heinous crime, he cannot be transferred to adult court. As such, the maximum amount of time the system can keep him off the street is until he is twenty-five. That is a maximum sentence of only nine years for a premeditated double homicide. Geri Vance’s case stands in startling contrast. Coerced into a robbery, he and his partner attempted to steal cash at gunpoint from a front desk clerk at a motel. Another motel employee emerged with a gun and shot Geri’s crime partner.
Now Geri, who never even fired his gun, is being charged with murder. This legal loophole is based on the theory that if he had not participated in the robbery, his partner wouldn’t have been shot. Because Geri is over sixteen, his transfer to adult court is certain, where he will face a harsh prison sentence. These cases are just two of many sad and unfair stories featured in this work. Other than the juveniles themselves, the reader will also meet several juvenile court officials.
Humes introduces his audience to a frustrated and burnt out juvenile court prosecutor, an intimidating, reform-minded judge who shows his distaste for transferring youths to adult court by simply refusing to do it, even when it is required by law, and a patient juvenile probation officer who manages to find small successes within a job that can sometimes seem futile at best. The overall sense that the reader gets from this book is that growing caseloads, inadequate facilities, and arbitrary “get-tough” laws are rendering the juvenile justice system in California and elsewhere in America ultimately ineffective.
Redeemable kids are sent to adult prisons to “criminal college” to become more hardened and violent instead of being rehabilitated. Extremely violent kids are kept within the juvenile system to be released at twenty-five, based solely on whether they are over or under the age of sixteen. Abandoned or neglected kids are sent to languish within a broken foster care system, to be raised in group homes with deplorable conditions. The system that was set up to protect and rehabilitate the nation’s troubled children is failing them.
The reader will find that in the midst of the system’s failures, there are a few programs that work, and a few kids that do turn around, both because of the system and despite it. The work includes many references, including studies, essays, even poems written by the juvenile offenders from his writing classes. There is a notes section which makes referencing the included figures easy, as well as an index which is helpful for looking up facts that may need revisiting. The book flows well, despite the fact that Humes jumps from story to story.
This style has the effect of keeping the reader interested, instead of getting bogged down in one area or story. Humes offers a unique point of view from inside the system, working as a writing teacher for some of the offenders, observing court proceedings, and speaking directly with many of the juvenile court personnel. The included writings from the offenders also offer a unique perspective into what they think of their crimes, the system, and their futures within it.
This book will be of interest to anyone who works within or studies the juvenile justice system. Anyone who works with teens who may be troubled, or even troubled teens themselves could benefit from reading about the system and its effects on the youths within it. Victims of juvenile offenders may also gain some insight by reading Humes’ book and learning about some of the causes of juvenile delinquency, how juveniles are treated by the system, and the fact that some of these kids can be rehabilitated, given proper time and attention.