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Juvenile Delinquency: New Perspectives from The Wire and All God’s Children
The HBO series The Wire and Fox Butterfield’s book All God’s Children are two helpful media sources that provide fictional and non-fictional examples of juvenile delinquency. When discussing the many theories that are used in explaining juvenile delinquency, it is useful to be able to look to both the series and the book for realistic examples of delinquent juveniles and their environments. Visual representation of delinquent environments as provided by The Wire, along with first-hand accounts of delinquent youths as provided by All God’s Children yields a better overall understanding of juvenile delinquency. The examples provided can then be taken and used as samples to which juvenile delinquency theories can be applied. The fact that both the book and series capture numerous perspectives helps to expose some of the issues that hinder the success of the juvenile system. The amount of detail provided by both the book and series allows students to look back on the juveniles exemplified and use them as cases to apply all they have learned on how to prevent and control juvenile delinquency.
Fox Butterfield’s book All God’s Children provides and in-depth look at the life and background of a notorious juvenile delinquent, Willie Bosket. While giving this comprehensive history of Willie and the Bosket family background, Butterfield achieves a secondary goal of giving the reader insight as to how a juvenile could become such a violent criminal. All God’s Children helps to bring the attention to the causes of juvenile delinquency. Given his background of journalism, Butterfield offers a well written and captivating historical narrative, the book does not read like a text book in any sense. His tendency to go off on minor tangents kept the book from becoming boring; the moment I would start to lose interest he would give the background of a teacher Willie had at Wiltwyck or tell a story about something that happened to Willie’s father or grandfather. Butterfield’s style of writing allows for an easy and incredibly informative read. The amount of history and detail provided, especially in the first few chapters, is almost overwhelming at points. However, it is this detail that allowed me to feel like I knew the Bosket family personally by the end of the book. Overall, I enjoyed All God’s Children; the story was incredibly interesting to me, the style of writing made it enjoyable to read and the insight it provided made reading it worthwhile. All of this makes the book a significant help when learning about juvenile delinquency.
The HBO series The Wire also proved to be a unique tool in learning the causes and lifestyles of delinquent juveniles. The show did an excellent job on capturing different perspectives of disadvantaged juveniles. It took many of the theories that were learned in class and materialized an on screen example of what an environment that supports delinquency would look like. For example, when learning strain theory, it was hard for me personally to imagine the type of environment or situation that would push someone towards delinquency. It was eye opening to see a character like Michael who had an abusive past, a mother with a drug addiction, and the burden of raising his little brother his placed on him. Seeing a juvenile in such a situation makes it much easier to grasp how someone like Michael could be driven to crime. The show was also well rounded, I liked that it showed not only juvenile daily activities, but it also looked into the schools, local police force and the political landscape of the city. Seeing all of these things yields a better picture of how communities become disorganized and how through a lack of trust and negative sentiments towards authority, social bonds break down leading juveniles to lives of crime. The show was entertaining, but because it was fiction, it did not have same lasting impression as in All God’s Children. Despite its lesser impact, the show was still informative and helpful; having a visual reference that follows the material allowed me to watch for causes of delinquency and understand which delinquency theory was at hand.
After reading the book and watching the show, I recognized a number of distinct points that bettered my understanding of juvenile delinquency. The most significant point came from The Wire in regards to the effectiveness of school based programs; specifically when Namond started to show progress in the school program. In learning about school based prevention programs, I was not thoroughly convinced of the efficiency of such programs, but the school program in The Wire helped to change my perception. Namond seemed like he was well on his way down the path of delinquency, especially once he had gotten his own package and got his own corner. It gave me a better understanding of the true nature of such a program and how if it is properly implemented it can yield positive results. I thought it was interesting how crucial of a roll the staff played in the program; it was clear that not just anyone could be put in charge of the program and have the same success. The program was also able to show the creation of a social bond and how having established such a bond impacted Namond, supporting Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory. It was interesting to see someone like Namond, who would most likely be considered to be too far gone, respond positively and come to accept more conventional goals and institutions. Such a strong bond was created that even once he was ready to be reintegrated with the regular class he wanted to stay in the program. The relationship and bond between Namond and Mr. Colvin clarified why Social Bond Theory is such a strongly supported theory.
The importance and impact of family was another point illustrated in both All God’s Children and The Wire. The scenes that stick out in my mind the most are when Namond’s mother is literally forcing him towards delinquency. In one instance, Mr. Colvin brings Namond back to his mother and she yells at Mr. Colvin for taking Namond in and at Namond for being afraid to go to baby booking. Another example is when Namond’s mother takes him to Bodie to get his own package. In All God’s Children when Willie is first brought to Wiltwyck, the social worker who conducted the initial interview noted that Willie’s mother had a lack of emotion. The social worker got the impression that Willie was unwanted and his mother did not see Willie as her own child, but rather just a spawn of Butch’s. The impact of family played a large role in both these character’s delinquent life styles and both the book and series provided a revealing view into the nature of such relationships. Namond’s mother was clearly a supporter of the code of the street and pushed that view onto Namond. This shows how easily a child can feel pressured into violence out of a sense of making their parents proud or out of fear of punishment if they don’t perform. In Willie’s situation, although there was no issue of parental encouragement of delinquency, Willie suffered from neglect and rejection from his mother. These are two elements that are crucial in preventing a drift towards delinquency and Willie serves as a prime example. I also noted how a major disturbance in one social factor caused such a ripple effect in Willie’s life; this shows that delinquency is not always a result of a combination of issues. It highlights the importance of each factor and how each factor should be addressed individually, rather addressing all factors as a group.
Although Willie is an extreme example, I thought that his journey through the juvenile justice system was informative of the problems faced by the system in the 1970’s, many of which are still present in today’s system. Willie was bounced around the system from Bellevue to Wiltwyck, back to Bellevue, then to Brookwood, and a number of other institutions. Of the many institutions Willie was exposed to, he showed the most success when he had staff who valued the rehabilitative approach. The fact that someone as violent as Willie was showing such promise in a rehabilitation setting speaks volumes to the effectiveness of a rehabilitative based juvenile justice system. I gained a better grasp on not only the control of juvenile delinquency, but the prevention as well. There was a teacher at Wiltwyck, Mrs. Niles, who Willie became very close to. As a result of this, Willie decided against running away and tried not to act out in her class because he did not want to disappoint her. This relationship led me to the conclusion that the rehabilitation method naturally creates bonds. It is clear there is a strong link between the two that proves to be effective, even on a violent juvenile like Willie.
Namond stands out as one of the more developed and delinquent characters. Due to the creator’s choice to provide plenty of exposition for Namond coupled with the fact that he is the most delinquent of the main characters allows me to best explain his involvement in delinquency. The theory that best explains Namond’s involvement in delinquency is Shaw and McKay’s Social Disorganization Theory. Namond is exposed to many of the factors that are listed by Social Disorganization Theory that are linked to delinquency. Namond comes from a poor community, he has a broken family and both he and his mother are unemployed. Social Disorganization links poverty stricken communities with higher delinquency. Thus, Namond is at a disadvantage simply due to the environment he has grown up in and continues to live in. He is exposed to crime and his involvement in crime is expected by his mother and father, giving him a high probability to engage in delinquent behavior. Namond’s family structure and absence of his father is another factor that is acknowledged by Social Disorganization as a cause of delinquency. Namond still looks up to his father despite his criminal record and his mother also encourages criminal activity. He is faced with pressure from both parents and is encouraged to fill the spot of his father in his family. His mother’s unemployment provides no example of work ethic or positive influence either. Namond is young and doesn’t necessarily need to work, but he does not have something to occupy his time and his family has no source of income. This pushes him to the streets to sell drugs. He has no example of honest work so he does what others do in the community and engages in crime to make money. Social Disorganization also poses the idea of cultural transmission, which can be applied to Namond. This is the idea that criminal values are passed down from one generation to the next. When Namond visits his father in prison, his father often gives him advice and talks to him about being on the streets. These values are then buttressed by his mother’s encouragement for him to get into the game. These are all factors that are supported by Social Disorganization Theory and that can be applied to Namond with relative ease leading me to believe Social Disorganization is the best theory to explain Namond’s delinquency.
Given Willie has fallen victim to many of the same delinquency causing factors as Namond, his behavior is also best explained by Social Disorganization Theory. Willie’s family structure has been shattered much like Namond’s. His father was in jail since before his birth and his sister Cheryl had been involved in delinquency and had been put into the system shortly before Willie’s first family court appearance. Willie was also raised in a less than ideal environment; he lived in poor housing conditions in a community that was crippled by poverty. Crime became normal and his neighbor was the local heroin dealer, Miss. Emma, who he would sit on the front steps with to learn about the business. It was a hostile environment where Willie learned that in order to survive and be respected, he had to become violent. Much like his father, Willie often played hooky and only started to attend more often when his mother had gained employment at the school. Although he never dropped out of school, he was expelled in second grade after nearly hitting a pregnant teacher with a typewriter he had thrown out the window. The social factors of poverty, poor housing conditions, broken family structure and expulsion from school are all social factors advocated by Social Disorganization and factors that Willie suffered from significantly.
Although the past decade has given way to declining delinquency rates, there are still some elements of the juvenile justice system that stand out to me as problematic. The first and more significant aspect is the treatment that juveniles receive upon entry into the system. There is a tremendous amount of room for improvement in this area of the system. Treatment has become a one size fits all style system where, in some cases, profits have become the first priority. Fox Butterfield sheds some light on this topic in the article he wrote describing the juvenile prison in Tallulah, Louisiana. Physical and mental abuse, insufficient meals, poor living conditions, overcrowding and no certified staff to aid the inmates was considered the norm in this Louisiana prison. Butterfield acknowledges that this particular prison was deemed the worst in the nation by legal experts; even with that said, the fact that this prison was ever allowed to reach such a point exposes a fault in the system. The lack of oversight and the rationale of making the juvenile someone else problem are two components that plague the juvenile system. Most of these conditions are results of the get tough on crime era; the call for more arrest and harsher punishments pushed the system to take in more juveniles, which overwhelmed the system. After roughly three decades of this era, it seems as though the focus on incapacitation and getting tough on crime may be losing support. Despite the fact of a lack of public support, the juvenile justice systems and policy makers are still behind the curve.
The revision of state laws to allow for juveniles to be transferred to adult criminal court is also a cause for concern. Richard Redding (2003) writes about this in his article, “The Effects of Adjudicating and Sentencing Juveniles as Adults”. The federal government and numerous state legislatures have decided to make it easier to try juveniles as adults; the lack of conclusive evidence there is in support of this approach is staggering. There is no current research to show that transfer laws have any effect on juvenile deterrence from engaging in delinquency, at best the studies have deemed the results as inconclusive. In fact, a great deal of the most recent research indicates that transferring juveniles resulted in higher recidivism rates compared to those juveniles who remain in the juvenile system. I maintain that the treatment is the most important issue to address, but the policies that deal with juveniles is a close second and equally, if not more, staggering. The objective of law makers is to deter and reduce delinquency yet they are pushing laws that produce the exact opposite of what they are trying to achieve.
The prevention of delinquency in the juvenile system is another aspect that should raise some concern. There are a number of programs currently in use, however the acceptance and implementation of such programs is much lower than it should be. Although The Wire is a fictional series, the cancellation of the school program that Namond was involved in depicts a very real problem that happens all too often in schools and institutions nationwide. Prevention through school programs is a gray area given it is mixed with an education system that is plagued with its own set of problems. Setting that aside, it was interesting to see that while those in charge of the program saw the strides they were making, those in higher positions felt the program was failing. This seems to stem from the differing goals and ideas of what success looks like between those involved in the education and juvenile justice systems. Although it is not a direct aspect of the juvenile justice system, if the gap between the two systems was addressed, prevention of delinquency would become more effective.
Although Willie and Namond’s temperaments and outlooks on life differ significantly, they both suffer from many of the same factors that lead to delinquency. As a result of this difference, they would each require different, more personalized forms of rehabilitation. Willie fully expected to live his life behind bars ever since a young age. He would tell people how his father was a killer and how he was going to grow up to be just like him. The code of the street became his set of values before he reached the first grade, in order to survive and be respected he knew he had to be violent. Despite his rage and propensity for violence, Willie showed the most progress while at the Wiltwyck School. He responded best to staff members that showed compassion towards him, but were not afraid to be stern with him. Willie became close with two staff members at Wiltwyck, Artis and Mrs. Niles. As a result of the rejection he faced from his mother, Willie tended to gravitate to those who embraced him and gave him the attention he needed saw the most success with him. On the other end of this spectrum, Willie rarely responded well to any kind of formal schooling and placing him in a secure correctional facility had no effect on him. Being behind bars is not only what he expects but what he wants; he feels being in a prison is the final step to successfully emulating his father. For all of these reasons, I would start by putting Willie into a secure facility, given he did have a history of truancy and a tendency to walk out the front door if it was not lock, as he did after a night at the Youth Development Center in Harlem. This secure facility would have to also have an individual treatment program coupled with an element of education or vocational training; it is not enough to simply confine Willie, and confinement does nothing to better his character. My goal would be to recreate the environment of Wiltwyck as best I could, but with improvements in the areas Willie responded negatively too. He showed jealously and acted out when other kids became close with Mrs. Niles, thus the necessity for individual treatment. It is crucial to give Willie the attention he has been denied of for so long by giving him a teacher or mentor who is assigned to Willie in hopes of creating a strong bond. The education would be useful as well. Although he refused formal education, he responded well to classes like Mrs. Niles’. Willie’s high level of intelligence is not something that should be ignored. The length of treatment would have to be a minimum of 5 years with a possibility for an early release if Willie shows significant improvements. However, his time could also be extended if he acts out or if the review board of medical professionals and staff are not satisfied with his mental state. A rehabilitation program that can develop his intelligence and address the psychological abuse he has suffered has the best chance of successfully rehabilitating Willie.
Namond, unlike Willie, is not committed to a specific outlook or plan for what he wants to do in life. He became involved in delinquency more so by force from his mother and father than by his own choice. He is not very committed to the idea of becoming a career criminal, he brags and shows off in front of the other boys; however, when Carver picks him up he shows his true colors. He is clearly scared to spend a night in jail at baby booking and tries to make any deal he can to avoid an overnight in lockup. Namond also responded relatively well to the school program and became close with Mr. Colvin. During school he did act out on occasion but he was never violent. The use of violence is where Namond and Willie differ the most. In the most general sense, Namond is a good kid; he simply lacks guidance and direction. His father is in prison and his mother lets him do as he pleases, leaving him with no structure and little discipline in his life. In order to rehabilitate Namond, I feel a multiple step process would best serve his needs. I would first address Namond’s fear of being locked up, using a sort of scared straight method by placing him in a secure juvenile correctional facility. He would start his journey here for only a few months, just enough time to allow him to come to the realization he doesn’t want to go back. From there, I would transfer him to a juvenile boot camp. Boot camp will instill the structure and discipline that Namond lacks. I would suspect a 6th month period in the boot camp would prove sufficient but he would be able to spend up to a year there if need be. Placing him in a secure correctional facility and boot camp should adequately solve his problems of discipline and lack of structure, after his time spent in these programs I would allow him to return home but with three requirements. First, he would be required to attend school and maintain good attendance. Second, I would have him enrolled in a residential community treatment program, much like the program he was a part of in the school. He showed progress in that program and I would hope to continue that success with his enrollment in a similar program. Last, he would be placed on traditional probation. His probation officer would check up on him on a weekly basis, making sure he is attending both school and the community program regularly, while continuing to serve as a mentor, providing structure and discipline if need be. Namond would stay in the community program for a least one year, but he would have to remain on probation for 2 years, assuming he keeps out of trouble and maintains the terms of his probation.
Fox Butterfield’s All God’s Children and the HBO series The Wire each showed a character who turned to delinquency. They experienced similar factors that led to their delinquency, including unemployment, broken family structures, lack of schooling, and growing up in impoverished communities. Despite the similarity of the roots of their delinquency, Willie and Namond possessed different personalities which resulted in different responses to these influences. Willie became extremely violent and full of rage, leading him to commit numerous robberies and assaults and become a part of a juvenile system that could not help him. Nammond eventually gets his own corner and begins to sell drugs but is not committed to becoming a career criminal; he is attracted to the lifestyle but not willing to risk any trouble with the law. Fox Butterfield and the creators of The Wire told stories that gave perspective and insight into the lives of juvenile delinquents. I gained a better understanding of school-based treatment programs, the significance of family structures, and the problems that plague the juvenile justice system. These examples also served as cases to which I could apply outside knowledge of theories about the causes of juvenile delinquency. The many examples provided by both sources and their ability to serve as realistic cases for many juveniles today allows for a greater understanding and appreciation for the nature of the juvenile justice system.
1. Butterfield, Fox. All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2008.
2. Attias, Daniel. The Wire: Season 4. HBO Studios, 2007.