Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison (Bernstein)

Bernstein does more than tip her hand by using the words ‘burning’ and ‘end’ in her title. Still, she works hard to frame the question properly. Can the juvenile justice system be reformed or is there something inherently wrong with it? Not surprisingly, she comes down on the side of it being fundamentally broken. But she builds her case slowly and thoroughly. (One reader I know put it down after 100 pages saying to herself, “I’ve got the point.” I understood the impulse.) The section on sexual abuse was especially difficult to force my way through. To her credit, Bernstein does investigate the possibilities for reform – Red Wing, Minnesota and The Missouri Model – are held up as signs of forward thinking. In the end, though, they are the exceptions that prove her rule. Rehabilitation, she argues, is based on relationships, and the juvenile justice system, by definition, has no interest in those.

In her final sections, Bernstein turns her fury on us, saying that “we can no longer indulge in the luxury of being scandalized” (305) and that even though the number of youths in the system is dropping, “[w]e should not bring out the champagne. . . for doing less of a terrible thing” (308). She even turns the word recidivism on its head by arguing (convincingly, I say, as a public school teacher) that there is so much invested in the status quo (financially, ideologically) that it is very difficult to reform. The resiliency that institutions show defy reform, for you cannot “build something effective on top of something rotten” (314).

At times, I longed for an opposing viewpoint – an interview with someone or research conducted saying that the system, in its current incarnation, is effective. Bernstein offers (and mocks) a few voices, but when it’s institutions like the Department of Justice saying that the system does not work, it’s hard to think otherwise.

Bernstein is not just a critic.  She offers support for a notion called “justice reinvestment,” first put forth by Eric Cadora and Susan Tucker at the Open Society Institute (http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/ideas-open-society-justice-reinvestment). But solutions are for another book. Bernstein just wants to burn down the house. Now.

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