The second weekend of April in Chicago was a wild one. On Friday April 14th, hundreds of teenagers took over a public beach creating chaos. There were reports of illegal fireworks, a 14-year-old boy was shot, and the window of a police car was smashed. The following day, crowds of Chicago youth decided to heed social-media invitations to participate in a genre of mob madness known as “wilding.” Hundreds of young people, mostly teenagers, descended on the Loop district of central downtown. Ample video evidence documents incidents where innocent victims were beaten.
In an area limited to just one intersection, about 200 juveniles were fighting, vandalizing storefronts, and jumping on moving vehicles. Several pedestrians and motorists, including tourists, were attacked and escorted to safety by the police. Before pulling its crew out of the area, a local TV station reported that one man was beaten so badly he required hospital treatment after a group of youths smashed the windshield of the car in which he and his wife were sitting.
This particular episode of wilding received national attention, probably because of its central location and the shocking nature of some of the videos. Eventually, the Chicago’s mayor-elect, Brandon Johnson, issued a public statement: “In no way do I condone the destructive activity we saw in the Loop and lakefront this weekend. … However, it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.” In unprepared remarks, he went on to say that “demonizing children is wrong” and that “we need to keep them safe as well.” The mayor-elect characterized the Chicago teens’ predatory takeover of downtown as an example of “silly decisions” kids make.
Needless to say, Johnson’s response was disappointing to many people concerned with public safety in the heart of Chicago. “Good luck with this naïve approach to crime,” was the sarcastic response from the Liberal Patriot, a left-of-center newsletter: “Political leaders are supposed to establish order and public safety—not undermine it.” On Twitter, Rafael Mangual, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, took issue with the assumption that these brutal incidents of mob violence stem from lack of opportunities to engage in more constructive activities, calling it “one of the most frustrating—and, ultimately, destructive—responses a mayor can have to what just went on in Chicago.”
As frustrating as it may have been, Brandon Johnson’s response was entirely consistent with his political platform. Throughout the mayoral campaign, he had rejected his opponent’s tougher-on-crime agenda, favoring instead the raising of corporate taxes to fund social programs. The mayor-elect’s worldview is grounded in progressive activism. He quit his position as a middle-school teacher to work for the Chicago Public Teacher’s Union where he helped organize the strike of 2012. He is on record supporting defunding the police as “a real political goal.” In 2020, he defended widespread looting in downtown Chicago as an expression of “anguish” among those living under a “failed racist system.”
Federal government agrees
Given his politics, Brandon Johnson’s response to the endemic problem of urban violence was predictable. However, Johnson’s approach to juvenile justice administration is perfectly aligned with the position of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)—the federal agency tasked with improving the nation’s juvenile justice system.
Like Brandon Johnson, the OJJDP describes adolescent offenders as immature children prone to making silly decisions. “Treating children as children” is the number one priority of the OJJDP’s guiding philosophy. However, as the name of the agency implies, the OJJDP is asked to focus on juvenile offenders, i.e., youth under the age of 18 accused of criminal conduct. Most of these individuals are biologically mature teens old enough to drive, work in a job, and even procreate. The OJJDP decision to refer to these individuals as “children” comes across as a rhetorical effort to shield young offenders from criminal responsibility. In the words of Brandon Johnson, “we need to keep them safe.”
Citing “scientific research,” the OJJDP is keen to recognize that “most brains are not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-20s, and that younger youth are prone to impulsive, emotional, and risk-taking behaviors.” However, as the cognitive psychologist Stuart Ritchie explains, this uncontroversial observation is irrelevant to the administration of criminal justice. Merely noting that the adolescent brain is still developing fails to explain why most people in this “vulnerable” demographic refrain from attacking innocent bystanders with metal pipes or twerking on top of a moving bus.
The OJJDP believes that: “Youth contact with the justice system should be rare, fair, and beneficial.” I have nothing against fair or beneficial—assuming the benefits include public safety—but why “rare”? Shouldn’t the frequency of contact with the justice system depend on the behavior of the individual? Sure, it makes sense to aspire to a world in which juvenile offending is rare, but this statement is about contact with the system. In other words, it implies that minimizing accountability is inherently desirable. But if the punishments are fair and beneficial, shouldn’t we administer them as frequently as necessary?
To the extent the OJJDP experts bother to discuss punishment at all, their focus is on the hardships that various sentencing alternatives impose on criminal offenders. Regarding monetary sanctions, the OJJDP states that “youth under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system should be presumed indigent and unable to pay fines and fees.” They recommend against using monetary sanctions as a way to hold juvenile offenders accountable. Regarding incarceration, OJJDP maintains that “youth incarceration has several negative outcomes.” The agency recommends “closing underutilized juvenile correctional facilities” and—in line with Brandon Johnson’s approach—encourages local jurisdictions to invest in “programs and services.”
Conspicuously absent from these considerations is the impact of punishment—or lack thereof—on the victims of juvenile offending. What about the “collateral consequences” of tolerating epidemic levels of looting and shoplifting? It is hardly a coincidence that Walmart, CVS, Target, Whole Foods, and other major retail establishments have recently decided to close or curb their operations in the high-crime areas of Chicago. What about the negative health and economic consequences of being robbed, assaulted, and shot? It seems unacceptable for a federal agency to completely ignore serious victim outcomes in its effort to “improve juvenile justice systems.”
Soliciting input from criminals
In case you need additional evidence that the OJJDP cares more about juvenile offenders than their victims, consider their current effort to recruit ex-offenders to assist in the evaluation of grant applications seeking OJJDP funding. I am not joking: On April 17th, the OJJDP announced an invitation to “young people with lived juvenile justice experience to become peer reviewers.” This paid opportunity targets individuals between 18–25 years of age with a history of juvenile involvement, which may include arrest, detention, confinement, or probation.
The most obvious problem with this perplexing initiative is the misuse of the concept of “peer review.” A standard approach to evaluating the quality of scholarship, blind peer review includes the word “peer” for a reason. The idea is to rely on the impartial expertise of individuals whose scholarly qualifications match (or exceed) the qualifications of those behind the proposal. For example, as a criminology professor, I am not qualified to evaluate a grant application in theoretical physics—despite the fact that I have decades of lived experience with gravity. A relevant peer for that job is someone who, at the very minimum, has a PhD in physics or an adjacent discipline.
A typical grant application for an OJJDP-funded project is written by a team of academic scholars or applied-research scientists trained in criminology or some other social-science discipline. A large number of OJJDP grants are awarded to local nonprofits or government agencies, many of which employ professional grant writers. Submission of this kind should be evaluated on the basis of scientific rigor, expected impact, and originality, among other criteria. A record of juvenile offending—however impressive it may be—is not a sufficient qualification for serving as a peer reviewer in this context.
Leaving semantics aside, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking input from the clients of a system you wish to improve. The OJJDP initiative echoes a recent call by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) for “inclusive research.” According to the NIJ Director, Dr. Nancy La Vigne, inclusive research “is intentional about involving the people who are the experts on the topic.”
Understood. But if that’s the idea, shouldn’t we include perspectives from the full spectrum of constituents? For example, why is the OJJDP not reaching out to school teachers and social workers with “lived experience” managing behaviorally disordered youth? Why is the OJJDP uninterested in what the victims of juvenile offending have to say about these issues? Is it because, as the OJJDP vision statement declares, “youth contact with the justice system should be rare”—at any cost?
Victim impact statements have become an accepted practice in sentencing hearings across the US court system. The idea is to give victims and their loved ones an opportunity to influence the sentencing outcome. The OJJDP decision to invite juvenile offenders as “peer reviewers” for their grant applications flips this practice on its head. In this situation, the agency privileges the voice of the criminal in efforts to reform the juvenile justice system.
Let’s keep it local
The incoming mayor of Chicago was widely criticized for downplaying the harm caused by predatory juvenile offenders. He appears to be more concerned about shielding criminals from punishment than protecting innocent victims from vicious attacks. He described these adolescent offenders as “children” who have been denied opportunities to flourish. Similar to the Mayor-Elect Johnson, the OJJDP—the federal agency charged with improving the nation’s juvenile justice system—subscribes to a naïve view of juvenile offending. The OJJDP vision statement imagines “a nation where all children are free from crime and violence.”
Given what we know about of human nature, this vision is unrealistic to the point of being dystopian. If I were to imagine a world where siblings never fought over a toy, or where emotions never flared up to the point of some pushing or shoving, it would resemble a world of sedated sheep. Never mind that this vision ignores one crucial fact: there is a legitimate place for violence in a civilized society, such as when a police officer detains a domestic abuser, or when a courageous teacher tackles a mass shooter.
In its campaign to eradicate violence from the face of the Earth, the OJJDP has chosen to focus on limiting the scope of legitimate violence targeting predatory offenders. This approach is consistent with the utopian thinking characteristic of progressive activists and intellectuals. However, it is unlikely to do any good and very likely to backfire, just like the “defund the police” movement did. The best way to curb felonious street-level offending of the kind that transpired on the streets of Chicago is to increase police presence. Although this approach will increase “contact” with the criminal-justice system, the deterrent effect of smart policing is likely to reduce the need for more serious penalties, such as incarceration.
This common-sense perspective is resonating in many local jurisdictions, most notably in New York City under the leadership of Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer. Most of the decisions around crime control in the United States occur at the level of states, counties, and municipalities. Given the ideology that dominates the relevant federal agencies, we should all be very grateful for this reality.