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  • The Evolution of the Juvenile Court: Race, Politics, and the Criminalizing of Juvenile Justice by Barry C. Feld
  • Paul M. Renfro
The Evolution of the Juvenile Court: Race, Politics, and the Criminalizing of Juvenile Justice.
By Barry C. Feld.
New York: New York University Press, 2017. x + 397 pp. Cloth $35.

Historians of the United States have recently taken a “carceral turn” to better understand life in “prison America,” in Naomi Murakawa’s formulation. [End Page 145] Yet in keeping with a broader historiographical tendency to overlook children and youth—to which many readers of this journal will likely attest—scholars of carcerality and policing have generally neglected the child.

That may be beginning to change. New work by multidisciplinary scholar Erica Meiners and historians Elizabeth Hinton and Tera Eva Agyepong, plus forthcoming histories from Matthew Lassiter, Michael Stauch, and Scott De Orio, locate children and youth (and figurations thereof) firmly within the American carceral machinery.

Though legal scholar Barry Feld has been writing about juvenile justice for “more than four decades,” The Evolution of the Juvenile Court makes a clear, timely intervention into the literatures of childhood/youth and carcerality (289). Feld demonstrates how judges, prosecutors, legislators, and other actors—across the career of the juvenile court—have “selectively” deployed competing conceptions of youth as either “immature” or “responsible” in order “to maximize social control of young people” (2). But Feld pays particular attention to the “Get Tough” era of the mid- to late twentieth century—during which, he insists, the juvenile court largely forsook its “diversionary function” in favor of a “lock ’em up” ethos (153).

Feld traces the history of the American juvenile court across four periods. The institution took hold in the Progressive era; reform-minded “child-savers” envisioned “the juvenile court as a benign therapeutic agency” that would mitigate “the harms [of] processing children as criminals” (31). The court’s second phase, initiated by the US Supreme Court’s 1967 In re Gault decision, “transformed juvenile courts from welfare agencies into scaled-down criminal courts” (66). Next, the “Get Tough” period—from the 1970s into the 2000s—witnessed the easing of transfer protocols such that juveniles (especially youth of color) were more readily assigned to adult courts and, consequently, to adult correctional facilities (122). Finally, the “Kids Are Different” era, inaugurated by a series of Supreme Court rulings in the early twenty-first century, has marked a modest retreat from the “Get Tough” moment—even as the United States continues to cage young people at unconscionable rates. (South Dakota, for one, incarcerates nearly 500 juveniles per 100,000.)

While Feld provides a fine overview of the juvenile court, his periodization and historical analysis leave something to be desired. Most notably, to explain the rise of a “Get Tough” ethos in juvenile justice, Feld marshals top-down political developments—namely the historiographically hoary tropes of right-wing “backlash” and “racial political realignment” supposedly touched off by the “classical” black freedom struggle, but which actually has much deeper roots (90). “In the 1960s,” Feld claims, “conservative Republicans decried crime [End Page 146] in the streets and advocated law and order. In the 1970s, they supported a war on crime. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan launched a war on drugs. By the 1990s, they waged a war on youth” (99).

This interpretive framework papers over two complicating factors. First, local and state prosecutors and judges (not those at the federal level) make the overwhelming majority of charging and sentencing decisions in juvenile and adult courts alike. This is not to say that national politicking and federal policymaking have no effect on local or state policy, but reconfigurations of the electoral map can only explain so much. To be fair, Feld correctly identifies local and state prosecutors as the main engines of juvenile and adult mass incarceration. However, he ties punitive prosecutorial and legislative action to a national “[a]nti-state populism” which served “to strengthen states’ police powers”—even though antistatism seems incompatible with hyperpolicing and carceral expansion (107).

Second, pinning “Get Tough” policies almost exclusively on Republicans and “conservative Southerners” masks the troubling continuities between the country’s major political parties on racialized “law...


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