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Peter Marina is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Behind the picturesque bluffs defining the Driftless Region and the genteel smiles of its inhabitants lies a social problem — La Crosse County has one of the highest juvenile arrest rates in the United States.

Recent reports show that the United States arrests 12.4 juveniles per 1,000 juveniles. The state of Wisconsin is much higher at 54.2 juveniles per 1,000. The juvenile arrest rate in La Crosse is 88.3 per 1,000 juveniles, much higher than the rest of the country. What is the reason for putting so many of our kids through the criminal justice system? Perhaps the tools of sociology can help us think about this question.

A sociological imagination allows us to distinguish between personal troubles and structural issues. If only a few kids were getting arrested, we would look at their biography and character. When the juvenile arrest rates reaches 8.83 percent, the problem lies beyond personal issues. It’s a structural problem, a malady that exists at an institutional level — especially our law enforcement and criminal justice system.

Sociologists like to reveal the hidden power structures behind taken-for-granted ways of thinking. Instead of asking why young people cause problems for adults, perhaps we should ask why some adults cause problems for young people, especially black youths.

Juveniles are arrested today for behaviors adults would not have been arrested for in the past. Reports from school personnel say students get arrested, not for “real crimes” (drugs, burglary), but for “disorderly conduct” (arguing with teachers, flatulence, smoking). Social workers find that many disorderly students have mental health issues.

Why isn’t La Crosse more supportive of mental health approaches to juvenile delinquency? And if poverty and, much more likely, relative deprivation have something to do with transgression, perhaps we should attempt to address those structural inequalities.

Recently, a teacher called the police on a student who admitted to smoking a cigarette in the school. What kind of culture have we created where that makes sense? The student needs nicotine patches and hospital visits to witness the effects of smoking, not punitive and absurd formal sanctions. Studies show that about 60 percent of adult offenders had juvenile contact with the criminal justice system. Rather than deter criminal behavior, contact with the system is more likely to generate further “criminal” behavior.

Some might say getting tough on crime and outdated “broken windows” policing styles reduce juvenile crime, but just look at New York City. Under Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, punitive policies such as stop-and-frisk were celebrated for reducing crime. However, at the same time, crime rates dropped countrywide, including places with liberal policing policies. Tough policing was not what reduced crime.

Perhaps we have become too gung-ho about arresting kids, justifying that we must put them through the system to help them. Perhaps it’s easier to have the system do the tough parenting for us. Maybe it’s easier to turn “everything” over to “the authorities.” Perhaps we feel better about casting blame on young people rather than criticizing our sacred criminal justice system.

Arresting kids and putting them through the system does not make young people better, they overcome their challenges despite our tendency to put them through the degradation ceremony and public humiliation of our social control institutions. The real problem is that many kids do not overcome the stigma of arrest and labeling. Rather, they become the most severe repeat offenders. Once initially involved in the criminal justice system, the more likely one is to remain involved.

The high juvenile arrest rates suggest that something is wrong in our otherwise healthy community. We cannot keep blaming young people and the pathologies we create to label them. We must look at why we are so quick to arrest rather than address their concerns and hear their voices. Perhaps just getting them arrested and putting them through the system is the lazy thing to do, or worse, cowardly. We are better than that.

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Peter Marina is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.


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(25) comments


Your personal, uneducated opinions on the matter are of little concern, especially when they do not relate directly to the problems presented by the author. The numbers speak for themselves:


A couple of things come to mind. In my opinion, teachers are under extreme scrutiny for any punishment that might be deemed too harsh or sexist or it's just safer for them to turn the problems over to the Guidance Counselor and/or police. Secondly, I don't think teachers have the time or even the skills to deal with all the social problems of youth today. They are expected to be all things to all students......parents, health care workers, social workers, big brothers and sisters, the list goes on....oh, and they are actually expected to teach, the latter of which is becoming lost amid all the other responsibilities they have.


I agree and find this exceptionally interesting. It's absurd to know juveniles are getting arrested for such ridiculous "crimes." Do I think some deserve a trip to juvy? Yes, some need to be taught a lesson, but for much serious crimes. I mean calling the police on a kid for smoking? What is that? Kids will be kids, sometimes they do things because it is what all of their friends are doing: social pressures. And when they get in trouble with the law, they are automatically labeled as deviant or criminals. It's hard to shake that off. So, they begin to live by what society now sees them. Kids learn things every day, grow every day, and change every day. Their life shouldn't be limited because of that one cigarette they happened to light that one day after school just to try it. And even if that wasn't the case, they deserve that chance to get their life together. I mean, especially because their life is just only beginning. Maybe focus on the kids committing more serious crimes.

Tyler Zaspel

He makes a great point. I feel as if our school systems have become more conservative. Not blaming the schools for doing this, but I blame the parents. I feel as if parents don't want their kids around negative behaviors so they are pressuring the teachers into getting the kid out of the class room, and the fastest way of doing so is by calling the police.

Condor Kid

Ever increasing numbers of single parent households and the resulting lack of supervision has to be a major contributor to our rising rates of youthful offenders. The free range method does not work for raising kids. It would be interesting to see the difference in crime rates of public school students versus private school students. I believe that private school students are much more likely to get a slap on the wrist in the same situations where public school students get formal charges from the cops on campus. This fits well into GOP long-term voter suppression efforts. Criminalize those low-life poor kids and they'll never be able to vote!


You started off great but ended terrible. It all comes down to parent's that teach values and work to make sure they do their best to educate kids on the consequences of the choices they make today and the impact on their future. Why does every article have to be political for so many here?


There is no statistical evidence proving that children raised in single parent households are more likely to engage in criminal behavior when compared to children who are raised in two-parent households. There is something more at play here, a larger, structural issue.


I have a friend who was a county jailer before retirement. He told me once they had a guy in jail for taking a whiz in the alley behind the Pizza Villa at 1am. He got 60 days. Are we nuts? Two months in jail for that? Give the guy a mop and bucket and make him scrub the alley. Than, forget about it. Police called for a cig in school? Take care of it yourself. This attitude is as crazy as putting DCFS on a family for letting their kids walk home alone from a park a few blks away. There are real criminals out their and we waste our time doing this petty krappe? Get a life and take care of it yourself.

Also, the question to be asked Mach is why you found what you did fun, not that it was fun as the excuse.


Not looking for an excuse: as a juvenile criminal, I was literally evil. There is no excuse for that nor is there any form of atonement that matters. I bring it up here to refute the writer's tacit implication that this stuff falls under the C. Wright Mills umbrella alone.

"Charles Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination and why we fail to match it today"


You still are evil. I suggest you go to church.


This is a very good editorial. Western Wisconsin's fixation on hating crime and drugs and the use of outdated Judeo-Christian punishment may be producing more criminals than preventing them.

We cannot arrest our way out of change. We cannot keep the world at bay by arresting everyone.


Jobaby: "Western Wisconsin's fixation on hating crime and drugs "

You sound so innocent and inexperienced here. Just for the fun of it, to cure yourself of this silly babe-in-the-woods thinking, take a walk on Chicago's south side sometime. Dress as though you had a lot of money. Bet that if you survive, you'll hate crime and drugs too!

C'mon! Whaddya waitin' for? Take a walk on the wild side!

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Cat Stevens "Wild World"

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Mach, we aren't talking about the Southside of Chicago. Stay on topic, which is La Crosse. Think of it in another way. If we didn't concern ourselves with this petty garbage and clog the system up with it we could spend some quality time dealing with the real problems of bad guys. In my opinion busting weed merchants is the path of least resistance while dealing with heroin and meth dealers takes more time and resources. So is done less.


You're just a bit out of date: La Crosse = Little Chicago.

You're too focused on weed in your answer, but do note that La Crosse is way beyond that right now. Heroin and meth gangs operate in our midst: most city residents know where the drug houses are...we see them operate in broad daylight. It can take years for the cops and DAs to bring a case: as they take one drug gang down, two more pop up to take their place.

Didn't you say you lived in Holmen? I live in La Crosse. It's no longer the nicey-nice place that Holmen is today...for the moment. You're away and, therefore, out of touch.


So Mach we are now getting into "mine is bigger than you yours"? I live near Holmen, not on the moon. I am well aware of what is going on in La Crosse. I also grew up on the Northside. It isn't all that much different than it was. Those areas you claim are tough were than too. My point about weed was that given the choice of doing the weed arrests or working on the harder heroin ones the PD will choose the weed as it is easier. Maybe the PD would act quicker if they didn't have all that minutia to deal with. And we are still talking about La Crosse, not Chicago. No matter how much you want to dream.


While I disagree with some of this social-engineer's ideas (smokers need re-education by government stooges, or that our arrest rate is somehow racial) I agree we need much less police interaction with our children.


If one of these "children" broke into your home late at night, you'd be dialing 911 for more police interaction, not less!

Burglar caught in act by armed homeowner


Not really. I would call 911 AFTER I took care of the situation just because you can't just drag bodies out by your trash cans without raising some eyebrows.


Thank you for your article. I filed a complaint with the ACLU regarding the La Crosse School Districts' actions regarding my son. This is a very real problem in our community.


Perhaps you'd get better results if you taught your son the meaning of the phrase "personal responsibility."

I don't know the details of your case, but i strongly suspect 'enabler mentality' here!


I was one of those juveniles causing all the crime way back when. Here in La Crosse. Got away with hundreds of felonies, most of them quite serious. Yes, as the professor points out, there were legitimate sociological issues and all that, but it was a show of force from the cops that contributed to the end of my crime spree (I was never actually arrested or caught). It's very naive to think that weak policing will result in fewer problems without a real effort to address the root causes of crime.

There's a sinister side of crime that this letter does not address: I actually wanted to do evil things, I enjoyed it, I looked forward to it. There's a dark seedy side to criminals that sociologists, psychiatrists and judges don't want to see: evil is fun, nasty is attractive, sadism exists within all of us. I didn't do crime because I was sociologically deprived, I did it because it was fun. Evil is fun for the criminal. Criminals like what they do, reform is not on their minds.


It's not news to us that you are a depraved person envious of police power.


Us? You're trying to look new here but, most likely, you're a regular under a new name.

Sockpuppetry: the very depths of depravity!

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Lana Del Bae

It's great that your crime spree was effectively put to an end by the police, but it seems that the focus of this article was to call attention to the outstanding amount of juveniles being punished. With a juvenile arrest rate that high, something must not be working quite right. [Pushes Structural Functionalist glasses up] As Marina mentioned, those who face incarceration for petty crimes tend to re-offend. Thus, weak policing and intense policing can potentially both be detrimental, wouldn't you say?

I'm curious what you believe the current "root causes" of the crime to be, seeing as the rates of punishment for juveniles continue to grow though even though police have been putting their foot down.

Also, is it fair to speak for all criminals when you say that evil is fun for the criminal?


Thoughtful post...and one that would take a book to give you a proper answer. My take on this is along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock: there's an evil streak ingrained in all of us that can't be explained by sociological factors alone. Recall the young Khmer Rouge youth with grins on their faces as they herded their elders off to death camps. These youth were having fun. Check out Hitchcock's "Rear Window" or "Strangers on a Train" to get the gist of this.

"The common argument that crime is caused by poverty is a kind of slander on the poor." - H. L. Mencken

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