Does detention system put the air quotes around ‘juvenile justice?’

On Behalf of | Jul 31, 2015 | Juvenile Crimes/Delinquency

In 1977, Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah. Those of us old enough to remember the case will recall that Gilmore had specifically requested his method of execution and that the request put Gilmore on the front pages of newspapers around the country. He had killed two men in separate robberies, his final acts as a career criminal. He used the term himself, by the way, according to his brother Mikal’s book, “Shot in the Heart.”

The book tackles the brothers’ family history, especially the forces that shaped Gary’s life, the events in his life that turned him into a career criminal. Gary was born in 1940, when American society and American jurisprudence were different from what we are used to now. One of the questions the book asks is whether those differences are actually improvements. If Gary Gilmore entered the system today, would his life turn out differently?

“Shot in the Heart” came to mind recently when Minnesota Public Radio aired a story about recent trends in juvenile detention. At one point in the book, Gary talks about reform school. He had been sent to reform school — an antiquated term for juvenile detention — at age 14 for auto theft. His time there, he said, did nothing toward rehabilitating him:

Look, reform schools disseminate certain esoteric knowledge. They sophisticate. A kid comes out of reform school and he’s learned a few things he would otherwise have missed. And he identifies … with the people who share that same esoteric knowledge, the criminal element or whatever you want to call it.

It’s a riff on the old “42nd Street” cliché: Instead of going out there a kid and coming back a star, Gary is saying that you enter reform school as a juvenile offender and come out a hardened criminal. Modern criminal justice theorists seem to agree, because states and counties are working to find ways to avoid putting kids away.

The MPR story asks almost the same question that “Shot in the Heart” asks: Are these efforts to steer young offenders away from incarceration an improvement over detention?

We’ll continue this in our next post.

Sources:, “Gary Gilmore,” accessed July 30, 2015

“Shot in the Heart,” Mikal Gilmore, 1994