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They Broke the Law-You Be the JudgeReview - They Broke the Law-You Be the Judge
True Cases of Teen Crime
by Thomas A. Jacobs
Free Spirit Publishing, 2003
Review by Diane J. Klein, J.D., Harrison Mahaffey, and Siobhan Mahaffey
Nov 2nd 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 45)

Thomas Jacobs, a former juvenile court judge, takes an interactive approach to teenage crime and the juvenile justice system in They Broke The Law – You Be The Judge.  The book uses 21 brief true accounts of juvenile offenders who appeared before him, together with details of their backgrounds and crimes, to provide an opportunity for the reader to craft an appropriate sentence and compare it with the actual sentence Jacobs imposed.  This basic premise is effective; as my 12-year-old daughter put it, "I thought it was interesting to read about kids your own age that committed crimes, although most of the crimes in the book were not serious. It was also cool to compare what you thought a kid's punishment should be, as a kid, and then seeing what adults thought that the same kid's punishment should be."

The book's "program" – reading about the offender and the offense, a list of options available to the judge, direction to select a sentence, and then comparison with the actual sentence – works better for some than others.  My daughter stated, "Some of the time I thought that the punishment should be less harsh; occasionally I thought the punishment should be harsher, but I very rarely agreed with the punishment given in the book. In the "Your Sentencing Options as a Judge" part of the book, I sometimes thought that the sentencing options given to a judge were not numerous or varied enough. It seems like each case is too specific to be generalized into a certain category of crime. Some crimes that were in the book seemed to be blown out of proportion, like the fact that one kid's comment to his friend landed him in jail for nine days and on probation for a year!"  For my 14-year-old son, however, "Another problem is that it is set up as a "you be the judge" scenario, and I found myself less interested by what I thought of the crime, and more interested by what the actual justice system thought of the crime.  In a way, I got too caught up with the story to be able to effectively perform the activities."

Although the book aims for a "hip" presentation (with blue print, chapter headings in a "graffiti"-style font, and lots of boxes and different typefaces), it is inescapably a book most suitable for use as a text in a middle or secondary school course.  Without being told so, my kids assumed that was its purpose.  My son, Harry, a high school sophomore, said, "Last year, I was in a class known as 'Health and Social Problems,' focusing basically on similar issues to those found in this book.  It may have been the most boring class of my year.  This book is perfectly suited to that kind of setting.  For example, while studying marijuana, to have kids read the story of 'Ashley.'  It would serve a double purpose: a cautionary tale, and an interesting discussion the next day about what you thought the ruling should have been versus what it was." 

The book succeeds at making the material accessible to teens without sacrificing careful legal accuracy (for example, about the definitions of particular offenses and the options available to judges).  Perhaps his years in juvenile court explain Jacobs' skill at explaining complex aspects of the justice system, such as differing state rules about when a minor can be tried as an adult, in clear, easy-to-understand language.  The book also includes a helpful glossary, a big plus to my daughter: "I liked that at the beginning of the book there is a glossary of legal terms such as Alateen and GED, so that when I was reading the book I didn't have to look up words in a dictionary or online."

It is a strength of the book that Jacobs has not only selected his "success stories."  In a significant number of cases, the sentence he handed down didn't prevent the offender from showing up again in his court later, or arrested and in the adult penal system.  This effectively communicates, even to the young reader, the difficulty and uncertainty inherent in criminal sentencing.  The questions at the end of each chapter also open out into much broader discussions – of the effects of illness and financial difficulty on family life, whether "scared straight" programs really work, why some people turn their lives around and others don't, and many more.  These questions help teenagers explore the connection between juvenile crime and a wide variety of other social and psychological issues. 

Perhaps the most important subjects Jacobs does not discuss are race, gender, and class in relation to the juvenile justice system.  Jacobs does not identify his offenders by race, or use ethnically distinctive names, which not only obscures the fact that two-thirds of the youth confined in the United States are members of minority groups, but also keeps readers from thinking about how race and class affect the likelihood that relatively minor bad behavior (cutting school, fighting with a sibling, stealing a home pregnancy test kit from the grocery store) will lead to police intervention.  Similarly, Jacobs selected eleven girls and ten boys for inclusion in his book, which may help hold the interest of kids of both sexes, but is misleading given that girls make up only about a quarter of all juvenile arrests.

Still, as my daughter Siobhan concluded, "All in all, I personally thought that the book was both interesting and informative, although it seemed a little bit more like a class assigned reading book, or a textbook, than light reading that I would choose to do on my own. I would recommend this for a class, if after reading each case of it, the class was open for debate and people could talk about it.  It would not be fun if you had to write things down about it."

 

© 2004 Diane J. Kein

 Diane J. Klein, J.D. (UCLA School of Law), Ph.D. candidate (philosophy) (U.C. Berkeley), is Associate Professor of Law at Albany Law School, Union University, Albany, New York.  Her philosophical areas of interest include virtue ethics and moral theory; her areas of legal scholarship include professional responsibility, race and gender, and trusts and estates.


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