Book reviews

That the United States may soon have to ration health care resources, including mental health services, will almost certainly require its people and governments to take into account the needs of adult prisoners, civilly committed mental hospital patients, and a growing number of juvenile offenders committed to the care of the states. The questions of whether public resources are being used effectively in behalf of juvenile justice, and whether they can be used more efficiently, are of crucial importance at this time. Who Gets a Childhood? by historian William S. Bush illuminates the historic mistreatment and outrageous abuses of poor African American, Latino, and white youth in the training schools of twentieth-century Texas. Equally important, the book makes an argument in behalf of a constitutional “right to treatment” that would provide mental health rehabilitation services for juveniles committed to state custody. Bush thus makes a distinctive contribution to the history of racial discrimination and juvenile injustice in a multicultural southern state. Furthermore, his juvenile justice reform advocacy rekindles decades-old moral and political debates that implicate directly the currently strained budgets of numerous states and the federal government.

Writing in response to the 2007 sexual abuse scandal at the West Texas State School near the tiny town of Pyote, Bush tells the 120-year story of the Texas juvenile justice system that spawned this notoriously dysfunctional institution. Organized into seven chapters and an epilogue, Who Gets a Childhood? seeks to explain how Texas’s regime of juvenile justice reached its current position as one of the more controversial systems in the United States, while also advocating aggressive juvenile justice reform across the nation. Examining closely the experiences of African American, Mexican American, and Euro-American girls and boys in the Texas training schools, which racially segregated inmates into the 1960s, Bush unpacks the historic relationship between race, juvenile justice, and, importantly, competing understandings of childhood. In this account, the history of the Texas juvenile justice system, which began in 1889, is marked by a cyclical pattern of abuse and scandal–from humanitarian reforms in the 1910s, 1940s, and 1970s, to juvenile crime panics and “get-tough” “law and order” crackdowns in the 1950s and 1960s and from about 1985 to 2009. Public fears of “teenage terrorists” at the height of the Cold War and of “super-predators” in the Ronald Reagan era and early 1990s generated the growth of expensive and remote lockdown facilities, which failed to deter juvenile crime but unleashed unconscionable physical and psychological abuses on inmates. This was so notwithstanding the fact that, since the 1940s, experts had reached a consensus on the superior effectiveness of smaller, community-based, rehabilitative programs. Texas consistently failed to sustain its periodic reform efforts–a pattern Bush attributes most to a widespread willingness to view juvenile offenders as fully responsible adults. He also argues that the inadequacies of the Texas system have been a consequence of structural necessity; white racism; the ideological commitments of administrators; the resistance of juveniles placed in state custody; recalcitrant townspeople who staffed, ran, and protected the institutions; legislators who were generally hostile to expenditures for juvenile delinquents they deemed morally suspect’ and the transience and disorganization of child advocates, at least until the 1970s.


William S. Bush. Who Gets a Childhood? Race and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-Century Texas. Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South Series. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010. Illustrations. x + 257 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-2983-3; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-3719-7; $24.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-8203-3762-3.

Reviewed by Mark Carroll (University of Missouri)