Monographic Reviews: Bernstein’s (2014) Burning Down the House

Written for Washington State University’ SOC-362 (Juvenile Delinquency) as facilitated by Dr. Joseph Kremer.


Bernstein’s (2014) compelling monograph, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison is as a clarion call to change contextualized by a damning assessment of the collective juvenile justice in the United States. Opening with a punch to the high morality of a status quo, Bernstein immediately conveys injustices of first line interventions and default responses of youth incarceration (p. 12). Treated like animals (p. 34), delinquent youth are regularly locked up for minor offenses (p. 9), stripped of social connections (p. 170), subjected to abuse by staff or each other (p. 110), used for economic gains (i.e., jobs; p. 313), isolated (p. 346), and experience widespread violence, theft, and assault (p. 30). No exit from Bernstein’s assault is allowed, laying bare the system’s roots in historical accounts of child savers as a work of fiction based in good intentions and “less-than-charitable motives” (pp. 38-44). Bernstein fortifies her position, providing case studies, report findings, interviews, and statistics to rally readers to a cause—“raise the buildings, free the children, and begin anew” (p. 17).

Throughout the monograph’s narrative of horrors, atrocities, and gut-wrenching damage to youth lives, insights are gleaned from youth, staff, leadership, and government investigations. These insights continue as themes supported by science reveals that there are, and more gut wrenching, had been solutions. Bernstein’s frustration with “the status quo” projects anguish upon the reader, where a reader may identify and in turn reach similar conclusions—burn it down. Solutions are found in basic human dignities ethical and are met with scientifically based psychologically informed practices. Bernstein arrives at a two-pronged approach to juvenile justice anew: (a) rehabilitation within contexts of relations, and (b) youth driven choices of goals and fairness in attainment of those goals (p. 259). Bernstein realizes and invites readers to realize that “what children need is us” (p. 260).

Bernstein’s monographic appeal aligns well to a scientifically reliable and valid elaboration likelihood model of social persuasion as it addresses readers interested in not only information, but also peripheral processes of emotional appeals (see Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). In this respect, due to the audience that would select such work to read, or those captive to it (e.g., students in courses on juvenile delinquency), Bernstein’s work is effective in making its case, however Bernstein’s potentially insulting tone may not be welcome by some. That said, public relations campaigns targets thought leaders, not followers—the writing delivers. 

Bernstein’s work is useful in allowing those with knowledge of and practice in criminology and sociology to apply theoretical constructs of delinquency in cause and control. In this regard, Bernstein’s work is a compelling and effective read for students of criminology, youth studies, sociology, and psychology. The remainder of this review shall address connectivity to prevailing theories of juvenile delinquency (e.g., strain theory, social learning theory, control theory, labeling theory, life course), and generalized models of delinquency (Agnew & Brezina, 2018, pp. 343-347). Post review of connectivity, a brief assessment shall be offered regarding fit for students studying juvenile delinquency in preparation for futures in basic or applied sciences, and/or futures working with individuals displaying delinquent behaviors.

Coverage of Theories of Delinquency

Labeling Theory

First, labeling theory primarily focuses on social constructions of deviancy (Becker, 1963), where post-modern criminologists focus on reactions to delinquency (Agnew & Brezina, 2018, pp. 167-183). The mere reality of defining behavior as delinquent is socially constructed and evidenced in child savers movements motivated against Irish parents viewed as “corrupt and ineffectual” (Bernstein, 2014, p. 48), toward later “super-predator” characterizations of the youth in the 1980s (p. 15), and is implied in racial disparities in arrest data (p. 59). One representation of labeling theory is where staff at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, California states that prior to reforms, the “things” staff focused on were offenses, and the breakage of denial (p. 224). Viewing people as bad, evil, and dangerous following with harsh/rejecting reactions is key to labeling theory (Agnew & Brezina, 2018, pp. 169-171). When the only people a juvenile comes into contact with on a frequent basis are solely focused on offenses delivering of the juvenile into their “care”, serving a total institution built to “break” denial of the offenses, the system itself serves as an extreme systematic application of labeling theory. The system willingly labels, and breaks people toward internalizing said labels. This labeling leads to reduced stakes in conformity (isolation virtually guarantees this), weakening of belief, tremendous increase in strain, and enforced exposure to others labeled in turn (see Agnew & Brezina, 2018).

Strain Theory

Second, the total institution of juvenile prison exemplifies Merton’s (1938) strain theory, on top of post-modern interpretations focused on failure to achieve one’s own goals of money, status/respect, thrills/excitement along with experiencing tremendous loss of positive stimuli while simultaneously presented with “noxious” stimuli (Agnew & Brezina, 2018, pp. 116-123). For example, consider Eliza, who as a status offender rather than violent offender was placed back into “the system” after continual negative experiences and abuse by elders (Bernstein, 2014, pp. 55-57). Of Eliza’s case, Bernstein exudes Eliza’s strain, tasting “the rage that is generated when helplessness meets irresponsible power” (p. 57). Furthermore, youth are stripped of agency and adapt by abusing weaker neighbors in search for any sense of agency (p. 89)—textbook strain adaptation. 

To put loss of positive stimuli and presentation of negative stimuli in perspective, it is helpful to recollect a typology of negative treatments presented by Agnew & Brezina (2018) consisting of parental rejection, parental supervision and discipline that is “very strict, erratic, excessive given the infraction, and/or harsh (use of humiliation, insults, threats, screaming, and/or physical punishments)”, child abuse and neglect, negative school experiences, abusive peer relations, criminal victimization, homelessness, and experience of prejudice and discrimination (p. 121). Taking “parental” as an interchangeable indicator of those charged with care and re-formation of youth during key stages of youth development, interchanging “parental” with “staff” and “school” for “institution” maximizes strain theory’s presentation of negative stimuli.

Social Learning Theory & Control Theory

Social learning theory’s construct that who one is in direct contact with helps shape behavior (Agnew & Brezina, 2018, pp. 132-133) is saliently made succinct by Will who spent a half decade in California youth facilities saying, “hurt people hurt people” (p. 158). This insight evidences internalization and models discrimination, isolating non-hurt people from hurt people. The attitudes of total institution (i.e., “the system”) built to internalize “hurt” is evidenced continually—”the system” itself models behavior to hurt. Social learning theory centers on learning of delinquent behaviors with peers expressive of delinquent behaviors, and looms in Bernstein’s background, obscured by labeling theory and strain theory, which are much more vividly evidenced. This goes without mentioning control theory, which is grounded in the assumption that delinquent behavior is inherent and restrained by social functions (Agnew & Brezina, 2018, pp. 150-151). 

While one could reasonably infer aspects of control theory, it is merely idealized, in the hallways, corridors, cells, and offices of juvenile prisons. That said, Bernstein illustrates reforms representing aspects of control theory mostly by increasing stakes in conformity (i.e., rehabilitation in context of relations). Reforms suggested are psychologically evidenced therapies (e.g., multisystemic therapy, functional family therapy, and multidimensional foster care), but it is important to note that these are taking place in community-based programs outside of youth prisons (pp. 274-289).


Theories of delinquency inheriting from theories of deviance are demonstrated across Bernstein’s (2014) monograph, yet it is difficult to save room to communicate its exhaustive evidence detailing horrible conditions that could and should be conveyed, yet that is not what this paper is about. This paper addresses a monograph as a source of sociological data potentially coded by students against themes supporting juvenile delinquency course outcomes. To that end, numerous utterances may be coded, and while at times repetition, may leaving a reader frustrated for Bernstein to “get on with it”, the monograph is compelling and indispensable for learning outcomes. Be warned, students and instructors alike may be compelled to act—for-to-against.

One final comment. That is, the role of economic deprivation, residential instability, and family disruption which form community characteristics associated with higher rates of crime (Agnew & Brezina, 2018, pp. 217-231). This is evident in a great many of Bernstein’s youth subject to a prison industrial complex all the way back to child saver movements. That the Irish were impoverished in American cities in the tenements of NYC in the mid-1800s is noted (O’Sullivan, 2013). Perhaps the child saver movement could have been adverted, and the sequence of time altered, if we had only realized that love and like (to borrow from Michelle Obama [BBC, 2022]) requires resources, space, and time. But then again, sociological conflict perspectives enter here, and that is the subject of a different paper—prison is [profitable] poverty. 


Agnew, R., & Brezina, T. (2018). Juvenile delinquency: Causes and control (6th ed.). Oxford University Press.

BBC. (2022, November 18). Michelle Obama: ‘Fear is a powerful emotion’. BBC

Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. The Free Press.

Bernstein, N. (2014). Burning down the house: The end of juvenile prison. The New Press.

Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review, 3(5), 672-682.

O’Sullivan, N. (2013, March 23). Scary tales of New York: Life in the Irish slums. The Irish Times

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In R. E. Petty, & J. T. Cacioppo (Eds.), Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change (pp. 1-24). Springer-Verlag.