Children of the State

Stories of Survival and Hope in the Juvenile Justice System

There has been very little written about juvenile detention and the path to justice. For many kids, a mistake made at age thirteen or fourteen—often resulting from external factors coupled with a biologically immature brain—can resonate through the rest of their lives, making high school difficult, college nearly impossible, and a middle-class life a mere fantasy. Here, in Children of the State, Jeff Hobbs challenges any preconceived perceptions about how the juvenile justice system works—and demonstrates in brilliant, piercing prose: No one so young should ever be considered irredeemable.

Writing with great heart and sensitivity, Hobbs presents three different true stories that show the day-to-day life and the challenges faced by those living and working in juvenile programs: educators, counselors, and—most importantly—children. While serving a year-long detention in Wilmington, Delaware—one of the violent crime capitols of America—a bright young man considers both the benefits and the immense costs of striving for college acceptance while imprisoned. A career juvenile hall English Language Arts teacher struggles to align the small moments of wonder in her work alongside its statistical futility, all while the San Francisco city government considers a new juvenile system without cinderblocks—and possibly without teachers. A territorial fistfight in Paterson, New Jersey is called a hate crime by the media and the boy held accountable seeks redemption and friendship in a demanding Life & Professional Skills class in lower Manhattan. Through these stories, Hobbs creates intimate portraits of these individuals as they struggle to make good decisions amidst the challenges of overcoming their pasts, and also asks: What should society do with young people who have made terrible mistakes?

Just as he did with The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs has crafted a gorgeous, captivating, and transcendent work of journalism with tremendous emotional power. Intimate and profound, relevant and revelatory, Children of the State masterfully blends personal stories with larger questions about race, class, prison reform, justice, and even about the concept of “fate.”

Praise & Reviews

“Many institutions that provide bridges to realization of The American Dream conflate the aspirant’s yearning to participate fully with a desire to leave everything behind. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace reveals the devastating consequences of this assumption. There are few road maps for students who carry our much-valued diversity, and few tools for those who remain ignorant of the diverse riches in their midst. Jeff Hobbs has made an important contribution to the literature for all of us. He shows what high quality journalism can aspire to in its own yearning for justice—the urgency of taking a full and accurate account of irreplaceable loss, so we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again.” ― Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

“Mesmeric… [Hobbs] asks the consummate American question: Is it possible to reinvent yourself, to sculpture your own destiny?… That one man can contain such contradictions makes for an astonishing,tragic story. In Hobbs’s hands, though, it becomes something more: an interrogation of our national creed of self-invention…. [The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace] deserves a turn in the nation’s pulpit from which it can beg us to see the third world America in our midst.” ― The New York Times Book Review

“A haunting work of nonfiction…. Mr. Hobbs writes in a forthright but not florid way about a heartbreaking story.” ― The New York Times

“I can hardly think of a book that feels more necessary, relevant, and urgent.” ― Grantland

“The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book that is as much about class as it is race. Peace traveled across America’s widening social divide, and Hobbs’ book is an honest, insightful and empathetic account of his sometimes painful, always strange journey.” ― The Los Angeles Times

“Devastating. It is a testament to Hobbs’s talents that Peace’s murder still shocks and stings even though we are clued into his fate from the outset….a first-rate book. [Hobbs] has a tremendous ability to empathize with all of his characters without romanticizing any of them.” ― Boston Globe

“It is hard to imagine a writer with no personal connection to Peace being able to generate as much emotional traction in this narrative as Hobbs does, to care as much about portraying fully the depth and intricacy of Peace’s life, his friends and the context of it all… it is an enormous writing feat.. fresh, compelling.” ― The Washington Post

“[An] intimate biography… Hobbs uses [Peace’s] journey as an opportunity to discuss race and class, but he doesn’t let such issues crowd out a sense of his friend’s individuality…By the end, the reader, like the author, desperately wishes that Peace could have had more time.” ― The New Yorker

“Heartbreaking.” ― O Magazine

“Captivating… a smart meditation on the false promise of social mobility.” ― Bloomsberg BusinessWeek

“Nuanced and shattering.” ― People magazine, “Best Books of Fall”

“The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a powerful book meant to haunt us with the question that plagued everyone who knew Peace. Hobbs has the courage not to counterfeit an answer leaving us with the haunting question: Why?” ― The New York Daily News

“The Short and Tragic Life [of Robert Peace] tackles some important topics: the swamp of poverty; the tantalizing hope of education; the question of whether anyone can truly invent a life or whether fate is, in fact, dictated by birth…[Its] account of worlds colliding will leave nagging questions for many readers which might be all to the good.” ― The Seattle Times

“A haunting American tragedy for our times.” ― Entertainment Weekly

“Can a man transcend the circumstances into which he’s born? Can he embody two wildly divergent souls? To what degree are all of us, more or less, slaves to our environments? Few lives put such questions into starker relief than that of one Robert DeShaun Peace… As Hobbs reveals in tremendously moving and painstaking detail, [Peace] may have never had a chance.” ― San Francisco Chronicle

“Mr. Hobbs chronicles Peace’s brief 30 years on earth with descriptive detail and penetrating prose…
He paints a picture of a young man who was complex, like most of us, and depicted both his faults and admirable qualities equally. It is up to the reader to decide if Peace was an Ivy League grad caught up in a life of crime or just a victim of circumstances… Mr. Hobbs’ empathetic narrative gives readers an opportunity to view his life beyond a stereotype.” ― Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“With novelistic detail and deep insight, Hobbs… registers the disadvantages his friend faced while avoiding hackneyed fatalism and sociology… reveals a man whose singular experience and charisma made him simultaneously an outsider and a leader in both New Hampshire and Newark… This is a classic tragedy of a man who, with the best intentions, chooses an ineluctable path to disaster.” ― Publishers Weekly, STARRED review

“Ambitious, moving…Hobbs combines memoir, sociological analysis and urban narrative elements, producing a perceptive page-turner… An urgent report on the state of American aspirations and a haunting dispatch from forsaken streets.” ― Kirkus, STARRED review

“Peace navigated the clashing cultures of urban poverty and Ivy League privilege, never quite finding a place where his particular brand of nerdiness and cool could coexist… [Hobbs] set out to offer a full picture of a very complicated individual. Writing with the intimacy of a close friend, Hobbs slowly reveals Peace as far more than a cliché of amazing potential squandered.” ― Booklist, STARRED review

“One part biography and one part study of poverty in the United States, Hobbs’s account of his friend’s life and death highlights how our pasts shape us, and how our eternal search for a place of safety and belonging can prove to be dangerous. Peace’s life was indeed short and tragic, but Hobbs aims to guarantee that it will not go unmarked.” ― Shelf Awareness, STARRED review

“The resulting portrait of Peace is nuance, contradictory, elusive, and probing… At its core, the story compels readers to question how much one can really know about another person… VERDICT: An intelligent, provocative book, recommended for any biography lover.” ― Library Journal

“If The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace were a novel, it would be a moral fable for our times; as nonfiction, it is one of the saddest and most devastating books I’ve ever read, a tour-de-force of compassion and insight, an exquisite elegy for a person, for a time of life, for a valid hope that nonetheless failed. It is also a profound reflection on a society that professes to value social mobility, but that often does not or cannot imbue privilege with justice. It is written with clarity, precision, and tenderness, without judgment, with immense kindness, and with a quiet poetry. Few books transform us, but this one has changed me forever.” ― Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree and Noonday Demon

“Jeff Hobbs has written a mesmerizingly beautiful book, a mournful, yet joyous celebration of his friend Robert Peace, this full-throated, loving, complicated man whose journey feels simultaneously heroic and tragic. This book is an absolute triumph—of empathy and of storytelling. Hobbs has accomplished something extraordinary: he’s made me feel like Peace was a part of my life, as well. Trust me on this, Peace is someone you need to get to know. He’ll leave you smiling. His story will leave you shaken.” ― Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America

“A poignant and powerful can’t-put-it-down book about friendship and loss. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace takes you on a nail-biting, heartbreaking journey that will leave you moved, shaken, and ultimately changed. In this spectacularly written first work of non-fiction, Jeff Hobbs creates a singular and searing portrait of an unforgettable life.” ― Jennifer Gonnerman, author of Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett

No one so young should ever beconsidered irredeemable.

Latest Book

Children of the State

For many kids, a mistake made at age thirteen or fourteen—often resulting from external factors coupled with a biologically immature brain—can resonate through the rest of their lives, making high school difficult, college nearly impossible, and a middle-class life a mere fantasy.

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 “At turns touching and intimate, enraging and honest—this book, more than any other I know, forces us to see America’s youngest prisoners for what they truly are: just kids.”

—Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Evicted

How You Can Help

From time to time, readers have felt compelled to do something or give something on behalf of those who have put their lives forward in the hope that some greater understanding might come from having their stories told.

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Books by Jeff

Children of the State Show Them You’re Good The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace The Tourist