Jail Should Not be the Only Option to Youth Violence

Reggie Fullwood 2
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Reggie Fullwood 2

by Reggie Fullwood

“A growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained and arrested. They are also more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime,” said President Obama at the 2015 NAACP National Conference.

He added, “And one of the consequences of this is, around one million fathers are behind bars. Around one in nine African American kids has a parent in prison. What is that doing to our communities? What’s that doing to those children?”

While I am certainly not saying that all juveniles that commit crimes do it because they have a parent in prison, but clearly there is a correlation between the state of the black community and the demographics of our prison system.

Are we fairly treating juveniles in the U.S. Justice system? We know that some juveniles will have to serve time for their crimes, but how do we create balance?

How do we punish, but establish avenues that don’t make the crimes committed by youth, become life sentences. It is not unusual for incarceration to push them towards a path of chronic crime as adults.

It is an issue that many have devoted their lives to studying. Many experts agree that locking juveniles up versus diverting them to reform programs is a bad idea for the youth offender and the overall community.

A study released in 2016 year called “Safely Home,” argues that the deeper kids go into the juvenile justice system and the higher the level of security in which they’re detained – the less likely it is that they will ever be rehabilitated.

According to the Youth Advocate Programs’ Policy and Advocacy Center study, “Institutions provide virtually none of the supports the community can… youth need to learn how to function and make good decisions within the community, and having the support of caring, competent adults and access to safe and positive people, places and activities is what leads to good long-term outcomes. Kids can’t access these supports in isolation.”

Here’s a reality of life – all kids make mistakes, but in the past we have treated too many of our young men and women like they were incapable of being reformed.

If we are going to help our children, we have to have fewer students arrested at school for non-violent offenses. We also have to actually use of the civil citation alternatives and other community-based options to incarceration.

Advocates for Smart Juvenile Justice reform want to focus more on prevention and rehabilitation, and also on intervening at the first sign of trouble and providing services to deal with the underlying issues that lead to young people offending.

And sending troubled kids to adult prisons is not the answer. We have to figure out a way to stop our children from being transferred into the adult system. Florida is a unique state in so many ways – some good and some bad.

While the trend nationally has been to promote alternative methods of punishment, Florida leads the nation, and Duval County leads the state, in sending youth to the adult court system.

We have to promote community programs that provide family therapy, individualized mental health services, substance abuse treatment and anger management classes for young offenders. Experts say these options are critical because they keep youth offenders where they’re most likely to find support.

The Safely Home report argues that removing youth from their communities may lessen “any perceived immediate risk to the public,” but that incarceration doesn’t change the course of their lives.

“Risk factors that make youth vulnerable to incarceration cannot be eliminated through incarceration,” the report says. “In fact, many of the environmental and social factors that contribute to youth incarceration get worse, not better, with incarceration.”

And diversion programs save cities and states money. Generally, youth reform programs can deliver the same services for a fraction of the cost, serving three to four times as many young offenders.

The report cites the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center, which found that of 3,523 high-risk youth living at home and supported by an intensive community-based program nationwide, 86 percent remained arrest-free while in the program.

I realize that the flip side of this coin is that some repeat and/or violent offenders have received multiple chances and should be treated as adults. Well, there certainly are those people, but they don’t make up the majority of the population of kids that I am talking about.

We know the issue – now we need the political community to refocus their efforts on reforming our youth who make mistakes versus the system automatically dropping the hammer on every kid it can.

In the words of Judge William Hibbler, “Children don’t stop being children when they commit a crime.”

Signing off from the Duval County Juvenile Detention Center,
Reggie Fullwood

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