“The challenge of social justice is to evoke a sense of community that we need to make our nation a better place, just as we make it a safer place,” said Marian Wright Edelman.
And that is the essential challenge we face as we deal with juvenile offenders – how do we punish and reform without pushing youth towards a path of chronic crime as adults.
It is an issue that many have devoted their lives to studying, and most experts agree that locking juveniles up versus diverting them to reform programs is bad for the youth offender, and the overall community.
A study released last week 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 the civil citation alternative 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, 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 criticalbecause they keep youth offenders where they’re most likely to find support.
James Baldwin said it best, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” In other words, by placing so many youth in the adult system, we are essentially creating Frankenstein’s monster.
The Safely Home report argues that removing kids 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 and community will to refocus our 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,