As the summer days draw to a close in favor of cooler temperatures and falling leaves, I remember a moment from just a few months ago that both warms my heart, but also adds fuel to my fire to spark change. It’s a hot summer day in South Carolina. I sit with a bottle of water on a mostly empty college campus. What would otherwise be a virtually quiet day is interrupted by sounds of cheers and laughter from teenagers competing in Olympic-like events. Spelling bees, swimming competitions, track, volleyball and tug-of-war are on the itinerary. Chants and songs of encouragement fill the air. Canopy tents are set up for each team to block the heat from the sun. Beads of perspiration on everyone’s foreheads, adults and youth alike; cold water bottles are passed around to help with hydration. Everyone is smiling. This scenario is familiar to most who live in neighborhoods or cities where sporting events are the norm. But can you imagine where I might be and why on this day it seems out of the ordinary?
The activities I am observing in fact are not unusual, they happen regularly in communities across the country. Sadly the oddity of this situation is the youth involved in them. The youth I am watching have been arrested and brought in front of juvenile judges to face penalty for their actions. Whether charged with fighting in school, disrupting the family home, or for acting out in various ways in the community, these youth are more often than not disconnected from positive social interactions such as the activities I am witnessing. Juvenile justice systems across the nation are full of youth who have misbehaved (most for relatively minor infractions) but who face harsh penalties. Many youth are not as fortunate as the ones I am watching – most youth who have committed similar infractions are removed from their homes, schools and communities often for many years. Labeled as incorrigible and delinquent, youth in the juvenile justice system, and particularly those who have been placed away from their home as part of their punishment are on a downward spiral — that is if such a descent is not interrupted by positive interaction with caring adults.
While most seem to believe that tougher penalties, detention or a locked cell is the proper way to address youth who have been arrested, suspended, expelled or kicked out of their homes, the reality is that such a harsh response is usually counterproductive. Instead of learning a lesson or being “scared straight,” kids who are locked up in response to their misbehavior are subject to an environment that teaches tough street lessons of survival rather than positive coping skills. The event I attended happens to be a learning activity organized by a provider that specializes in working with kids who have become court involved. There are only a handful of programs that I have come across nationally that have found a way to help system involved youth reclaim their childhood while at the same time addressing those anti-social behaviors that landed them in trouble. Responding with love, encouragement and the instillation of hope soothes the harm caused by trauma and neglect and allows kids to look in the mirror and see “a kid” rather than a tough guy who has to prove something to the world.
Providing youth the opportunity to develop such pro-social skills as working towards a goal, supporting one another, team work, and good sportsmanship is not a cutting edge theory. Schools and communities invest in these types of activities across the world. And yet in lean economic times, budgets for such investments are drastically reduced. Large numbers of youth nationwide are left unsupervised and forced to navigate large chunks of unstructured time. And then when the obvious happens, when youth lead one another into impulsive activities that cross the boundaries of the law, society wants to respond with undue and unnecessary harshness.
No longer does adolescent misbehavior result in grounding, after school suspension, or parents working out an appropriate consequence. These days, juvenile court is the go-to punishment. And not just for a lecture or community service. More often than not, youth who are sent to court end up on probation or being locked up. When that happens unless connected with a responsible, caring adult with the aptitude to bond with the youth and teach while at the same time holding them accountable for their actions, the results are often dire. Dropping out of school, inability to hold a job, disconnection from family and positive reinforcements and ultimately a cycle of infractions, court-involvement and jail is the typical result to over-criminalizing juvenile behavior and punishing kids as if they were adults.
As I sit quietly in the hot South Carolina sun and observe teenagers that communities have labeled as “troubled” actively engaged in activities that most of us would find normal and even common, I am bewildered. Why can’t this model of support, encouragement and teaching be the go-to response for such youth? Why can’t we replace the correctional institutions with programs that provide a therapeutic approach? As Maya Angelou said “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” When kids are provided an opportunity to know better – they do better. We know that incarceration is expensive, harmful and doesn’t work. It’s beyond time that we take a hard look in the mirror and make a logical, more-informed decision.
Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com