Failed juvenile justice systems: gateways to adult incarceration that must be addressed

Justice reform and the idea of de-incarceration are starting to become familiar considerations in many circles. The idea that long prison terms for non-violent offenses are expensive and unnecessary is a concept that is gaining bi-partisan steam. Several states have passed legislation that has reduced lengthy sentences for adults charged with non-violent crimes. A few have begun considering juvenile reforms, yet still do not fully recognize that improving juvenile justice systems is a critical strategy to achieve overarching criminal justice reform. Why? Because failed responses to juvenile offending is a gateway to adult incarceration.

According to a number of data sources a majority of youth currently behind bars have not committed a violent offense. More importantly, a large percentage of those youth are subject to incarceration as a result of minor infractions that occur at school or for engaging in activities that would not be a crime if they were adults (status offenses). Once in front of a judge, however, these young people are subjected to harsher responses than they would be in a criminal court and at a significantly higher cost (financially and in lost opportunities). After a stint in a juvenile facility, recidivism more often goes up, rather than down.

A recent publication by the Justice Policy Institute (Sticker Shock) http://www.justicepolicy.org/StickerShock outlined the financial implications of juvenile incarceration on states and communities. According to JPI research the average cost of incarcerating a young person in a secure facility is upwards of $400 a day (amounting to more than $70,000 for six months, and more than $140,000 for an entire year). Equally important as the significant financial impact, is the reality that a high proportion of young people who are incarcerated as juveniles go on to be locked up as adults, thereby costing even more money over their lifetime in actual costs to confine, in loss of productivity and an impaired ability to meet their own and their family’s financial needs.

Research indicates that when youth misbehavior is addressed therapeutically, a large percentage of kids can be diverted from deeper system placement and are able to get on a more positive path. Many adolescents who engage in impulsive or risky behavior, but who are otherwise positively connected ultimately grow out of this behavior and go on to lead a productive adult life – even without system intervention. Others who may be more exposed and vulnerable to anti-social environments have a better chance of getting on the right track if responded to with a supportive and nurturing structure. Interventions that provide youth with opportunities to stay or get on track educationally, while also learning pro-social skills is a better deterrent to recidivism, than if they are responded to harshly and confined in punitive settings.

It defies common sense that in every state across this country communities squander the opportunity to more appropriately respond to young people when the results of the alternatives are so dire. When we couple this failure with the data on the racial disparities (African American youth are nearly five times more likely to be confined than similar youth who are white), it’s hard to deny that this should be considered a civil rights issue that is worthy of attention.

If as Michelle Alexander states, we are beginning to appreciate that our failed criminal justice system is tantamount to a New Jim Crow, and if we acknowledge that overzealous police practices need improvements, then we must simultaneously recognize that incarcerating our youth must stop and that finding alternatives is a pragmatic transformation that is long overdue.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

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50 years after Selma we have more bridges to cross

I was moved today by the memories of Selma shared through powerful words by those who went to Alabama to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. 50 years since men and women, young and old dared to march in hopes of realizing a just America. An America where we all could be judged by the content of our character, rather than the color of our skin, the differences in our religious beliefs, or who we choose to love.

Congressman John Lewis noted the progress as evidenced by the fact that 50 years after he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge beaten and with a concussion, he was now standing on the same ground introducing the first Black President of the United States to commemorate the occasion. That is progress we can all be proud of! But he also reminded us that there is work left to be done, and challenged us to stand up for what we believe. President Obama grounded us in the words of Scripture that we should “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” as he spoke of an America that is strong enough to be self-critical in our pursuit of a more perfect union.

This week’s report on Ferguson by the United States Department of Justice is a somber acknowledgement of our need to continue what our parents and grandparents started. We cannot be complacent in allowing disparities in how our laws are enforced. We can no longer stand silent when young Black men are shot dead in the street, or when they are locked in juvenile correctional institutions for non-violent offenses or youthful transgressions. We must exercise our right to vote so that men and women who believe in justice and fairness are elected to uphold our laws. Justice reform is the civil rights issue of today, and one that requires us to join together and cross the bridge for.

Much has changed in the last 50 years, but we must now carry the torch forward to improve our justice system so that it works for us all. This is our responsibility. It is what we must do to honor the lives lost during the struggle for equality; to continue to push for a better America. In the memory of those who sacrificed their lives so many years ago — Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb, Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney to name just a few; and as we remember those lost more recently who represent how far we have left to go – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. Today, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I was renewed and inspired to remember, reflect and find ways to march on.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

Resolving to make a difference in my own community

I recently read some statistics about the city where I reside that 4 out of 5 children in Baltimore City live in such impoverished circumstances that they quality for free or reduced cost meals. This means that a majority of kids in the city in which I live and pay taxes probably don’t have enough food to keep them feeling satisfied on a regular basis. This directly connects with their ability to focus and achieve academically, which also correlates with their likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system. This slippery slope is one that does not surprise me (except for the magnitude of the problem) but does move me to consider how I might use my time differently this year.

The beginning of every year is generally a time to refocus, set new goals and resolutions, and endeavor to be better. It’s the time to dream bigger, plan more intently and dare to make a difference – not just for ourselves, but to make the world around us a better place.

The last quarter of 2014 made it really clear that our world and our communities need healing. That we need a better resolution to law enforcement so that those sworn and paid to protect our neighborhoods can do their job appropriately, safely and in a manner that law-abiding people can respect. We also need enhanced strategies to help our youth find a path forward that will allow them an opportunity for a better life. And I believe all of this starts with everyone joining together to strengthen our families, our schools and our communities. And I mean “our” in the collective sense – as in all of us in this together. Mutual responsibility and accountability.

If we are to keep our kids unnecessarily out of harmful court systems, we need to start by building them a stronger community. So, I resolve in 2015 to be more involved in my community. To reach one and teach one and hopefully make a positive difference in the life of a youth. Too many of our kids are hungry – and not just for food. They are in need of responsible and caring adults to genuinely care about them and offer them a strong hand of support. I intend to be that for a young person in 2015 and I challenge all other adults who want to make a difference to do the same. I will continue to shine a spotlight on injustice that impacts our youth, but I also will lend a personal hand to someone who I hope to inspire to achieve great things. I have not yet identified this youth, but I have submitted an application to be a volunteer and am looking forward to being connected to someone in the near future. This is my mission – and it can be yours, if you choose to accept it.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

The quest for justice reform should include the kids failed by the juvenile court system

As horrific as it is that so many lives have been lost to seemingly biased police practices and rushes to judgment, there are many more who are blessed to be alive but who are nonetheless in harm’s way that warrant our attention. At the top of this list are the kids who may not have been shot or choked to death, but who were handcuffed and shipped away to court and incarcerated with little due process. No one is telling their story, but they should not be ignored as they represent a growing number of statistics that fall under the radar.

Consider this: if Mike Brown had not been shot and killed, but instead lived would there still be the same level of discontent? If the Ohio police had man-handled 12-year-old Tamir Rice and mashed his face in the ground, handcuffed him and hauled him off to juvenile court, would we be similarly outraged? What if the bullet miraculously missed Trayvon Martin but when the police came they charged him with assault and then a judge placed him in a juvenile correctional institution? This happens to thousands of kids (and primarily kids of color) in every state across the country. There are literally tens of thousands of young people right now who are behind bars, many for behavior that most of us engaged in as kids (skipping school, underage drinking, missing curfew).

Why does it take a death, or several deaths to spark protest? The underlying police practice and failures in our justice system is the same, it just falls a bit below the surface and has a less final result.

The disparities in the juvenile justice system are staggering. The number of Black and Latino youth who are pushed into court systems from school, forced into lengthy archaic probation contracts, and then ultimately locked up far outweighs youth of other races and ethnicities – and yet where is the outrage on their behalf?

Does anyone lament the teenager brought into court in shackles for cursing at his teacher, or sent to a locked detention facility for arguing with his parent? What about a 12-year-old held in a locked facility for months for testing positive for marijuana? Or a 14-year-old sent to juvenile prison for 5 years for burglarizing a neighbor’s garage? These situations are common in most states across the country, and I have personally witnessed them. So many of our young people are in danger, and no one seems to notice. They are in danger of being traumatized, assaulted, disconnected from their families and under-educated. They miss out on normal adolescent experiences, are forced out of school and yet no one champions their cause.

Are we satisfied simply because they remained alive, even though they are locked away for years as their unjust penalty for noncompliance? Are youth of color not worthy of our outrage when their consequence is hand-cuffs and a cell instead of a loss of life? If we truly believe that #Blacklivesmatter and #Alllivesmatter perhaps we should broaden our thinking to address the injustices in our law enforcement and court systems in a full and meaningful way – not just in the most extreme situations?

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

#CrimingWhileWhite provides a unique opportunity for dialogue about racial disparities

The hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite has been trending on Twitter and was captured in an article on USA Today Network on Dec 3, 2014 #Crimingwhilewhite puts focus on police and race. I’ve read comments on both sides either in favor of the expressions or wondering if they somehow mock the differential treatment endured by African Americans by many law enforcement.

I am one who not only had a positive impression of the trend, but commend those individuals who happen to be white who shared in tweets their experiences committing common youthful transgressions that resulted in privileged disparate treatment. Several mentioned underage drinking and driving, mischievous theft and even blatant disregard for the specific directives of law enforcement. In response they were barely chastised, considered to be “good kids” and often simply allowed to go on their way without arrest, being mistreated or further escalation. Perhaps these young people were not aware at the time of the different experience of Black youth and Black people? But now they are, and I appreciate their acknowledging it.

As someone who works professionally to achieve reforms in juvenile justice systems across the country, I often struggle with the best way to lift up the racial disparities in the treatment of youth. Overwhelmingly when the data is analyzed, it is evident that Black youth are more frequently arrested, sent to juvenile court from school for minor or non-violent behavior, sent to locked detention facilities, and to juvenile correctional facilities. When confronted with such data on racial disparities, the responses are often mixed. Some are appalled and interested in correcting the practices, but others remain in denial, preferring to blame the differences on poverty, single-parent households, or bad neighborhoods. The reality is that there are studies that have accounted for such factors and still the disparities exist.

So it is encouraging to me to have the qualitative information in the form of tweets from conscious young people speaking honestly about white privilege. #CrimingWhileWhite is a powerful acknowledgement that I hope will be persuasive and spark dialogue among communities to stand up for what’s right.

Walking down the middle of the street, playing in the park with a toy gun, buying gas with the music turned up too loud, or walking in the neighborhood should not yield a death sentence, and yet they did for Michael, Tamir, Jordan and Trayvon, and likely for countless others. But there are many more youth who are fortunate to be alive, but are locked in juvenile facilities for similar behavior. We don’t have their names, and yet they deserve our attention because they are in harm’s way and we can still do something about it.

All youth should be afforded the opportunity to live their lives or even make mistakes without being killed or locked up and #CrimingWhileWhite may be just what is necessary to change the discourse by providing real life examples that give a different credibility to the notion of racial disparities. I am encouraged and hope that we can both start these conversations and identify strategies to address the issue because all lives matter which means we all need to be involved in the resolution.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

When the caged bird stops singing: thoughts on Ferguson

I know why the caged bird sings, and I think I might have an idea about why he stops. Maya Angelou wrote “A bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.” But after the songs are gone and the voice gets hoarse, frustration and hopelessness can quickly follow. It is then that the bird may stop singing and instead fling himself against his cage.

I can not and do not condone violence against anyone, and I (as are others) am saddened by the events in Ferguson. But I pause because it seems unfair to only respond to the portrayed acts of rioting as if they occurred in a vacuum. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and it is therefore disingenuous to narrowly focus on the “reactions” as the main issue while ignoring the improper “actions” that precipitated them. A friend wrote on social media that it may be akin to being so mad that you punch a wall – you destroy the wall, and you hurt your hand. Is this logical? Perhaps not, but it may be all that you can think to do amidst unrighteousness.

I don’t live in Ferguson, but unjust acts are occurring all across this country primarily to people of color who are left to feel not just targeted, but inappropriately left out of our justice system. Young black men and boys are being shot and killed in the street, in the stores and in the parks, without retribution. When youth of color are accused of violating the law, “due process” works differently – the word of any person who takes the stand and testifies is taken at face value as “evidence.” It is common for someone to be accused, arrested and locked up before a shred of proof is submitted. But when youth of color are the victims, the standard somehow changes.

The appearance of justice is as important as justice itself. We cannot continue to leave whole segments of our communities, states and country out of a fair process and expect that they will just “sing” or stand in quiet protest. At some point, if not let out of the cage, the bird stops singing and what happens next may be much less palatable.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.” Maya Angelou

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com or the Justice Corner Facebook page. Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

What can Sayreville teach us about Shared Accountability (Justice Corner guest blog by Dr. LeRoy Reese)

The Sayreville tragedy and I believe it a tragedy for all members of that community but especially their young people represents an important opportunity for growth and measured accountability by everyone. Seems we ‘all’ have to be careful about the assumptions we make about what happened in this matter as it appears to be a good deal of variance to the narrative depending on who you listen too and whether they are using legal terms or describing actual behavior. So it may be that we aren’t talking about criminal behavior but that we could certainly be talking about something that rises above a threshold that most consider youthful misconduct. Sometimes young folks engage in criminal behavior that also needs accountability and redirection I don’t have enough information about what happened in Sayreville to have an informed opinion, seems none of us do. My point and hope is that the finger pointing stops (its not helpful), that there is a full accounting (i.e. by everyone) in this matter and that intentional efforts are pursued to attend to the injury suffered by the alleged ‘actors’ here and those who were ‘victimized.’ I assert here that all the young people in this community have been or are being hurt by this and have and/or are now being let down by the adults charged with their well-being.

Charges have been leveled not only at the youth ‘actors’ but at the coaches of the football program, the school’s administration, as well as some of the parents. It seems the adults have an important opportunity I hope they don’t miss and that is to communicate a powerful message of personal and collective accountability and evidence some redirection. There seems to be little doubt something happened in that locker room and some of the questions might be: how did it happen, how long has this type of behavior been going on, are there youth we need to check in who may have been impacted by whatever was going on who haven’t been identified, who knew and who were they accountable too, how do the young people involved here understand the issues being raised, what type of psychological or psycho-educational intervention are needed here, and are we being intentional in helping our youth heal and move forward. The defending of our children regardless of their role, the schools, football program and careers etc shouldn’t trump doing what’s right and in my opinion that means make our children whole. There is a broader dialogue needed here as every year there is some disturbing and tragic incident(s) involving high school football players suggesting we need to examine what we are messaging to our boys and young men about what it means to be a football player, male and masculine in our society (and no I am not anti sport or football, played football in high school and college).

Ms. Washington is right – WE CANNOT SCAPEGOAT OUR KIDS, we can however have meaningful dialogue about privilege and the responsibility that accompanies privilege. Football is a privilege and it has benefits for those that play, those they play for and the community. So the responsibility and accountability has to be shared and it is here where the opportunity resides. Let’s show our kids what accountability looks like, let’s teach our kids how empathy and compassion manifest and let’s not scapegoat our kids, let’s be the adults they need us to be. Sayreville has an opportunity to teach the nation what putting the best interest of kids first look like.

Dr. LeRoy Reese is an associate professor at Morehouse School of Medicine where he contributes to the Prevention Research Center and the National Center for Primary Care.  Prior to joining MSM, Dr. Reese was a senior scientist and team leader at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Dr. Reese conducts community-based health research focused on the development on healthy lifestyles, the reduction of risk behavior among youth and their families, and the modification of community based social determinants of health. He served on the Task Force of the American Psychological Association that produced the report Resilience and Strength in African American Children and Adolescents.

Follow the discussion on http://www.justicecorner.com; @twashesq

Accountability versus punishment: Is there a role for restorative justice in juvenile cases such as Sayreville?

My recent post concerning the events in Sayreville, New Jersey in which seven high school football players are accused of hazing/abusing other players apparently hit a nerve. Although I am capable of seeing multiple sides of a situation and am open to, and even welcoming of, opposing point of views, I was surprised at how quickly some of the responses got personal. I do not live in New Jersey, nor do I have any personal attachments to the circumstances. I simply believe that in a civil and democratic society, community members should allow the judicial process an opportunity to operate before turning themselves into prosecutor, judge and jury based on what is reported in the news. I believe this all the more strongly when young people are involved. And yet simply by proposing that the accused youth should have their fate determined by a juvenile court, rather than an adult court, some people felt obliged to personally attack me.

Several individuals thought it appropriate to label the kids “criminals.” But is it fair to call someone a criminal simply because they are accused of wrongdoing? Does that strike anyone else as somewhat odd and out of place in a country that holds itself out to the world as the representative of democracy? And what ever happened to the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty?”

In fairness, in one recent Twitter encounter I did experience an interesting and appropriate exchange which underscored for me the value of social media. It concerned a question of what consequences might be appropriate if it turned out that the accusations were true. To the individual who interacted with me on this topic I say “thank you.” Although I have no idea if I swayed that person’s opinion, I appreciated the opportunity for an open and respectful discourse.

In addition to advocating that this matter remain in a juvenile court, if the youth are found responsible for the actions they are accused of, I offered the idea that restorative justice be considered. I have already gone on record acknowledging the harm that has likely been caused based on the allegations, as well as the need for corrective action. The question is, what should that correction action look like? Is there a way to hold those responsible accountable, teach them the errors of their behaviors and get them back on track? Do we as a society need a pound of their flesh as payback for their behavior? Do we need to see them suffer? Or as responsible adults can we look for a better solution?

In the event these young men are found culpable (although I choose to remain neutral on this point until more facts are revealed) if a correctional institution is the consequence, they will come out at the other end undereducated, with a felony record that will interfere with them being employed, and based on the allegations perhaps bearing the label of sex offender – for life. Again I wonder: is this the outcome we want for young people who arguably are great candidates for being positively changed? Or do we want them to understand the harm that was caused, to be held accountable and taught a better way, and perhaps grow up to become mature adults who can contribute to society? After all, as pointed out in an editorial appearing in the New Jersey paper the Star-Ledger “we created this separate [juvenile] system because while the young brain can be capable of monstrous violence, it’s a more flexible creature.”

A restorative justice option actually focuses on the needs of the victims and the involved community in addition to dealing with the conduct of the accused. It emphasizes addressing and repairing the harm as opposed to simply punishing the offender. For youth, it is especially worthwhile as it allows for them to accept responsibility for their actions and make amends rather than maintaining innocence — this in and of itself is an important component of rehabilitation and an important character trait to instill.

The harsher option (jail time) may be the stiffer punishment and make many onlookers feel more satisfied, but a restorative justice alternative is likely more effective and beneficial to society and all involved.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

Who’s fighting for the kids in Sayreville?

The arrest of seven teenagers who played on the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team is being mishandled on so many levels. The manner in which it is being publicized and the intensity of the prosecution is influencing a perception that these kids are criminals as opposed to young people who need accountability and redirection. More egregiously, it fails to highlight or hold responsible the adults who in my mind are culpable for creating and allowing a culture of hazing and for failing to properly supervise.

Of course I am not dismissing the seriousness of the allegations or the harm to the youth who were assaulted and bullied. It is a horrible situation and deserves to be addressed. I simply believe that there are more appropriate and rehabilitative ways to address the misconduct of the 7 football players rather than criminalizing them and locking them up. I also see this as an opportunity for a much needed conversation about youth justice – should the motivation be punishment or accountability and what does that mean?

I agree with some points that have been made in connection with this case, but there are many others that I vehemently take issue with. I agree that: (1) the behavior was egregious, (2) there is a negative hazing culture underlying Sayreville football that needs to be addressed and (3) the young people should be held accountable. What I disagree with is that the consequences require criminalization, or that the youth are solely at fault. I take serious issue with the idea that the youth could be prosecuted as adults – if the Middlesex County prosecutor goes that route, there should be a public outcry!

This situation begs the question: If we understand that young people make impulsive and thoughtless decisions, why should we entertain or authorize the idea of punishing them as if they were adults? When we factor in the brain science and adolescent development studies that demonstrate a significant difference in the brains and thinking patterns of kids at least until they reach the age of 25, shouldn’t we re-evaluate our response when youth violate the law? Policies should reflect the understanding that youth misbehavior warrants a different consideration than an offense committed by an adult (even when that behavior causes harm).

As a former criminal defense attorney, I want more information, and I believe that the Sayreville community should be asking for more as well. It will be important to know what type of hazing has existed at Sayreville in relation to football and other sports activities and for how long. Where were the adults (both that day and in creating the culture that allowed this roguishness)? Did the youth charged previously endure hazing themselves at the hands of other players that may have influenced their behavior?

The adults connected with the football program are responsible for the culture that encouraged the athletes to engage in such rambunctious conduct, and they are the ones who must be held to a higher standard. It’s unfair to allow the young people to be the scapegoats. And it’s wrong to destroy their future while subjecting them to consequences. It may not be a popular position to take, but who’s going to stand up for the kids and prevent their lives from being ruined over this terrible incident?

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

The eyes that haunt me

My recent visit to a juvenile facility left me with heartache. As a former defense attorney and juvenile reform consultant, I’ve been to my share of locked facilities, but this visit for some reason unnerved me. It was more than the dismal physical space I’ve observed so many times. I’ve certainly seen the typical correctional complex complete with razor-wire fences, a myriad of locks and bolts, and barren cells. I’ve seen the expensive over-equipped surveillance control rooms with hundreds of cameras that offer multiple views of the facility at various angles.

What struck me in a different way during this visit wasn’t the sterile building and rooms, it was the eyes of the youth that I encountered. Despondent, unfocused, almost lost eyes. Eyes that had clearly experienced trauma and despair, and now seemed to just go through the motions.

Teenagers are supposed to be spirited, inquisitive, engaging — even irreverent. They are not supposed to be robotic. When I’ve visited institutions in the past, the young people I met seemed at least interested in who and why “the strangers” were there. Most seemed to welcome a new face to at least break the monotony of their daily, weekly, and monthly routine. But on this tour, line after line of youth barely looked up or even seemed to notice the visitors among them. I saw a kind of disconnect that transcended sadness. It was almost like they had given up; having submitted to the cold regimen of their circumstances.

I didn’t get the sense that the caretakers were unnecessarily harsh, but rather that they were detached. From what I could see, the correctional officers were professional and courteous — perfunctory, but not engaged. Even during the eating times, most preferred to watch the youth eat, rather than sit down and eat with them. Less than 20 minutes was allotted for meals with no talking, just eating. I wondered to myself, how I might feel if someone I loved had made a mistake that caused them to be in such a place. Month after month (and year after year) of walking in line, being told when and where to sit, when and where to eat, being talked at, rather than talked to?

No matter what they did wrong, these kids deserve a second chance at life and a bright future. But how can such an atmosphere serve a rehabilitative purpose? What is meant to be “corrective” in reality is nothing more than a well-manned warehouse. There is a reason that a separate juvenile system was created. It was the result of the recognition that kids being young in both mind and experience can be reformed. At some point we as a society understood that the impulsiveness that could drive an adolescent to commit a criminal offense was something that development and the right amount of support and attention could easily overcome.

But somewhere we’ve gone off course and reverted to subjecting our youth to the same harsh prison environments that we send adults. What’s worse is that 75% of the kids that are sent away have done nothing violent, but are still placed behind bars. And these places are harmful. They not only strip our kids of their dignity and desire to achieve — they crush their very spirit. They say that the “eyes are the windows to the soul” — I suppose that’s why the eyes I saw are haunting me.

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

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com