What IF . . . we collectively met the needs of kids?

What if all adults felt compelled to help meet the needs of our kids. If we really treated them as OURS just because they were a part of the village, a part of our collective community. The footprint of the juvenile justice system would surely be smaller. Kids who experienced trauma, abuse or neglect would be responded to with compassion and understanding even when they expressed themselves by acting out. Educators would be equipped with tools to respond to misbehavior in ways that provided appropriate accountability without exposing impressionable adolescents to the negative influence of juvenile institutions. Youth who engaged in repetitive risky behavior would receive the kind of individual transformational attention that would expose them to pro-social impacts and redirect them towards a more productive path. Young people who warranted an out-of-home intervention because their mistakes put others at risk would receive a true rehabilitative experience in a setting that was designed to teach and correct rather than punish.

What if we as a progressive society said “NO MORE” to treating kids like criminals for normal adolescent misbehavior? Could we eliminate locked detention facilities in favor of community resource centers? Could we tear down razor-wired juvenile correctional institutions and replace them with places that provided instruction and therapy? Could we transform juvenile correctional officers into youth counselors who were skilled in building relationships as a way to exercise influence and authority, instead of wielding the kind of power that only comes with a uniform and a badge?

What if we made sure that all kids had their basic needs met — enough to eat, and a safe place to live, would that enable their ability to read and learn, and would that then result in less delinquent behavior? And when they made mistakes (as all human beings do), if together we provided opportunities to address youth transgressions while helping them learn empathy and the impact of their actions on others, would that produce more responsible adults? If we attended to kids’ minds and their hearts, would we have a more peaceful community?

All people need fellowship and fun and bonding. If we don’t provide healthy connections for kids, they may gravitate to destructive relationships that can lead them down a risky and unsafe path. If we really want a safer community, we need to work together to develop our young people to become their best selves. Individually, we may not have all that they need, but if we work together I believe that we can. If it takes a village to raise a child, then all caring and conscientious adults have a role to play. What IF we all played our part …?

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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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

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