What happens to Baltimore’s youth when the smoke clears and the cameras leave?

This week in Baltimore was tumultuous – peaceful protests gone awry, young people taking to the streets to express their frustration with poor treatment and bleak opportunities, broken windows, burned vehicles and buildings, and many arrests. A ray of light beamed through the residue of smoky haze when the State’s Attorney announced that the officers that showed such indifference to the life of Freddie Gray would have to answer for those mistakes in court.

Soon things will settle, the cameras will be turned off, media personalities will head back to their offices or on to the next developing story. In Baltimore, the process of justice will begin. Not just for the officers who will make headlines any time a legal motion is filed or a court decision made, but also for those whose lives are primarily lived in homes and streets that until this week went unnoticed by the world. Those cited for civil infractions associated with peaceful (and unruly) assembly will answer for their violations, as will those charged with more serious offenses. People affected by the loss of their community drug stores will have to find new ways to fill their prescriptions or pick up those household necessities for months and likely years to come. Life will slowly get back to some semblance of normalcy and we all will move on.

But for those teens who found themselves intentionally or by circumstance stuck at Mondawmin Mall that fateful Monday, and who made the poor decision to pick up rocks and throw them, or steal/loot, life could get complicated.  Entering the world of juvenile court takes on a whole new magnitude. It will not simply be about taking responsibility for a poor decision on Monday, once in juvenile court, it will involve a complex diagnosis of what is considered to be “in the best interest of the child.”

The youth who slept in the concrete cells of the juvenile detention facility the night of their arrest, even though they had never before been in trouble will now appear in court for a hearing to answer those charges. They will likely face scrutiny about all aspects of their lives – home life, school attendance, who their friends are, whether they associate (i.e. “know”) any gang members, etc. And depending on how they are “assessed” they will likely end up on probation whether they really need the supervision or not. From there, it can be a fast and slippery slope – any minor infraction for any future normal adolescent mistake will be considered a violation for which they can then be sent away from home. They will have to miss school and their parents will have to miss work whenever called. Their family’s lives will be disrupted.

This doesn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t happen. There are alternatives that would allow the youth to take responsibility for their wrongdoings, but without subjecting them to formal court processing or long term court oversight. Alternatives that are less costly and more effective. Baltimore could consider a combination of diversion with restorative justice for the teens charged during the chaos that ensued as a result of the Freddie Gray protests. Recent research by the National Academies of Science on adolescent development highlights the lack of maturity and capacity of young people to make logical decisions. Because of this, rehabilitation is especially effective for our youth.

The days following the death of Freddie Gray was filled with confusion, anxiety, frustration and intense emotion. To expect that our young people would be able to sort through their feelings and make reasoned decisions when many of the adults could not, is unreasonable. Diversion would allow them to avoid formal processing and ongoing court oversight; restorative justice would provide an opportunity for them to hear from citizens whose lives were affected and to learn empathy for how our actions impact others. Kids need this to grow into responsible adults. Working together in this situation to develop a creative response rather than pushing the kids into the juvenile justice system could go a long way to right so many of the wrongs of the past few weeks, and is more likely to put those kids on a better path forward.

I am confident that there are defense attorneys that will advocate for dismissals or diversions, but there is also a role for community leaders. Our kids do not deserve a juvenile court experience. They may have made some mistakes, but together we can help them to learn from them.

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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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