What every parent should know about our juvenile justice system
I’m one of those moms who sees danger in every corner. I check for ticks, apply sun screen, and make sure my child is buckled into her car seat. I take it as my personal responsibility to ensure her safety. This taking of responsibility is a theme for our family. When my daughter messes up, I make sure she takes responsibility for her actions and try to help her do the right thing the next time. One important way I do this is to teach her to treat others as she herself wants to be treated. That’s a golden rule in our household -- and it’s central to the work I do, as well.
Let me explain. I’ve spent the last 20 years in efforts to get our justice system to respond to lawbreaking in a way that would feel fair if I or my child were the ones standing in front of the judge. Twenty years is a long time. Clearly, I feel deeply about this work, but I have to say that being a mom has ratcheted up my fervor for change to a new level. You see, it wasn’t until I had a kid that I truly felt the excruciating pain of what we do in the name of justice, punishment, and rehabilitation to our nation’s youth.
What do we do? Well for starters, we take children, some as young as eight, and rip them from their moms, dads, siblings, school, communities and supports and lock them up in youth prisons, sometimes hundreds of miles away from their families. Yes: prisons, with cells, locked doors, jumpsuits, and sometimes full shackles in transport from court to prison. And when we send these children away, guess how much say their parents have in what happens to them (for instance, whether their child is given psychotropic medication or is put in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day to manage their behavior)?
That’s right. When the state steps in, parents have to step back and just watch as the system treats their child as an “offender” rather than a youth who needs help getting back on track. This is a system that does not operate by that golden rule, I mentioned earlier. Our system treats the children within it as someone else’s kids, rather than treating every child as its own.
“Oh,” you say, “but these children have committed some serious offenses and this punishment will set them straight.” Sadly, no. When youth emerge from these youth prisons, they are disengaged from school, traumatized, stigmatized and they have an incredibly difficult time getting their lives in order. They have a whole new set of problems and yet are disconnected from those very community supports that could help them.
These policies are incomprehensible; they are expensive and ineffective. Shouldn’t we treat all youth in a way that acknowledges their amenability to rehabilitation and gives them the tools to mature? This isn’t just a feel-good idea, either. It turns out that when we treat youth in age-appropriate ways, it’s better for public safety as well. A growing body of research has demonstrated the public safety and cost effectiveness of keeping youth out of prison, in the community and attached to evidence-supported programs.
And that brings me back to my “danger in every corner” approach to parenting. I know that the best way for my daughter to have a safer world to live in, is if we take a more sane and research-based approach to youth crime.
That’s why it’s good news for all of us that states across the country have been, over the past 10 years, steadily removing youth from prisons and holding them accountable in the community. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to read The Comeback States, the report that my organization, the National Juvenile Justice Network, just issued in collaboration with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The Comeback States profiles nine states that have taken strong stands to implement policies that ensure that youth are held accountable in the community, rather than being shunted into ineffective and expensive youth prisons.
And if you want to make sure that if your child ever messes up and gets in trouble with the law, the system responds in a way that is fair and in line with how you would hold your own child accountable, then send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll connect you to one of our 43 state members that work every day to make our juvenile justice policies make sense. And then maybe as my daughter grows up, she’ll do so in a country with effective justice polices that abide by that golden rule I’ve been trying so hard to teach her.