Meet 14-year-old Kenneth Young who was misguided by his poverty-stricken neighborhood and his drug addicted mother. His only sister has recently welcomed an infant into the world bringing a rush of responsibility crashing upon the shoulders of little Kenneth, being the only ‘man’ in the household. How can a 14-year-old take such a pressuring role? Desperately, at age 15 Kenneth accompanies a 24-year-old man, who happens to be his mother’s drug dealer, in several different robberies across the state of Florida. Many of the victims were white females. Once convicted 15-year-old Kenneth was sentenced to four life without parole sentences. Keep in mind no one died. Kenneth was not armed, nor did Kenneth do the robbing. While his codefendant who was armed, physically assaulted the victims and was the head man of the robberies, received only one life sentence. Unfortunately, 11 years later despite a number of appeals and trials, 26-year-old Kenneth is still sitting in prison serving a 30-year sentence for a crime he committed when he was only 14-years old.
The first juvenile court was founded in 1899 in Chicago, Illinois. By 1925, every state in the United States, except two, implemented a juvenile court system. Initially the juvenile court system was supposed to serve as a means of rehabilitation and “to prevent children from being treated as criminals” (McCord et al. 3). Sadly to say that the system had strayed far from its foundation which is why the United States should reconstruct its juvenile justice system to tackle the rapid rate of juvenile incarceration of children of color, the conditions of facilities and the emotional and mental impact those facilities have on all youth, because there are more effective and healthier ways to address juvenile crime and while lowering the rate of recidivism.
To begin, The United States has the highest juvenile incarceration rate of any industrialized nation in the world (Gilman 1). According to a census taken by the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 60,000 youth under the age of 18 are incarcerated in juvenile jails and prisons (2). These statistics are appropriate when examining the entire youth population across all 50 states. But more specifically looking at those who are of color, “black youths were more than five times as likely to be detained or incarcerated as white youths were; black youths are 10 times as likely to be detained or incarcerated as white youths” (Knefel 2). As if black children are more likely to do something childlike than a white kid. In fact, black and white youth are roughly as likely to get into fights, carry weapons, steal property, use and sell illicit substances and even skip school. But for these minor offenses a child could face years in juvenile facilities and even tried as an adult.
In other words, black kids and white kids can behave in the same ways, but black kids overwhelmingly are the ones getting locked up. It’s safe to say that it’s unfair to our black youth because they are the ones being ripped away from their families and their futures destroyed while their counterpart matures and changes from the same mistakes that they once committed as children. The only difference is that the black youth is seen as unchanging criminals while white adolescents are seen as immature. It is fair to say that the current juvenile justice system is another scheme that is against the advancement of young black males and even females.
In addition to the rapid rate of juvenile incarceration, the residential facilities that the youth are assigned are far from perfect. It is true that girls and boys face similar experiences while they are serving their time. But the conditions that many females face are horrendous and hard to imagine. “80 percent of the girls in some states’ juvenile justice systems have a history of sexual or physical abuse” (Williams 1). Many girls who find themselves going to juvenile have had some form of physical or sexual abuse prior to being locked up. Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that are at the root of victimized girls’ arrests. According to a special report conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 33 percent of girls experienced some form of sexual abuse while in custody. When abuse occurs to these girls in the very settings that are designed to enhance their lives and to protect them, it is especially shocking and difficult to understand. There is no longer one sexual deviant to blame for the exploitation, but an entire system that has allowed for the abuse to continue, and in the process, enabled more girls to be victimized.
Besides, the stereotypical juvenile offender is “a violent, young male,” theories about delinquent behavior are often based on adolescent boys. In turn, programming within the juvenile justice system has been developed to meet the needs of male offenders such as learning how to self-regulate aggression, rather than developing self-esteem and resilience. Gender norms also continue to impact the treatment of girls in detention; one study found that girls in a detention facility were penalized more harshly with legal sanctions rather than verbal reprimands when acting ‘unladylike’ (Forbes 3). Girls are also particularly vulnerable to the fact that detention facilities are ill equipped to address and manage prior violence and victimization. Incarcerated girls with a history of abuse require sensitive and tailored responses.
Overall the structure and the programs of many detention centers are problematic regardless of the gender. The rehabilitation programs that are offered as a way for teens to focus on more positive realms of life are flawed. For example, the education programs are not equipped to meet the education needs of all offenders. Given that the juvenile system draws from impoverished neighborhoods, where schools have limited resources and are frequently deficient academically. In the book, Locked Up, Locked Out, Anne Nurse notes that most state prison systems are extremely overcrowded and are working with tight budgets. As a result, their schools are understaffed, and their teachers underpaid (55). Therefore, the youth inside those jails and prisons are not getting the quality educational assistance they need to rehabilitate themselves back into society.
Furthermore, the Employment and Job training skills program that most detention centers have are defective. Ideally after completing this program many offenders can go straight to work after they are released. Some of the job training skills are in the fields of welding, computer design, woodworking or auto maintenance. The inmates are allowed to participate in this program through the Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program, run by the Bureau of Justice Assistance through the Department of Justice who has contracts with private companies. So, the inmates are not working for the jail or prison but for private companies who can use “80 percent of the inmates earned wages to pay their taxes or to reimburse the state for the cost of room and board” (Nurse 60). The inmates nearly spend hours laboring for these companies and they have no say so in where their hardworking money goes to. Not to mention they are not even paid a fair pay rate. Also, the job training skills that they are taught are subpar because the jail or prison cannot afford to keep their equipment up to date and some of the jobs that are taught are not popular in the job market. Needless to say, that if an inmate is released, they will have an extremely hard time finding a job in their trained field. There would be new jobs that they are not allowed to get because they are simply not qualified.
Moreover, the juvenile justice policy makers believe that “if you’re old enough to do the crime, you’re old enough to do the time” However, advances in brain science since the early 2000s have proved that “adolescents’ minds are fundamentally different from those of adults”(Tsui 1). Changes in the brain that occur during adolescence years make young people more impulsive, less able to make measured decisions and more susceptible to peer pressure. At the same time, the malleable nature of the teenage brain means that children who commit crimes in their youth also have a greater capacity to reform when they are much older.
Youth in juvenile custody are at high risk for mental health problems that may have contributed to their criminal behavior and that is likely to interfere with rehabilitation. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that even short periods of isolation can evoke symptoms of paranoia, anxiety, and depression in juveniles, and those who spend extended periods in isolation are among the most likely to attempt suicide (Ziedenberg 2). Putting teens into a confined space makes it much harder for them to learn and understand their brain chemistry and actually grow out of their ‘delinquent’ ways. In fact, a recent literature review of youth corrections shows that detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being. “One-third of incarcerated youth are diagnosed with depression…and poor mental health” (Hollman, Ziedenberg 4). Depression is found to begin after the teenagers start their incarceration and the conditions of confinement together conspire to make it more likely that incarcerated teens will engage in suicide and self-harm, because they are forced into these small spaces with dozens of other people that they are unfamiliar with, which is truly scary and traumatizing. Researchers have found that at least a third of detention centers are overcrowded breeding an environment of violence and chaos for young people (Hollman 8). Far from receiving effective treatment, young people with behavioral health problems simply get worse in detention, not better.
Not to mention the population of adolescents who enter into the system already have some trace of a mental disorder. In turn, they do not receive the appropriate amount of clinical care they need. The Policy Design Team (1994) found that approximately 50 percent of the juvenile detainees in Virginia alone showed mental health problems of moderate severity or higher and that 8.5 percent showed “severe” problems, but that only 15 percent of the detainees who exhibited mental health problems were receiving mental health services while in custody (Flores 2). Not even half of incarcerated youth received the proper medical treatment they needed in one state alone. Imagine the numbers in the 49 other states.
However, not all research shows that the United States justice system is a total failure. Some agree that the system, despite its flaws is quite effective in rehabilitating and disciplining troubled youth. Author Kara Moore began his piece by stating, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” (1). Essentially Moore is arguing that adolescents should be held responsible for their actions no matter the intensity of the crime. Teenagers are old enough to know what is right and what is wrong, so when they make the wrong decisions it is their fault and they should be punished. Moore also believes that teens should be tried as adults and they should not be treated any different. He asserts,” people believe that children learn bad behavior from their parents, things like murder, rape, stealing or drug abuse; but children should learn from their parent’s mistakes” (3). While I agree that adolescents should be held accountable for their actions, it does not at all mean they have to endure inhumane conditions at such a vulnerable age, they shouldn’t be treated as cold hearted criminals or helpless beings. The current United States juvenile justice system does not effectively hold adolescents accountable for their actions. They over penalize children for, often times, minor crimes and further create mental, emotional, behavioral and even sexual trauma.
There are many alternatives to the way the justice system can hold adolescents responsible. Other countries have more beneficial programs for their youth that have ultimately rehabilitated them back into society without causing unnecessary damage. For example, based on the International Juvenile Justice Observatory report, Finland has implicated a system, where all offenders under the age of 15 are dealt with only by the child welfare authorities. Young offenders aged 15 to 17 are dealt with both by the child welfare system and the system of criminal justice. Young adults aged 18 to 20 are only dealt with by the criminal justice authorities (1). So, depending on your age group, you will receive the necessary and appropriate medical and emotional treatment necessary. Along with different educational, labor and community service programs that are deemed fit to your age group. Also, with Finland’s mediation program, those children who need counseling or other emotional assistance will receive just that by partnering with different counseling firms. Teenagers ultimately learn how to understand their emotions and take control of their identity. To say the least, Finland’s main goal is not to focus on the criminal aspect of their youth’s offenses but more of an approach that is the best at fixing the underlying problem that initially caused the delinquent behavior. In fact, Due to the small number of juvenile prisoners (at the moment 5 to 7 persons under the age of 18), there are no specific prisons for juveniles in Finland (Lappi-Seppälä 10). One can conclude that Finland’s youth population is overall happier and more successful, because they are not sent away to overcrowded and crappy detention centers.
I truly believe the United States should mimic this same program or a similar one as a means of cutting back on the rapid rate of juvenile incarceration. The United States could actually lower the recidivism rate and help many teens mentally and emotionally grow as they mature. If considered, the system will be designed to cater to a specific age group, and they will be exposed to different programs and mentors that will help them understand what they have done wrong and teach them what they can do better in the future. The adolescents will also receive the clinical care and emotional care they need to get to the root of their unacceptable behavior, which will result in them less likely to do it again. In the end the United States will have more happier and healthier teens, because there will be no more painting a child as a criminal or a monster, but more of a misunderstood teen who deserves a second chance.
In conclusion, the United States has strayed far from its original purpose of establishing a safe haven for troubled teens. In order for this country to uphold its founding principles when it comes to juvenile justice it is imperative that they tackle the growing rate of juvenile incarceration in minority communities, the substandard conditions of facilities and programs and lastly, the emotional and mental damage caused to many youth before and during custody. If the United States continue to rely on the incarceration of youth, billions of tax dollars will be wasted, because incarceration does not prevent future crime. Also, there will be a modern day slavery system where all of the children of color will be locked away for a very long time and no one, not the parents, not the community, not even the children themselves would have any control over it, except the white judges and policy makers. That is why it is extremely important for youth to be active in Juvenile Justice reform. They need to be educated on what is happening and establish ways they can express their voice and execute their proposals to bring about a change in the way this country carelessly locks away the youth.