It’s extremely foolish to ignore the psychological and social challenges that contribute to delinquency among juveniles. We must first recognize that young people are not criminals and shouldn’t be treated as such.
We have all witnessed a 5-year-old’s temper tantrum, but if you’re one of those rare and lucky people who has not, take a walk into your local toy store. Hovered around every baby doll or toy car, children, who haven’t received everything they want, will sometimes act out; this is nothing out of the norm. But now, for many young people around the country, childish rebellion has been criminalized in our justice system, and in some cases, rather harshly.
In 2005, a 5-year-old girl in Florida was forcibly thrown on a table, handcuffed by three St. Petersburg police officers and placed in a police cruiser. Stories like these are becoming all too common in cities and states around the country with any indiscretion serving as grounds for arrest.
When we examine the juvenile justice system, people often recall the stories they saw on the news. They imagine youths that commit heinous crimes and run through the streets of cities unsupervised and out of control. A more accurate archetype is that of a teenage boy, maybe 15 years old, who made a non-violent mistake, probably while hanging out with friends.
Without regard to the nature of his offense, this young man is locked up in a detention facility, away from his family, his school and with other, more serious offenders — possibly even adult criminals. He is scared, alone and wracked with guilt for the impact this stupid mistake will have on his future. Instead of receiving counseling and guidance on how to make better decisions as he matures, he is treated like a career criminal.
It should come as little surprise that the likelihood of this young man becoming a career criminal increases as the system, tasked with changing his behavior, only further encourages him and informs him of how to become one.
According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, even though juvenile offenses are on the decline, the population of youth that’s confined in secure detention facilities pre-trial has grown.
More than half of the population is aged 15 or younger — a third are 14 or younger — and 70 percent of total are being held for non-violent offenses. Zero tolerance policies and legislation that advocates to decrease crime have actually increased crime and unnecessarily inflicted extreme punishment on children in and out of the classroom.
These zero tolerance policies, which originated as a response to high incidents of violence, drugs and weapons on school grounds, have, in recent years, turned into mandated consequences, regardless of the specifics of the infraction. They are wide-ranging, to the point of including almost any school disruption, which has led to a spike in suspensions, expulsions and arrests. A policy created to protect all students and provide a safe learning environment should not, in effect, be a tool to increase the pipeline speed to prison.
The Civil Rights Data Collection reported that in the 2009-2010 school year, black students accounted for only 18 percent of student enrollment, but for nearly 35 percent of students who were suspended.
The data also showed that 46 percent of the black students were suspended more than once and 36 percent faced expulsion. As compared to their white counterparts, black students are three times more likely and Latino students are nearly one-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended. Systematic inequality and institutional racism has created a norm in which students of color are disciplined from a far more pugnacious posture.
Many of our laws intentionally limit the scope of decisions that young people are able to make. The law prevents teenagers younger than 18 years old from voting, getting married without parental consent, purchasing tobacco and enlisting in the military, to name a few well-known restrictions. These laws are based on the understanding that the decision-making facility of the brain is not yet fully developed until age 25, an understanding that is backed up by modern brain research.
Yet, 44 states and the District of Columbia regard children as young as 14 as mature enough to stand trial as an adult. In New York and North Carolina, 16-year-olds are automatically charged as adults, which means they are considered to have acted intentionally, with full knowledge of the consequences and they can be thrown in jail with adults. This is a system that doesn’t lower our crime statistics and simply breeds more crime.
Youths who are remanded to adult prison facilities quickly become vulnerable targets. Incarcerated youths are 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon and face a higher risk of sexual assault than children placed in youth facilities. Additionally, these youths have shown a greater propensity for psychiatric problems, including suicide attempts, stress-related illnesses and drug abuse, than those who are placed in juvenile facilities.
The most alarming reality of all is that charging children as adults doesn’t reduce crime. So why do we do it? Many policymakers and elected officials will and have outlined a number of benefits resulting from the current state of our justice system, but the facts tell a different story.
Any given year, thousands of youths as young as 13 years old are charged as adults. As highlighted by research organizations, like the Justice Policy Institution, charging teens as adults actually increases the likelihood that they will offend again. Those who are transferred to the adult criminal justice system are more likely to be arrested again for crimes than those who stay in the juvenile justice system. A case study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that an overwhelming majority — approximately 80 percent — of youths released from adult prisons will go on to reoffend and often, for more serious crimes.
Around the nation, just a few places have reversed this trend and the results are clear. In counties in Illinois to Washington to Texas, alternative programs, which involve community-based treatments, counseling and mentoring, have not only reduced recidivism but have also saved taxpayers millions of dollars each year. The juvenile justice reform movement is nascent; however, early indications have demonstrated how misguided strictly punitive policies are and the facts show that they’ve exasperated the problem.
Public awareness campaigns across the country are pushing to “Raise the Age” to make a more comprehensive approach for criminal responsibility possible. In New York, activists are petitioning Governor Cuomo to change the age at which children can be charged as adults. Others are calling for more proactive and innovative solutions that allow for a child’s age and circumstances of the offense to be taken into consideration.
On the country, it’s extremely foolish to ignore the psychological and social challenges that contribute to delinquency among juveniles. Punitive policies are not working and will not decrease crime or eliminate youth re-arrest. For a step in the right direction, we must first recognize that young people are not criminals and shouldn’t be treated as such.
I co-authored this post with a colleague of mine, Philadelphia native and former juvenile delinquent Marvin Bing. Marvin (@MarvinBing) is a product of the foster care system and is currently working on the “Raise The Age” New York Campaign.
JAMIRA BURLEY likes to take long walks on the beach, unfortunately for her there isn’t any in Philadelphia. Recent graduate of Temple University with dual degrees in International Business and Legal Studies. Jamira spends her days working as the Executive Director for the City of Philadelphia Youth Commission and her “somewhat” free nights debating between watching Scandal or The X-Files.
This post originally appeared at Elite Daily. Reprinted with permission.