Shawn Henfling discusses the fate of Tristen Kurilla in today’s criminal justice system.
Recently, in an area near my hometown, a young boy of 10 murdered a woman in her nineties, by putting a cane around her throat and punching her multiple times following a dispute between the two. The boy’s own mother turned him in, and he admitted to what he had done. For police, the case is open and shut, with no need to pursue any other avenues of investigation. On the other hand, the judicial system must carefully assess the situation and rule on how to treat the youngster and finally charge him. This, unfortunately, is an area where failures are all too common and young lives are ruined forever. Since Pennsylvania law requires that a criminal homicide be filed in court regardless of the perpetrators age, this ten year old boy was charged as an adult. He may be excluded from the juvenile court system and into the “real” criminal justice system. In a nation that incarcerates its citizens at a rate far higher than any developed nation in the world, this should serve as no surprise. I’m sure some of you are even thinking that it’s the correct decision. After all, at ten years old, YOU knew better than to brutally murder an elderly woman, so why shouldn’t he? Therein lies a portion of the problem, we judge others by our own standards, circumstances be damned. Of course you knew better at that age. Does it help to know the boy has had aggression issues in the past? Is it his fault if there was no help for him? If his attorney does not successfully have the case adjudicated in the juvenile courts, we will be judging a ten- year-old boy against the standards for a normal adult. His name is Tristen. Before condemning him to life in prison, you should know that. Make a mistake at ten, and we’ll give up on you, despite the problems you’ve endured thus far in life. Forget it. Think about what we are saying to other kids like him, kids struggling to keep it together day in and day out, battling to keep the demons in their heads at bay. Think of that while you harken back to your own childhood. What were you doing at ten? Did you make any mistakes? Condemnation seems to be the only thing our system is good for these days, unless you are an adult banker who swindles citizens out of billions. Then, of course, you earn a free pass and a multi-million dollar bonus or severance package.
Here in the United States, we have roughly 71,000 juveniles incarcerated. Take a moment to soak that in. Seventy-one thousand people, KIDS, roughly the population of Scranton Pennsylvania, are currently jailed. The Prison Policy Initiative, in March of 2014, estimated the total U.S. prison population at 2.4 million. In addition to those, roughly 4.8 million more fell under the supervision of parole or probation departments. That puts the population of London (UK) either in prison or under the supervision of a criminal justice organization. We house just over 25% of the world’s prisoners, larger than any country in the world. For the geographically challenged, that includes Russia, North Korea, and China. Approximately 93 percent of those prisoners are male. Doing the math, and working on rough estimates, 6.5 million men in this country are under some kind of criminal supervision. Our recidivism rate, or the rate at which people are convicted of new crimes, typically hovers between 65 and 70 percent. We are failing at rehabilitating our citizens, instead choosing to continue housing them and perpetuating a cycle of criminality.
Mental illness, treatment, and the stigma attached to it is a blossoming crisis here, and intertwines with the failure of society and our criminal justice system to properly deal with prisoners. A recent estimate by the Treatment Advocacy Center put the number of mentally ill prisoners at over 350,000, more than ten times the number currently treated in state hospitals. We are failing the mentally ill in our nation, and at a level that should bring shame to us. Without the resources or expertise to deal with them, we dump the mentally ill into prison. Funding to pay for prisons continuously rises while money for mental health services decreases yearly. We have created a demand for prisons in this country, with an entire economy devoted just to the cause. Much has been made of the racial disparity of prison inmates, the nature of their offenses, and their socioeconomic statuses. None of that is relevant here. To put it simply, we have a lost generation of young men, living with the stigma of incarceration or being an “ex con”. A significant portion will recidivate, and a large number of them suffer from some kind of untreated mental illness. Keeping in mind the vast number of men, both young and old, currently under the watch of a correctional program in the United States, we come to realize we’ve essentially created a series of lost generations. Fathers are unable to parent children, kids are removed from society, and the institution of the family collapses. Given the income disparity present in families with one member incarcerated, and the likelihood that a member of a low-income family will engage in criminal activity, more and more young men will end up behind bars. Which, of course, brings us back to young Tristen.
The path Tristen will follow through the criminal justice system is a predictable one. If his case isn’t sent back down to the juvenile courts, he’ll stand trial as an adult. More than likely, he’ll have a court appointed attorney who is unlikely to have expertise in defending the mentally ill or children. He could be found guilty, where some sentencing judge will find him to be a danger to society and give him a harsh sentence. Tristen will degenerate in juvenile detention facilities until he’s 18. He’ll receive minimal real care for any mental illness he currently has, and will, on his 18th birthday, be transferred to an adult facility. He will be in prison until he is either paroled or his sentence is up. In “juvy” and prison, he’ll be exposed to hardened career criminals and gangs. He’ll be educated, but not in the way a typical adolescent in school is educated. He’ll learn how to become a better, more ruthless criminal, and how to use people to his advantage. Tristen will change, and not for the better. He’ll no longer “fear” prison, but instead find a comfortable familiarity within its confines. We will lose another youth to a broken system that cares little for its inmates instead of treating the problem and rescuing a lost boy and saving him from himself. Tristen, will, in effect, become another nameless face in a long line of failures, remembered by a small family and a few newspaper clippings and videos. The tragedy of a lost life will morph into a second, as the cycle rolls on, leaving a trail of tears and despair in its wake. He will, to some, be the face of a generation of men, lost to a society that hasn’t the inclination or ability to properly deal with his problems and to others simply a number, a bill to be paid in the name of progress. Tristen leaves us with a question: Is our goal to rehabilitate our wrong-doers, or is it simply to lock them away and forget they exist until such time as we can stomach their reappearance in society? One answer leaves us as miserable failures, unable to overcome the mistakes of our past. The other paints us as monsters and cowards, satisfied to simply watch as lives are destroyed.
— Photo: blogtrepreneur / flickr