Having just returned from a statewide meeting on juvenile justice, I have been thinking about the perceptions that many people have about kids who are involved with the juvenile justice system...
I fear that many parents and community members believe that only "bad" kids get arrested, or charged with a crime, and that only "really bad" kids get sentenced to correctional facilities. I fear that many adults also believe that jail is the best place for "problem kids." I do not believe that to be the case—but I have had the opportunity to learn more about the juvenile justice system through my work than the average Maine citizen might. SO, it seems appropriate that I share a bit of what I have learned, and what has struck me as I continue to learn more.
When I first began to learn about Juvenile Justice issues, I was horrified by the number of kids that we (as a nation) lock up. The US rates of juvenile incarceration far exceed those of South Africa, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, and many others. This is in spite of all of the research that indicates that for MOST juvenile offenders, incarceration does not have a positive effect. The case against incarceration has been summarized by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in an extremely informative report entitled, No Place For Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration. The authors of the report argue that for the most part, America's juvenile corrections institutions put youth at increased risk for violence and abuse, do not keep kids from re-offending or help them be successful in education or employment once they get out, are unnecessary (most youth confined in our correctional facilities pose minimal risk to public safety), are not in line with best practices or cost-effective, and cannot meet the needs of many confined youth. It is clear to those who have studied it that the best way to keep kids the majority of kids who have gotten into trouble from getting into it again is to provide them support within their communities, not to remove them from the supports that they DO have and into a correctional facility.
Secondly, I was disturbed by the disproportionate number of minority youth in many correctional facilities across the US. (Maine is no exception. Last year in one Maine county 41% of the youth who were incarcerated were black. That percentage certainly does not represent the demographics of the county.) I am proud to say that Maine has mobilized to aggressively address the issue of disproportionate minority contact with the justice system, but much work remains to be done. There are hints in data from schools that rates of disciplinary actions such as suspensions and expulsions may mirror these skewed rates, and that our habits of penalizing minority youth more often may begin before contact with law enforcement ever take place.
Finally, I have been disheartened to learn about the lack of alternatives for kids needing mental health and substance abuse treatment services. Many youth could be well served by these type of placements, rather than being remanded to detention facilities. The battle over how services will be funded leaves many kids in the lurch. (Access to mental health services is a huge issue for many Maine citizens.)
Five Town Communities That Care is hosting a panel on Juvenile Justice on March 8, 2012 at the John Street Methodist Church, from 11:30 to 1:00. I hope that if you live locally you will come and learn about what law enforcement, the judiciary, and corrections see as the issues our local youth struggle with, and what we as community members can do about it. It will be a chance to ask questions and learn about what kids could really benefit from. If you do come, stop by and let me know that you read this!