Leonard Witt is the executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University, where he holds the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication and was named an Eminent Scholar by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia in 2008. He was a journalist for more than 25 years, including being editor of Sunday Magazine at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, editor of Minnesota Monthly and executive director of the Minnesota Public Radio Civic Journalism Initiative.
The director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's* Juvenile Justice Strategy Group sounded an alarm Monday about a slowing of progress and an increase in the length of time youth are being incarcerated in some of the 300 sites of the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative.
Last Friday 20 children aged six and seven were systematically executed by a young man, who has been politely defined as suffering from a personality disorder, but who in another time would simply have been referred to as a mad man. His baby-killing arsenal included a Glock 9-mm handgun, a Sig Sauer 9-mm handgun and a Bushmaster 223-cal semi-automatic rifle. Our president brushing tears from his eyes, said, “The majority of those who died today were children -- beautiful, little kids … They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”
“Our hearts are broken.”
The president wept. We, as a nation, mourned. But we as a nation have tolerated a country where gun-related homicide deaths are 20 times greater than any other Western nation.
LAS VEGAS -- When the National Partnership for Juvenile Services annual symposium opened, Jason Bowser, a youth service director from Columbus, Ind., told an executive committee that one of the standing committees was focusing on the question of “What is a juvenile?”
It might seem an odd question for a gathering of folks who specialize in working with youth in the juvenile justice system, but really the question, even when not spoken, would be present in training sessions across the three-day symposium held here this week. Nor is it just a hypothetical question because nearly 250,000 young people under the age of 18 end up in the adult criminal justice system every year, according to the National Institute of Corrections report, “You’re an Adult Now: Youth in Adult Criminal Justice Systems.”
Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice -- in a session reflecting the “Adult Now” theme -- reminded everyone that New York and North Carolina still consider juveniles to be adults at the ages of 16 or 17 in criminal proceedings, whereas in the rest of the states it’s 18. Ryan said a new report shows that each year 100,000 young people get sent to an adult facility and on any given day approximately 10,000 of them are in an adult facility. Once there, the correction system managers do have rules that treat the juvenile differently from the mainstream adult population. At times that means putting the kids into isolation.
Below is a real time, Google Chat interview that Leonard Witt conducted with Sarah Stillman, who recently wrote an article for the New Yorker entitled: The Throwaways; the subhead sums up the story well: “Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.” So let’s get started. Leonard Witt: Hi Sarah, first thanks for agreeing to do this interview, you have written a great, heart breaking story, centered around these two sentences from your story: “Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen.” So my first question is why does it happen? Sarah Stillman: Well, on the one hand, this system has been around for quite some time -- for more than a century, the police have recognized that using "insiders" to gather information on hard-to-penetrate criminal networks can be tremendously useful to them.
Leonard Witt, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism and publisher of Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange recently spoke with Judge Gail Garinger while at a symposium hosted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Garinger is now Child Advocate for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. LEONARD WITT: You talked about the idea of bullying – and it’s on everybody’s mind right now – and you’re a little bit worried the legislators are going to over-react. Can you talk about that a little bit? JUDGE GAIL GARINGER: As you mentioned, I’m from Massachusetts, and what we saw in Massachusetts was a very tragic situation involving a suicide of a young woman who had been continually bullied in the school.
Jeannette Bocanegra, a community organizer from New York City, told a gathering of juvenile justice system practitioners and advocates in Houston last week that as a mom with a child who was incarcerated, “This system made me feel like I was a dysfunctional parent, a bad parent … without realizing I raised six other children who never went into the system.”
Now she and other members of Justice for Families, an advocacy group, are out to prove that, in her words, “We are not dysfunctional … the system is dysfunctional.”
Liane Rozzell, another parent on the panel, said afterwards, “We don’t have 24-hour remote control over our children.”
During the panel discussion, Rozzell said when her son was first put into detention she thought it might be a good thing, it would teach him a lesson. But she did not realize how negatively he would be affected by the experience. She also recalled being in a meeting where a teacher from a correctional institution off handedly mentioned sending kids to “an inherently violent place like a juvenile correctional center.”
After hearing that phrase, Rozzell said, “I was just stunned that we can just casually talk about sending our children to an inherently violent place.”
In June, Justice for Families will be releasing an in-depth report, underwritten by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report includes results of a survey of 1,000 family members who have had children incarcerated and examines how families of the incarcerated are portrayed by the media. Justice for Families co-director Grace Bauer says family involvement and networking is necessary because, “No one knows what it is like to struggle with a child in the system better than another parent.”
However, according to Bauer, early findings from the report reveal, “Families are not consulted.