OP-ED: When the Sentence Fits the Crime But Not the Kid

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Judge Steven C. TeskeOscar was 16 when he and a friend robbed a man at gunpoint.

In Georgia, armed robbery with a firearm goes straight to adult court. It also means a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison unless transferred by the prosecutor to juvenile court.

The prosecutor saw what I saw — five years in a youth prison was better than 20 years in an adult prison for a kid like Oscar. We were doing him a favor. So I thought.

I was baffled when I first met Oscar. He was the antithesis of a juvenile gone horribly awry for any number of criminogenic causes. His personality mirrored the way he looked and talked — handsome, respectful, articulate and intelligent.

Why would a good kid do such a stupid and violent thing?

In the case of teenagers, why ask why — or as Forrest Gump would answer, "Stupid is as stupid does!" Even the brightest kids can do really stupid things.

Our system of sentencing kids places far greater weight on the act than on the kid; despite what we know about adolescent neurological wiring coupled with effective community-based programming for kids like Oscar who do dangerously stupid things. I know of many judges who would think twice about committing a kid but for the politics of fear: "Will I risk re-election if I keep Oscar in the community?"

The road to reform becomes like the road to Jericho — less traveled. Many do not want to risk getting ambushed along the way by the few who clang cymbals and gnash teeth frustrated with the truth that what works to reduce crime does not fit their "pound of flesh" ideology.

Consequently, kids like Oscar are sent away and the downward spiral begins.

For most kids, prison is a catalytic cocoon where they undergo a metamorphosis, except what comes out is nothing bearing any resemblance to a beautiful butterfly. The kid who committed a scary act eventually transforms into a scary kid, and we tend to forget one thing — they always return home.

What do we do with an Oscar who is not the person who did what he did?

It is not good for a kid and community to fashion a sentence that "fits" the crime when the crime doesn't "fit" the kid.

We have created a paradox of damnation: We send kids to prison in the name of safety and most return home worse off than when they entered. We damn them forever and in so doing we damn ourselves. Prisons for kids should be a place meant for a few, but they accommodate many.

This irony is compounded by the research that shows a vast majority of incarcerated kids would have fared better had they remained in the community involved in programs more effective than prison. But we're afraid to let go of that which gives us our false sense of safety — prisons.

Oscar is one of those over-the-edge risk takers who jumped into the deep end before realizing he can't swim. How do we save the kids in the deep end while keeping them from taking us down with them?

We began a journey several years ago building several independent collaborative ventures that are now under a single umbrella called the System of Care, an independent agency that braids together public and private stakeholders to collectively decide how to improve the quality of life in our community.

It has been a long journey and we have a long way to go to construct a "cradle to career" path for our children. As always and everywhere, there are a handful who don't understand, and out of their ignorance, fear or apathy try to mug us along our road to Jericho.

Despite these muggings, we remain true to the core message: "Keeping kids in school and out of courts and onto a positive and healthy future."

Using a concept we call "bridging," the System of Care connects the islands of agencies in our sea of bureaucracy to avoid duplication of services, simplify navigation for families and match kids and parents to programs that work for them. The system cracks the "school to prison pipeline" and installs release valves that flow into community-based programs.

The ultimate goal of the System of Care is to begin at birth — to build a "cradle to career" pipeline.

Oscar didn't go to prison, but he spent the next two years in programs inspecting, developing and reprogramming his life. He graduated high school, was honored for rescuing a bus driver, served in ROTC and competed on the swim team. Like other graduates of the program, he is fully employed and pays taxes — and he is not the only success.

Compared to the 65 percent who return from a Georgia youth prison to victimize the community, the System of Care supports a deep-end program called Second Chance that yields a 26 percent failure rate.

Today we are trying to save kids from the school to prison pipeline. Tomorrow that pipeline will look different — it will begin at the hospital and end with a career.

We must partner today for a better tomorrow.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

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