I’ve spent 15 years working inside New York’s justice system, representing teenagers and doing research inside juvenile facilities. When the New York State Legislature passed legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, I viewed this change not as resolution of a long-standing problem within New York’s justice system, but rather as a step toward needed reforms of our state’s juvenile justice system.
For more than a decade I have interviewed more than 1,000 kids in 35 states. What of these kids who were sentenced to long sentences and JLWOP, life sentences without parole? These kids become adults who become geriatric. These are the people I have interviewed for the past year.
Esteem. Eagerness. Engagement. Elation. Kids in custody become kids for a day. “Cat in the Hat” hats, beloved Dr. Seuss stories, pride to contribute, laughter, fun and the promise of a giant cupcake to celebrate the life of Dr. Seuss transform a jail into a celebration of literacy. Spirits are high, peer cooperation is contagious and childlike delight spreads across a facility often darkened by despair and disrespect.
I remember the paralyzing fear I felt when I realized I was never going home to my father again. I would never have a normal childhood. But my love for reading saved my life. Reading became my way out.
For eight years, from 2007 to 2015, I worked as a case analyst at the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to freeing people who have been wrongfully convicted. My job was to review requests for help from those seeking representation. For cases that I determined warranted an in-depth investigation, I read trial transcripts, police reports and lab reports, and I corresponded extensively with the person seeking help.
A JJIE reporter who was arrested covering the protests in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana last summer is one of 15 people suing the city and several law enforcement agencies for what court documents call “massive violation of constitutional rights.”
Last month, a group of girls at a juvenile detention center in the Bronx sat in a discussion circle with a teaching artist and a social worker. After a series of circle meetings, the girls at Horizon Juvenile Center in New York City had created vision boards, collages in which they envisioned their life five years from now.
Like the phoenix, a mystical bird of Greek mythology that rises from the ashes of its predecessor, we are experiencing today a rebirth of a once promising trend in juvenile justice I refer to as deconstruction, which goes well beyond what we commonly call deinstitutionalization.
The National Juvenile Justice Network has announced its two annual awards.
Verna Carr of New Orleans was awarded the Beth Arnovits Gutsy Advocate for Youth Award 2017. She first became involved with Family and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children six years ago when her then-13-year-old son had faced multiple suspensions, which began his trajectory into the school-to-prison pipeline.
$271,318. That’s how much California expects to spend per youth this year on its failed state youth correctional facilities, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). This amount of money could drastically improve a young person’s education, well-being and development opportunities.