OP-ED: How to Improve the System’s Treatment of Kids? Ask Them

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While a growing body of research has demonstrated that punishing young people in the adult criminal justice system is not an effective deterrent, results in higher rates of recidivism and undermines opportunities for young offenders to mature and rehabilitate, the subjective views and experiences of young people in the adult criminal justice system remain largely undocumented and unexamined.

In September, my organization, the John Howard Association (JHA), hopes to fill in part of this gap when we release our study “In Their Own Words: Young People’s Experiences in the Criminal Justice System and Their Perceptions of Its Legitimacy.”

“In Their Own Words” examines how young people convicted of serious offenses perceive the criminal justice system, from arrest to prison. The study grows out of a pilot project we have developed to improve the criminal justice system’s response to young people who are prosecuted as adults in Cook County, Ill. Through the support of the MacArthur Foundations’ Model for Change initiative, we have monitored policies and practices in Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) by providing legal education to detainees charged with adult crimes. During this same period, we have provided similar assistance to many of these young people’s family members. Grounded in this initiative, JHA in 2013-14 conducted six in-depth, confidential interviews with people who were prosecuted and convicted of adult crimes in Cook County when they were 15, 16 or 17 and today are incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections, serving sentences that range from 12 to 20 years.

In our interviews, we asked the youth to give their opinions and recommendations on how young people who commit serious offenses should be treated, and how the criminal justice system could be made more equal and fair.

I’d like to preview “In Their Own Words” by excerpting parts of the youth’s recommendations. To protect the participants’ confidentiality, aliases are used.

As a group, the youth all expressed remorse for breaking the law and believed that they should be punished. However, they all believed that punishing young people the same as adults was fundamentally unfair and destructive. Interestingly, many of the youth we interviewed independently developed a shared recommendation that re-interprets juvenile life without parole sentences through a literal understanding of the terms. While the youth believed that being sentenced to juvenile life without parole was legitimate, they thought the sentence should terminate when the person becomes an adult. They further believed the sentences they received were disproportionate and failed to adequately take into account their youth and individual circumstances. Youth were strongly of the opinion that young offenders — under the age of 25 or 26 — should be housed separately from older offenders and given the opportunity to receive an education and job training.

Here were some of the youths’ responses:

R.H.: People make mistakes when they are young. You are conscious, but you are not intelligent. America is supposed to be all about second chances. But when you tell a child it’s all over with and you can never live a normal life, it goes against that. Young people grow and change. Everything does. Even the grass grows. But you should not lock kids away in prisons. If they were messed up before, they will be even worse when they get out. … Kids need a place and an outlet to cultivate their intelligence and substance, and develop a sense of self and heritage and culture. Minority kids in particular are susceptible to the disease of nothingness. The world is a five-block radius and there is nothing else outside it and they feel explosive. Life is so degraded and devalued. You just want instant gratification, what you want, when you want it. And that leads to bad choices. But the rebellion of youth is just a season, not a whole life. Kids have emotional outbursts that lead to horrible situations. … Most kids should be given a second chance and an opportunity to start over while they are still young. They don’t even know who they are. They can be rehabilitated, but not with years and years in prison.

J.L.: Make sure that young people have good attorneys who take time to communicate and explain things; and make sure that young people have the opportunity to visit with and talk with their families regularly because being away from family is very hard when you are young. People should think about what they would want to happen if it was their own son who messed up. If a person commits a serious offense as a juvenile, he should be given juvenile natural life without parole so he can finish his sentence and restart his life when he turned 21.

There should be separate correctional facilities to house young offenders under age 25 or 26 where they will be ‘given a chance,’ provided with an education, and put through a boot camp program. Young people don’t know what they are doing. They don’t understand all about right and wrong yet. They need a chance to work through it. We are still young in our minds and get misguided. Young guys get in trouble because they try to do what the big guys do.

J.C.: Young people who commit serious crimes should be treated like juveniles, except in ‘really bad’ cases like if a kid did a premeditated murder on purpose. It makes young people worse to lock them up with adult inmates because young people have more capacity than adults to change and learn. Special correctional facilities or living units should be set up for young adults so that they can go to school, work, grow up, and ‘be normal.’

These recommendations are just a small part of “In Their Own Words.” To make sure you receive the study when it’s published in September, sign up to receive JHA’s reports on our website at www.thejha.org.

4 thoughts on “OP-ED: How to Improve the System’s Treatment of Kids? Ask Them

  1. This is effective feedback. This is a meaningful tool for juveniles taking part in their own rehabilitation. Thank you for your vigilance to our youth!

  2. Thanks for reading this and for your comment. As my organization has been working on this project, I have also been deeply impressed by the wisdom and insight of the young people we talk to. If you find this oped thought provoking, I promise you’ll love the full report.

  3. I am more and more amazed at the intelligence you share about youth behind bars and other forms of detention. The youths presented here have constructive and real, positive thoughts in regards to modalities and other programs that will work to everyones advantage. I cannot wait to read the rest Bravo!