Minnesotans have a reputation for being polite, friendly, and reserved—the last people you’d expect to be involved in vicious bullying. Unfortunately, as director Alec Fischer reveals in “Minnesota Nice? A Documentary on Bullying and Suicide in Minnesota Schools,” not everyone in Minnesota lives up to the state’s reputation.
How many young people confined in the juvenile justice system need treatment for mental health and substance problems, and how well are those needs being met? The Survey of Youth in Residential Placement (SYRP) – the first-ever national survey of youth in juvenile custody – offers a detailed, if slightly dated, window into these issues using information obtained from young people themselves. See related story here. Conducted in 2003, SYRP gathered data from a nationally representative sample of youth housed in state and local juvenile facilities. Not released until 2010, the SYRP data show that many young people confined in juvenile facilities had experienced trauma, and most suffered with one or more mental health or substance abuse problems. Yet many confined youth received no counseling in their facilities.
How big a difference can new evidence-based treatment methods make in the cases of juvenile offenders with mental health problems? In Cook County, Illinois, juvenile court leaders decided to find out. Specifically, they agreed to participate in a randomized controlled experiment to test the impact of Multisystemic Therapy (MST) – a prominent new treatment methodology – against the court’s usual services for youth accused or adjudicated for juvenile sex offenses. The study, published in 2009, involved 127 youth accused of sex offenses and ordered by the court to attend sex offender treatment. Sixty-seven were assigned to MST, and 60 were assigned to Cook County probation department’s existing juvenile sex offender unit and required to take part in weekly sex offender treatment groups.
More than 900 documentary features were submitted to the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival, with eight selected for competition. One of those eight is “12 O’Clock Boys,” a visually exhilarating film by first-time director Lotfy Nathan that opens a window on a distinctive urban subculture and the choices a young man faces as he grows from childhood to adolescence. The subject of “12 O’Clock Boys” is a group of men and boys in Baltimore who ride dirt bikes on public streets, defying the law and running the risk of serious injury or death, as well as endangering other drivers and pedestrians. They also like to do tricks on their bikes, the most prestigious of which is a vertical wheelie, with the top wheel in the 12 o’clock position, hence the film’s title. While the Baltimore police are not allowed to chase the bikers, for fear of endangering public safety, they do use helicopters as well as police cars to try to corral them, or track them to their homes, and then confiscate their bikes.
Photo by Justice Policy Institute
One of the greatest obstacles to reforming the juvenile justice system is the fear that “going soft” on juvenile crime will pose a threat to public safety, either by setting youthful marauders loose upon a defenseless public or by removing the supposed deterrent effect of harsh and mandatory punishments. A second obstacle is the belief that any alternative to the current system of punishment and confinement will cost more, a particularly unwelcome proposition at a time when many states and communities are experiencing severe budget shortfalls. A new report from the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., and funded by the Tow Foundation, provides evidence contradicting the assumptions behind both objections to reform. “Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth” details a series of reforms in the Connecticut juvenile justice system since the 1990s, and the positive changes observed in the state since those reforms were instituted. In the report, author Richard Mendel states that the Connecticut juvenile justice system today is “far and away more successful, more humane, and more cost-effective than it was 10 or 20 years ago” and attributes these changes largely to the state’s willingness to re-invent its system, based on “the growing body of knowledge about youth development, adolescent brain research and delinquency.”
The most significant of these changes include ending the criminalization of status offenses (e.g., truancy, running away), ceasing to treat 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults, building a system of community alternatives to confinement and sharply reducing the number of juveniles sentenced to confinement. Connecticut also developed programs to address the specific needs of girls in confinement, to address racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, and to reduce school-based arrests and out-of-school detentions.
Anyone concerned about the incarceration of young people in the nation will find both good news and bad news in “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States,” a new KIDS COUNT data snapshot from the Annie E Casey Foundation. The best news is that the youth incarceration rate in the nation dropped 37 percent from 1995 to 2010. In 1995, 107,637 young people were held in correctional facilities on a single reference day, while in 2010, this number had dropped to 70,792, the lowest in 35 years. The rate of youth in confinement dropped from 381 per 100,000 to 225 per 100,000 over the same period. Also good news is the fact that the youth incarceration rate fell in the District of Columbia and 44 of 50 states, and also fell in all of the five largest racial groups (non-Hispanic White, African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian/Pacific Islander).
Equality before the law is a basic principle of the American justice system. Faith in the jury system is another cornerstone of our system, and the wisdom of allowing local control in policing and justice matters is a third. All three come in for harsh criticism in West of Memphis, Amy Berg’s new documentary about the West Memphis Three, whose trial, conviction, and appeal has also been covered in the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The West Memphis Three—Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin—were teenagers in 1993 when they were charged with murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. This crime drew widespread publicity due to its horrifying nature: the bodies of the murdered children were discovered, naked and hogtied, in a local creek, and appeared to have been sexually mutilated.
An imperfect film reminds Americans of chilling crime and those wrongfully convicted
It’s often said that the more you know about something, the less you are apt to like a film about it. So let me state up front that I was living in New York City (in a single room occupancy hotel not far from Central Park, in fact — I went running in the park almost every day), in 1989, so I remember the Central Park jogger case quite well. In fact, if you lived in the city at the time, it was almost impossible not to hear about the case, including the controversy over the treatment of the young men arrested and later convicted of this crime. The case also received nationwide coverage, as did the fact that someone else later confessed to the crime, and that the Five’s convictions were overturned in 2002. Apparently most Americans don’t know much about this case, however, and they may be better served than I was by The Central Park Five, a new documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon.
We’re living in a Golden Age for documentary film — thanks to digital technology, it’s easier than ever to make a documentary, and thanks to the Internet and DVDs, it’s easier than ever to watch one. This is both good and bad — good in that you don’t need a lot of resources to create a documentary, and the cost of watching one can be free, or at least far less than what you would pay for a ticket to a movie theatre. The problem is that a lot of half-baked documentaries are getting made and distributed, and it can be hard for a potential audience member to figure out which documentaries are worth his or her time. Cevin Soling’s 2009 documentary, The War on Kids, is typical of a lot of the digital documentaries being produced today. It’s neither great nor terrible, but it’s an OK watch if you have an interest in the subject matter and a tolerance for directors who hammer their point of view at you for 95 minutes, without providing a lot of context or research support and no alternative voices at all.
In January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to the dangers of the military-industrial complex, a network of political and economic relationships among politicians, the military, and the defense industry that threatened to become self-perpetuating and independent of criticism or effective oversight by anyone outside this iron triangle. The subject of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In is a similarly self-perpetuating entity, the prison-industrial complex, as fueled by America’s so-called “War on Drugs.” The facts are shocking to anyone outside this triangle of politicians, correctional institutions, and private contractors:
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Today, more people in the United States are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes in 1970. One in eight state employees today works for a corrections agency. About 14 percent of drug users in the United States are African American, but 56 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes are African American.