Nearly 25% of our population are teens and young adults in the most important developmental sprint of their lives. But rather than helping young people realize their great potential to become successful adults who contribute to our country’s future, too often we’re unwittingly cutting their progress off just before the finish line.
It is essential that trauma-informed reforms go beyond simply acknowledging that many justice-involved youth have been traumatized, and provide practical skills that adults and youths together can use.
On Monday I spoke via Skype with a group of students enrolled at Georgetown University. Some friends of mine teach a class on social justice and conflict studies. Twice I have joined the class to discuss my own experiences with the criminal justice system, restorative justice, my current work, and any other insightful (and difficult) questions they come up with. Several wondered how prison could be changed to address issues of safety and violence, and whether or not restorative responses still allowed for incarceration. These are interesting topics to me, and I am able to talk about them with ease, but a few questions left me pondering the limits of criminal justice reform.
Johnny was arraigned for probation violation. He is 15 and of small stature. He was originally placed on probation for residential burglary — the party to a crime kind where misery likes company. His violations were technical — not a new crime. He is simply not complying with the rules of probation — specifically curfew, marijuana and failing to follow directions at the evening reporting center — our afterschool program designed to break-up the anti-social peer network.
A key deadline has passed in the federal investigation of an alleged “school-to-prison” pipeline in Meridian, Miss., without the U.S. Department of Justice taking any visible action. The DOJ threatened a federal lawsuit “unless there are meaningful negotiations … within 60 days” of an Aug. 10 public letter. That letter accused the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County and state agencies of running a shoddy juvenile justice system. African-American students and students who have disabilities, according to the letter, are disproportionately caught in the net.
A pair of new scholarly articles say nominally neutral rules in the juvenile justice system can actually fail girls, especially, emphasizes one author, young women of color. Discrimination is sort of hidden, said Professor Francine Sherman, director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School and author of the paper “Justice for Girls: Are We Making Progress?”
“If there were laws on the books that said we’re going to do one thing for girls and another thing for boys, that would be challengeable” in court, she said. Instead, the discrimination is in practice, where “we do one thing for girls and one thing for boys.”
For example, in some states minors are still subject to criminal prostitution charges, a charge that disproportionately falls on females, and can make them less likely to run away from their exploiters. Both Sherman and a colleague point out that girls are more likely than boys to be locked up for the status violation of running away. “Most of the girls are running away from abuse,” said Jyoti Nanda, author of “Blind Discretion: Girls of Color and Delinquency in the Juvenile Justice System” and core faculty member in both the David J. Epstein Public Interest Law Program and the Critical Race Studies Program at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law.
On March 22nd, 2012, The Lens welcomed five panelists and over 100 attendees to its third salon at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, which focused on the status of the juvenile justice system in the New Orleans area. Panelists were queried by the moderator on issues surrounding the new French Quarter youth curfew, LGBTQ youth issues in juvenile facilities, the rebuilding of the Youth Studies Center, the school to prison pipeline, and the New Orleans Parish Prison. Audience members were then invited to pose their own questions to the panel. Panelists:
Dana Kaplan – Executive Director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana
Wes Ware – Founder & Director of BreakOUT! Michael Bradley – Deputy Chief District Defender at Orleans Public Defenders
Eden Heilman – Senior Staff Attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center
Alison McCrary – Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow at Safe Streets/Strong Communities
This panel was one in a series of events held by The Lens to engage readers and New Orleans stakeholders on current issues.