One of the questions I dread most from strangers and acquaintances is, “What kind of work do you do?” Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I might actually love it too much. But usually I just don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not kids should be in jail, especially because most people don’t really have a lot of information about the realities of the juvenile justice system. So before I get into my thoughts on Steubenville, I’ll provide a little “Juvenile Justice Reform 101”.
The majority of kids that are in juvenile corrections facilities around the country are there for non-violent offenses. In fact, 15% are in on either technical violations of probation (which means that they failed to comply with the terms of their probation but have not committed a new offense) or status offenses, which are offenses that would not be illegal for adults (e.g., truancy or running away from home). Another 20% are in for drug or public order offenses (such as disorderly conduct) and 29% are in on property offenses. Only about one third of kids in correctional facilities committed a crime against a person and that is combining misdemeanors and felonies. More than 10% of those person crimes were just simple assault or another person misdemeanor (could be something like harassment for making threats against a fellow student, etc.). There are no sentencing guidelines for juveniles (except in Washington State) so judges have a LOT of discretion. The point is that we’re not really talking about dangerous kids, it’s more about kids that piss us off. Sure, they need to be held accountable and they need to learn that there are consequences to their actions, but there is a cost when incarceration is our go to answer for how to try and teach that lesson.
First of all, it’s not effective at reducing the likelihood that they’ll commit another crime in the future. Actually it’s the opposite. Every kid who is convicted in juvenile court is going to come back to the community at some point. (So will most of those convicted in adult court, they’ll just come back later and much, much worse.) Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that prison is not an effective deterrent. It may work for some people, but probably the same people who aren’t likely to commit a crime in the first place. It’s also ineffective because it’s an artificial environment. Kids may do great in a facility where they never have to make a choice for themselves and they aren’t faced with the challenging realities of their daily lives but what happens when they go right back to the environment they were in when they got in trouble in the first place? Old habits die hard. Finally, the exposure to other delinquent peers creates a negative learning environment. Kids who have been to prison will tell you that it was in the facility where they really learned how to become a criminal. And we actually do know about community-based interventions that are more effective. So, it might make us feel better to lock kids up when they break the law, but it’s a huge waste of resources and actually hurts public safety in the long run.
But there’s also a human factor. Dostoyevsky has written that society’s degree of civilization, or lack thereof, could be determined by its prisons. If this is true, we are a highly uncivilized society. Even when they’ve done something to hurt another person, these are still kids and they deserve to be treated humanely. Tearing apart families, shackling kids, warehousing them in old, dilapidated buildings where they sleep on inch-thick mattresses and eat food you wouldn’t feed your dog is simply not something we should be okay with. Click here or here for photos and stories from detention centers and correctional facilities around the country. Furthermore, these facilities have a terrible track record of violence and abuse. The Department of Justice found that 1 in 12 youth in New York State facilities had been sexually assaulted. Are we really going to accept this, especially when so many of the kids caught up in the system are more troublemaker than gangbanger? The reality is that all kids engage in delinquent behavior, and most grow out of it. But certain youth, primarily poor youth of color, don’t get the benefit of the doubt from the authority figures in their lives and they end up in a vicious cycle of probation, probation violations, and placement in correctional facilities. Think about a time when you were young and stupid. Maybe you got caught and maybe you got in trouble. But imagine if someone had said, “now that you’ve gotten in trouble, we’re going to watch you for 18 months and if, during that time, you are found to engage in recreational drug or alcohol use, you skip school or show up late, you disobey your parents, hang out with those trouble making friends, stay out after curfew, or get in trouble again, we’re going to lock you up.” How quickly might you have been sent away?
I’ve gone on longer than I intended on this issue, but it’s frustrated to work with these systems and see the same stuff over and over again. Whether it’s Alabama, New York City, or Indiana it’s the same story: adults getting pissed off because the dumb kids won’t do what they’re told and not being creative enough to come up with a solution that doesn’t involve ripping them away from their families and warehousing them with other “bad” kids. If anyone is interested in learning more about why this model doesn’t work, check out this publication from the Foundation I work for.
So now we’re back to Steubenville. This is a tough one because these kids did hurt someone. Also, these aren’t the typical “throwaway kids” that people are usually okay with sending to jail. They are football players from middle class families with good grades and relatively promising futures. And I think that was probably the reason that the case remained in the juvenile justice system. For the record, I think that was the right decision, although I think all kids, not just the ones that look like “our kids” should get that consideration. There’s a reason that we have separate systems of justice for juveniles and adults and that’s because kids are different. They do not understand the consequences of their behavior in the same way. Moreover, there’s hope for kids. They are more susceptible to change than adults. There’s really no reason to think that someone who commits a serious crime as a teenager can’t learn from his mistake and turn his life around. I think that people generally agree with this, and you can tell because there have been drastic changes in the use of juvenile incarceration across the country, but you wouldn’t know it from the reactions to the Steubenville case.
Here’s an example of the typical reaction I’ve seen. The author is responding to a post by another writer who compared the boys to Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver. Aside from this, there are tons of comments on Facebook and in blogs I like to read that all follow the same line of thought: Why should we feel at all sorry for these boys? They are rapists, they knew what they were doing, and the only reason they cried at their sentencing was because they were scared about going to “juvie”, not because they felt remorse for the victim. I even saw one blog post which implied that it was absurd for one of the boys’ defense attorneys to argue that his client should not have to register for life as a sex offender based on what we know about adolescent brain development. Even though the blogger admitted that the research is valid and has influenced Supreme Court decisions, the implication was clear: “how ridiculous is this? The desperate lawyer is trying to say his client shouldn’t be held responsible because his brain isn’t full formed.” Except the lawyer is absolutely right. Here is a link to explain the research on adolescent brain development, which was the basis for Supreme Court decisions to eliminate execution of juveniles and limit the use of life without parole.
It’s clear that there are two major issues rising to the top. First, there is concern over blaming the victim. I think this is a valid concern that frequently comes up when the issue is rape, but the perception seems to be that if you give any consideration to the rights of the perpetrators, you’re simultaneously invalidating the girl’s victimization. I don’t think that has to be true. Secondly, there’s a lot of anger about these kids “getting off easy” because they were star football players and good students. That anger extends to anyone (such as CNN reporters) who expressed sympathy for boys, who “had such bright futures”. The conversation concerns me both because of how far reaching it’s been (I mean how often are random people on Facebook talking about a disposition in juvenile court) and because of its vitriol. For me, it supports my suspicion that no matter how clear it is in some state law and even in policy that the JJ system is about rehabilitation, people will still want their pound of flesh. And it’s not totally unreasonable. Punishment is part of learning. Parents use it, even if they would never treat their kids the way the JJ system does. So, the question for me is: how can we ensure that people feel youth who harm others are held accountable for their behaviors without that always being defined by jail time? It’s a pretty difficult question to answer because sending people away for years, even decades, is considered normal. When the public starts from a framework that one year in prison is getting a break, how can we really start a conversation about re-defining punishment? It may not be possible but I don’t think we’re ever going to get control of our addiction to incarceration until we try.