If I told you that a flower bloomed
in a dark room would you trust it?
– Kendrick Lamar, Poetic Justice
Like a flower, in order to grow and flourish, a child needs to be nurtured. Sadly, not every child is raised under conditions that foster proper development. Some grow up in poverty, others in the midst of violence, and oftentimes because of their vulnerability, a portion are subject to sexual abuse and exploitation. Such traumatic experiences can be extremely harmful to the psychological maturation of an adolescent, leading to poor decision making, and more likely than not, a life of crime. Nonetheless, when a young person acts out because of these experiences, society tends to overlook their circumstances, label them criminals, and punish them through placement in juvenile detention: an environment that proves to be just as psychologically damaging. The juvenile justice system is failing our society’s youth. With the recognition that teenagers are different from adults, the original intent of separating youth from the adult criminal justice system was to cater to the specific needs of adolescents. Today, seeing as many are detained in juvenile halls, it is clear this goal has changed. Juvenile detention centers ignore the needs of our young people by mirroring the current system in place for adults, which focuses on punishment rather than rehabilitation. In order to improve the juvenile justice system, detention halls should be eradicated and replaced with youth rehabilitation centers. However, this action alone will not account for those who have already been damaged by youth incarceration. Thus, the newly established restoration centers should employ ex-convicts as restitution for those previously failed by the faulty system.
Our current juvenile justice system is ineffective because it relies on the dehumanization of young offenders. Juvenile delinquents are often viewed as “brutally remorseless” and labeled as “super predators”- titles that have taken hold merely because of the young age at which these offenders start committing crime. This dehumanizing depiction of young lawbreakers makes it hard for members of society to see them as anything more than monsters, and perpetuates a system that treats them as such. If we begin to rehumanize juveniles, our stance on how they should be treated will change. This process begins with recognizing that youth offenders, even those capable of committing the most heinous crimes, have the potential to be rehabilitated into productive members of society (Lyons 746). Research conducted on the adolescent brain supports this idea, revealing that the prefrontal cortex (responsible for a person’s reasoning abilities) does not fully develop until one is well into their twenties. Considering this, kids who have endured trauma within their lifetime are more susceptible to making inapt, impulsive decisions without considering the long-term consequences of their actions. Not only does this neuroscientific research humanize juveniles by providing logical reasoning behind their actions, it supports the notion that because of their susceptibility, young offenders are more amenable to rehabilitation than adults (Lyons 746). Even when this research is considered, many argue that rehabilitation efforts do not successfully hold youth accountable for their actions, and because of this, cannot ensure public safety when dealing with more serious offenders. However, people fail to realize that the punitive tactics currently used to hold juveniles accountable for their actions are ineffective. Data shows that time spent in detention facilities is directly related to high recidivism rates. Simply put, detaining an individual at a young age, within facilities that treat them inhumanely, results in damaging, long-term psychological effects that make them more apt to commit crime in the future. If efforts were made to prepare youth for their return to society, they would no longer pose a threat to the safety of society. Whereas if we continue administering punishment, we are just postponing the life of crime that these youth will continue to live if the necessary help is not received. Thus, addressing the need for psychological counseling through rehabilitation centers will disable this cycle of transgression, and ultimately, keep our society safe. Ridding the juvenile justice system of the option for punishment by destroying juvenile detention halls is crucial to this process because it forces the system to prioritize rehabilitation. Only after we deconstruct the stigma surrounding youth offenders can we make appropriate alterations to the system to improve it. The dehumanization of youth offenders is a major underlying issue of our current juvenile justice system- the negative impact it has on already disenfranchised groups is perhaps the system’s greatest flaw. It targets disenfranchised groups by financing juvenile facilities that disproportionately detain Black and Native American youth. It is not a coincidence that these two marginalized groups fill the majority of detention centers. These groups in particular often suffer most from their circumstances in life, as they were left disadvantaged in society as a byproduct of their ancestors’ oppressive histories, histories that stripped them of their humanity and power, and left them at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy. Now, the juvenile justice system continues to preserve this hierarchy by perpetuating the disempowerment of these groups to maintain their status as marginalized minorities. This is proved by the type of crime we see youth being locked up for, as 80% of youth detained in facilities have committed crimes of an economic nature (Sawyer). Considering that these two groups have the lowest average incomes, this correlation is extremely significant. It shows that institutions we support do not address the needs of troubled adolescents because those who are consistently affected by the faulty system have never been a priority. Continuing on with our current system is ethically immoral; if steps were taken to dismantle detention halls and replace them with rehabilitation centers, our society would be given the chance to right the wrongs they have committed to these groups. Rehabilitation centers will offer Black and Brown youth resources they have originally been deprived of and give them the fair chance they deserve to better themselves.
While it is important that we attack the issue of juvenile justice reform head on by integrating restoration centers into the current system, it is essential that we employ ex-convicts as staff to ensure that the previously affected are also given opportunities. Oftentimes, the needs of incarcerated individuals are discussed, but those who have lived the experience are not given a voice in the discussion. If the government were to support the construction of rehabilitation centers to address the needs of juvenile youth, utilizing the knowledge of previously incarcerated individuals would ensure that rehabilitation efforts are focused on improving areas troubled kids struggle with most. Employing ex-convicts will give youth access to mentors who share common backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge that will help youth feel understood and develop meaningful relationships that promote emotional well-being. Additionally, presenting the youth with adult figures who have made substantial life changes will be the motivation these kids need for their own successful rehabilitation. Despite all the benefits formerly incarcerated individuals bring to the table, the stigma imposed on them induces innumerous consequences. Ex-felons are often perceived as a danger to society and its members. Considering this, few people believe in their ability to change, and fewer, in their ability to effect it. However, there are a variety of organizations that already include the work of ex-cons and are thriving in their efforts to not only change the stigma, but the system. These organizations include, but are not limited to, Homeboy Industries, United Playaz, and Delancey Street. Another weighty aspect to the stigma that brings about consequences when attempting to include ex-cons in the mix, is the suggestion that adult felons are incapable of change. This perception perpetuates the idea that felons must continually be punished for their actions, both in and out of incarcerated life. They are viewed as undeserving of a helping hand, especially when competing against those who abide by the law. In this specific case, previous jobholders within detention facilities will lose their spots to formerly incarcerated individuals in the new rehabilitation centers. While this may seem unfair, it is important to realize that ex-convicts face extreme challenges with finding jobs outside their incarcerated life because of the discrimination they face based on this same stigma. Without a job on the outside, it becomes easier for an ex-convict to revert back to a life of crime, specifically, committing offenses of an economic nature to survive. Additionally, the suggestion does not exclude anyone without a history of incarceration from being employed; rather, it encourages employment within a population that needs it the most. In the end, the pros of hiring ex-felons outweigh the cons, as our society will benefit in terms of safety, inclusion, and Economy.
While our economy benefits from the establishment of rehabilitation centers that curate needed jobs, the deconstruction of juvenile halls will also aid our economy, by cutting down on government spending. Aside from the high expense of upkeeping detention facilities, it is estimated to cost $148,767 per year to detain just one youth within juvenile detention (Sneed). Additionally, the high recidivism rates of detainment centers suggest that this large sum of money is being utilized on the same group of kids. Kids who are released find their way back into trouble and re-enter these halls on multiple occasions. In light of this statistic, it is clear that detention facilities are not only draining the wealth of our country, but funneling our money into a lost cause, simply because detainment facilities are not designed to help youth, and instead, act as a damaging factor to their life. The renovation of detention halls into rehabilitation centers will help reverse this. Considering the statistics presented earlier about juvenile amenability, it is evident that if these students receive help in a timely manner, their life of crime can be stunted early. This action will prevent the government from wasting tons of money by ensuring that their funds are invested in promoting the future of our society’s youth, rather than hindering it. It is evident that if we ignore the issues in our present juvenile justice system, the institutions in place will not only continue to affect our youth but begin to impact all members of society. Currently, the stigma attached to juvenile delinquents dictates their treatment. It allows for the dehumanization of youth offenders, and through this, supports detainment as a viable option for handling troubled teens. Such a system is not only immoral but perpetuates a cycle of incarceration and crime within our communities. In order to fix the broken system, we must start by acknowledging that youth who find their way in and out of juvenile detention facilities are people, and deserve to be treated humanely. This step can be initiated by shifting our perspectives. If as a society we are capable of seeing these youth as victims of their own circumstances, rather than the ultimate perpetrator, ill institutions once maintained by societal support will crumble. However, this new perspective can be difficult to instill, especially in the eyes of the privileged who often become blind to the struggles of others. Yet, it is easy to understand when applied to a simpler concept: when compared to a flower trying to thrive in the midst of darkness, it becomes almost unimaginable that under extenuating circumstances anyone could develop into a model citizen. Left in the dark, a child’s potential for growth almost never reveals itself, yet if showered with love and support, they will start to blossom.