Monday, February 16, 2009

Musings on Juvenile Justice

This morning I was invited to speak to the youth incarcerated in the Larned Juvenile Corrections Facility. The audience was approximately 120 youths between 13 and 23 years old who had been arrested for any number of crimes or indiscretions. The youth were mostly White (about 85% or so) with a smattering of African American and Latino youth rounding out the balance. Unfortunately (or fortunately) in my 40 years, I have amassed such an impressive and comprehensive collection of mistakes so as to become a virtual cornucopia of cautionary tales. So I was able to speak to the youth authentically about the need for them to be accountable for their choices and how claiming your choices develops your ability to make change.

After the talk, I was taken on a tour of the facililty... It was very clean and orderly. The facility has a wood shop, a welding shop, and a paint shop where the youth can learn trades and earn a little money. They also have an accredited secondary and college level program that can take a child from middle school through their Associates degree. While the cells were certainly uncomfortable, the pods were more accommodating. Each pod has television sets and I saw at least one Playstation. All in all, it was a very comprehensive program -definitely not a deterrent- but one that had all the tools that you might expect to see if you were serious about rehabilitation.

But I left the facility with a powerful mix of emotions. On the one hand, I felt like jail should be a deterrent; and that it should be a place where youth would not want to be sent. In that light, the programs and accommodations almost seemed like extravagance. But as I gave more thought to the idea of rehabilitation I was able to see the necessity of the programming and order. But that confronted me with a sad truth: There are many youth in our community whose living conditions are such that the Juvenile Detention Facility would be an improvement, and that's the Real tragedy. It's not that we should strip all of the value from the detention center; children should have the ability to be educated in a stable environment, children should have access to programs and classes that will help them develop marketable skills, children should be taught discipline and order... But these things should constitute a minimum standard in a child's life. These things should form our baseline... It was truly sad to consider that so many live with so much less...

Drop me a line, leave a comment; I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue...

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