Juvenile justice is a multi million-dollar business. Some parts of the state make a fortune incarcerating teenagers for a wide variety of crimes. Juvenile crimes are big business. What to do with juvenile offenders is also big business and a big problem.
Should teenagers between the ages of sixteen and seventeen be treated as juveniles or as adults? Most will say it depends on the nature of the crime. Each state seems to have its' own criteria to determine how juveniles should be prosecuted and what their consequences should be.
Most juvenile detention centers are overcrowded and understaffed. A growing number of juvenile correction facilities are dismal disasters. They are not equipped to handle the growing number of inmates. Their supervision, at best, is poor. A number of recent media stories have indicated that some of these facilities are having a hard time protecting their young inmates. Suicides are up. Teens are having sex with staff and getting access to drugs and alcohol. The breakdown in supervision is deeply troubling.
If one looks more closely at staffing and the training of workers, it is woefully poor and borderline neglectful. The rhetoric is hardcore, but the delivery is poor, that is clearly illustrated by the high recidivism rate of incarcerated teenagers. Thus, on many levels, it seems to be a huge waste of taxpayers' money. These so called hardcore strategies created to reduce crime have literally done nothing, except left a growing number of misguided teens more damaged then before they entered the system. If that is correct, they will end up costing the public even more in the long run.
What do you do with the growing number of misguided teens who commit crimes? No one really seems to have a handle on the problem. In the 90's, we saw the birth of the juvenile boot camps, created to respond to the growing number of misguided juveniles who committed serious crimes but were assessed as redeemable (whatever that means).
By the mid 90's twenty-seven states were operating these boot camps, but no real data was collected measuring their effectiveness. When the system finally started to evaluate these programs, it found the recidivism rate in these camps was between sixty-four and seventy-five percent. Those are not great stats. What is even more troubling is that these percents are a little worse than traditional youth correction facilities. The US Justice Department, who initially advocated on behalf of the boot camp concept, reported in 1997 that "efficiency of these programs is questionable at best."
What is the purpose of incarcerating teenagers? Do we want to punish them, rehabilitate them or hold them accountable? Is there a value to trying teenagers who commit adult crimes as adults and punishing them accordingly?
The average teenager who gets into trouble wasn't born bad. Somewhere along the line the world he or she was born into failed him or her. Maybe the deeper question to ask is, "Are these misguided youths salvageable or not?" Your response will be determined by who you ask.
Every teenager deserves a shot at redemption. However, that road is difficult, especially if you have little or no supervision and no accountability. Do you want to punish or transform and change? From a very materialistic perspective, it is more cost effective to transform and change. If you empower a potential deviant teenager to change, there is a good chance that he or she will become a productive, contributing member of society.
If your focus is punishment and you treat juvenile criminals as adults, that is to say convict them and sentence them as adults, there is a better chance of their already damaged development becoming more impaired then when they began. They leave prison damaged and with a criminal record that is a public record. Thus, making gainful employment more difficult.
Clearly the way we are responding to teenagers within the juvenile justice system is a disaster. Locally, a few judges in the Criminal Court and Family Court have become creative and are trying to think outside the box. The new District Attorney is equally trying to do the same. So, at least in Suffolk County there is some progress.
However, in general the system needs to be overhauled. We need to reframe how we handle teenage criminals and how we sanction them. They need to be held accountable. For some, probation is not enough. But, a year or two in Riverhead or Yaphank is not the answer either.
Juvenile justice is a complicated issue. There are no easy answers. If we really care about our youth, we can no longer continue business as usual. Too many teenagers who have the potential to straighten out are doomed for disaster because our system of justice is inept and inhumane.
In Suffolk County, we need another task force like we need a hole in our heads. However, a network of committed professionals who know something about criminal justice, teenage development and behavior and are willing to think "outside the box" might make a noteworthy contribution to Suffolk County. This effort would be a waste of time if government leadership is not open to implementing this groups recommendations, even on a trial or experimental basis. Anything would be better than what is presently in place.
What do we do with the Mepham athletes accused of hazing? Their behavior without a doubt is despicable. They clearly need to be held accountable. To charge them as adults would clearly hold them accountable, but would also probably insure little to no rehabilitation and future productive living.
Life as they know it should change because of their horrific behavior. However, here is our chance as a community to act deliberately, responsibly and creatively. We need to think and act "outside the box" and hold these young men accountable, but in a way that will hopefully foster change and transformation. It is worth the shot!
Our other option is to do nothing, let them be punished, go to jail and most probably become nothing and do nothing with their lives. That would be tragic and a tremendous waste of human potential.
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