Teenagers Tell Us How To Reform The Criminal Justice System

(BRIGHT) 3/2/2016 — Teenagers Tell Us How To Reform The Criminal Justice System Listen up because they’ve really done their homework. Adulthood cannot be defined by a certain line. What makes someone an adult anyway? Is it their age? Their level of maturity? Their experiences? Would you consider someone who is still in high school to be an adult?

In New York, where we live, the age of criminal responsibility is 16, meaning that 16­year­olds are tried as adults even for misdemeanor offenses. At 16, we might face conditions like jail time with older adults while we are still unable to voice our opinions through voting. Many of us are still in high school and not considered adults in any legal or political arena outside of criminal punishment.

We believe that young people, especially those under 18, who get involved in the justice system for misdemeanors should not be labeled as criminals for the rest of their lives.

Many are kids who were in the wrong place at the wrong time or did not think through their actions. Making poor decisions, unfortunately, is a characteristic of young adulthood, which is why we need the right supports and the opportunity to learn from our mistakes in an encouraging, not overly punitive, environment.

We are aware of the current efforts to change criminal sentencing practices to reduce or eliminate jail time. Since 2014, as part of our work on the Center for Court Innovation’s Youth Justice Board, we’ve been working to learn what could be done to reduce youth arrest and detention rates in New York City and the role that early diversion programs could play in this process. These programs give 16­ and 17­ year­olds a chance to leave the justice system soon after arrest. They provide supports and services and offer community service or leadership and conflict resolution workshops as an alternative to incarceration.

To learn about this issue, we talked extensively with young people, police officers, and other experts on the justice system. We found that early diversion programs have a huge number of benefits: 1) First, they reduce the time an arrested young person spends in court — hours that could be spent in school, at work, or dealing with other responsibilities. 2) Secondly, diversion programs put teens in contact with supportive adults who can help them address personal issues that may have contributed to their behavior, including a lack of resources, health issues, or a need for food or money. Addressing the root of the problem teaches young people problem­solving skills and opens their minds to opportunities beyond their current circumstances. 3) Finally, the people whose cases are successfully diverted from the justice system do not end up with a criminal record which will make whatever background checks they may have to have — for housing, jobs, and educational opportunities — a lot easier.

It is important to keep young people from entering the justice system. Its primary purpose is to punish, which misses the opportunity to rehabilitate teens who need support. According to the Justice Policy Institute, fewer than 20 percent of confined youth go on to complete high school or earn their GED. The report “Who Will Graduate? Disruption of High School Education by Arrest and Court Involvement,” published in 2006 in the Justice Quarterly, found that a first­time arrest during high school nearly doubles the odds of dropping out of school, and a court appearance following that arrest nearly quadruples the odds.

A few of these programs are already in place here in New York including the Adolescent Diversion Program and Project Reset. While they offer a promising start, we believe these programs could be further improved by including the youth voice in the planning and expansion process. Currently, when a 16­ or 17­year­old is arrested, the teen will receive a desk appearance ticket to appear on a specific date before a judge, who reviews the charges and decides whether the teen is eligible for a diversion program. The teen typically is not asked about his or her opinions or interests. The program ends up feeling more like an obligation that isn’t tailored to the teenager’s circumstances or needs.

Our focus groups with youth who participated in diversion programs confirmed this. Many said they attended simply to complete their court requirements and without truly engaging with other participants or program staff. They said the program activities, like sitting in a circle discussing their experiences, didn’t feel useful. These teens still worried about their future after diversion.

Behaviors learned in their neighborhoods over a lifetime cannot be undone in a few workshops. When they left the program each day, they returned to the same circumstances.

This is why is it so critical to make meaningful and individual connections a component of diversion programs.

In addition to having youth voice at the table when it comes to diversion programs, we feel strongly that affected youth should be involved in conversations about all aspects of justice system reform that affect them, particularly about their cases and their futures.

When youth are involved in these decisions, they are given control over their lives and the chance to be held accountable.

In a scenario that can be extremely frightening, young people want this responsibility. It’s an opportunity to show teens that they are trusted to make good decisions. One teen involved in the justice system told us, “When people invest time in you and show they support you, it makes you want to do better.” Traditional courtrooms generally don’t facilitate such personal interaction, but it’s an essential component of growing up. We spend our lives being told what to do and how to do it, but showing that you trust us to think for ourselves is extremely empowering.

A current focus on sentencing reform includes the goal of reducing jail terms. We’d like to see young people be given a chance to leave the justice system before they reach that point.

Young people grow up in different environments and have different experiences, which is why it’s important to include diverse groups of teenagers in the conversation about justice system reform. We can bring ideas and perspectives that might not otherwise come up, and we’re open to finding new ways to fix things. We are often excluded from discussions because people think we are “too young,” but we aspire to improve ourselves and the circumstances for our peers. We just don’t usually have a platform to voice our ideas.

We still don’t have the same rights as adults, but adults have to trust that we know what’s going on and that we know what works for us. We are demanding to be included in conversations that shape our future, because what future will we have without the youth of today?

Authors: Ian, 15, Queens; Eileen (@catalystcruz), 17, Brooklyn; and Rasheem, 17, Brooklyn.

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