It’s hardly a secret that America’s juvenile criminal justice system is failing our youth miserably. Recent revelations by The Miami Herald
uncovering abuse in Florida's juvenile prisons come as no surprise to any of us who work within reform, including New York State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D).
In her keynote speech at a reentry panel in October, Sen. Montgomery described her habit of showing up, unannounced, to local sentencing hearings for juveniles. She explained that judges “wouldn’t dare to imprison a baby” in the presence of an elected official.
But what about the children and teens who don’t have the good fortune of receiving a surprise visit from Sen. Montgomery at their hearing? Many are detained. The U.S. incarcerates approximately 70,000 juveniles a year, “63 percent of whom are nonviolent” according to a 2014 piece by The Atlantic.
Detaining juveniles under the age of 18 is especially pernicious because they are in the midst of an essential period of brain development. During adolescence, the brain undergoes major structural growth, particularly in the frontal lobe that is responsible for cognitive processing and impulse control. Years of scientific research have taught us that adolescents do not have fully developed planning, strategizing, and organizing of their thoughts and actions until around age 25. Although laws regulate drinking, voting, and the age of sexual consent, we completely ignore the complexities of the underdeveloped brain when handing down harsh legal punishments.
The first American juvenile justice court was established over 100 years ago and was based on the legal doctrine known as parens patriae, a Latin term that gave the state power to serve as the “guardian of juveniles.” These early courts approached juvenile cases in an empathetic and flexible manner, classifying them as “civil actions,” as opposed to the criminal status we give today.
America’s early juvenile justice system was by no means perfect, but it did attempt to guide adolescents along a better path in a strictly informal setting. However, a number of Supreme Court Cases in the 1960s changed juvenile court’s informal nature, outlining due process procedures that closely resembled adult criminal court. As a result we have the chaotic punishment machine is it today.
When juveniles are incarcerated, their access to a good education essentially disappears. According to recent studies, the “academic achievement levels of adolescents that are [found guilty] rarely exceed the elementary school level” once they have served their sentence. We know that education is essential to successful reentry, but when juveniles are locked up their education is disrupted, in many cases irreparably so, and the cycle of incarceration continues.
66 percent of incarcerated youth do not return to school post-release due to barriers like inconsistent and poorly managed educational programs in prison, a lack of proper classroom facilities and supplies, and bureaucratic delays in obtaining educational records from their prison programs.
Higher education is necessary for formerly incarcerated individuals to achieve long-term success upon reentry. We are putting our young people at a great disadvantage when we fail to provide them with adequate primary education, and in return, we are hurting their communities and their future. We can’t expect to have healthy communities and families when large swaths of our population are not properly educated.
Both of our organizations, College & Community Fellowship (CCF) and Youth Represent, are dedicated to improving the lives of individuals affected by the criminal justice system. At CCF, we enable our students to build social capital and establish stable lives by promoting quality education as the starting point. We see the barriers to higher education this population faces on a daily basis, and it’s enough to discourage anyone.
There is virtually no evidence to suggest that criminal histories of students affect the rate of crime on campuses, yet the practice continues. Campaigns such as Ban the Box — an ongoing effort to end the use of criminal history screenings during the admission process at colleges and universities — are vital initiatives in reforming our criminal justice system.
The mere presence of these screenings deters most prospective students from applying, and helps spread the myth that applicants with certain criminal charges are ineligible for higher education at all. When juveniles are incarcerated, many believe they are unable to attain a college degree or find employment. Combined with substantial time lost to needless suspensions and incarcerations, many juveniles permanently drop out of school.
Criminal justice reform, for juveniles and adults, cannot take place without a re-evaluation of our educational system. We see no benefit in deterring potential students from continuing their education post-release. Creating pathways to higher education for those with criminal justice histories leads to higher employment, a decrease in public assistance, stronger communities, and lower rates of recidivism. It’s time we invest in education, rather than punishment.
Vivian D. Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit committed to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. An alumna of CCF’s program, Nixon advocates nationally for the return of college-level education to our nation's prisons and is an advocate for formerly incarcerated individuals impacted by mass incarceration. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and the Soros Justice Fellowship. Nixon received her B.S. from the State University of New York and is currently a creative non-fiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. Vivian Nixon has written articles for Vice, HuffPost, and Boston Globe among other outlets. She has appeared on several MSNBC news shows and is a regular speaker on criminal justice reform panels. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
Maggie Lear is the President of the Frances Lear Foundation. The Foundation focuses on the juvenile justice, the environment, human rights, education and health. Maggie is also the Chair of the Youth Justice Funding Collaborative which is a 15 year old funding collaborative that works exclusively on juvenile justice issues in New Orleans. In addition, she facilitates parent meetings in the Independent School system in NYC through Parents in Action. Maggie previously served as the Press Officer for the Administration for Children's Services during Rudy Guiliani's administration. She is on the Board of the Urban Justice Center and Youth Represent.
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