Before I delve into what I have to stay there are a few questions to ask…
How many of in your teen years have either misbehaved in school or skipped school?, how many of you have drank alcohol before the age of 18? How many of you have shoplifted, tried an illegal drug or got into a physical fight?
Now, how many of you have spent a day in jail for any of those decisions you made? How many of you reading this right now, think that you’re a danger to society or should be defined by those actions of youthful indiscretion?
The criminal justice system needs reform! just looking at the United States alone, there are 2.2 million people in American jails and prisons and 4.7 million on probation or parole, which makes them the most incarcerated country on the planet. We all know that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects people of colour almost in every nation, particularly poor people of colour. And there are system failures happening everywhere that bring people to the courtrooms. But what we fail to discuss is how ill equipped our justice system is in receiving them!
When I read up on criminal charge statistics about youth particularly I can’t stop but think to myself, how did they get there? I want to know their stories. And when I read further into these cases I would think, we could have predicted that, that seems so preventable? And over time I noticed a pattern, at least 75% of these teenage kids accused of a crime all contained at least one of these five things…childhood trauma, poverty, loss, disengagement from school and early interaction with the police, all leading to a seat in a courtroom. Sometimes we fail to realise that these kids are coming to us for help and we are sending them out without any!
A particular case which I think is a great example in how the justice system should operate and has always stuck out to me was about a young 18 year old boy arrested in the U.S. He was African American, in his last year of schooling, he had hopes to get into university but his part-time, minimum wage job wasn’t providing the financial support he needed to enroll in school as you need to pay for your own university (college) fees in the States. In a series of bad decisions, this young boy had stolen 30 laptops from a store and sold them online. This of course led to him being arrested and a criminal complaint of 30 felony charges! This young boy had such little understanding of the impact a criminal record would have on his future. Obviously this case had to be dealt with seriousness, but honestly I don’t think branding him a felon for the rest of his life was the right answer, and neither did his prosecutor!
Yes, most prosecutors standing in the court room would have arraigned this young boy, arraigning him would give him a criminal record, making it harder for him to get a job, setting in motion a cycle that defines the failing criminal justice system today! With a criminal record and without a job, this young boy would be unable to find employment or an education. Without those protective factors in his life, he would be more likely to commit further and more serious crime! The more contact this young boy had with the criminal justice system, the more likely it would be that he would return again, and again, and again! all at tremendous social cost to his children, to his family and to his peers, and a terrible public safety outcome for the rest of us.
What was interesting was that this young boy never faced a judge or a jail, he never had a criminal record all thanks to his prosecutor. Instead he was held accountable for his actions, and then recovered some of the computers that he sold and gave them back, and came up with a financial plan to repay for the computers he couldn’t recover. He wrote an essay reflecting on how this case could impact his future and that of the community, he applied to college, he obtained financial aid, and he went on to graduate from university.
There are thousands of individuals like this young boy out there, some locked in jails and prisons, we need the justice system to recognise that and to protect them. When I read his story, I didn’t see a criminal, I saw myself, a young person in need of intervention at their younger stages of life. We need to realise the power of opportunity as opposed to the consequences of the criminal justice system. In anything we do we need to change lives instead of ruining them! I can’t fathom why we would spend so much money to keep this one person in jail for the next however many years when we could have reinvested it up front, and perhaps prevented the whole thing from happening in the first place!
Honestly which is the better way to spend our time? How would you prefer your justice system to spend theirs? Why are we spending billion of dollars on a prison industries that we know are failing in many parts of the world, when we could take that money and reallocate it into education, into mental health treatment, and substance abuse treatment, to help improve our society?
Each one of you that responded with a “yes’ at the very beginning of this post are a living, breathing example of the power of opportunity, of intervention, of support and of love. While each of you may have faced your own brand of discipline for whatever wrong you committed, I know neither one of you needed a day in jail to make you the people that you are today.