Domestic Affairs

A Vision for a Better Criminal Justice System

The US justice system has two choices in the face of minors who commit crimes: prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law or recognize the opportunity for real change. When minors’ crime rates rise, we tend to blame it on the government, social media, friends, or the temptations of society. Instead, we should look at the system that permits children who commit a crime to be in prison for as long as it deems “best”.

We rarely, if ever, look at opportunity in the face of crimes. According to the ACLU, children as young as 13 are sentenced to life without parole, without the chance of being released. The global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards as adults seems to be absent in the U.S. justice system. In June 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that minors who are convicted of murder cannot be sentenced to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as the ACLU reports. This still allows minors to receive life imprisonment without the possibility of parole through a trial and 21 states still do not take on those laws. It is unfortunate that only eight states prohibit life without parole (LWOP) for youthful defendants. The National Center of Youth Law finds that half of the youth sentenced to LWOP are first-time offenders too. This is the spiral our justice system falls into. Let us reconsider what the justice system deems “best” when creating safer communities.

The Problem: 

Have you ever gone somewhere you were not supposed to, shoplifted, drank alcohol before your legal age, or tried an illegal drug? The answer will probably be yes because of a poor judgment call that we blame on youthful indiscretion. However, this is not a pardon solely for the youth. The web of laws in place are almost impossible to abide to even after our youth. The fact of the matter is none of us have needed a day in prison to make us the people we are today. The life-altering decisions prosecutors make will impact lives years after the offense, preventing minors from receiving a job, education, housing, and stability in their future. Just as easy as they can write off a life, prosecutors have the discretion to realign the system to do its sole purpose of creating safer communities. These unfair situations plague kids who come from the worst communities consisting of poverty, loss, substance abuse, disengagement from school, and early interaction with the police more than those who are among wealthier communities. They do not have leaders, professionals, or role models to look to growing up. A Brookings article underlines this issue of unfairness saying the cycle is impossible to escape for low-income citizens. Minors get punished for petty crimes and then grow up with a stain on their record that prevents them from social mobility. This cycle affects their children because people stay in the same broken communities with little help and resources. 

Not only is it counterproductive to lock up misled youth who may potentially contribute to our economy, culture, and society, but it is also costing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to support a system that shows no true proof of reform or rehabilitation. According to The Guardian, decades of research have shown that prison time is the least effective way to rehabilitate offenders. The Guardian even declares that prison is not only ineffective, but it actually causes minors to acquire criminal characteristics as they try to “fit” in. It is a natural human compulsion to want to be accepted and, this pattern increases their chances to re-offend once they get out. These sunken communities where most of the nation’s youth crime happen are communities that predetermine social stagnation early in a child’s life because of the lack of properly allocated funds in programs that produce true reform. 

These communities are in need of assistance. They come to the legal community for help and restructuring only to be sent away or locked up. That is what we have been doing for decades. It is like our nation’s legal system does not see a story similar to each of our own. According to “Injustice for All”, there are approximately 2.3 million people in jail right now, making us the most carceral nation on the planet. The author of “Injustice for All”, Dr. Chris Surprenant, adds that there are also another 7 million people on parole. Let’s not fail to mention how our system disproportionately affects minorities, particularly low-income minorities. Dr. Surprenant shares his theory on racial disparities in juvenile justice, admitting, “If you were in jail for six, or four, whatever it is, do the math, for 14 days, you probably lose your job . . . you know, 30 days, you’re going to start missing payments on your house. You probably lose your kids . . . You’ve got, like, 15 or so people whose lives are probably being ruined right now because they can’t come up with $1,000. For me, that’s a problem. It’s an issue of justice.” 

What we fail to mention is how the members in our criminal justice system are ill-equipped to handle these cases. When we talk about criminal justice reform we complain, tweet, and do little to understand this cycle. In courthouses around the U.S, men and women walk up in front of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys and say one response: not guilty. The power prosecutors hold is the direction in which these minors’ lives go. Prosecutors can see the obvious and punish to the full extent of the crime or they can understand the circumstances that influenced the crime. The power dynamic includes tactics such as bail, charging, and plea bargains. The stain of a criminal record, the time spent in courtrooms, and the instability that follows these minors jeopardize and minimize our youth’s potential in society. In the U.S in 2010, about 70,800 minors were incarcerated in youth detention centers and approximately 500,000 minors were brought to detention centers just in a year, not including juveniles tried as adults, according to A Justice Policy Institute Report. This discretion does not have to be a negative thing, but some prosecutors are reluctant to take risks in threatening their wins in trials. This is not solely an issue burdened on prosecutors since our criminal justice system does not incentivize innovative reform. They are inclined to do the basics such as plea bargains and posting bail rather than individualized alternatives for each specific case. District Attorney’s should be promoting better alternatives for the underserved youth to keep them out of the system.

We are adhering to an outdated method that is counterproductive to achieving the very goals that we all want from our justice system: safer communities. Giving a minor who is a first-time offender a criminal record can endanger their future economic stability, which contributes to the faulty cycle in our criminal justice system today. The criminal record and subsequent lack of a job, housing, and education will lead to more crime. For instance, the Cheltenham Center in Maryland had, at one point, stuffed 100 young boys into spaces with a capacity intended for 24 with only three to four adults supervising. According to Mark Soler’s “Public Opinion on Youth, Crime and Race: A Guide for Advocates,” the poor environment causes the young boys to be subjected to violent interactions with other inmates. According to Mark Soler, this already-difficult situation can lead to even more extreme cases such as staff abusing inmates because they are underpaid, overworked, and under stress. The current juvenile justice system has created a tremendous social cost for our youths’ lives, their family’s lives, and a terrible public safety outcome for the rest of us. 

The Solution: 

We need to first work with these minors on being accountable for their actions and put them in positions where they cannot re-offend. Minors convicted of crimes are going to spend years in jail when a better alternative would be to invest that taxpayer money upfront and prevent the crime from happening in the first place. 

The addition of parks, recreational areas for kids and teens, or even streetlights can start a chain of reform. We should also invest in institutions like education, mental health treatment centers, and substance abuse recovery programs to improve our neighborhoods and revitalize disadvantaged communities. The addition of “on par” education is one of the most critical factors in aiding the low-income students from entering the criminal justice system early on. Low-income students lack college readiness because of low caliber middle schools and high schools they were zoned to based on their demographics, according to Opportunities for Low-Income Students at Top Colleges and Universities. This leads to fewer resources that facilitate college preparation which leads to higher education. The predicament creates economic segregation and struggle. This economic segregation between districts leads to a decline in money allocated to poor neighborhoods, ultimately, leading to the generational stagnation that allows minors to enter the cycle of crime. It is clear that this issue is a domino effect for our nation’s youth and the safety of our communities. Infusing exceptional resources such as updated textbooks and qualified teachers could decrease the domino effect in poorer communities. A case study in Whither Opportunity at a low-income school reveals how the teachers choose textbooks that contain minimal information with no practice question that would have led to inquiry-based learning for students. In the case study, these teachers wanted to keep students busy. This highlights the apathy teachers are acclaimed to because of the low standards in impoverished schools.
While these suggestions may seem daunting in their magnitude and potential cost, all the research has proven that investments pay off in the long term more than our current criminal system. According to the Brennan Center For Justice, it costs $109,000 in some states to lock up a teenager for a year with a 60% chance he will re-offend based on an absence of effective correctional programs in those facilities. It is a smarter financial decision to spend the money now to reduce the number of minors entering the justice system than to pay to keep teenagers locked up later. This is also the right thing to do. It is our job as students and citizens to address high caliber, overlooked issues that are ultimately affecting everyone in its wake. The power of opportunity needs to prevail rather than the power of the criminal justice system. I can assure you this would be a greater win for prosecutors, District Attorneys, and our nation rather than individual wins in the courtroom.

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