Reframing our perception of young people in the juvenile justice system

I believe in art! I see it as a powerful tool whether used in teaching, as I’ve seen first-hand through the eyes of my good friend, Sara, who is an art teacher in a DC elementary school, or as I experienced this week during a remarkable photo exhibit, by Richard Ross, which focuses on juvenile injustice.

As I looked at the photos of young people not much older than my daughter, incarcerated and isolated I wondered: is it possible to reframe our perception IMG_20190205_160355of young people in the juvenile justice system to see them as young adolescents who are still developing, instead of, in a discriminatory manner, labeling and incarcerating them as offenders for adolescent behavior –ultimately causing irreparable harm?

This week we invited award-winning photographer and author, Richard Ross, to exhibit and speak at American University. Ross collaborates with juvenile justice stakeholders using his images as a catalyst for change. In his recent work, the Juvenile In Justice project, Ross documents “the placement and treatment of American juveniles housed by law in facilities that treat, confine, punish, assist and, occasionally, harm them.”

Ross’ sobering photographs bring the images and stories of young people in the juvenile justice system to wider audiences. His photographs help to deepen and extend the conversation about our perceptions of who these young people are and raise national and international awareness about the juvenile justice system and the long-term impacts of what it means to be part of that system.

On any given day more than 45,000 young people are detained in the United New Lens_ speakersStates juvenile justice system. And even though we’ve reduced the number of young people we incarcerate by almost half since the late 1990s, 45,000 is a still a staggering number, and Ross’ collection is a clear indicator that there is still a lot more work to be done to reduce that number.

What we haven’t addressed are the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system and alarming new data shows that the racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system are increasing.

Walking through the exhibit, which takes up the entirety of American University’s School of Public Affairs’, Kerwin Hall, I was struck by the number of photos of African American youth in the collection. It reminded me of the stark imbalance and inequity in our juvenile justice system and brought into focus the disproportionate incarceration rates.

The Sentencing Project report showed “Black youth were more than five times as likely to be detained or committed compared to white youth, according to data from the Department of Justice collected in October 2015 and recently released. In 2001, black youth were four times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.”

The report points out that “between 2001 and 2015, overall juvenile placements fell by 54 percent. However, white youth placements have declined faster than black youth placements, resulting in a worsening of already significant racial disparity…

The other consideration to be made when looking at this disparity and youth incarceration overall is the severity of the alleged crime. The Pew report points to the high percentage of youth confined for noncriminal acts. “Twenty-three percent of youth in residential facilities nationwide were put there either for status offenses (5 percent)—which include truancy, running away, and underage drinking and would not violate the law if committed by an adult—or technical violations of supervision (18 percent), such as skipping meetings.”

I question whether these noncriminal behaviors are simply a part of adolescent development and how can those working in the justice context (such as law enforcement who patrol the hallways of high schools and neighborhood streets) better identify and respond to what may be adolescent “acting up”.

Criminalizing behavior which may be a natural part of adolescent development can result in unintended consequences. The trauma of being locked up extends beyond the sentence served and lives are irreparably damaged by the experience in the juvenile justice system.

For example, it is well known that in general, confining juveniles is counterproductive, fails to reduce recidivism, and can actually worsen outcomes for some young people. If a young person is placed in confinement and incarceration which results in separation from their family and peers, this may lead to mental health issues and other issues.

Ultimately, we must reduce the reliance on incarceration as a default sanction. My office provides training and technical assistance supporting Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts to reduce reliance on incarceration and our Right to Counsel national campaign works to ensure all individuals, including youth,  are adequately represented in the justice system.

To answer my opening question – I think we can, and must, reframe our perception of young people in the juvenile justice system. As the mother of a young teenager, I feel that young people are our future. It is our responsibility to better understand adolescent behavior and prioritize their well-being.

Ross’ photographs are a troubling reminder of how mass incarceration is impacting the lives of our youth in deep and sustained ways. I am thankful he continues to bring their photographs forward, into schools and into communities – so that we continue to be reminded of their fragile stories and their fragile futures.

Kim Ball is the Director of the Justice Programs Office at American University