The juvenile justice system has significant impact on our youth. Years ago, it was determined that young offenders should be treated differently than convicted adults. Thousands of our kids find themselves in trouble for a variety of reasons. One of the founding principles of Lakeside was the belief that juvenile offenders should have opportunities to change their path rather than become involved in adult prison populations.
Some intervention programs can move students from potential offenders into productive lives
We at Lakeside have seen many students transition from our programs into productive lives because we were able to intervene in such a way that these youth recognized what their issues were and learned to deal with them.
However, our juvenile justice systems are often overwhelmed, undermanned and underfunded. Yet, I believe it is important to give our juveniles an opportunity to make some healthy changes—which could save us from the problems and growing costs of incarceration.
Jonathan McClard was a bright and curious teenager
…who had always planned to channel his fascination with the human mind into a career in medicine. But after he was sentenced as an adult for a crime he committed as a minor, Jonathan’s lifelong dreams came to a screeching halt. Overwhelmed by the increasingly bleak outlook of the future, 17-year old Jonathan took his own life in January 2008.
Later that year, Jonathan’s grieving mother held a 5K road race to memorialize her son and to spread awareness about the unjust conditions that led to his untimely death. Inspired by Tracy McClard’s determination, the Campaign for Youth Justice launched National Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM) in 2009.
YJAM has grown enormously in the seven years since its establishment, and its efforts to increase awareness have paid off: a number of high-profile officials have publically joined the conversation about juvenile justice reform, including Senators Rand Paul, Cory Booker, and President Obama. And just last week, President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation officially marking October as National Youth Justice Awareness Month.
Our Nation’s Future
Unfortunately, Jonathan’s tragic story is not an anomaly. Nine states still prosecute 17-year olds as adults no matter the nature of their crimes and despite research suggesting the human brain isn’t fully formed until a person reaches his mid-twenties. North Carolina and New York do the same for 16-year olds.
“We’ve got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different,” Obama said during a speech to the NAACP this past July. “Don’t just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens.”
The statistics facing young Americans are troubling: more than 1 million children are arrested mostly for non-violent crimes each year. Estimations indicate that approximately 50 percent of black males, 44 percent of Hispanic males, and 40 percent of white males are arrested by the time they turn 23, and the rate of incarceration for young women has also increased.
The United States is home to just 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population—approximately 1.5 million people in 2014. Of those individuals, nearly 55,000 are juveniles held in youth facilities, and 7,500 are children incarcerated in adult jails.
“Involvement in the justice system—even as a minor, and even if it does not result in a finding of guilt, delinquency, or conviction—can significantly impede a person’s ability to pursue higher education, obtain a loan, find employment, or secure quality housing,” the Proclamation states.
“These children are our Nation’s future—yet most of them were afforded no margin of error after making a mistake.”
Show a Hand of Support
Campaign for Youth Justice invites you to take part in YJAM. From hosting an event to taking a photo of your hand and posting it on social media, you can support justice for youth. Use #YJAM when you do.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network