Question: Juvenile Criminal Justice

Our local community center, of which I am chair of the board, is in the middle of construction. We want our new building to be a haven of positive and safe community engagement. But last week, a group of young boys (average age of 12) threw rocks through the windows of our old building.

When law enforcement asked our executive director if she wanted to press charges, she called me. Neither of us wanted to press charges on young boys who likely knew the building was being demolished and were just having fun exercising their throwing arm. We agreed that, while it wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things, vandalism is a big deal.

There are so many ways I could tell this story. Most troublesome to me is that the police officers told our executive director she had to decide right then whether or not she was going to press charges against these young boys. She asked if she could first talk with the boys. They said no. She asked if they could tell her anything about the boys. Again, they said no. She had to decide if the situation warranted punitive action without additional information.

After deciding against pressing charges, the executive director and I discussed how we might positively intervene in the boys’ lives. If we could have talked with the boys and their parents, we could have spoken about the dangers of what they were doing and the potential long-term consequences. We could have invited them to engage the community center in positive ways and hopefully established a good relationship with them and their families.

This situation showed me yet again how law enforcement is designed for punishment instead of positive change. The boys’ youthful action could have begun their slide into a system hard to escape once you enter it—no matter if you do so for a minor criminal infraction. Black youth account for 15% of the nation’s juvenile population but are the subject of 35% of juvenile arrests (see Puzzanchea, Sladky and Kang, “Easy Access to Juvenile Populations: 1990-2016”). At stake in the situation was far more than property; the futures of the youth involved—individuals already likely to fall into the criminal justice system due to their gender, race, and zip code—were in the balance.

One of my mentors serves on a juvenile justice council that hears the cases of young people being charged with criminal activity. She told me she remains on the council at 80 years old because she is the only council member of color, and black and brown children are reported and charged far more than other children. She remains there to continue insisting on a more equitable and understandable system.

We need more people like my mentor to protect our children, especially those of color, from a criminal justice system designed to punish instead of guide and correct. I encourage you to find out about the work of your local justice system and get involved. We need to insist that restoration and not punishment be the goal of criminal justice, especially when it comes to our youth.