Since the beginning of the semester I have been thinking, advocating, studying and learning about the “Raise the Age” Campaign in Michigan.
This State is one of only five States that automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults (Weemhoff & Staley, 2014). The campaign wants to change the Juvenile Court Jurisdiction in order to have this spectrum of adolescents to be prosecuted as youth. If these adolescents are prosecuted as youth, they are going to be able to receive the resources that usually are provided in the Juvenile Justice System in order to rehabilitate youth. Once specific services are identified for the youth’s unique needs, like education, mental health support, and the offer of developmentally appropriate and rehabilitative alternatives to youth in the community, effectively partnering with the families of those in the JJS, among other resources.
The debate over the RTA campaign involves three main issues: The first issue concerns the public safety and the media involvement that surrounds it. The next issue revolves around the developmental age of the individual that commits acts of delinquency. Finally, recidivism is a issue that is used to condemn and to abolish youth.
To understand how the state of Michigan got to the point of debating whether or not to increase prosecution of 17-year-olds as adults, it is important to briefly understand the historical antecedents that brought the legislators, media, general public and the offenders to this point.
The development of the JJS in the U.S was founded in a different philosophy than the Adult Criminal Justice System. While the first is based on the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, the last one is based on the punishment of the criminals.
“In the early twentieth century, the Progressives began to perceive children in a new manner. Industrialization and modernization led to the view that children were “corruptible innocents whose upbringing … required greater structure than had previously been regarded as prerequisite to adulthood.” (Chamberlin, C. 2001 p. 394)
Some scholars believe that juvenile offenders still can be rehabilitated if treated as juveniles rather than as adults and that ‘getting tough’ on juvenile crime does not provide the answer” (Chamberlin, C. 2001 p. 391)
It’s common and normal for youth to engage in risky behaviors that may negatively impact their health. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for advanced reasoning and managing impulses; this part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s. Physiologically, a kid’s ability to demonstrate self-control, fully process decisions, and regulate emotions at the same time is a challenge. Therefore, youth have less capacity for self-regulation in emotionally charged situations, increased sensitivity to environmental influences and peer pressure, and difficulty considering the consequences of their actions. Some of their behaviors make perfect sense when acknowledging their developmental stage — for example, acting out, trying to create boundaries with parents, and trying to differentiate themselves from others may be expressed by breaking curfew, running away, underage drinking, driving under the influence, shoplifting, and other common misbehaviors. Adult guidance and support are appropriate ways to prevent and respond to these behaviors — not adult criminal court and conviction. (Human Impact Partners, 2017)
If a 17-year-old is sent to the adult court, once he/she enters the Criminal System, they are most likely to recidivism, since inmates usually do not receive appropriate rehabilitative services.
“…the lifelong consequences of an adult conviction are devastating. Nearly all youth in prison will eventually return to the community but will find significant barriers to employment, education, housing, and public benefits—the key elements to a successful future. Without effective reentry and support services, young people may find themselves in a revolving door to prison.” (Weemhoff& Staley, 2014, p. 2)
Many researches demonstrate the neuro-plasticity in teenager’s brains, which also demonstrates that the human brain is constantly being developed, specially for youth under eighteen-years-old. It leads to be more capable of being regenerated after a trauma, for example. Being condemned and charged to an adult prison is for sure a trauma that a teenager that committed delinquency will suffer. But, because of a lack of treatments regarding youth needs, the chances of recidivism are high. Although, if this same teenager could be accountable in the juvenile justice system, his/her chances of receiving proper treatment would increase the rate of him/her to become a better person, an adult that assumes responsibilities and a citizen that is good for society. (Szymanski, F, 2017)
The NASW Preamble states that: “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living”. (NASW, 2008)
In addition to that, the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This amendment prohibits the federal government from imposing unduly harsh penalties on criminal defendants, either as the price for obtaining pretrial release or as punishment for crime after conviction. (U. S. Constitution)
With that being said and understanding that Social Workers have a set of core values that advocate for social justice; dignity and worth of the person; integrity and etc. (NASW, 2008), it is understandable that Social Workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice. (NASW, 2008)
Although as social workers (or future ones) we probably believe and agree with that, rehabilitating these youth does not seem good for many industries, like the prison industry (that need to have a certain number of inmates to make their profit), the gun industry and the pharmaceutical industry (usually the crimes associated with youth has relation with drug abuse and sell, in order to stop using drugs, often prescribed-drugs are used instead).
Therefore, understanding that most of the times what leads this population to commit crimes is the lack of substantial biopsychosocial background, and understanding that the policies created in the U.S were always created to benefit one race over the other, benefit the wealthier and the “good families” even though the American Constitution has several articles that would prove the contrary, social workers should always have in the back of their heads the history of this country while assessing and engaging with juvenile offenders, their families and stakeholders , trying to identify their real needs and advocate for those in real need of social change and social justice.
Even though I strongly advocate for the RTA Campaign, during this small research I realized that the JJS in the U.S is very different in terms of custoding youth, once many Residential Placements are private and receive profit with each teenager that is sent to one of these facilities, then the JJS I am used to (the one from Rio de Janeiro). The reality is that the JJS in Rio is completely overcrowded and there is absolutely NO resources for rehabilitating any of the youth that commit delinquency. But I started to ask myself: Do I really believe that the JJS in the U.S is better? Isn’t the fact that it makes profit over the adolescents a complete bias situation that we should AT LEAST consider when thinking about rehabilitating youth? So, even not having the time needed to do this research, I decided to go a little deeper into it and found two articles that really impressed me: “Growing up locked down” and “NO PLACE FOR KIDS – The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration”
Both these articles made me think that the campaign is just a first baby step. Then we need to focus on how effective in rehabilitating youth our residential placements are. The juvenile correctional placements throughout the country are dangerous, inneffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful and inadequate.
We must ask ourselves and our legislators if this is what we expect from a place that is supposed to rehabilitate a human being. What kind of human being would leave this facilities. What are we as a society providing to the human beings that were involved in the JJS and did not receive appropriate tretment, education, many of them do not even have identification (ID’s) and etc.
As I said, I started the research to advocate for the campaign, which I still do, but I am endind it thinking even deeper about these youth involved in crimes and how much we failed them and how much we expect from them.
What I really hope is that in a long future we maybe not even need to have residential placements, or have a different model that would reform juvenile correction placements, in order to absorb the youth that really need to be in a placement like this. I hope that we fail less with them. I hope!