Don't punish kids like adults for
High profile youth shootings have occurred in public
places and the number of violent, gun-related and drug-related crimes
involving youths seems to be on the rise. At forums to discuss what can
be done, someone usually claims that nothing is being done and that
lockup is the best solution.
As someone who has spent most of his career working
with youths and their families in the juvenile justice system, I can
tell you that treating delinquent youths more like adult criminals is
not the answer. Certainly, delinquent youths need to be held accountable
for their actions. While "adult time for adult crimes" may sound like
sensible public policy, research has conclusively shown that waiving
juveniles into adult court produces young people who are more likely to
re-offend and to move on to more serious crimes. These youths are more
likely to become the victims of violence and sexual assault. This is
especially true when it comes to minority offenders.
Sentencing a young person to the adult justice system
is a more costly solution at a time when Alaska has significant fiscal
concerns. It will ultimately shut the door on any chance of them growing
up to be productive and law-abiding members of society. Knee-jerk
reactions are not what the good people of Alaska need. It's important
for us to do our homework on this issue.
The perception many Alaskans have that nothing is
being done is a function of poor law and policy on closing hearings and
disclosing juvenile names and offenses. We need a process in keeping
with "transparency in government," promoted by the Palin administration,
that brings the juvenile justice system out from being a "hidden
agency." We also need to ensure that victims of crime are treated with
respect and dignity, as is their right under the Alaska Constitution.
Victims of crime are still not considered full parties in delinquency
and criminal cases, and their concerns are still too often marginalized.
Youths commit crimes for significantly different
reasons from adults. Impulsiveness, poor judgment and rebelliousness are
directly linked to the fact that young people's brains are undergoing
major changes. When young people break the law, it usually has a
specific cause: family dysfunction, substance abuse, a lack of skills
and unhealthy attitudes. Accountability and rehabilitation are not
mutually exclusive concepts. They can be used together to make for a
healthier and safer Alaska. Good rehabilitation programs already operate
in Anchorage. Much is being done to keep neighborhoods safe while
holding youths accountable. Anchorage Reclaiming Futures (www.reclaimingfuturesanc.org)
is an example of how a variety of professionals can work together to
address delinquency issues and make Anchorage a safer place to be.
Approaches that look at the assets available in
youths, families, and the community are successful and cost-effective.
Positive youth development starts when the entire community makes all
youths and children a priority.
19 May 2007