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« Intelligent design debated | Main | Change? Not so fast »

January 24, 2008

Kids and prison

The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has just released two studies that show Americans want to offer youth offenders a better solution than incarceration.

According to one of the studies "more than 70 percent of the public agree that incarcerating youthful offenders without rehabilitation is the same as giving up on them. Nine out of 10 people surveyed believe that 'almost all youth who commit crimes have the potential to change.'" Foundation president Jonathan Fanton explained, "“The public understands that youth in trouble with the law are not lost, and that working with them to solve problems is a better approach to public safety than just locking them up.”

I couldn't agree more.

My heart was broken some years ago when I read Linda Bruntmyer's testimony about her teenage son Rodney's imprisonment in an adult facility, the repeated rape he endured, and his suicide to escape what seemed an inescapable situation. It is difficult to read Mrs. Bruntmyer's testimony without feeling outrage at the disparity between her son's crime and the sentence he received, let alone the brutal treatment that went along with that sentence. No one should have to endure what Rodney did, but the fact that he was a teenager in an adult prison put him especially, and unnecessarily, at risk.

According to the MacArthur Foundation's press release on these studies, the 1990s saw a growing number of states sending juvenile offenders to prison; perhaps in the 2000s, we'll see a reversal of that trend as public opinion shifts. It's too late for Rodney, sadly, but hopefully other teenage offenders can be given a chance to turn their lives around.

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Mike Perry

Agreed! When I lived in Dallas I volunteered at a county boys home that had been established by judges who'd grown disgusted with a system that gave them no effective way to deal with boys in their early teens who'd committed crimes. It placed the boys in small groups with an older couple providing the parents and home many of the boys never had. For many of them, it was their first experience of a structured, disciplined environment with rules that were enforced.

For older boys, something resembling the old New Deal WPA might be better, with a military discipline that combines hard physical labor benefiting the community with a practical education. If it could be run by retired noncommissioned officers who are used to dealing with young men, it would work marvelous. If it became a make work project for indifferent male social workers, it would fail horribly.

At any rate, something needs to be done. Putting young mixed up kids with a prison population of hardened criminals is sheer folly.

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