Archive for Born Not Raised

Rethinking Juvenile Justice: The Supreme Court Decision

US Supreme CourtLast week United States Supreme Court declared it cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole. As with all of their decisions, it was met by some with complete outrage and by some as a move long-needed.

This one is based on a growing body of research, one that has influenced court decisions since around 2005. Neurophysical examination of children and youths has shown that there are very direct and physical reasons that the prior approach to juvenile justice does not work.

Ethan Bronner of The New York Times provides a bit of historical background on these prior court cases:

“What we are seeing is a very stark and important rethinking of how we treat juvenile criminal offenders,” said Marsha Levick, who co-founded the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia in 1975. “For years we were trying to convince the courts that kids have constitutional rights just like adults. Now we realize that to ensure that kids are protected, we have to recognize that they are actually different from adults.”

That sense of difference has fueled the Supreme Court decisions of the past seven years — first a ruling that barred the death penalty for juveniles in 2005; one that banned life in prison for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide in 2010; and now Monday’s ruling that rendered invalid state laws requiring youths convicted of homicide as well to die in prison. That decision will lead to resentencing hearings for about 2,000 convicts — some of them now well into middle age — in more than two dozen states.

All of the recent rulings placed emphasis on research showing that the less-formed brains of the young make them less morally culpable and more capable of change later. So condemning them to die in prison, advocates assert, ignores key advances in scientific understanding.

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In addition to the evidence provided by the physical sciences there is also the problem of cookie-cutter justice, a “one size fits all” approach that removes judicial discretion from the picture.

Conservative writer Elizabeth Hovd on Oregon Live casts things in terms of the rights that we as a nation choose to bestow and which to deny. It’s a very interesting exercise when you consider the ages involved.

Justice is better served by weighing individual considerations than by following mandatory sentencing laws that offer no opportunity to rehabilitate people or allow them to become contributing members of society some day. If we are comfortable claiming people aren’t old enough to fully consider who to vote for before age 18 or be responsible with a beer until 21, banning mandatory life-without-parole sentencing for juveniles makes sense. Parole can and should still be denied if a criminal seems unchanged or is considered a continued threat to society.

Hovd also invokes Christian charity along with a reminder that if you do actually read the decision you’ll discover that this is not an automatic out for everyone, merely the rectification of a poor approach – one that dispenses with actual justice far too often.

It is far more important that we do what is right by victims and offenders than that we copy other countries. I would remind fellow conservatives who are also Christians that ours is a god of second chances — a god of the mulligan. Isn’t it our job to show mercy to penitent men, just as God has shown mercy? Besides, punishment and revenge have never brought back a loved one.

This ruling doesn’t offer a get-out-of-jail-free card. It does stop the legal system from treating children like adults. Children aren’t typically ready to drive at 12 or vote at 14. And children don’t magically turn into adults when they commit a horrible act.

That last point is the one that most people miss: these are children. This is one of the reasons that we produced Born, Not Raised. People need to be exposed to the narratives of the kids lost in our system. It is these narratives that humanize them.

A problem becomes much harder to ignore once you put a human face on it.

Hanging Out With Humane Exposures

Due to technical difficulties our debut Hangout On Air last Thursday did not archive to YouTube. It’s a real shame because we had an amazing conversation! I’ve discovered that many people had trouble that day with both their broadcasting and their archiving, so it was not just a glitch on our part.

In the meantime I have actually been able to interact with the Hangout team over at Google and am working on smoothing things out for our next one.

Marcy Axness will be joining us, along with a rotating array of special guests, for a series of conversations that touch on early home life, neuroscience, and juvenile justice as well as the ways that these topics intersect. It is our hope to create an archive of supplementary resources that build off the material presented in our books.

While we hope to get the kinks worked out of Hangouts we do have a backup plan: BlogTalkRadio. Either way we will make sure that these debates and conversations are available online, and easily shareable.

If you would like to suggest a guest, or submit yourself as one, please leave us a comment here or touch base with us through one of our social media profiles.

Once we get things rolling you should see a new show roughly once or twice a month!

LIttle Girls in Solitary

The Girl - High ContrastSolitary confinement. A harsh penalty, and purportedly one of last resort. The type of penalty reserved for hardened, adult criminals. Or so it seems on the surface…

How would you react if told that solitary is often used for the most minor infractions, and the recipients are all too often female juvenile offenders. This is the subject of a recent piece on RH Reality Check by Yasmin Vafa of the Human Rights Project for Girls:

There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the severe psychiatric consequences of placing individuals, and particularly children in solitary confinement.  Prisoners who have experienced solitary confinement have been shown to engage in self-mutilation at much higher rates than the average population. These prisoners are also known to attempt or commit suicide more often than those who were not held in isolation. In fact, studies show that juveniles are 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population and that juveniles in general, have the highest suicide rates of all inmates in jails.

Every year approximately 600,000 girls are arrested in the U.S. The majority of these girls are incarcerated for non-violent offenses  such as truancy, loitering, running away, alcohol use, or violations of prior court orders for non-violent offenses. Evidence demonstrates that 73 percent of these girls are victims of some form of physical or sexual abuse. Many of them end up in these exact circumstances.

Despite all these facts, when girls in the juvenile justice system express evidence of or the desire to self harm, the typical response is to put them in solitary confinement. While these girls are being placed in solitary for their own protection, there is no consideration given to the fact that such practices deepen existing trauma. When subjected to isolation, these youth are often locked down for 23 hours per day in small cells with no natural light.  This confinement can last several days, weeks or even months, which leads to severe anxiety, paranoia, and further exacerbation of mental distress. The ACLU has reported that in certain juvenile detention facilities, girls are restrained with brutal force and are ‘regularly locked up in solitary confinement — a punishment used for minor misbehaviors as well as for girls who express wanting to hurt themselves.’

This is an especially important topic because this week, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Human Rights, and Civil Rights is holding their first-ever Congressional hearing on the issue of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. It is our distinct hope that we will see the subject of juvenile solitary confinement addressed in this hearing, as well as the other other issues faced by both juveniles and females incarcerated in the American prison system.

Born, Not Raised Excerpt Featured on Youth Stories

We have a huge amount of respect for the National Juvenile Justice Network and the work that they do, so we are quite flattered that they have decided to feature one of the one of the personal narratives from Born, Not Raised in the Youth Stories section of their website!

‘It’s been six months and almost eight hours and I’m getting tired of this place.’ Hui (girl), age 15.

The NJJN is a fantastic organization that provides information and tools to groups across the U.S. that are working on vital issues such as reducing the level of racial disparity in the juvenile justice system, helping create community-based alternatives to incarceration, and improving aftercare and reentry. As you can see, we have a lot of overlap with them in our approach and philosophy.

If you’re involved with a local organization that deals with juvenile justice, you should check out the NJJN, they can not only broaden your network, but they can also greatly increase the array of tools you have at hand with which to work for change.

In closing, here is the description from their website’s About page:

The National Juvenile Justice Network exists to support and enhance the work of state-based groups to promote the reform of America’s critically flawed juvenile justice system at every level.

Through education, community-building and leadership development, NJJN enhances the capacity of juvenile justice coalitions and organizations in 33 states to press for state and federal laws, policies and practices that are fair, equitable and developmentally appropriate for all children, youth and families involved in, or at risk of becoming involved in, the justice system.

We seek to return the U.S. to the core ideals that led to the formation of the juvenile court more than 100 years ago, when our country realized that youth are fundamentally and categorically different than adults.

Recipe for a Dark Future: Kids in Solitary Confinement

Door to SolitaryAmy Fettig of the National Prison Project and Matt Simpson, of the Texas ACLU have tackled a rough topic- one to which advocates for juvenile justice should pay heed — the plight of juveniles in solitary confinement.

16 and Solitary: Texas Jails Isolate Children is their examination of this problem, and I would venture to call it required reading. Using data from a recent report,  Conditions for Certified Juveniles in Texas County Jails, by researchers at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, they provide even more ammunition in the battle to get our juveniles out of adult prisons.

Here is one key passage that I believe provides a good summation:

While in solitary confinement, children’s mental and physical health is severely compromised. The LBJ report notes the broad consensus among mental health experts that such long-term solitary confinement is psychologically harmful for adults. For children in solitary confinement, the impact is even more traumatic. Children experience time differently than adults, have a special need for social stimulation, and are damaged by forced isolation more quickly and severely than adults. It is also true that young people’s brains are still developing, which places youth at a higher risk of psychological harm when healthy development is impeded. But the psychological harm is not limited to developmental issues — it often means life or death. As the report notes, the risk of suicide and self-harm, including cutting and other acts of self-mutilation, increases exponentially for children in adult jails who are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their counterparts in juvenile facilities.

Lives are quite literally on the line here. The difference between juvenile and adult psychology is thrown into stark relief when you look at the impact solitary confinement has on each. But that’s not all. In addition to the hazards these practices pose to the incarcerated, they also hold a dim outlook for those outside the prison bars.

Reviewing the data, the LBJ report notes ‘the impact of prolonged isolation may have mental health consequences that will make it difficult for these youth to reintegrate, and may increase the likelihood that they will recidivate.’ Solitary confinement hurts children and ultimately undermines public safety.

Once more it all comes down to foundations laid in childhood. Even though the rationale often presented is that the kids are put in solitary to protect them from the adult prison population (something that does need to occur), doing so simply damages them in other ways.

Children do not belong in adult facilities. As a matter of fact the vast majority would be better served by community programs, substance abuse / mental health aid, and other rehabilitation-oriented approaches. This is a fact proved over and over again by studies from both sides of the political aisle.

As publishers we have tried to address these issues both through our most recent book, Born, Not Raised, and through the news round-ups we present on this blog. We can only hope that by helping to put a human face on the kids behind bars we can mobilize people to make effective, and fiscally sensible, change.

Born, Not Raised – The Trailer

It is finally here! Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to present the Born, Not Raised video trailer!

So, what did you think?

Join the Discussion

One of the main reasons that we create and publish our books is to incite dialogue and hopefully action.

The topics we have covered in our trilogy – homelessness, women in prison, and juvenile justice – are some of the great challenges that face our communities. By shining a spotlight on the destructive cycles that contribute to these issues we hope to not only educate, but to also motivate people into making a difference.

When these issues are addressed two key things happen:

  • The economic burden on society is lightened.
  • The social burden on society is lightened.

It is that rare animal in the political arena: a truly bipartisan “win-win” scenario.

A focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society has been proven fiscally conservative; the savings over the long term are incontrovertible. At the same time the focus on social factors such as generational cycles of neglect or abuse appeals to the classic liberal stance. This is one area where, no matter how toxic our politics may become, both sides of the aisle have reason to get on board.

How can you help? For one thing you can join the discussion. In the interest of reaching as many people as possible we have been branching out into the world of social media. Join us on our Facebook Page, Google+ Page, or Twitter. Ask us questions, share your stories, or just follow along as we keep you abreast of the latest news on these topics.

Of course we would love it if you would buy our books and share them with friends as well. I highly advise our most recent effort – Born, Not Raised: Voces  from Juvenile Hall – because there is a lot of legislation going on right now across the U.S. that concerns our juvenile justice system. As state budgets get tighter, some are embracing the financial logic in our proposals, while others are backsliding to older, less effective strategies.

It is important to get informed on these issues, as in one way or another they impact all of us in the end.

We look forward to hearing from you!


Supreme Court Update: second chance for juveniles?

For those of you following the story we wrote about last week, Supreme Court to revisit life in prison for juveniles, here is a quick update via Newsy:
It is well documented fact that juveniles are biologically distinct from adults developmentally. These physiological and mental differences make it outlandish to treat them like adults when it comes to matters of crime.

While Justice Scalia may be correct in pointing out that the majority of states allow life sentencing he ignores one vital point. Just because it is, as he put it, “the will of the people” does not mean that the people have all the facts.

This is why we continue to produce works such as Born, Not Raised and It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing, to help provide both information and perspective so that we can make better decisions as a society.

Susan Madden Lankford talks about Born, Not Raised on KPBS

Yesterday our own Susan Madden Lankford was a guest on KPBS, both TV and radio! Here is the video of the televised portion of proceedings. (a link to the 17 minute audio interview on KPBS radio appears after the video.)

For a much more in depth interview check out the one she did for KPBS radio that same day –‘Born, Not Raised’ Explores The Links Between Development And Juvenile Crime

Supreme Court to Revisit Life In Prison for Juveniles

Prison cell with bed inside Alcatraz main building san francisco californiaIncarcerating juveniles for life is a uniquely American failing. The U.S. is the only nation that makes this blunder.

Most of the problem stems from the 1990’s when the histrionic term “super-predator” came into vogue among a certain vocal and excitable group. Randy Hertz of The Nation sums up that background nicely:

In the 1990s, a small group of academics capitalized on and galvanized a growing hysteria about violent crime by youths, speculating that an anticipated rise in the youth population, coupled with spurious theories about the exceptional deviance of children of color growing up poor, would lead to a new generation of ‘severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators…capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons.’ Fearing that the rehabilitation-focused juvenile justice system would be inadequate to protect society from this impending menace, lawmakers passed laws that circumvented juvenile court and sent kids to criminal court for prosecution as adults.

Our position on prosecuting kids as adults is abundantly clear. It is detrimental to the kids, to society, and to the financial bottom line. It exposes children to hardened criminals while still at a malleable stage of the development. The list of issues with that approach is long and varied.

Hertz continues with a vital note on the matter. You see, the expert recanted.

The same expert who coined the term ‘super-predator’ now acknowledges that it was nothing but a ghost story, a terrifying myth with disastrous consequences. In an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Miller and Jackson, this expert—and others—note that the juvenile crime rates actually dropped from 1994 to 2000. But a relative handful of children accused of serious crimes—a grossly disproportionate number of them children of color—found themselves caught permanently in the web spun by academics and politicians, sentenced to die in prison with no hope of release no matter how they might transform and reform themselves. Once we give up on these children, many prisons compound the hopelessness by failing to provide access to educational programs.

This coming week the Supreme Court will revisit the subject. The hearing will involve two different cases, both young boys who at the age of 14 committed murder. Both cases shared another characteristic – a sentence of life in prison with no potential for parole.

The outrage was immediate among advocates, who called the sentence “brutal” for failing to recognize the difference between the actions of the immature youths and the actions of an adult.

Judge Gail Garinger, State Child Advocate for Massachusetts and former juvenile court justice, weighs in on the matter (via The New York Times):

Homicide is the worst crime, but in striking down the juvenile death penalty in 2005, the Supreme Court recognized that even in the most serious murder cases, ‘juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders’: they are less mature, more vulnerable to peer pressure, cannot escape from dangerous environments, and their characters are still in formation. And because they remain unformed, it is impossible to assume that they will always present an unacceptable risk to public safety.

The most disturbing part of the superpredator myth is that it presupposed that certain children were hopelessly defective, perhaps genetically so. Today, few believe that criminal genes are inherited, except in the sense that parental abuse and negative home lives can leave children with little hope and limited choices.

As a former juvenile court judge, I have seen firsthand the enormous capacity of children to change and turn themselves around. The same malleability that makes them vulnerable to peer pressure also makes them promising candidates for rehabilitation.

Let us hope the good sense behind the murder decision in 2005 has a resurgence while they contemplate the current situation. The Alabama Equal Justice Initiative is arguing on behalf of the defendants, and their assertion that life in prison for juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment is one that we support.

It is not that we in any way condone the actions, the loss of human life is horrible no matter the circumstances. The simple fact is that young people and adults have a number of purely biological differences. Brain imaging studies have shown that the parts of the adolescent brain responsible for controlling thoughts, actions and emotions are not fully developed. For this reason alone it is imperative that we use appropriate standards for punishment as opposed to dealing with them like adults.

For more on this subject please check out our latest book- Born, Not Raised: Voices from juvenile Hall. It’s hot of the presses having only been released this last week!