According to 2009 federal numbers there are roughly 7,500 kids under 18 years old residing in adult jails; approximately a third of those are in adult prisons. These numbers demand reaction, and October is the month for it.
You see, October is National Youth Justice Awareness month. The purpose is to raise awareness about youth prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. It was started by Tracy McClard, a parent who lost her child to suicide while he was incarcerated in an adult facility in Missouri.
McClard started campaign in 2008 with a 5k run/walk fundraiser dedicated to Jonathan, her son who hanged himself three days after his 17th birthday rather than face three decades in an adult prison.
Her assertion is that Jonathan would still be alive today if he had been put into the Missouri Dual Jurisdiction Program. This residential-style program provides both counseling and educational services to juvenile inmates in a setting that provides additional support by being open to family visits. These are all characteristics that the adult facilities lack.
On the good side the preponderance of data that has come to light in these past few years supports her assertions. Public awareness both of the plight of those lost in the system and the financial savings of embracing more effective programs is starting to make a difference.
According to Maggie Lee over at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange:
[Liz] Ryan [president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice] is optimistic that both Democratic- and Republican-led states, despite tight budgets, will continue reforms. ‘Recidivism research is having an effect,’ she said, pointing to studies that say putting children through adult courts reduces reoffending. Both blue and red states are beginning to channel more youth away from adult incarceration.
In December, McClard and other activists and some state legislators will re-file a bill that proposes to remove barriers to the Dual Jurisdiction program.
McClard said that since her first run, ‘things are changing, people are becoming more aware … Conversations are starting, people are changing.’
‘The way we’re doing it now is so wrong and so horrendous we cannot keep doing it,’ she said. Kids are ‘so amenable to rehabilitation if you give them what they need.’
The entire month of October is dedicated to awareness of these issues. If you want to get involved or start an associated event in your area, go take a look at the Campaign for Youth Justice website, where a large array of resources is available including an event-planning toolkit, a film-screening budget sheet, and more.
If you do get an event going and are considering screening a film I’d like to close by suggesting our own documentary, It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing. You will never forget the view inside the penal system that it provides.