A "new beginning" for adolescents in our criminal justice system.

AuthorKaye, Judith S.

In the spirit of the day, I begin with "new beginnings." On a personal level, recently I closed the door on twenty-five years as a judge of New York State's high court, fifteen of those years as Chief Judge of the State of New York, and commenced Chapter Three of my professional life. But far more significant than my personal situation is our nation's new beginning, our great President striking a resounding note of hope, a call for individual responsibility as well as collective, societal, responsibility.

For me, a good place to begin is with urgently-needed focus on young adolescents who stand at a precipice, facing imminent descent into lives of crime and misery for themselves and others. It's their future, ours too.

Actually, it was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who more than five years ago touched off a national conversation about criminal justice challenges in a speech before the American Bar Association ("ABA"). (1) To this day, the ABA continues its intensive study, culminating most recently in recommendations for more nuanced solutions, such as alternatives to incarceration, improvements in parole and probation, and a focus on re-entry issues like housing and employment. (2)

The Grim Statistics

Justice Kennedy's statistics were positively hair-raising, and indeed have worsened in the intervening years. Imagine, an incarceration rate in the United States that is four to seven times higher than other western nations, (3) heavily concentrated on twenty- to thirty-year-old racial minorities. (4) The average annual cost to incarcerate a person in New York today is about three times what we spend educating a child. (5) Is this really us? Is this America?

Justice Kennedy urged us all to take a hard look beyond the statistics to the human being behind the prison door. And there too we know the grim picture. Our nation's incarcerated adults have the lowest academic skill levels and the highest disability and illiteracy rates. (6) No surprise. Indeed, we can roll the clock all the way back to birth--what the Children's Defense Fund calls the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. (7)

We know that about half a million people drop out of high school every year, (8) and that 68% of state prisoners throughout the nation were high-school dropouts. (9) We know that adults who were frequently truant as teenagers tend to have poorer health, lower paying jobs, children with behavioral problems and an increased likelihood of incarceration. (10) We know that approximately half of all inmates (some even the sole custodial parent) have children; we know that a disproportionate percentage of youth who age out of foster care end up incarcerated, or unemployed, homeless. (11) And so we come full circle right back to the profile of a majority of our state prisoners.

In 1899, America developed the world's first juvenile court in Chicago. More than a century later, we now lock up more young people than any other nation in the world. (12) Once a leader in juvenile justice, the United States is almost Third World in its punitive approach to youth crime.

Then add these facts to the mix. Homicide rates, a barometer for all violent crime, have recently increased among adolescents, disproportionately among young black men. (13) Girls today are the fastest growing juvenile justice population, with girls of color, like boys of color, overrepresented throughout the process. (14) And finally, consider the rise in teen pregnancy. The vast majority are unintended pregnancies, and the vast majority of the morns are unwed, they are also more likely to drop out of school and live in poverty, with babies more likely to have health and developmental problems, experience abuse or neglect, and have poor academic outcomes. (15) Again we come full circle back to the school truants, dropouts and state prisons. (16)

So yes, definitely, we have a genuine opportunity for "a new beginning" in meeting criminal justice challenges. There is no question about it. But precisely where does the "new beginning" begin? At birth? Adolescence? Incarceration? It seems to me that at each juncture the only wrong answer is, "don't bother, we're doing O.K."

What is also obvious is that, at every juncture, the solution requires concerted effort across systems. Quality educational opportunities, relationships with caring adults, and community support plainly are among the factors that reduce involvement with the justice system. And when involvement with the justice system occurs, states are finding alternatives that hold people accountable, protect public safety and also cost much less than incarceration. Each of us has a role, and a responsibility, to change the grim statistics.

Justice Kennedy in his remarks to the ABA actually had two themes. His first concern was the inadequacies and injustices of our prison system, his second was the continuing need to teach the principles of freedom to young people, soon to become trustees of our great constitutional heritage and treasured public institutions. Though he established his case beyond all doubt on both scores, his bottom line was not to offer solutions but rather to urge the ABA immediately to begin a wide discussion, and he kindled a flame that fires enthusiasm to this day, with what will surely in the end be tangible outcomes.

Focus on Adolescents

The question I ask myself is: Where in the cycle of distress can we have the greatest impact? Here my thoughts center on adolescents, young teenagers, the people closest to the edge of the cliff, the people closest to their first criminal conviction and their first unintended baby, both events...

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