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Criminal justice system

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We have been exploring the fundamental issues that concern the criminal justice system while focusing on the interaction between both the United States’ law enforcement agencies, as well as their criminal justice proceedings that include, but are not limited to arrest, trial, sentencing, right to counsel, and incarceration. These procedures intend to provide fair justice and protection of every member of our society. Yet, while having explored these, I also present interest in the criminal mind and behavior, particularly in juveniles’ and the impact that the criminal justice system has on their mental health and their proper development as adolescents. For this reason, while having done my internship at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, for this paper I intend to analyze the tool of education as a restorative alternative for both the rehabilitation and prevention of incarcerated youth.

Juvenile delinquency is a phenomenon that occurs just as frequently as adult crimes, and this should be enough motive for us, and the system to protect our youth by raising awareness in our communities of the struggles and mental processes that they go through. As mentioned in class, the human brain might not be fully developed until the age of twenty-five, which means that in adolescents the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain where the complex cognitive activity happens, (decision making, control of emotions, inhibition, reasoning, etc.) is not developed and it, therefore, could explain the juvenile’s tendency to engage in risk-taking behaviors such as delinquency. In this sense, from a theoretical point of view, Hunter & McClelland in Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology distinguish the sociological “symbolic interactionist perspective” in which they argue that “close contact and immersion in the everyday lives of the participants is necessary for understanding the meaning of their actions, the definition of the situation itself, and the process by which actors construct the situation through their interaction” (37). And so, this perspective would help us have a better understanding of these juveniles’ motives and meaning of specific situations for them to commit such acts that can affect both themselves and those around them, and at the same time, can help us find the best ways to help them.

Given that juveniles represent the most vulnerable population in the criminal justice system, some are still developing ways to properly pursue justice for those juvenile offenders or those that are likely of becoming offenders. Dr. Clayton A. Hartjen, in Correcting Juveniles addresses the issue of what to do with young people who have been adjudicated offenders or found to be in some kind of pre-offending situation and points out that “justice for juveniles differ yet share many commonalities among the world’s societies, the ways in which different countries choose to correct young offenders are diverse, yet quite similar, across the globe” (117). He says that in general, “the various dispositional alternatives countries employ in dealing with delinquent youths can be categorized into two general measures: punitive versus therapeutic/educational” (118). And so, it is fair to say that both approaches differ greatly in the way that the outcomes turn out to be for juveniles. For instance, in a study about the criminal mind, Yochelson et al. concluded that “to change the criminal, we need to change the criminal’s way of thinking” (Roberson et. al, 84). In this direction, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is based on the theory that “the way we think about situations shapes our choices, behavior, and actions”. Behavior theorists Feucht & Holt in a study concluded that “CBT seems to be more effective with treating juveniles”, as they realized that “adults may have more deeply rooted maladaptive cognitive processes” (Roberson et. al, 84). On the other hand, the United States juvenile justice system leads the world in the rate at which youth are detained and imprisoned, with a rate of over 300 per 100,000 youth, and it has been argued that the “U.S system of juvenile justice with its heavy reliance on incarceration does not contribute to public safety, is expensive and ineffective, and exposes youth to violence and conditions that increase the likelihood of youth persisting in delinquent and criminal behavior” (Leone, 87). In addition, it is suggested that the U.S school system could be a part of the problem to the rise of juvenile delinquency, and thus, education it is then suggested as an effort for our youth wellbeing, and “a vehicle for youth transformation” (93) given that is critical for rehabilitation and crime prevention.

My internship placement, the Department of Youth Services is the “Juvenile Justice agency of Massachusetts that serves juvenile delinquents or youthful offenders and detained youth waiting for judicial action” (Mass Gov). In their Comprehensive Education Partnership Report from 2017-2018, claim that “one of the most important and powerful activities supported and delivered by their department is education”, and express that “in order for youth to be successful, in the short and longer term, they have to be able to achieve academically, make a successful transition to the community in an educational and/or vocational placement, and formulate realistic plans for their future” (5). Furthermore, two of their main goals are to (1) “ensure that “the right youth is in the right place, for the right reasons” through juvenile justice reform strategies that engage public, private, community and family partners, as well as (2) improve youth success through a continuum of services based on the science of adolescent development and proven and promising practice in juvenile justice” (Mass Gov).

While being at DYS, I learned that the majority of youth that enters the juvenile justice system, at such a young age have gone through a wide variety of traumas and lifelong struggles that can vary amongst them. Last semester I was also able to volunteer with them as an academic tutor, and through that experience, I got to listen to some of them about how the school system has failed them, and once more confirm this through this internship. For instance, often, many schools take attendance, but not every school tracks their students’ shifts in behavior or mood towards school. Also, many of these kids come from low-income areas, neighborhoods that lack the opportunities they need to succeed as individuals, and often do not count with role-models that can motive and encourage them into doing positive or progressive behaviors. In such situation, a teacher can be a very significant person in their lives, but for many of these kids, teachers have not pushed them into wanting to further their education or take interest in their passions, and rather decide to turn them down, and make them think that they are “not worth it”. In this regard, it is pointed out that “the failure of public school systems to serve youth well is part of the problem”… “long-term sustainable juvenile justice reform requires fundamental changes in the ways in which schools serve their most vulnerable children as well as changes in our beliefs and attitudes about juvenile delinquents” (Leone, 93). These scenarios as a consequence, cause a chain reaction into a juvenile’s risk-taking behaviors such as delinquency. I believe that all of these factors along with their incarceration can influence and turn their educational path and life in general even more challenging, and this is why “those who are incarcerated lack the necessary skills and behaviors required to govern their own lives in a constructive manner due to their currently regulated environment (prison/correctional institution) and their detrimental background” (Houchins, 142). For this main reason, the authorities in charge should examine every possible motive for these juveniles to be driven to the position they are, and thus work towards the best interests of youth for their proper preventive instruction.

Bradley Cole in Rehabilitation Through Education points out that education programs serve in this way as “a model for rehabilitation that can enable educators to design instruction and environments which will make relevant learning possible” (20). He also notes that incarceration often restricts their opportunity of self-exploration, as well as their social and moral development for personal change. And thus, he advises that they have to undergo a process of self-discovery in which they can recognize their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and motivations. This will then make it easier for them to gain “academic, problem-solving, vocational, communication, social, life- management, and transition” (21). And so, as a result of the acknowledgment of these juveniles’ effort and progress, they can then improve not only their confidence and self-esteem, but it also offers them a permanent base from which they can construct their future goals. Furthermore, Leone & Cutting address the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law, a law that promotes high quality education services for youth regardless of ethnicity, race gender, income, disability, income, or background. And so, because it is no secret that incarcerated juveniles often fail to receive the proper educational support when they are committed to the system, they point out the importance of high quality education services, especially for those juveniles with emotional and behavioral disorders. They state, “higher levels of literacy are associated with lower rates of juvenile delinquency, re-arrest, and recidivism” (261). Hence why they encourage correctional institutions to support these juveniles’ education by “(1) making reading and literacy high priority, (2) providing opportunities for students to do homework on their living units, and (3) (similarly to what I did), inviting community members to serve as mentors to youths, and (5) celebrating the academic achievements both large and small, of their students” (261).

All in all, I can conclude that teaching juveniles from an early age the importance of education in any existing aspect and staying out of trouble in general, as well as offering them the resources and opportunities for them to do so, positively reflects their outcomes as productive members of their societies. But most importantly, in the case of most incarcerated juveniles, authorities in charge must be aware and understand the impact that each of their approaches for juvenile justice has on youth. Most of them have much of their lives ahead of them, but for some, it might be their last chance to make a change. And so, rather than only judging them for what they have done and punishing them for it, it is important to focus on new alternatives for their progress as a whole. Not only should institutions be worried about them “righting their wrongs”, but to look for more rehabilitative and restorative alternatives such as helping with their educational journey, the discovery of their passions and shaping of the skills they can put in practice for when they are released back to the society. These rehabilitative and restorative efforts then would hopefully serve as the tool for juveniles to avoid recidivism on a larger scale, which will then guarantee a better future for our youth by inhibiting the chances of them engaging in delinquent acts and other undesirable behaviors.  

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