Juvenile Injustice: Path From Probation

By Miranda Todd

The courtroom was full of quiet relatives while at the defense table a 17-year-old sat shackled, orange-clad and crying. The judge was listing off his crimes—all drug-related felonies that could, combined with his close proximity to adulthood, put him in adult prison. Witnessing his tears reminded the Juvenile Delinquency team of what we wanted to help prevent. Our goal, our Big Question, was simply helping at-risk youth through the power of community-based volunteer work instead of the hardships of prison life or more intensive probation.


We believed that volunteer work would be a guiding light to young men and women put on probation or incarcerated. Allowing them the opportunity to immerse themselves in community, to see that their community has not given up on them, would surely be a positive. While punishing teens is in no way giving up on them, a young person in the system might see it that way. In fact, many teens do. Creating a network of volunteer programs open to young teens on probation would both benefit society and the teens, building a sense of connectivity and comfort, of safety and understanding. Enlightenment would be brought to those who view at-risk youth as criminals, and at-risk-youth would see that they still meant something. It would show them that they were a part of something bigger and better instead of something the government was trying to get rid of. While community service is already an integral part of probation, the community service they perform does not bring them closer to the community. It means that they are picking up trash or moving rocks. With the cooperation of better volunteer programs, these kids would be able to grow and learn.


There is, of course, other methodology created to help teens. Shows such as Beyond Scared Straight! use scare tactics to realign youth that are on the wrong path. Hardened criminals threaten the kids, regale them with stories of the roughness of prison life, and even push them. Boarding and military schools surely have miles of cases that show a little bit of tough love can take (or shove) someone the right way. “The [adolescents of 2000 and parents of today] have been born into prosperity and leisure”, and rewarding them or their children for bad behavior surely cannot be the way, can it? Is there any path beside one of firm, even frightening correction?


While that theory can easily be understood, it is also easily discounted. The scared straight programs’ efficacy has been repeatedly disproven. While “fear is man’s strongest emotion”, appealing to fear in already hardened kids is not the way to go. It can fuel anger at society, at parental figures, and at government authority. Introducing kids to criminals pawned off as “older versions of themselves” can seem, on alternate ends of the spectrum, both infuriating and almost inspiring. These kids may see the comparison as offensive. They are young, they have made mistakes—but they are nowhere near these prisoners.


On the other side, Beyond Scared Straight! shows the tougher kids’ reactions. Seeing these big bad men and women behind bars talking about how hard life is can make teens think that they are harder, they are tougher. It is almost a motivation: they are propelled down dark avenues with the mindset that they will never land where these prisoners have. They will never get caught.


“Most of the kids [we get today] are from broken families,” Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske said. These kids receive tough “love” at home, which is how they got to the position they are in. Piling more on is pointless.


So, presented with these two choices, it becomes increasingly clear that a gentler approach is a more effective one. Although certain children seem to need fiercer efforts that may have thicker skulls, or may have committed worse crimes and although people closer to adulthood (such as the 17-year-old) may seem like they cannot be saved, there is always a better way out. When kids from tough homes are met with tough treatment, it often goes through one ear and out the other. Being given a second chance and shown how good prosperity can feel could be the push in the right direction these kids need to change their ways.

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