States Look to Raise the Age as Legislative Sessions Wrap Up


The number of states that automatically send teenagers younger than 18 to criminal court continues to dwindle as states wrap up their legislative sessions.

Louisiana lawmakers on Thursday approved “raise the age” legislation that would allow teenagers to remain in the juvenile justice system until their 18th birthdays, rather than being prosecuted as adults in criminal court.

The Republican-controlled House cleared the bill, SB 324, by a vote of 97-3, the last major hurdle before it heads to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who has championed the change.

“We know that at 17 a young person’s brain is still developing. We recognize this when it comes to voting, joining the military, or even buying a lottery ticket. Appropriately, under this bill district attorneys retain the authority to decide, case by case, whether to prosecute an individual as an adult. We are no longer giving up on our young people; rather we are giving them a chance to get their lives back on track,” Edwards said in a news release.

The Senate approved the bill in May by a vote of 33-4, but will consider it once more because the House made technical amendments to the bill.

The action in Louisiana comes on the heels of passage of a similar raise the age measure in South Carolina, which Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to sign.  The Michigan House also passed raise the age legislation that should reach the Senate before the end of the session.

All but nine states treat teenagers as juveniles until they turn 18.

Supporters of raising the age make their case based in part on adolescent brain development research that says teenagers are different than mature adults when it comes to their willingness to take risks, understand their offenses and change their lives. Raising the age brings older teenagers into a system that is better able to focus on rehabilitation, they say.

The Louisiana bill didn’t encounter much opposition. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association originally raised concerns about how quickly the bill would be implemented but now is satisfied with a compromise timeline that would phase in the changes over several years, said Pete Adams, executive director of the association.

The association will keep a close eye on the implementation process, he added.

“We’re still concerned that adequate resources will be in place to make this work, but we’re  assured by the governor and others that they will be,” he said.

Louisiana House lawmakers are also expected to approve today a bill that would give prisoners who are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles a chance for parole. The Senate passed the bill this week, and the House passed a slightly different version in early May.

The bill would allow prisoners to qualify for a parole hearing after serving 35 years.

We Need Better Legal Protection for Young People in the Justice System

kathy_parkThink back to yourself at 14 or 15 years old. You’ve just started high school. But you’re not at school now — you’ve been brought downtown for questioning at the police station.

A detective sits across the table. He says, “I’m just going to ask you some questions. You’ve got nothing to worry about. When you’re done, we can get you back to school. Before we talk, I’m going to tell you your rights, and then we can get this over with.”

He goes on to tell you that you have the right to remain silent (but mom always told you to respond if an adult asks you something). He says that anything you say can be used against you in a court of law (but he told you there was nothing to worry about). He says you have the right to an attorney (but you don’t know how to get one, and you know there’s no extra money at home). He also says you can get an attorney appointed to you (but how? What does that mean? He doesn’t say).

The detective asks if you understand your rights, and if you now wish to speak to the police without a lawyer present. You know the detective wants to ask you more questions, and you don’t want to make him mad. You don’t want to get in trouble. You just want to get out of here. What do you say?

The will and strength to say “I do not have to talk to you without a lawyer” to a detective is not something a reasonable person should expect of any child or teenager. Yet state laws do not uniformly protect children from that situation. Many young people are interrogated without lawyers or even a family member present.

The basic constitutional rights that Miranda provides are no doubt quite familiar to adults who work with youth or those involved in juvenile justice. But for the general public, the importance of Miranda rights for young people — and the urgent need of legal counsel before those rights are waived — are not well understood. That leaves young people and their families extremely vulnerable should a young person be picked up by police.

This is not a hypothetical problem. In a case in California, a 10-year-old boy waived his Miranda rights. When asked if he knew what the right to remain silent meant, he said, “Yes, that means that I have the right to stay calm.”

This story frightens me on behalf of our children. Not just the very young, like this 10-year-old boy who cannot be expected to understand even the basics of what goes on in a courtroom, but also teenagers and young adults, who can’t fully comprehend the potential long-term impact of waiving their constitutional rights.

There is a wealth of developmental research showing that the human brain takes a long time to mature. It does not resemble its mature self, in physical structure or in cognition, until the early to mid-20s. Until that age, young people are not fully capable of mature decision-making or impulse control. This has obvious negative implications for a young person being interrogated by a detective, as in the opening scenario.

[Related: Troubled No More, Youths Bring Stories of Their Resilience to Probation Professionals]

Against the backdrop of brain science, young people would seem by definition unable to meet the legal criteria for waiving Miranda rights. Waiving these rights requires that both the rights and the consequences of waiving them are understood.

Waiving rights must also be voluntary, not coerced. The line of what constitutes coercion, and when it gets crossed, is untenably murky when it comes to young people. Common police interrogation techniques are designed to exploit weaknesses and expose untruths — in adults.

Brain science shows us that a young person’s thinking is susceptible to pressure because it is not fully developed. In the scenario described above, the detective says nothing overtly coercive, yet the pressure to obey or pacify the detective, as felt by the youth, is intense. To call it “voluntary” is at odds with the common understanding of the word.

For young people — to say nothing of those who are developmentally challenged, have no guiding adult in their lives or are members of a group like LGBT individuals or people of color (or more than one of the above) — legal counsel offers protection that mitigates their inherent vulnerability.

Poverty adds yet another layer of vulnerability. For children who qualify for indigent defense services, lack of resources and high caseloads can slow the process down, lengthening a young person’s time without representation. If we are interested in justice, we must ensure that this protection is required by law and consistently, equally available to all.

Brain science has been applied in numerous fields, including the law, by entities as esteemed as the U.S. Supreme Court. It has been cited in landmark decisions affecting young people, recognizing their unique neurodevelopmental vulnerabilities. Why, then, is every young person’s right and access to legal counsel so far behind the science?

Recent and pending legislation in some states has attempted to right these wrongs. California’s SB 1052 would require youth under the age of 18 to consult with legal counsel before waiving their rights. States like Colorado, New Jersey and Texas have implemented model legislation or policy language that defines and protects young people’s right to counsel early in the process, before rights can be waived. Thirty states, though, have no age-based restrictions on waivers.

The case is clear. If we are invested in the health of our communities, economy and our future, we must understand that protecting young people at all points in the justice system benefits everyone. We waste precious resources when we fail to adequately protect our children. Many changes need to be made to our juvenile justice system, but ensuring rights and access to counsel for all youth under 18 is a critical step that impacts its functioning across the board.

Kathy Park is chief executive officer of National Council on Crime & Delinquency, which works to improve outcomes for at-risk children, adults, families, and communities by bringing research and data-driven decision making to the juvenile and adult criminal justice, child welfare, and adult protection systems.

This column has been updated.

More related articles:

Juvenile Justice Reformers Driven by Memories of Mistakes in Their Less-informed Past

Bronx Youth Detail Problems, Solutions to Juvenile Arrests in Neighborhood Report

Alternatives for Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs Finally Start to Appear

Troubled No More, Youths Bring Stories of Their Resilience to Probation Professionals

DeAngelo Cortijo delivered the keynote closing address at the first national symposium on probation system reform
DeAngelo Cortijo (right) delivered the keynote closing address at the first national symposium on probation system reform. Margaret Samuel also spoke before the symposium.

BOSTON — Twenty-two years seems like an awfully short time to already be talking about redemption. But the young man sitting on the velvet couch in the splendor of the Omni Parker House Hotel’s mezzanine is living proof that for someone who has survived the juvenile justice system in America, there is a fine line between ending your life and turning it around.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoDeAngelo Cortijo sat noiselessly mouthing the words of his speech — a dizzying childhood of crime and imprisonment and intermittent homelessness, surviving the streets and long stretches of solitary. It’s a hectic and fractured life the boyish-looking Cortijo has crammed into a 40-minute talk.

As he prepared to deliver the keynote closing address at the inaugural symposium on probation system reform in Boston in early April, reflecting on his life so far momentarily left him trembling.

About an hour before Cortijo took the podium, he considered his bookends of his young life: the near-suicide of his mother, which sent him to the brink of despair, to the flushing of drugs stuffed under his door in solitary, which sent him down the path of redemption. He broke down and wept.

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DeAngelo Cortijo

“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping tears from his face. “I still get a little emotional.”

Even though he was only 2 ½, he can still summon the details of seeing his mother on the brink of death; scampering into the kitchen to find her unconscious on the floor amid empty pill bottles.

“I just so vividly remember sitting in the back of their [Child Protective Services] white city car with city logo stamped on the side looking out the back of the window and seeing the stretcher, fearful as hell, hauling my mom from that house and into the ambulance and that feeling: I’ll never see her again,” he said.

hub_arrow_2-01It was that fundamental desire, a son’s longing to reunite with his mother, that led Cortijo to frequent acting out, which led him into the labyrinthine systems of foster care, probation and juvenile detention in California.

He told his story in the hope of inspiring the professionals to remember that their clients, with all their problems and posturing, are just kids at heart, no different than their own.

After days of statistics, and deep diving into data, of digging into the nuts and bolts of system reform and the latest in evidence-based practices, it was no accident that the symposium organizers ended the event not with an expert or academic but with the stories of young people who went through the juvenile justice system and came out the other side different people.

John Tuell
John Tuell is the executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which organized the symposium.

John Tuell, executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which organized the symposium, said part of its mission was to challenge the professionals in attendance to improve the outcomes for the youth they serve. Thus, he felt it was crucial to turn the podium over to Cortijo and Margaret Samuel, two youths who had firsthand experience, good and bad, in the system and could speak about what they learned.

‘When delivered effectively, these voices inspire us both emotionally and logically to more diligently lead or direct positive change within our youth-serving systems,” Tuell said. “We wanted the audience to be enveloped by their accounts of pain, harm and negative experiences while simultaneously seeing the face of resilience, resolve and victory from these extraordinary young adults.”

From bowels of system to dedicated reformer

Cortijo said he didn’t know what the word resilient meant while he was on the inside doing stints in detention youth facilities up and down California in his teens.

“I didn’t know what the word meant but I knew that basic principle, I learned it and lived it inside. I applied it to my situation. I made that choice sitting in the cell. It wasn’t all peaches and cream. I had to work through a lot but I made a choice, and I stuck to it.”

But that knowledge took a while to acquire, and it was hard-earned, after countless fights and nights in solitary, bouncing from group homes to foster homes to housing projects and, finally, a string of juvenile detention facilities.

Cortijo spent years living by his wits on the streets of Oakland, losing and winning countless fistfights, stealing cars before he knew how to drive. In fact, he said, the only reason police officers pulled him over for one of his first arrests was because he was driving at night without his headlights on.

After that he was thrown into numerous youth homes and detention facilities he broke out of, all by the time he was a young teenager. All of it, the pain and the tears and the blood and the lonely nights in solitary, driven by one of the most basic of human needs: the love of a mother.

One of the lowest points in his ordeal, Cortijo said, was visiting day, no matter what youth facility he was in. It seemed like every other kid in the joint would get visits from his mother, or there would be calls, or thoughtful letters at mail call.

But not for him.

He would metabolize that disappointment into unadulterated rage, which would lead to another fight, another spell in solitary, letting the disappointment marinate into something darker.

Cortijo would coil with rage and resentment and look for an opportunity to unleash it on somebody. Often, he said, the mocking treatment of staff would be enough to set him off.

To Cortijo crime was never about getting free stuff or some twisted desire to hurt someone.

“It was to get attention, to get back to my mother. If I was getting picked up by police she’d come to me and that would be a reason for her to love me. I constantly thought that would happen, being that young.”

He thinks his mother visited him three times in the five years he was incarcerated. Every time someone else would receive a visit from their mother, or get a letter, it would “retrigger” his trauma, he said.

He would cycle through the same soul-crushing questions: I’m not different than them. Why can’t I have that same thing? Why can’t I get letters? Why can’t I get visits? Why can’t I have a family that loves me?

Replacing anger with hope

But that changed one day when he was in solitary in a youth facility in Stockton. Cortijo had reached the point in his young life when, like his mother, he had decided to end it. He was thrown into the hole after another fight borne of frustration, he said, and his thoughts took a dark turn.

“I was just thinking my life can’t get no worse and I just wanted it to all end,” he said.

A cousin who was serving time in the same facility had stuffed a plastic bag of marijuana underneath his door.

“The weed is in my hand,” he said. “It’s in my hand! And my mind just pivoted. I said, ‘You know what? Fuck this shit!’ And I threw it in the toilet and flushed it — and that stuff was valuable in there. That was it, that was when I started shifting the way I began thinking. I just literally shifted the way I was thinking.”

Cortijo said it wasn’t easy, but he stuck to this new way. No more fights. No more bad behavior. He was about to turn 18 and couldn’t act like a kid anymore. He said he developed a way to cope with his bouts of rage.

“I completely was able to mentally capture my anger when it happened and replace it with,” long pause, “and replace it with, like, hope. And the hope was this: ‘If I do good I can still get out before I’m 25, and I can still go to college and have a full life.’ That was my motivating drive.”

Edward P. Kelley, chief executive officer of the RFK Children's Action Corps. (left), talks to DeAngelo Cortijo.

When he’d feel the anger start to swell inside him, Cortijo would counsel himself.

“I’d be like, ‘Man, I want to go to college, I hate this place,’” he remembered. “Whatever I have to do to put myself in a situation to get out of here even if it means sitting here and not saying a word then I’ll do it.”

And he was provoked constantly, he said, but remained the calm center of his universe. Even when he was attacked, he said, he didn’t fight back.

“I’m done,” he resolved. “There’s nothing in it for me.”

Perhaps the only thing more stunning than Cortijo’s journey through the system is the life he has lived since he has been out. Since staring down death in the hole in Stockton, Cortijo said he never looked back. He went from wallowing in the bowels of the juvenile justice system to working to reform it in the committee rooms of Sacramento, the California state capital.

As soon as he got out, he volunteered at the National Center for Youth Law. He received a grant to help with prisoners looking for assistance writing appeals or sentence reduction. He created a spreadsheet on best practices of juvenile justice systems from across the country.

He lobbied the California legislature on two bills, one to limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and another to change the standards for psychotropic drug prescriptions for children in state custody. He testified as an expert witness in the statehouse. He worked for five months as a field representative. But he said he preferred working as an advocate than as a politician.

“Politics,” he said with a wry smile, “is not for me.”

Weathering life’s storms with the A-Team

It is hard to reconcile Margaret Samuel’s electric, infectious smile with her story of abuse, violence and juvenile detention. Like Cortijo, Margaret Samuel’s life was marked by trauma that sent her reeling into the juvenile justice system. In this case it was not the lack of love from a mother, but physical and sexual abuse and other incidents she euphemistically refers to as “unfortunate events” at the hands of her father that left her a broken person. It was a story she told after Cortijo spoke.

She was the only daughter of seven children. “Growing up I felt lonely, isolated and often had to fight to be heard. I grew up in a household with an abusive father, school and friends as an outlet of escape,” she said to a rapt audience. “Yet the instability at home caused me to have behavior issues at school.”

Those issues led to a physical fight at school that led to criminal charges, indefinite probation, time in a juvenile detention center and frequent appearances in court.

“I had probation violations from missing curfew, running away from home for weeks at a time,” she said. “I felt the court system was another entity which tried to control me and not help me.”

Samuel said her life was saved by a group of counselors, advocates and probation officers she described as her A-Team. It was an inside joke for all the people who helped her work through her trauma and turn her life around.

They, like all the probation professionals gathered in the ballroom, were there to “weather life’s storms,” she said. And she was grateful they were there for her. When she was sent to Foundations, a probation facility for girls in Fairfax, Virginia, she was able to see life differently, she said.

”When I wanted to give up they reminded me of the light at the end of the tunnel,” Samuel said. “I knew that I needed help. The safe environment allowed me to put down my mask and carefully tear down the brick walls that I spent years putting up. For the first time in my life I was in a space where I could learn about myself and grow. I saw the possibility of living a different life so I decided to work toward it.”

Now she is studying psychology at Northern Virginia Community College, working as an artist and making plans to build a therapeutic youth center in her home country of Sudan.

She joked that without the A-Team: “I don’t think I’d be the well-rounded, beautiful, intelligent, motivated, and did I say awesome, young woman that I am today.” She laughed and added: “All of you who helped young people weather the storm please give yourselves a round of applause.”

And they did.

After the symposium’s official end, both Cortijo and Samuel were not done speaking. As members of the hotel staff hurried around, hustling dishes back to the kitchen, they could be seen deep in conversation with professionals who wanted tips. Cortijo and Samuel were dispensing advice, and the adults were listening.

Juvenile Justice Reformers Driven by Memories of Mistakes in Their Less-informed Past

Roy L. Juncker Jr., director of the Department of Juvenile Services in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, had an "ah-ha moment" about how well the juvenile justice system works more than 10 years ago.
Roy L. Juncker Jr., director of the Department of Juvenile Services in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, had an "ah-ha moment" about how well the juvenile justice system works more than 10 years ago.

BOSTON — The revelation struck Roy L. Juncker Jr. more than a decade ago, but the memory remains as stark as it is vivid.

Juncker was standing outside the detention facility in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, about seven months into his tenure as director of juvenile services there. He was having a chat with Nat Williams, the facility’s supervisor.

Williams interrupted the talk to say hello to a middle-aged black woman and her daughter heading toward the entrance. Williams knew the women by name, Juncker said. Williams told his boss that one woman was the grandmother, the other the mother, and they were going to visit their daughter and granddaughter, both of whom were in detention.

“I looked at him and I said: So you’re telling me that we have had three generations of this family cycle through our detention center, and he said yes,” Juncker recalled. “I said we are doing something wrong here. Why is that that we have three generations of a family coming through our detention center and we have not broken that cycle?”

Juncker resolved then, outside the detention center, to spearhead an effort to reform how he did business for the youth coming into his system.

“That was kind of my ah-ha moment,” he said. “I thought, my God, we have to do something different. I mean this is insanity; we are doing the same thing over and over again looking for a change in the families, so at that point I realized we had to do something different.”

Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubJuncker was not alone in being haunted by his professional past, and dogged by old decisions. Many of the professionals who gathered for the symposium on probation system reform organized by the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice in Boston in April talked about the lingering guilt they still wrestle with today.

Many of the men and women on the frontlines of the juvenile justice systems, especially those in leadership positions, have made great strides in reforming their jurisdictions, pointing to lower recidivism, staggering drops in the number of youth in secure facilities and lower caseloads.

But despite such successes, there was a theme that was palpable over the week of the symposium, both privately in hotel hallways and publicly from the podium: a desire to make up for past mistakes. The more they implemented sound reforms that led to better outcomes for the children in their care, the more they thought about the old way of doing things and the damage they may have caused.

“I’d like to tell everybody here that I was some kind of great visionary that saw the future of juvenile justice, that I designed my own program and moved forward, but that would be too far from the truth to sell that to you,” said Bob Bermingham, the director of court services in Fairfax County (Virginia) Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. “I did all the wrong things for the right reasons for about 15 or 16 years of my career. I think about the possible harm that I did to kids and families over the course of my career. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t use that to motivate me.”

new york logo 01Fairfax is a safe, affluent community with a low crime rate, he said. But after he took over as director of the county agency he found the detention centers were filled to maximum capacity, his probation officers’ caseloads were stunningly high, and the system was rife with disproportionate minority representation.

“It didn’t make sense,” he said. “It motivated me to go out and look at what was going on around the country.”

Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta.
Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta.

Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton CountyJuvenile Court in Atlanta, was also driven to transform his juvenile justice system by the mistakes he made as a young probation officer.

“I was a little wayward and misguided as a probation officer,” he said. “Knowing my times as a probation officer, and how many things I did horribly, or how many children that I irresponsibly, or sometimes just ignorantly, subjected to detention because I had no other tools,” he added.  “The recurring theme consistently has been the lack of knowledge, of understanding what’s going on, the depth of what’s going on in a child’s life.”

When Keith Snyder started his career as a probation officer he remembers how many of the youth in his caseload were afflicted with mental health problems. Now, as executive director of Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, he has worked to change that.

“The quality and quantity of mental health services just wasn’t good and that was still stuck in my craw,” he said.

A decade ago, when the opportunity to work on reforming the system in Pennsylvania presented itself, he said, he volunteered to step up and spearhead the reform.

Gina Vincent is associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Gina Vincent is associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Gina Vincent said she remembers researching as a graduate student outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system and making troubling discoveries about recidivism rates and the number of youth in detention facilities. She is an associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts, and the president of National Youth Screening and Assessment Partners,

“And that was in tree-hugging Canada,” she said. “We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

There is an 18-inch by 24-inch framed autographed drawing of Spider-Man that reminds John Tuell about what he describes as the moral underpinning of the work he and other probation professionals do. It was drawn by Eduardo, a youth he worked with when he was an administrator at a residential treatment facility for chronic delinquent offenders in Fairfax, Virginia.

John Tuell is the executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.

Tuell, the executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, lived in the area where he worked, so he would occasionally run into young people at a ballgame or at their jobs. He saw Eduardo at a favorite restaurant. He was a youth with a childhood marred by poverty and abuse. Now he was working at a restaurant and going to college to become a cartoonist.

“His brief note accompanying that autograph remains a priceless reminder for me of why we must give our all to these youth; more, why we must succeed, he said.

Not all the stories ended so well. Tuell worked with Christy, a bright young woman with a broken childhood, when she was 14 to 18. She looked to him as a father figure, he said. So it was a blow when Christy’s sister told him Christy had killed herself shortly after her 26th birthday.

“Her loss and my realizations of the many gaps and failures in my approach coupled with the way our systems responded to Christy, drive me every day to prevent another of these stories,” he said.

Juncker has more than a past as a probation officer driving him. Before he joined probation, he was a police officer. He worked as a juvenile detective for more than four years.

“As a police officer we looked for probable cause, we made arrests, we put kids into the system because that’s what we were trained to do,” he said. “Once I made the arrest and the child went to court and was adjudicated I didn’t care what happened to that child.”

Now as a leader transforming his agency Juncker said he feels he can atone for that jaded approach to children.

“I felt like all the damage I had done before arresting these kids and putting them in the system, that now I had an opportunity to correct that and make positive changes.”

This story has been updated.

Bronx Youth Detail Problems, Solutions to Juvenile Arrests in Neighborhood Report

DeVante Lewis (right) in front of portraits of local youth wearing shirts that highlight the report's main findings at the Bronx Art Space.
Survey researcher DeVante Lewis (right) views portraits of local youth wearing shirts that highlight the report's main findings at the Bronx Art Space.

NEW YORK — The bold black lettering stood out emphatically on freshly pressed white T-shirts.

One read, “Only 28 percent of youth had their parents present while being questioned by police.”

“Only 42 percent of the youth had their parents notified immediately after arrest,” read another.

The T-shirts were a concrete way to dramatize a survey about some of the most pressing juvenile justice issues in the Bronx. Unusually, young adults from the community had been trained in participatory action research, which is created for, about and by affected community members.

Wearing the shirts, they eagerly shared their personal experiences with about 100 neighborhood residents and some experts at a February event.

new york logo 01The commissioner for the Administration for Children’s Services, which provides juvenile justice services in New York City, said she was impressed not only with the survey but with the suggested solutions.

“Send me your recommendations, you should hold me accountable,” Gladys Carrion said. “I am responsible. You pay my salary.”

A New York Police Department (NYPD) spokesperson, in an emailed statement, declined to respond to the survey findings, but said it is department policy to notify parents or guardians when juveniles are taken into custody and to question juveniles in their presence.

The report the youths created, “Support Not Punish: A Participatory Action Research Report” outlines findings from a survey created and completed over 18 months during 2014 and 2015.

It showed that nearly 80 percent of youth arrested miss more than 20 days of school following an arrest, and 45 percent said the programs they were sent to were not helpful. The report contains sections on arrest, probation, juvenile court processes, detention, placement and family member support.

But the research was about more than just identifying problems.

hub-slide-final2“The best type of research doesn’t just tell us what is, but it helps us imagine what could be,” said Whitney Richards-Calathes, who trained the group and works on juvenile justice reform in Los Angeles, during the panel discussion.

“We want to know what does a world look like where 10-year-olds aren’t being arrested,” she said.

Additionally, researchers found 37 percent felt police used excessive force and 75 percent said they felt officers were being dishonest regarding what would happen after their arrest.

“In situations like this,” said researcher DeVante Lewis, 24, “solutions are simple. You just don’t question a kid without their parent.”

Wesley Jennings, associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, who has also published research on youth in Puerto Rico and the Bronx, agreed.

“Relocation of a youth, for any reason, you would hope that parent or guardian would be abreast of that in real time,” he said, adding that although it differs from traditional academic research, “Support Not Punish” is valuable because it comes solely from the community and addresses the entire juvenile justice process.

Attorney Ezekiel Edwards, with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bigger issue is the overcriminalization and overincarceration of the black and minority community in New York and the nation.

“Just think about that — a 10-year-old getting arrested,” he said. “You should call the parents. But why are you arresting a 10-year-old?”

Report co-authors Charles Hudgens (right) and DeVante Lewis (back to camera) explain its findings at the Bronx Art Space.
Report co-authors Charles Hudgins (right) and DeVante Lewis (back to camera) explain its findings at the Bronx Art Space.

What Lewis said he found especially appalling was that among those surveyed, 70 percent said their parents weren’t notified immediately following their arrest, which is a violation of New York state law.

The team was pleasantly surprised that 62 percent of the juveniles surveyed found their probation officers to be helpful, said researcher Charles Hudgins, 25.

The team spent a week learning about data collection and about three weeks creating, testing and tweaking the survey, Lewis said. Then they hit the streets, surveying 92 youth under the age of 15 by attending family court, holding focus groups and going to block parties in Bronx neighborhoods. Researchers sought out youth on playgrounds and in shopping areas like the intersection of Third Avenue and 149th Street.

The tense atmosphere in family court made data collection the most difficult, Hudgins said. “What we learned is that youth are willing to share when they are in a safe environment with people they trust,” he said.

[Related: Racial, Ethnic Disparities Stubbornly Endure in Juvenile Justice System, Expert Says]

Not long after completing the report, Lewis was coming home late and dozed off on a near-empty D train. He said he was jolted wide awake by two officers standing over him who violently dragged him off the train and told him to remove his shoes. His pockets were searched repeatedly.

“In the back of my head, I was thinking of this report that I just got done finishing and thinking if I was 12, I’d be going through the same thing,” he said.

“But at that moment when I had two police officers push me against the wall and physically search me, I wanted my mother,” he said, reminding the audience he was an adult at the time.

The survey was a project of Community Connections for Youth, a nonprofit that works to develop community-based alternatives to incarceration for young people.

Seventy percent of those surveyed would like to be involved in policy discussions, Lewis said. He suggested community gatherings such as the presentation are an important part of that process.

“It’s so important to share our stories,” he said. “There’s strength in knowing that you’re not the only one and that there are others who look like me who are also victimized and criminalized by the system.”

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Advocates Offer Solutions for Kids at Crossroads of School, Justice System

What Do I Tell Young Men of Color About the Police?

Alternatives for Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs Finally Start to Appear

Erin Espinosa CroppedLast week I stood in my swivel-based office chair attempting to hang a picture. It had been bothering me all week and surely using this approach would be successful and quick.

Just as I stretched as far as I could and began to loop the latch on the back of the frame to the nail, the chair I was standing on shot out from under me. Sprawled in the middle of my office with every part of my body in pain, I began to contemplate my ability for complex decision-making.

Here I am, with a couple advanced degrees, and I virtually knocked myself out hanging a picture. Surely I know better, so I should have chosen a ladder or at least a stable chair. Either one would have increased my level of success and decreased my level of pain.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

With that image in mind, I couldn’t help but think about the concept of balancing care and control in the juvenile justice system. Often the tool of choice in juvenile justice is the hammer — a tool that is driven with power and accountability, monitoring compliance and wielding authority.

Although the hammer is useful for its intended purpose, it doesn’t work very well in circumstances where other tools are a better fit. Just as you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, a hammer wouldn’t tighten a screw.

For juvenile justice, the system often overpromises the versatility of the hammer, ignoring the other tools in the box needed to build bridges for youth, families and communities. In doing so our probation officers are often underequipped to prevent youth from becoming funneled deeper into the system, especially youth with untreated or undiagnosed mental health needs.

Most estimates of prevalence range from 50 to 75 percent, with approximately 20 to 25 percent of youths having a serious emotional disorder. When compared to the estimates among the general population, 9 to 20 percent of youth indicating a mental health need, it is obvious youth with mental health challenges are disproportionately represented within the juvenile justice system.

In fact, in 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives found two-thirds of juvenile detention facilities across the country reported holding youth in detention not because of the seriousness of their offenses but because they were awaiting mental health care.

These youth enter a justice system that is ill-equipped to respond to and support the complex and multisystemic issues facing them. Youth with mental health challenges present symptoms of their problems in multiple settings, including the school, community and home.

Subsequently, they pose a challenge to the traditional model of supervision. It’s no surprise that officers who supervise justice-involved youth with mental health challenges identify the most daunting issue regarding successful supervision as accessing and coordinating social services.

[Related: The Importance of Treating for Trauma in Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth]

When unsuccessful under supervision, youth will often be charged with a violation of probation and placed in out-of-home settings. This is especially true for youth who are court-ordered to treatment or other services and supports.

Recidivism studies indicate the rates of rearrest for juvenile offenders who have returned from residential treatment and/or juvenile correctional settings range from 40 percent and 65 percent to as high as 85 percent. These findings suggest that when justice-involved youth return to the community from placement, including placements with mental health treatment, there is a very high likelihood that they will cycle back through the system or become engaged in the adult criminal justice system.

Fortunately, states across the country are beginning to look at effective alternatives and diversion models from the juvenile justice system for youth with mental health needs. In Texas, diversion from the system took shape as the Front-End Diversion Initiative (FEDI), a preadjudicatory model that focuses on the use of specialized juvenile probation officers (SJPOs) — essentially probation officers who also take on the role of a case manager.

With specialized supervision, exclusive caseloads facilitate the linking of youth with mental health needs to appropriate services, improve their level of functioning and reduce the number of noncompliance revocations of probation. These officers are extensively trained in adolescent mental health, crisis intervention and family involvement, and serve as a broker between youth and community resources and supports. While working toward supervision goals, specialized supervision also works on treatment goals.

Preliminary data suggest that by rethinking the model of traditional probation, youth were significantly less likely to be adjudicated and more likely to receive needed mental health supports. Youth who had specialized supervision were also more likely to access community services such as individual therapy, family counseling and other community resources than those under traditional supervision. However, despite the data, many states, including Texas, do not implement statewide policies that encourage the adoption of this more successful approach.

When we look at the data, it is clear that the specialized supervision model is promising. In any given year more than 1 million juveniles are arrested across the country. Probation departments initially see most of those youth, and more than half of their cases receive court-ordered supervision.

If you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. Given the disproportionately high number of juveniles who enter the system with an unmet mental health need, states and local jurisdictions must change the tools they make available to supervising juvenile probation officers.

Rethinking probation will require more than just buy-in from any one department or county. Rather, systemic change through state-level policies has more potential to effectively replace the hammer of traditional probation with specialized supervision, linking youth to effective services and supports to reduce recidivism and promote better long-term outcomes.

Erin Espinosa, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. Reach her at

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The Importance of Treating for Trauma in Juvenile Justice-Involved Youth

Fred Butcher 2 (1)Research over the past several decades has established that youth exposure to violence is a widespread and significant problem. This is particularly true for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, as research has shown that up to 90 percent of these youth have histories of violence exposure, with many reporting multiple serious incidents.

Violence exposure as either victims or witnesses often lead to developing symptoms of trauma as a result. Given that the vast majority of juvenile justice-involved youth are likely to have extensive histories of violence exposure, it is safe to say that trauma is a critical issue facing this population.

Researchers and practitioners alike have long advocated for a trauma-informed approach to juvenile justice. While all juvenile justice youth are not necessarily exposed to violence, those who are exposed are at risk for further problems with delinquency and criminal behavior into adulthood. The treatment of trauma in these youth may prevent further involvement with the juvenile justice system and help to stop their progression into the adult criminal justice system.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

Ohio’s Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice (BHJJ) initiative provides community-based treatment to juvenile justice-involved youth with behavioral health issues in lieu of incarceration. Community-based treatment has been shown to produce better behavioral health and justice-related outcomes.

An important aspect of the BHJJ initiative is a comprehensive and standardized data collection effort that focuses on both these areas of interest. These data are used to track individual needs and outcomes to better inform treatment planning as well as providing opportunities for program evaluation and needs assessment for each participating county. For us, this effort has helped develop a wealth of data over the last decade that has provided much-needed insight into the behavioral health of youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

Along with my co-authors Joseph Galanek, Jeff Kretschmar and Daniel Flannery, we used data from the BHJJ initiative to illustrate how the treatment of trauma can have a positive effect on this population in a recently published article in Social Science & Medicine. We first examined the importance of neighborhoods on both violence exposure and trauma.

As we had expected, youth living in a neighborhood that has concentrated poverty and disadvantage are more susceptible to violence exposure. While poverty in and of itself does not necessarily lead to increased trauma symptoms, the increased risk for violence exposure puts youth living in disadvantaged neighborhoods at risk for trauma.

[Related: Traumatized, Locked Up, LA Girls Starting to Get More Help]

We then examined the impact of trauma on social relationships. While previous research has emphasized the protective nature of social relationships on trauma, little attention is paid to the role of trauma in forming and maintaining those relationships. For youth who are exposed to violence as either witnesses or victims, positive social relationships with family, peers and other adults can have an insulating effect from the violence around them.

However, trauma can often be an impediment to building and maintaining relationships. From this perspective, the problem becomes cyclical. To mitigate the impact of exposure to violence on trauma, social relationships are important, however trauma is what is preventing youth from accessing this protective resource.

It is important to remember that many youth involved in the juvenile justice system are exposed to violence and trauma on an ongoing basis. Many of these youth live in disadvantaged neighborhoods where they are more likely to witness and be victims of violence. These youth are particularly at risk for trauma symptoms, therefore, it is important to provide these youth with treatment to address the trauma and the skills to develop the resources to mitigate the effects of violence exposure.

While macro-level interventions to stabilize neighborhoods are necessary and should be part of the bigger picture, helping youth to build and maintain social relationships that help them become more resilient to violence exposure and trauma is an immediate area of need for the juvenile justice and other social service systems. Our data show that in order to build resiliency, it is necessary to first address trauma symptoms.

Effective screening and assessment are important initial steps in addressing the behavioral health needs of juvenile justice youth. Proper assessment can help identify the treatment needs of youth as they enter the system so that treatment can be better targeted to their needs.

Many juvenile justice systems, however, fail to adequately assess youth for trauma and other behavioral health needs. Many tools exist that measure violence exposure and trauma but not all have been tested and validated to be appropriate for a juvenile justice population. Ultimately, early and effective assessment is vital to understanding the depth of the problem, identifying the needs of each individual as they enter the system and providing treatment to those in need. And, as our data illustrate, the effective assessment and treatment of trauma helps to provide youth with the resources necessary to minimize the effects of violence exposure and ultimately can help reduce the likelihood of continued involvement with the justice system.

Fredrick Butcher, Ph.D., is a research associate with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention and Research in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. His research on violence exposure and trauma in juvenile justice-involved youth has appeared in a number of journals in a number of social science fields including criminal justice and social work.

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Advocates Cheer Probe of Racial Bias in Mississippi School Discipline


A federal investigation will examine whether discriminatory school disciplinary policies are disproportionately affecting black students in DeSoto County, Mississippi.

Local and national advocates cheered a decision by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate the disproportionate suspension of black students in the county.Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub

The investigation “gives us hope that the discipline crisis students of color are facing in our schools will finally be addressed,” said James Mathis, chair of DeSoto County Parents and Students for Justice.


The group, along with the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization, filed a federal complaint against the school district alleging discrimination in April 2015.

The complaint said that black students represent 32 percent of the student population in DeSoto County yet were 55 percent of those suspended during the 2011-12 school year and were 2.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. In addition, black students were 34 percent of students with disabilities but received 57 percent of suspensions among students with disabilities.

The effects of disproportionate suspensions are far reaching, said the complaint. Research has shown students miss important instruction time and are more likely to fall behind, drop out and become involved with the juvenile justice and criminal justice system — a phenomenon called the school-to-prison pipeline.

The complaint asks the federal government for remedies including a “non-discriminatory, fair, and age-appropriate” disciplinary code, training and professional development for staff to address implicit bias and data collection and reporting improvements.

The Office of Civil Rights currently has two investigations open at DeSoto County Schools about possible discrimination on the basis of race in the administration of discipline, according to an Education Department spokesman. They are the probe launched last week in response to the DCPSJ/Advancement project complaint and another launched in July 2014.

The advocates are hopeful for a swift completion of the investigation. While the number of OCR investigations underway is not clear, advocates do think the administration has been open to examining bias in school discipline by both offering guidance and investigating claims, said Thena Robinson Mock, director of the Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Project at the Advancement Project.

We have seen a very positive shift in the direction of enforcement,” she said.

DeSoto County schools did not immediately return a request for comment. When the complaint was filed last year, the school system said, “any allegation that DCS discriminates against students based on race is totally unfounded and false,” according to news reports.

Girls in Trouble: Providing the Right Response



One of the starkest statistics in the lives of girls today is that 73 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have been physically or sexually abused, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice figures.

A report last summer referred to this as the “sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline."

Experiencing abuse is one of the major predictors of girls themselves getting into trouble, according to the report published by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women.

The most common crimes for which girls are arrested — including running away, substance abuse and truancy — are also the most common symptoms of abuse, the report noted.

“Girls are pretty invisible” in current efforts to reform the juvenile justice system, said Stephanie Covington, a psychologist who provides training and consulting services to criminal justice agencies through the La Jolla, California-based Center for Gender and Justice.

“People don’t talk about the girls,” she said.


Most people are really surprised to learn that the proportion of girls in the juvenile justice population is increasing, Covington said. They are surprised at the level of abuse girls have suffered and the prevalence of trafficking.

Organizations that work with girls — from community organizations to juvenile justice agencies — need to respond to the conditions of girls’ lives, Covington said.

They need to recognize and work with the trauma that underlies the behavior of many girls, and they should take an approach tailored to girls’ needs, she said.

Girls who are harmed by sexual violence but who have economic stability, adequate schools, safe neighborhoods and access to mental health services tend to be buffered from further harm, according to a Crittenton Foundation report released last October.

“For girls at the margin, the experience of sexual violence often funnels them into the juvenile justice system,” the foundation’s report said.

Each year, 578,000 girls are arrested, according to the foundation.

From acting out to helping out

In the seventh grade, Regina (not her real name) began getting in trouble in her Broward County, Florida, middle school. She began cutting classes. She quit doing schoolwork. She also got into fights.

“I was being violent,” she said.

After one fight with another girl, she was arrested and had to appear in juvenile court.

She was sentenced to a nine-month community-service diversion program.

But when she went back to school in the eighth grade, not enough had changed.

She then entered the day program at PACE Center for Girls, a Florida nonprofit that offers schooling, counseling and life skills training.

PACE, which stands for Practical Academic Cultural Education, takes a gender-responsive and trauma-informed approach, emphasizing healthy relationships, good decision-making and communication skills. It also engages each girl’s family in an effort to support motherdaughter relationships.

The program focuses on self-respect, self-confidence and issues of sexuality.

“The actual environment is different,” Regina said. The classes are smaller and the teachers are nicer, she said.

In a big high school they wouldn't even know your name, Regina said.

“Here they actually care about you,” she said.

At PACE, Regina learned to trust people again, and she delved into the issues that underlay her aggressive behavior in school.

“My counselor helps me with my self-esteem,” she said.

Not only did Regina re-engage in school, she came to care about the other girls and the adults at PACE. And she developed a career goal.

She’s interested in forensic science and wants to run her own business helping adults and kids who have been traumatized by sexual abuse.

“I want to help them find justice,” she said.

The PACE Center for Girls in Florida takes a gender-responsive approach in working with girls at risk for delinquency. The program focuses on creating a safe environment that celebrates strengths.

Dealing with delinquency

PACE’s 19 centers serve girls at risk of delinquency. Fifty to 60 girls attend each center.

In 2008, the Annie E. Casey Foundation called PACE "the most effective program in the nation for keeping adolescent girls out of the juvenile justice system” in the foundation’s Kids Count report.

Twenty-eight percent of girls at PACE have had a prior arrest. Three-fourths are failing in school. Nineteen percent have been physically abused, 17 percent sexually abused, and 23 percent emotionally abused.

In addition to providing a caring environment, nurturing relationships, counseling and life skills training, PACE connects girls with the larger community.

Regina, for example, said she really benefited from the opportunity to meet new people. Girls go on field trips and meet adults doing work that interests the girls.

One field trip was to a forensics lab, which sparked Regina’s interest.

“I learned from two of the forensics workers” how they find fingerprints and gather information from blood spatters, she said.

“I’m really motivated,” she said.

“I hope to find a job in a forensics field,” she said.

Nurturing environment

When Melinda Patterson appears in court these days, it’s as a criminal defense attorney. However, as a youngster, she saw court from a different angle — a kid brought in for truancy and fighting.

Patterson was a straight-A student in elementary school. However, her mother worked nights, and when she was a teenager Patterson had little supervision. “I was left to my own devices,” she said. She had also experienced abuse as a small child.

By the ninth grade, she barely attended school. But when she transferred to PACE, she responded to the relationship-focused environment.

She describes it as nurturing and caring — and nearly impossible to skip class. Not only was the building locked during school hours, but if a student went missing “10 people would be out looking for you,” Patterson said.

Students did not slip through the cracks; rather, they were held accountable, Patterson said.

“It was life-changing when I started holding myself accountable,” she said. “It just finally clicked that I needed to do this for me. It was really up to me.”

With only 15 or so girls in a class, teachers could adjust the teaching to meet student needs, Patterson said.

“Every teacher knows every student’s back story, their home life and everything that’s going on,” she said. Under their tutelage, Patterson was able to graduate from high school a year early at age 17.

Students from PACE speak at the 2016 All About Girls Summit in Jacksonville, Florida. The summit brought together policymakers, funders and girl-serving organizations from across the country to address the needs of girls.
Students from PACE speak at the 2016 All About Girls Summit in Jacksonville, Florida. The summit brought together policymakers, funders and girl-serving organizations from across the country to address the needs of girls.

A movement for girls

PACE recently convened a nationwide “girls summit” in Orlando, bringing together out-of-school organizations such as Girls Inc. with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and foundations including the National Crittenton Foundation and NoVo Foundation.

The gathering challenged the lack of response to the needs of girls,” said Mary Marx, president and CEO of PACE. It sought to begin a nationwide girl movement, she said.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Bureau of Justice is also pushing for a genderspecific and trauma-informed approach within the juvenile justice system. Three years ago it launched the National Girls Initiative to provide resources to state, local and tribal groups.

Several states including Florida, Hawaii, Connecticut, Oregon and Minnesota now require their juvenile justice systems to specifically address girls’ needs. In Hawaii, for example, a separate girls court in the state judiciary’s First Circuit provides counseling to girls and their parents for a year in effort to strengthen relationships and address the issues that brought the girls to court.

A gender-responsive approach

In a webinar hosted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2013, Covington presented six “guiding principles” for taking a genderresponsive approach to working with girls at risk for delinquency.

The first is to acknowledge that gender makes a difference, she said.

“If you are working in an agency, a program or a juvenile justice system that believes that it does not make any difference whether you are treating boys or girls, it means that there is a good chance you will not get good services for girls,” she said in the webinar.

The environment is second: It should be based on safety, respect and dignity. “The environment is critical,” she said. It is not enough to acquire a curriculum labeled “gender-responsive,” Covington said. The environment has to become gender-responsive and new staff attitudes must be developed.

Relationships are important. A program should promote healthy connections with a girl’s important relationships.

Services should be comprehensive, she said. The specific socioeconomic needs of girls should be considered and promoted. For example, is the organization addressing the needs of pregnant and parenting girls to continue their education and gain job skills?

The number of girls who are pregnant in the U.S. juvenile justice system is unknown, but research from local systems shows that around 30 percent of girls are or have been pregnant in those systems, according to the Human Rights Project for Girls “sexualabuse- to-prison pipeline” report.

Finally, comprehensive community services are needed, Covington said.

“Once a girl has a trauma history, this is highly associated with alcohol and drug use, high-risk sexual behaviors, sex work, physical and mental disorders,“ Covington said.

So a program for girls must be traumainformed, she said.

“This would be an agency or program that has an understanding of trauma. They avoid any kind of triggering of trauma reactions, and they make adjustments in the organization so those who are trauma survivors can actually benefit from the service they are trying to provide.”

The program must understand both trauma triggers and self-calming strategies, she said.

It really creates a culture shift within an organization, Covington said. Regina could easily have become a statistic in the juvenile justice system. In the seventh grade, she was acting out aggressively and was headed for further trouble.

But nurtured in a trauma-informed program designed to address the needs of girls, she blossomed, addressing her feelings, developing empathy for others and turning her skills and interests into actions that benefit her and others.

Now 15, Regina successfully ran for student government president at the PACE center she attends. Her platform in the election: “How may I help you?”

It Is Possible to Heal Our Caged Children

bill.lee_author_1396585059_54They’re labeled thugs, treated like throwaways and classified by some as “superpredators”: teenage boys and girls who seek sanctuary in gangs, commit violent crimes and end up in the criminal justice system. Not only are they physically locked up, but these children are caged in emotional turmoil.

Childhood friends, teachers, school counselors, social workers, lawyers and judges are all baffled as to why these kids would choose a lifestyle where they risk getting shot and killed. Analyzing the family dynamics and psyches of these teens is important, yet what is paramount is how we can alleviate their suffering and guide them onto a path toward equanimity and peace.

All these children entered the world as pure, innocent beings. By the time they grab our attention, they have resigned themselves to the fact that the world is unsafe and cruel, that it is “dog-eat-dog” and that kindness, compassion, empathy and forgiveness are all signs of weakness.

These lost souls have placed themselves in a subculture wherein they are constantly under peer pressure to prove their loyalty and worthiness by committing crimes and acting out violently. Greed, hatred and delusions (in the form of perceived threats, insults and disrespect) are synonymous with gang life. These same characteristics and beliefs were cited by the Buddha thousands of years ago as the root causes of evil and suffering.

Reaching out and connecting with these young gang members is challenging due to their distrust of people and an oath of secrecy they have taken. However, those of us who serve as teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, mentors, foster parents, probation officers and health care professionals have opportunities to make a positive impact. Following are some of the ways that we can help heal and guide these troubled teens:

Listening and planting seeds

Lecturing or browbeating will not work; taking pity on them, instilling fear, enabling or speaking negatively about their associates or gangs will not be effective. Their street smarts have trained them to smell a hustle and virtually everyone they have ever trusted have disappointed, abused or outright abandoned them.

We can reach these teens by genuinely caring, listening and exercising patience, which acknowledge and validate them as worthwhile human beings. They have encountered very few individuals in their lives who truly cared about them without conditions, mixed messages or ulterior motives.

The attitude and behavior that landed these children in trouble in most cases resulted from one (or more) of the following: inadequate care, poverty, traumatic experience, physical and emotional abuse, mental illness, learning disability or exposure to negative influences. Helping them get in touch with their true nature and awakening their loving-kindness that has been buried deep inside will be a long process and involve planting healthy, positive seeds.

What we teach and expose them to now may not have an immediate impact, but it can begin to alter how they feel about themselves and others. These include those who harmed them as well as the people they hurt. These seeds have the potential of germinating and opening their closed hearts.

Serving as good role models for them at all times is imperative; that means walking the talk. Introducing these offenders to former gang members who have transformed their lives and leading productive, peaceful lives can provide inspiration. Former gang members who are still serving time and have embraced a spiritual practice can have a positive influence as well.

[Related: Juvenile Records Too Often Barriers to Education, Employment]

When it comes to rules and regulations, it’s usually best to establish clear, firm boundaries, differentiating between acceptable and inappropriate behavior — as long as it is communicated and maintained in a consistent, compassionate manner. These teens may complain about rules and structure, but there’s a part of them that appreciates knowing what to expect and when. It’s worth pointing out that they had no problem embracing gang rules — taking immense pride in them.

Coping skills

Up until now, these children have dealt with anxiety, stress, confusion, intrusive thoughts, conflicts, anger, sadness and other overwhelming emotions primarily by using drugs and alcohol to numb their pain or by acting out in destructive ways. We can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms by teaching them how to deal with conflicts, identify triggers, to be conscious of rising emotions, to express themselves by communicating their needs and to develop mental discipline through exercises such as meditation.

Mindfulness training can enable these youths to intercept negative thoughts as well as to control their emotions, especially when they’re incarcerated. It will strengthen their focus and attention, and help them attain equanimity, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The skills they develop from practicing mindfulness can serve as the foundation for healing and awakening their loving-kindness.

Their egos, along with stereotypes regarding meditation, may cause them to perceive engaging in it as being passive and weak, but the activity can be presented as a powerful tool. Informing these gang members that meditation enabled imprisoned monks to withstand inhumane torture — thus prevailing over their captors — puts the practice in a context that they can appreciate.

Encouraging these young warriors to write about their families, upbringing, struggles and other personal experiences provide a creative outlet for them to express their feelings and emotions. It serves as a catharsis. For these compositions, the emphasis is on content — not spelling and grammar.

In a group setting, it’s important to set up guidelines whereby only positive and constructive feedback is exchanged. This ensures a safe, nonjudgmental environment for each individual to write and share their work. It’s not unusual for a gang member to describe in his essay the details that led to his incarceration and have his peers express, out of concern, how they believe he is being exploited. This is another example of positive seeds being planted.

Cultivating compassion and patience

Encouraging hardened teens to cultivate compassion for themselves and others can be difficult, as this virtue is often regarded as a sign of weakness. One program that has proven to be effective with incarcerated juveniles is having them care for abandoned dogs and cats. Most of them can easily identify with vulnerable animals. As they bond with these lovely creatures, it connects these youths with their true nature, drawing out qualities that have been suppressed, such as kindness, gentleness, patience, love and compassion. Slowly but surely they remove their emotional Kevlar and begin to accept how worthy and special they are.

We would be hard-pressed to find a single one of these troubled teens who’s had a happy childhood. Most skipped their boyhood and girlhood altogether; instead, they were forced to grow up quickly as a survival response.

Yet, within each of them is a wounded inner child who has been crying out for help, albeit in negative and destructive ways. If we want them to be accountable for their actions, to feel remorse, to make amends, to heal and to transform their lives, this requires all of us to work together as a sangha (community).

Bill Lee is an author, a practicing Buddhist and a former gang member. His memoir, “Chinese Playground,” was written to provide guidance and support for troubled youth. He counsels incarcerated teens. He can be reached at or

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