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What Juvenile Justice Needs: Care, Not Cages

We rely too much on incarceration. The pillars of the system should be healing, restoration and renewal.

Georgia Juvenile Justice
Malik was raised in Washington, D.C., by a family hit hard by poverty amid ongoing cycles of deadly street violence, displacement from gentrification and a growing sense of hopelessness. The son, nephew and brother of men doing federal prison time, Malik fell into a neighborhood crew. By age 14, he was already on probation, persistently truant from school, grieving the loss of two close friends to gun violence, smoking weed and "packing steel" for protection -- inevitably leading to his arrest for a gun offense.

Under normal circumstances, Malik's story would have ended with incarceration in a juvenile facility and a possible transfer to the adult system. However, D.C.'s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) tried something different. A culturally relevant, healing-centered approach -- not bars and chains -- formed the foundation of his rehabilitation.

In this era of criminal-justice reform, juvenile justice is often overlooked. Our systems share a common origin, rooted in the punitive treatment of youth deemed incorrigible and evil. Unsurprisingly, the most virulent forms of state-imposed child punishment have been disproportionately applied to poor youth of color.

Will the juvenile-justice system of the future dare to redefine its basic pillars, or will system leaders only tinker at the edges, maintaining the status quo? Reform efforts in several jurisdictions have reduced detention populations and welcomed the adoption of evidence-based practices. Yet these reforms remain overwhelmingly system-driven, lacking significant engagement of youth and families most impacted by the system itself. System-insider dominance and absence of community voice perpetuate the historical beliefs and policies that criminalize youth.

We need a new vision for youth justice, one with love as its organizing principle that defines healing, restoration and renewal as its core objectives. This vision challenges the notion that youth who have been involved in and impacted by violence must be incarcerated to achieve public safety. In short, such a new vision asks what we would want for our own children.

In Malik's case, providing effective care meant understanding him as a child instead of just as an offender. Before asking what Malik had done, his social worker instead asked what had happened to him. What were his most impactful experiences, influences, fears, sorrows, dreams, talents and questions? The answers revealed that Malik was more interested in art, writing poetry and creating music than he was in the kind of neighborhood crew activity that had gotten him into trouble. Yes, he had crossed the line and put himself and others in harm's way, but outside of his neighborhood beef, Malik just wanted what most teens want: food, friends, fun things to do, and loving and consistent adult support.

A critical resource in this equation was a credible messenger -- a community-rooted, transformative mentor who shares similar life experiences with the youth they engage. Credible messengers build trusting relationships with youth and families as they guide them through a process of growth, taking accountability for harm caused, and redemption.

To date, D.C. has invested nearly $10 million in credible messengers hailing from six community-based organizations embedded in the neighborhoods where most DYRS youth and families live. Our credible messengers meet with youth in group sessions twice weekly to explore the root causes of youth violence.

Like all youth in DYRS custody, Malik and his family were connected to a team of credible messengers, neighborhood-based leaders and youth advocates with similar life experiences and proven track records of positive community involvement. Very soon, a viable plan emerged to keep Malik away from troublesome areas and mediate the conflicts at the source of his mistakes. Malik's credible messenger devised a realistic but demanding plan that kept him out of incarceration. He is now doing very well at home, with his family and in his community. The credible-messenger program successfully engaged 327 youth and families in fiscal year 2018 alone, and Malik is one of many examples of what a healing-centered approach can manifest.

In most states, this could never happen. Malik would simply have been incarcerated, with no plan to return him to society with a real chance for success. Yet, his story is an example of what is possible with a bit of compassion, creativity and the will to see the potential in children. Caging kids isn't the answer -- loving them is.

Director of the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services
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