#YouthJustice

I admit that I am always fascinated with how people read into #Hashtag. For a living, I read into case law and statutes to find the result that I want. I try to be objective, but that doesn't always work - so sometimes I have to have someone else read a case, and get their take on what it says. One time I asked an intern to review a case, and just let me know "yes" or "no" whether it said what I thought it might say. He wrote a memo. It did not. My suspicion of my own reading was proven useful. 

With #YouthJail, it is very interesting how people took my writing to support their position. I do feel that, generally, my personal Facebook had a pretty good conversation about justice as it applies to youth. I think some folks were surprised that I don't support abolishing all youth incarceration facilities. But at the same time, my post (I thought) was pretty clear that incarceration must be reserved for the most heinous of crimes, and even then be geared more toward rehabilitation with family support than punitive action. I also must note and acknowledge that I'm writing about this in a very narrow way - not touching on the other areas of public investment and policy changes that must accompany statutory and regulatory changes around incarceration itself. Education, health care access, food access, jobs, equity in municipal contracts, policies to build wealth in oppressed communities - I could go on and on and on. But I am trying to limit myself in individual posts.

Here are some previous posts that really should be read as concurrent policy positions with this series. Public policy does not live in a vacuum, and while I can't touch on each aspect during every post, I confess I'm normally thinking about many of them (and editing accordingly). Sometimes I learn something new after the fact, too. And then that sticks with me. And yes. This is a series (albeit a brief series).

One of the things that comes up with talking about youth justice is the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-old children as adults. The idea being that they are close enough to 18, and the crimes so vicious, that it is justifiable to treat a 17-year-old defendant as if he had the same mental capacity and understanding of consequences as a 35-year-old. This is wrong. I'm not sure how many people can defend this with a straight face, and regardless of the rarity, that it happens at all is a travesty of justice. 

But this begs a different question: what happens at 18? Why is 18 such a magic number? As I understand, brain development has not completed at 18. Initial adult life experiences definitely have not occurred. The actual application of "justice" is wildly disproportionate at 18 based on skin color - white boys sure seem to get away with a boatload of awful things. 

While we need massive overhaul to our justice system in this state, change moves at a slow pace. My ideal - a restorative justice system akin to Norway and Sweden - is not something that happens overnight. And waiting on the ideal alone perpetuate the harm of the present. This is why I'm supportive of the idea of chipping away at the present through reforms more politically palatable and achievable. 

Take sentencing guidelines and incarceration: The purpose of trying a juvenile as an adult is to get a sentencing range that would be given to a 35-year-old committing a similar crime. But a 22-year-old, frankly, also shouldn't be a situation wherein they will serve the same sentence as a 35-year-old. Enter a tiered sentencing guideline system. 

See, I don't believe there is a magic switch at 18. In fact, studies indicate that brain maturity occurs well into people's 20's. So why is it that we have two sentencing guidelines; one for under-18, one for over-18 (and sometimes 16/17)? If I were a policy maker in Olympia, I would want to get neuroscientists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and advocates in a room for a day, and have the conversation about what our current sentencing guidelines means in practice. 

As an initial thought, I do believe that we should have a guideline for individuals convicted of offenses committed between 18-24, another for 25-29, and a final for 30+. Such guidelines can and should include more diversion programs and community-based support investments in individuals having a tough time. Going back to the root causes of crime, the disproportionate impact those causes have on communities of color, and the exacerbation of an inherently racist justice system, I do believe that if we refuse to give up on people, particularly young people who are much more likely to benefit from restorative justice programs built up from communities, we will have better outcomes. 

This of course necessarily extends to confinement. Not only what it looks like physically, but what the investments are in the intervention programs for both the convicted individual, and their family and support system outside of jail. This is an area where we have continually failed, and the cost is more recidivism, and increased financial costs to the State due to incarceration.

But also to what we do once someone has served their sentence. What job support are we giving people exiting the system (and what support and training are we providing during their stay - more on that in the next part of this series). While we are doing good things on the policy side to "ban the box" in housing and employment, there should also be more efforts at actually connecting people exiting prisons with jobs - particularly those who are under 30. In federal prisons, nearly 20% of inmates are under 30. By providing actual restorative systems, I do believe we can dramatically reduce the rates at which these folks make a return trip. 

Of course, we can't talk about incarceration of young people without mentioning the worst statistic. 40% of the U.S. prison population is black - compared to 13% of the general population. In Washington, it's even worse. - 18% of our prison and jail population is black, compared to 4% of our state population. (edit: I'm not great at math, apparently, and thank you to folks for correcting this glaring error). 

This is where pinging back to the broader systemic issues in our society comes right back up again. What steps are policy makers taking to ensure true equity in public investment, and build wealth in communities that have been historically (and currently) harmed by racist policies? 

But also what are we doing in the justice system. Does it make sense to continue the status quo - in particular for the 18-29 age range - or do we build on programs that are currently reserved for juveniles, and expand community-based and built systems - ones that are from communities, not at communities - to reduce recidivism and improve outcomes? 

Some of this goes back to current sentencing guidelines and diversion programs, and there is a question of how much leniency prosecutors and judges should have (not for downward departures to prevent manifest injustice, but from being able to, or having to, focus on diversion programs first). But also looking at the larger picture of an individual's life and circumstance. Just like a juvenile's family should have greater access to fully-funded in-home services and support, the same must be extended to young offenders. And the goal: moving away from a punitive justice system. 

I know there are some people working in Olympia to make these changes. And that's a good thing. Working to dramatically reform an unjust system for young offenders who happen to be over 18 is a step in the right direction to reduce recidivism, reduce incarceration, and improve community outcomes - but only if policy makers fully fund and work with community-based providers to implement good policy.