Friday, May 2, 2014

Children in the Juvenile Justice System

The school age students we see at the Yellin Center are brought to us by their caring, concerned parents who want to know how to help their child succeed in school and in life. Sometimes, a teacher, school, physician, or tutor will suggest that families work with us to identify why their students are struggling and to help them with strategies to foster success. These children, from loving homes with lots of support and encouragement, are primed to overcome whatever challenges they face.

But not all young people come from the kind of  homes and families we are used to seeing. Too many of them, often those living in poverty and subject to abuse or neglect, spiral down into lives of gangs, violence, and crime and wind up in the juvenile justice system as inmates. We usually don't give them much thought, except perhaps to be glad they are not out committing crimes. But, recently, several circumstances have come together to remind us that there is another aspect to this issue -- and to these children.

First, a friend and colleague with years of work in the justice system has been speaking to Dr. Yellin about the young people she has encountered and how the prison system fails to offer them the kinds of educational supports which they need and to which they are entitled by law. Advocates for Children, the NYC based organization that works with families and students in all aspects of educational rights, has long been a leader in this area and has created a fact sheet outlining the rights of court-involved youth arising from J.G. et al. v. Mills, a 2004 federal court case brought by Advocates for Children of New York and the Legal Aid Society against the New York City Department of Education.

But there is much more to this issue. First, there is the failure of the prison systems, worse in some states than others, to deal with the educational and other needs of imprisoned youth. A report from the Southern Education Foundation entitled Just Learning: The Imperative to Transform Juvenile Justice Systems into Effective Educational Systems notes that most of these young people have learning and/or attention problems, as well as emotional difficulties.

Further, as we have seen when New York's governor proposed college education programs for adult inmates in state prisons, it is difficult to get popular support to spend public money on programs for those who have been convicted of crimes, even when data supports that such programs reduce recidivism.

Perhaps the most compelling item we have encountered recently is a new article appearing on the website of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, entitled Up From the Depths: Juvenile Offenders Who Turned Their Lives Around. No matter what your views are on whether or how to help young people who are in the prison system, you should take a moment to read these stories of how prosecutors, political conservatives, and convicted felons came to their present views on how to change the lives of these young people -- and the system in which they are enmeshed. 

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