Why I Care About Criminal Justice Reform

I served for many years as a counselor and coordinator of a mental health clinic in a juvenile secure detention facility. That's jail for kids, if you don't already know, and at first, it was an intimidating environment for me. I wondered whether these kids would want to talk to me and what I could do to help them. Before retiring, I was a clinical social worker with a focus on child and adolescent mental health. My experiences working with the youth in this facility affected me deeply and were an important part of my career. I witnessed a parade of young people of color going to court and returning to the facility with little idea what had occurred there and less input into the process. Usually, they reported that they met with their court appointed attorney for a few seconds before court and were instructed to stay quiet and accept a plea deal, with the reasoning that if they went to trial, they would probably lose and receive more time.

Youth who found their way to our locked facility instead of nonsecure, due to the nature of their alleged offense, stayed with us during the adjudication process, which in some cases took a year or longer. Some kids went home, many to placement, and a few to trial. Some received sentences equal to their ages at the time, and would age out of juvenile placements into adult prisons. My focus in working with these children, who could be as young as 10 and as old as not quite 16 when arrested, was to help maintain behavior and attitude while being held, and to look toward the future with hope and a plan for success. We played a lot of Spades while we talked. We talked about what it meant to do well if released. Many shared stories of devastating trauma. Some were referred to the psychiatrist for evaluation and possible medication. It became clear that at least some of the people we took care of might not have committed their offenses had they had access to mental health care in their communities.

Since then, I have often marveled -- and not happily -- at the contrast between how our youth of color are treated in the justice system and how those with wealth and privilege fare. Adults who have committed egregious crimes may get less punishment than a juvenile who steals a car. A little closer to home, my disabled brother was wrongfully accused of a bank robbery, and it was only because the man who actually committed the crime admitted to it (he was already in jail for several others) that my brother was freed. We know that the Innocence Project has found that approximately one-third of death row inmates did not commit the crimes of which they were accused, yet some states carry out executions even when there is evidence creating -- at the very least -- reasonable doubt, if not clear exoneration.

Other important issues in criminal justice reform are stopping the inhumane torture of solitary confinement and working to create effective bail reform measures that unfairly penalize low-income people. There is a tremendous amount of information on these and other topics that we can look at in subsequent posts. For now, this is why I care. This is why you should care, too.

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