Open Justice Oklahoma’s recent juvenile justice report highlights decreasing crime and arrest rates for Oklahoma youth. While the data are encouraging, it is important to remember why we must continue our progress: incarceration itself is extremely disruptive to young people and their families. For justice-involved youth, current systems can remove them from educational opportunities, family, and community during a critical time in their lives, often severing their link to meaningful relationships and inadvertently further embedding them into a life of crime. My experience helping to create a family skill building curriculum within a juvenile detention center taught me about the struggles these families face and their capacity for hope. As part of this curriculum, families worked on identifying strengths and values, goal setting, problem solving, communication, and rebuilding trust.
Separation from family can increase risk
Every detention facility is different, but often juvenile facilities only allow visitation from legal guardians. This idea may seem logical at first, but in reality, this means that young people can go months or over a year without seeing grandparents, siblings, or even their own children. During a time when these youth are already dealing with the harsh reality of being in a secure lockup facility and likely feeling alone, further separation can increase their risk of future offending. At the same time, many parents are unable to visit during regular visitation hours due to inability to get time off work, transportation, and childcare issues.
Staying in contact with family members is crucial and incarcerated youth should be given more opportunities to connect with loved ones. The young people in our family group were able to visit with family, other than just parents: One young man who had been incarcerated since before the birth of his child, met his infant son for the first time. Another was able to see his grandmother who was recently released from the hospital after a serious health scare. These meaningful family connections provide a sense of belonging and strength, not only for the young people in custody, but for their family members as well.
Justice-involved youth face educational challenges
In the United States, all children have a right to an education, even youth in custody. But providing educational services in a secure facility has its challenges. Many of the youth struggle academically or fall behind because of suspension. Oklahoma already has a teacher shortage and struggles to keep up with national standardized test scores. So as you can imagine, educators in secure facilities teaching kids at multiple learning levels with complex educational needs face additional struggles.
Even if a detention facility has quality educators, they can be prevented from teaching if there are staffing shortages or any behavioral issues in the classroom. Just as with any child changing schools, there are issues of transferring academic records and the time to adjust to a new environment. It is not uncommon for youth in custody to move from education in public school, to a short-term facility, to a long-term facility, then back to public school. Every one of these moves is a partial reset on their education. For many students who are already academically behind and facing other struggles, further educational setbacks can result in dropping out. The long-term consequences of a lack of education has consequences for employment and recidivism. Many of these young people want to be doctors, lawyers, artists, or professional counselors in order to help other kids going through a difficult time. If we inhibit their educational opportunities we not only set them up to fail, but risk missing out on the talent and potential that each of them has to offer.
Justice-involved youth face difficult reentry issues
When justice-involved young people are released from secure facilities, the problems they had before still exist. Whether their problems stem from traumatic experiences, gang involvement, or substance use, those issues will remain when they return to their community. The state contracts with service providers to provide reentry services for youth. The most recent published report from the Office of Juvenile Affairs lists 42 partner agencies throughout the state providing services.
But what happens when a young person’s needs fall outside the scope of the services that are offered? Stories of threats of violence from gangs for retaliation are all too common; one young person I worked with had refused to take the blame for an adult’s crime and was facing threats from a gang as a result. Thoughts of gang violence and exploitation may seem a far cry from our day-to-day lives, but for many youth they are the issues they face when returning home.
Yet, in the face of all these obstacles, their capacity for hope remains. They show courage in their ability to recognize their own faults, make efforts to improve their lives, and aspire to make the world a better place.
Every justice-involved young person I worked with said they wished they could change the way that other people saw them. They felt written off as “bad kids” by neighbors, teachers, and judges. But despite any bad decision made or challenge faced, they want to be accepted and understood. They are so much more than the decisions they have made. And the path to a rehabilitative system lies in their hope for their own future.