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What America Gets Wrong About Adult Crime and How We Can Do Better

The United States’s prison system has been an area of heavy debate, argument and policy for decades. America tried the War on Drugs. In addition to fueling globally unprecedented levels of incarceration, it failed to end the black market, lower drug use or reduce crime. America has, in many ways, recognized the flaws of these extremely punitive policies and is working to undo them. For example, as the face of progressive politics nationwide, Chesa Boudin, elected San Francisco District Attorney in 2019, set precedent through his work to reduce the incarcerated population, end cash bail and more. But even voters from the most liberal city nationwide pushed back. By the time his recall gained signatures and eventually succeeded, a consensus had formed that his policies were causing crime to rise—instead of fall—city-wide. So America comes back to its debates. Hard on crime? Soft on crime? Smart on crime? These conversations are missing a crucial link. Since the term “school to prison pipeline” was coined over two decades ago, discussion of young people falling between the cracks has, unfortunately, receded from broader discussions on crime. In order to make our communities safer, America must bring the connection between youth criminal justice and adult crime back into our vocabulary, back into our conversations and back into the spotlight.

Understanding the cycles and ecosystem of crime in America requires looking at the state of youth incarceration. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, forty eight thousand youth sit behind bars in the U.S on any given day. Many have been funneled through the school-to-prison-pipeline, a national trend of shifting youth out of classrooms and into jail cells through higher levels of police and discipline in schools. Our current responses to youth criminality achieve the opposite of rehabilitation. In addition to having possibly experienced ACES (adverse childhood experiences), incarcerated youth are ten times more likely to suffer from psychosis (Professors Fazel and Langstrom, University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry, 2008). Suspended or incarcerated students are significantly more susceptible to dropping out of school, learning criminal techniques from other inmates/absent from school youth and being denied well-paying jobs. Due to these factors, a study found that forty percent of juvenile offenders are back in adult prison by the age of twenty five (Professor Joseph Doyle, Massachusetts Institute for Technology, 2015). Said otherwise, the story of adult crime is often the story of a youth who grew up overlooked or marginalized; who turned to criminal activity out of a lack of better options; and who has been unable to escape this path ever since.

Similar to how a doctor looks at the bigger picture and uses preventative medicine, models like restorative justice serve a similar need for at-risk youth. Restorative justice is a long-standing tradition for addressing harm when it’s caused, with North American practices originating primarily from Indigenous communities, cultures of faith and prison abolitionist movements. Whereas legal norms vary between societies and time periods, restorative justice relies on the most basic and objective of human characteristics: the nature of relationships, harm and healing. In the modern context, restorative justice views crime as an inherent violation of people/interpersonal relationships where justice must involve the victim, offender and impacted community.

Based in Marin, the youth restorative justice organization Youth Transforming Justice (YTJ) approaches its work with the belief that youth make mistakes and should be given a second chance. The program allows respondents (the person who caused harm) to take accountability in front of their peers, serve community service hours and tangibly or emotionally repair the harm in order to avoid traditional punishments and clear their criminal record. Speaking with respondents about their passions, dreams and often mental health struggles, I’m reminded that what often separates us is simply our resources and the severity of our mistakes. These face-to-face moments fuel YTJ’s recidivism rate of a mere six percent compared to the national average (re-arrests within a year of release) of fifty-five percent. In addition, a comprehensive study analyzing forty one electronic databases, fifty state websites and over thirty one thousand titles stated that restorative justice programs of all kinds reduce delinquent behavior and can make communities safer (Wilson, Olaghere, Kimbrell, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University, 2017).

Restorative justice can take many forms. A group of Berkeley researchers (cited below) studied the implementation of restorative justice at Cole Middle School in West Oakland to explore its potential role in school environments. In this school, circles were held during morning advisory, in some classrooms regularly and when a situation arised. In addition to the participants physically sitting in a circle, a “circle keeper” would guide the discussion and help establish values, such as respect, listening and compromise, beforehand. The program was a major success. A year after its implementation, suspensions had declined by eighty seven percent, expulsions to zero and the vast majority of students said it was “helping kids” and “reducing fighting” within the school (Sumner, Silverman, Frampton, University of California, Berkeley, 2010). Hailed as having ensured countless low-income youth of color were put on paths to success, restorative justice was soon implemented with a three-tier system by all Oakland Unified District schools in 2009. Across the coast in Philadelphia last year, meanwhile, the video of an Asian-American student being physically and verbally assaulted made the news as yet another hate crime. The community response shifted away from a touch-on-crime stance. Fifteen community organizations released a joint statement calling for victim/community healing as well as accountability that specifically did not involve the traditional justice system. The specifics are irrelevant. Restorative justice—even if it’s only in principle—has the ability to address hardship and pain in a matter that positively impacts everyone.

In the words of longtime YTJ volunteer Judge Geoffrey Howard, “No one has ever been born destined to get into legal trouble. Although some have more challenges to overcome than others, I believe everyone has a basic goodness inside of them that yearns for community connection.” His words reflect a basic truth: believing and investing in our young people is our best path to keeping our communities safer and healthier for generations to come.

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