The first time I committed an offense, I was in the sixth grade. I walked into Lucky’s and was hungry. I had no money, and there wasn’t any food at home. I ordered a bag of chicken tenders at the deli and walked around the store, eating it. I got away with it a couple times before loss prevention took me to the back and called the police. As a child, I carried so much guilt around that charge. But why? I was an 11-year-old stealing food to survive. I was a symptom of my situation and was punished for not being as privileged as other kids.
I believe that young people should not be held in prisons or detention centers because these environments are not conducive to preventing recidivism. Detention facilities are caustic communities that hurt our kids. Kids often end up in detention centers because of lack of basic needs, lack of emotional regulation tools, lack of stable adults to lead and mentor them, lack of community, and/or mental health struggles. Instead of providing a developing person with their needs, the criminal justice system is isolating them from society and then discharging them with no added skills. Detention facilities compound trauma on these kids, exacerbating the issues rather than teaching them sustainable, lifelong tools to prevent recidivism.
Let’s start with the name: “detention facilities.” If you google this term, associated words like “punishment,” “prisoner,” and “detained” come up. The criminal justice system is politically defining a child by putting them in a facility like that. Where will these kids learn respect if safe and respectful behavior is not demonstrated? Then, people wonder why they reoffend when they get out. Change the name, treat the kids with respect, and change the goal. The new goal is harm prevention and reduction. The recidivism rate is statistically high in our facilities in the United States, compared to other countries. Our system is failing our kids.
Detention facilities could be a form of re-parenting. Unfortunately, kids, including myself, leave juvenile detention facilities with less than what we came in with. How can juvenile justice facilities reparent at-risk youth? Create a healthy environment that cultivates healthy people — that’s justice. Find out what these kids need and give it to them, so that when they come out, they have more than what they came in with.
I have faith that, one day, we will have facilities that treat kids with respect. These centers could be institutions for growth and ambition. It can be somewhere “lost” kids could find the light in their own being and have the love and support they are missing at home. Facilities deserve mental health counselors, social workers, nutritionists, physical trainers, and educators working as a collective to teach these young people tools for success to correct the behaviors that aren’t serving them. Let facilities be a second chance, not a death sentence for our people of tomorrow.