Often when I give a talk I’m asked if I know what happened to any of the young people I knew and write about. I always feel badly and a little guilty at this point in my presentation because I have to confess that much too often when a kid left jail I lost track of him or her.
It wasn’t from a lack of trying. Like all of the staff –teachers and social workers– in the jailhouse program where I taught, I made efforts to stay in touch with the students. And the students themselves seemed determined to maintain the relationships they had developed with all of us, since those relationships frequently were the healthiest ones they had ever had. But once “out in the world,” as my students would say, a world that had not changed while they had–same friends on the same streets waiting for you, same unemployment, same fractured families, same violent neighborhoods–it didn’t take long for them to get reabsorbed into that world and disappear, until that is the next time they were arrested and showed up in my classroom. Or until we heard that one of them had been shot dead in the street.
What happens to young offenders once they leave prison goes pretty much undocumented. That’s way a recent study by Northwestern University which followed for a period of 5 years (1993 to 1998) young people formerly incarcerated is an important window into a world not many Americans know, or seem to care about. It confirms the fate what many of us have known or suspected for a long time. Here’s just a sample:
Based on the study’s data, more than 80 percent of juveniles who enter the criminal justice system early in life have at some point belonged to a gang. Seventy percent of men and 40 percent of women have used a firearm. The average age of first gun use is 14. At any given time, 20 percent are incarcerated.
Unemployment is rampant: 71 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women are without jobs as adults. Of the 1,829 youths originally enrolled in the study, 119 have died, most of them violently — a death rate three to five times as high as the one for Cook County men in the same age group over all and four times as high as the one for women. In all, 130 have been shot, shot at, stabbed or otherwise violently attacked. As a group, they show high rates of post-traumatic stress, depression and other psychiatric disorders.
The study paints a bleak picture of the lives of these young people. But it’s a picture that must be looked at squarely before we can make significant changes to our broken criminal justice system.