I’ve been speaking about juvenile justice issues and discussing my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Kids in Adult Lockup with a variety of audiences–churches, college classes, libraries, social service agencies, book clubs, teachers’ conventions and advocacy agencies. The questions that participants raise are as different as the settings I speak in.
But one comment and question that comes up over and over again is, “I didn’t know how bad things were. What can I do?” Behind that question is a lot of compassion for the kids trapped in the prison system, a sense of responsibility for allowing these conditions to continue in one’s own state and nation, a feeling of powerlessness in the face of our granite block criminal justice system, and finally, a desire do something.
That last is something I stress in my response, “a desire do something.” As I explain to my audiences, the laws that allow minors to be tried as adults and then sentenced to adult prisons were enacted because we citizens in some way have given our lawmakers the message that juveniles should be treated this way; that we’re more interested in seeing these young people punished then in seeing them rehabilitated.
It’s a harsh truth I dish up here. Many–if not most–if the people who come to hear me talk are appalled by the conditions they are forced to live under in jail, and they’re deeply distressed by the hard and spirit-breaking lives these kids through no fault of their own have been forced to live. The unsaid hangs in the air, “Of course, we wouldn’t wish this on them! We just didn’t know.”
And that’s the first thing that I tell people they can do: keep yourself informed. So many of these young people come from fractured families and communities. They have no one to speak up for them. They are truly disenfranchised. Any of us can be their voice just by knowing what is going on in regards to criminal justice trends in our state and nation and by speaking up about it to other citizens and to our public officials.
Unfortunately, the voices that are loudest and most often heard by those legislators are the voices of people who are ill-informed, who believe every stereotype about kids in trouble that is broadcast on their local evening news. Too often these people react out of fear and a sense of danger and demand that lawmakers “do something.” And so 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds are imprisoned with little or no understanding of the consequences to them or to our society.
Luckily, none of us have to do this on our own. There are many advocacy groups on the local, state and federal level who are concerned about what happens to these throwaway kids. In my own state of Massachusetts a group that is working hard to improve the lives of young people is Citizens for Juvenile Justice.
CfJJ, based in Boston, is a small organization, but you could never tell that from the active agenda they are pursing on behalf of young offenders. I’m embarrassed to say that Massachusetts is among the states that still tries and sentences minors (in this case 17 years old and above) as adults. Citizens for Juvenile Justice is working to change that by supporting bill H. 450; S. 64 which raises the age to 18. They are also an excellent source of data and other information about many juvenile justice issues. They’re pretty tireless in their efforts, but they’re not beaten down folks. They have energy and determination because they have seen all too well the impact of injustice on kids’ lives.
The kids I taught in the adult county jail never gave up hope. As damaged, as bad, as dead-end as their lives seemed, they believed that things can get better. For those of us who really care about these issues it can seem pretty hopeless. But if we allow that despair and that feeling of impotence to win out we’re just being, as my students would say, “a bunch of wooses.” Groups like Citizens for Juvenile Justice are there to help kids and to help us help them. In turn they need our help. It sounds like a win-win situation.