The National Research Council recommends juvenile law incorporate the science of teen brain development into their reform efforts. It recommends judges consider the individual offender’s social environment before deciding punishment, and to NOT adopt “adult criminal court” style punishments. In only very rare occasions where a teen poses “an extremely high risk to others” should he/she be confined because the “harsh laws” passed in the 1990’s don’t reflect the developmental differences between an adult (brain) and a developing adolescent brain.
Reasons cited for this advice include medical research provided by Dr. Robert Johnson, dean of New Jersey Medical School that reveal “an imbalance in developing brain systems is linked to adolescents’ lack of mature capability for self-regulation, heightened sensitivity to external influences, and poorer ability to make decisions that require consideration of the future.” Dr. Johnson says the high-risk and impulsive yet illegal activity stems from the same kind of risk-taking that most normal teens experience as part of the growing up process. Most teens grow out of it.
Personally, I think this a big load of crud. Yes, the Texas Youth Commission is crowded, but I still think it is necessary. The kids in this program are only there because they are the worst, most dangerous offenders. We are talking about rape, assault with a deadly weapon, and murder here. And yes, there are other alternatives to confinement to teach a kid to be responsible for his own actions, but let’s face it, folks: by the time that teen has reached the level of impulsiveness and violence to actually cross that line into actual criminal behavior, this tells me the family “group hug” approach ain’t working. Something more drastic has to be done. Juvenile detention, especially confinement – IS JUST THE TICKET. It gets a teen’s attention. Specifically, I refer to juvenile detention in smaller county lockup programs – NOT the TYC. Confinement in these “smaller hotels” works well. Very well.
Confinement, I might add, also gets Mom and Dad’s attention. It is an alarm clock for under-involved parents, and over indulgent ones too. Especially the “helicopter parent” who repeatedly swoops in to solve their child’s problems in school and never lets a kid feel any consequences for their own bad choices. Worse, this same parent type provides great modeling on how to blame others (aka “Oh, that teacher never liked Johnny” or “the police had it out for you- poor baby”).
Good parenting skills or bad, by the time a teen (age 13-16) has been caught with drugs, theft, or fighting something tougher is drastically needed if this teen has any hope of learning society rules before becoming an adult. Especially if the confinement includes a level-up behavior system to earn weekend furloughs and freedoms. I know. I actually BEGGED a judge to place my child in Collin County’s juvenile detention program because I didn’t know what else to do. After school truancy and minor drug possession followed by even more truancy, we had already been through the ranks of the public school’s discipline program, and the JP court. Even on probation, his behavior wasn’t changing.
He knew better. He knew right from wrong. He was just a teen choosing to take high risks. New brain research or not, now he was taller and stronger than me. I could no longer pick him up and put him in his room for time out.
After repeatedly breaking his mandatory probation rules (again for truancy) I begged the probation officer to issue a warrant. In court, I begged the judge to lock him up. Therefore, my teen wore an orange jumpsuit, a shave head, and talked to me through a plastic window for 7 months. It was hard to do–asking a court to confine my son, but it was all I could think of.
While in confinement, he raised his grades from a 1.8 to a 3.6 and changed from a high school dropout to an early graduate at the top of his class. He learned respect for himself and others as he worked his way through the leveled system for a chance to be out of a 4×5 cell and back into his soft bed at home for a weekend at a time. His attitude went from angry entitlement to humble gratitude as he realized that he had blessings in his life that he had never before considered.
So, no, DON’T model the juvenile justice system exactly like the adult court, but DO give kids a taste of what the real world – and real adult jail is going to be like if they do not change their ways. DON’T disregard the adolescent brain research on impulsivity and high-risk choices, but also DO remember that it is a good thing–a positive thing–to teach a kid with a high-risk brain stop and think. How to weigh impulsivity against the risk and laws before he becomes the adult who is a felon sitting in cells we pay for with our taxes. And do – please DO use confinement – even if the teen is not “in danger of hurting others”. Segregate that population in those detention centers by crime types to ensure misdemeanor offenders are not influenced juvenile felons, but never EVER give up the idea of good old-fashioned confinement. It saved my son’s life, and I am thankful for it.
For the article that spurred this emotional blog, see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121113134622.htm