I’ve been studying the juvenile justice system in my high school, learning what happens to kids who make mistakes and commit crimes. Even though kids sometimes make very bad choices by getting involved in very bad crimes (maybe the worst choices of their lives, so far), kids’ brains are not yet developed. As a result, the lack of impulse control from their developing brains contributes to children making very bad choices for a variety of reasons. Any adult who interacts with kids knows what I’m talking about.
Luckily, courts have begun to think about kids’ lack of impulse control, and they sometimes take this into account when sentencing kids. But this doesn’t solve the problem of how they got there or how we’re going to help kids learn from their mistakes.
Some kids don’t really get a chance to be kids because they have to act as a parent to their own parent or sibling. This process is called “parentification,” and children who experience parentification may suffer from depression, isolation and anger as adults. Childhood trauma, poverty and parentification are sometimes not considered, along with implicit (or explicit) bias inside the justice system itself.
Then I learned that kids who make the kind of huge mistakes that put them inside the juvenile justice system don’t always get the chance to learn from their mistakes inside the juvenile justice system. Sometimes they go into adult court and are tried as adults, even though they are still kids. There are many effects that being tried as an adult can have on a juvenile. Psychological effects can be anything from juveniles losing faith in the justice system to experiencing trauma going through adult court and being confined in adult prisons, and that trauma can cause various emotional disorders.
Policies can also have a huge impact on the effects of juveniles tried as adults. I learned that when the “tough on crime policy” emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, juvenile crime actually got worse instead of better. I read the Justice Policy Report which also provides evidence about how keeping kids locked up in juvenile detention or adult jails can slow the natural process of aging out of delinquency, reduce chances of returning to school, lower success in the labor market, and exacerbate any existing mental illness.
There are many ways to solve this problem, and I hope one thing we continue to do is to consider the science of developing juvenile brains. A bad decision a juvenile makes should not automatically ruin the rest of their life. Yes, there should be consequences, but I hope that courts consider why kids make bad choices, what is happening in their lives that might contribute to these bad choices, and how we can help kids learn from their mistakes instead of making more mistakes.
I also hope we spend more time thinking about programming for kids who have been inside the juvenile justice system and are trying to get their lives back on track. We need to do more to prevent kids from entering the criminal justice system in the first place, such as more mentoring, counseling and educational support. We need to think about what we are doing to help them make better decisions and not get caught in a cycle of crime.
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I hope each person reading this will reach out to help somebody in their neighborhood or family who needs help. Role models really do make a difference. It’s one small step, but it’s a step that everyone can take. Reach out to a child before they make the worst mistake of their life. Be there for them so that they can learn how to make better choices.
• Ella Bruzek lives in Iowa City.