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Transcript: Youth in prison
During the 80's and 90's, voters pushed lawmakers to get tougher on young offenders. They are more subject to being treated like adults and to incur longer sentences. Panelists largely agreed that these trends were creating more long-term problems than they were solving, that young offenders were still developing and would likely benefit from treatment programs if they were available.
These are selections from the whole transcript. Some comments will also occur on other themed pages because they cover more than one topic.
Jim Peck: Dr. Latessa, do prisons know how to deal with minority youth?
Dr. Ed Latessa: Well they've had a lot of experience over the years as the clip showed. We have a much higher percentage of minorities incarcerated, but I think that oftentimes programs aren't specifically designed for the, the cultural differences, and now language differences, that we often face in those institutions.
Jim Peck: Director Crawford, you're nodding your head. Um sometimes these, these kids end up in populations with adults and what does that mean to them?
Jackie Crawford: Well when you have these individuals who wind up with adults, sometimes that glamorizes where they're at, but more importantly it's very disruptive to an entire population, adult population. The majority do not want them in the population, the younger offenders. You know and the one thing that I begin to see and was watching the clip is that these individuals the word was wanting to belong and that seems to be the core of wanting to belong to something. And a lot of our kids you know they're latchkey kids they have nobody, they go home to an empty home and they need to belong and of course sometimes what happens with these individuals when they come into the prison system, they find a home and that's a sad commentary that you have to go to prison to find a home.
Jim Peck: Well and what happens when family becomes the family in prison, the people that you're in there with?
Jackie Crawford: Well it's generational and you know having been in this business for several years and seeing the generations come through the gates. At some point we have to stop that cycle. How we address that cycle I think is what is important. Is incarceration the answer? Not totally no. It may you know it may stop an individual during a protractive period of time, but they're going to come back out into the community. How we prepare them for that community I think is what is essential and what we're discussing here today and what we're seeing in the clip is that he found something, he found something to belong and that's part of what you don't, that does not happen in prison.
Jim Peck: Well and he found family, he found football, um went to college, um what else can we give these kids?
Dr. Theresa Martinez: There was some mention made in the video clip about bicultural and cultural competency and I think that Dr. Latessa made a very important point, which is that prisons aren't necessarily capable of really being sensitive to those cultural issues. And that's a very important, I mean what Jackie says about belonging is also about culture and if these kids don't feel like they're accepted or they're even understood then how can they produce, how can they achieve.
Jim Peck: So what do we do?
Robert Lampert: Well I think those cultural problems are magnified in a prison setting because again we have a young population coming in with an increasingly elderly population. They don't mix well in the first place and secondly the programming that we have in place isn't necessarily geared towards our younger offenders. And thirdly the location of our prisons typically tends to be a more rural setting where we're not able to attract a work population that reflects the ethnic or cultural background of these younger offenders.
Dorothy Nash Holmes: And we created a youthful offender program in the Nevada prison system and we're trying to put in age specific programming for the kids. They may be, he may be a 14 year old murderer, but he's still 14 years old. We've got kid school, not, not adult school. We've got high school there; we've got age specific mental health programming. We've got age specific emotional and life skills programs because they're still children and if you put them in the adult population they're going to grow up real fast, much too fast.
Jim Peck: So what do you say to the people who say well I understand they're children, but look what this kid did?
Sheila Leslie: What I'd say to them is we created a juvenile justice system for a reason, its separate from the adult system for a reason and the reason is because we believe as a society that we need to rehabilitate kids, we need to offer them services, offer them a chance to change and a lot of kids will take that chance. I think as we've moved to more serious youth crime and a focus, too much of a focus has been given to the kids who are the murderers and the rapists and the hard core criminals and the kids who have lost out are the kids at the beginning of the system. So we need to be shifting resources back to prevention. I get calls all the time from parents who say I've gone to the system, my teenager is out of control and they tell me they can't help me until he commits a crime and I think that's a tragedy.
Jim Peck: I'm sure when these, some of this must start coming up when these kids are in court and we hear when the crimes are described, when the penalties are discussed, um is there anything to be done there?
Elliott Weiss: I think we're lacking an alternative to prison program. What's happening is we're putting youngsters 19 and 20 into prison and we're educating them to be better offenders if you will. They have they're own special language there, they're looked down on and called youngsters and then someone takes them under their wing and parents them to be a better offender when they leave the system. So we're doing them an injustice in that respect.
Jackie Crawford: Well and I think sometimes you have to be a more aggressive person when you're young in a prison population and so we foster some of that behavior. And you'll see more aggressive behavior so when they're released then quite frankly they go out much tougher and more hardened then when they came in.
Terry Kolkey: You were saying is there more to be done in the courts? What that really has to do with is having the resources. Most of the courts that's I'm familiar with, just do not have the resources to send the young offenders when there's still a chance to work with them.
Jim Peck: And how do we, I mean you're talking about resources, are we talking about money or expertise or realizing a need for it?
Terry Kolkey: It's a combination, obviously it takes money and obviously it takes the realization that there's a need for it, and maybe it takes a public education that this is the way the system should work, but as far as the other resources you need programs. You need programs in the community to help with education, to help with parenting, to help with job training. The focus and the priority should be on, on the families, on the communities and putting resources there, not simply dumping everything into corrections.
Jim Peck: How do you get people to realize that these aren't just throw away lives?
Dorothy Nash Holmes: You know there's scientific evidence now through the PET Scans and the brain imaging that the brain really doesn't even fully develop until about age 21 and we had some testimony in our legislature this year when we were considering death penalty of young people and I think they listened for the first time in Nevada to that. I used to be a prosecutor and I was very much in favor of stronger, tougher penalties against juveniles and I think now that was a mistake. We should recognize that they there is rehabilitation possible because they are still developing. Even some of these 15 year olds who blow out their whole school and do these horrible, horrible crimes have got to be treated differently in a different setting. I don't think it solves our problem to put them in the adult setting with the same kind of programs and punishments, I don't' think it works.
Jim Peck: Rehabilitation can happen with these kids?
Jim Peck: Okay um how do you, how do you balance that against all the pushes we've seen recently for things like truth in sentencing, for tougher sentences, for making that stick and some talk about wanting kids, that okay finish your juvenile part, but then you just still stay there forever.
Terry Kolkey: Well I don't think it's a matter of balancing and in my opinion those attitudes are simply wrong. They're driven by, by politics; they're driven by say politicians whose main goal is to use the criminal justice system as a tool for their own ambitions. But I think that thought about simply sending and locking kids up for long periods of time is simply a waste, an enormous waste of resources and a tremendous waste of human potential. It, the solution has more to do, at least partially, with a reeducation of the public and having people be more honest about the depths and the complexities of the problems.
Jim Peck: Is minority youth dealt with more harshly than other kids?
Dr. Theresa Martinez: That's what they find in research. They definitely find that minority youth are treated differently all across the board.
Jim Peck: How so? I mean specifically what happens to them?
Dr. Theresa Martinez: Everything from arrest to conviction, indictment, everything. Treatment.
Terry Kolkey: In courts everyday. If you go to the juvenile criminal adult courts you will see, you just have to spend a week there and you will see that the minorities get treated harsher.
Dr. Theresa Martinez: But look at Ben Moa, okay? Look at this kid who started to play for the Utes later, right? Started out in a gang. Very typical in communities where these kids are coming from, and this is a class issue too, right? Comes from the projects, he even told you that, he said, well we were a bunch of kids from the projects. It's a very visible minority group and people expect those kids to go exactly where he was going. But he had someone reach out to him. We don't know what happened to Ben Moa, but there was somebody who reached out. It could've been a coach; it could've been a teacher. He was also athletic; that's lucky for him. There's so many young black men and so many young Hispanic men who aren't reached by the, they're not touched by that kind of thing or don't have that ability. What about them? They fall through the cracks and those are the kids that make up our detention populations and our prison populations later, right?
Jim Peck: How do you find luck for those kids?
Dr. Theresa Martinez: Resources. He's talking about resources.
Terry Kolkey: Yeah, it's not luck, it really isn't luck; it's a matter of a social commitment, but let me add one other thing to the difference in treatment. If I'm representing a well-off white kid who comes from a good family at the sentencing phase I can bring in the parents, I can bring in the grandparents, I can bring in a huge history, and the judge will look at that history and say, This kid comes from a good family; I'm going to give this kid another chance.
Dr. Theresa Martinez: And the judge will say, This kid looks like me.
Terry Kolkey: Exactly.
Dr. Theresa Martinez: And there's a big difference there. Will the judge be able to relate to a kid who doesn't look like him, doesn't come from the same kind of background that he does? Is the kid of color? You know, came the wrong side of the tracks?
Marianne Johnstone: Whose parents are incarcerated already.
Jim Peck: I have the feeling this is still happening in big cities too. We're kind of looking in the west, but this is not unique to places; this is happening in ethnically diverse areas as well.
Dr. Theresa Martinez: This is a national trend.
Terry Kolkey: Most of my practice has been in Los Angeles or San Diego, and it's worse there.
Dr. Theresa Martinez: And we don't want to make that the history of the west either. We don't want to emulate systems like California and Chicago and Illinois.
Sheila Leslie: One of the other groups that's treated differently are girls in the juvenile justice system. They're treated more harshly. They're incarcerated for crimes that boys often aren't incarcerated for. And one of the best ways to create change I think among policy members is to take them out to the juvenile corrections systems and have them meet kids. We did that during our legislative session and I think a lot of legislators were surprised to hear the stories about sexual abuse, about physical abuse, about the kind of family situations that many of these minority youth and other youth come from. And I think when you have that one on one connection with a kid it's much harder to go back and cut funding for those programs. So I always try to get people out to meet the kids, hear their stories and develop more empathy for what we're trying to do. And kids can change, kids want to lead better lives. It's possible.
Dorothy Nash Holmes: It's also about educating the community as well. We really opened up our prison system to the public, we started bringing the cameras in, we started having our inmates do some programs that give back to the public, and now with the drug and alcohol laws in every state, almost everybody has some connection to somebody in prison -- a kid, a relative, a neighbor or something, and so more people are looking at it than they ever were before and I think it's about educating them of different ways of doing things.
Jim Peck: I think sometimes if you look at the media coverage people aren't necessarily, they've all heard about the kid in Florida that's going through the system right now. They've heard about various other young kids that have done horrendous things. But I get the feeling the reality is, there's a lot of kids that are going through this that don't get the kind of coverage, media isn't allowed to show a lot of minors when they're on because you don't want to show their faces and that kind of thing. I think a lot of people aren't aware that many of the systems are that loaded with this many kids.
Tom Bolan: I think part of the problem also is that the discussions become polarized and it's been individual responsibility and accountability versus a community systemic approach that takes into consideration the background and needs of the perpetrators and I think that the discussion has evolved so that those that are advocating for programs that can prevent somebody from perpetrating again are being seen as anti-victim and I think that that's a false discussion and its not helpful to try to look at what is best for our community and what's best for not only the individuals in prison, but also for the victims and I think that we've got to find a way to dialogue about this within our communities that's helpful to all of us.
Jim Peck: I know in Idaho there actually aren't a lot of kids in the system as I understand it. Do you get the feeling that that's coming, is that something you have your eye on?
Tom Beauclair: Well, there are kids in the system, I think we have a little bit different approach in Idaho. Just recently our legislature appropriated to the adult system about $525,000 to do something different in terms of diversion, treatment, and that's across the board its for sex offenders, it's for substance abusers and there really weren't any strings attached and, and then we have drug courts as well like most states and I believe our juvenile system is quite progressive. Now I do want to say that, that one of the things that I don't totally agree with that's been said is that we have to remember that all people aren't treatable, you can't put everybody in a box and say do this with them. And unfortunately the criminal justice system doesn't really deal with people that way, we have a tendency to group people together and then try to use the same fix for all. And from my point of view that doesn't work very well. Some people aren't very treatable and we have to be much more sophisticated about who we put into treatment.
Marianne Johnstone: Well and I think that if we could do a very in-depth assessment, very early on and get involved with mentoring with some of the youth that, that would make a big difference in what happens to them in the years to come.
Dr. Ed Latessa: I think we're talking about a couple different issues here. One is prevention you know what kind of programs, early intervention, diversion programs, mentoring programs, community involvement programs can be designed it can keep kids out of the system. That can help kids when they first come in. Second issue of course is what do you do with someone who's committed an armed robbery or a serious crime that's now in the system? And there we're looking at more traditional correctional rehabilitation programs that really need to focus on risk factors and what we call criminal genic risk factors that really are pretty similar across ethnic groups and racial groups and so they really are somewhat different, different problems.
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