“You don’t care about the victims. All you care about are those kids.”
It was a comment I’ve heard in one form or another at book events, at juvenile justice talks I’ve given, or in response to pieces I’d written about our national policy of retribution towards troubled kids. I have to admit, though, this guy was a bit more, shall I say, challenging, as he stood up after my reading and made his comment.
I’d read several advice articles for authors on giving readings suggesting you have “pat answers” ready for the Q & A. It keeps things moving. It may be good advice, but I’ve found it doesn’t work for me. Juvenile justice is too potent a topic be “pat answered” away. Besides, I wrote I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup about the young offenders I taught for 10 years in the adult county prison to get people thinking about this much-neglected issue. So I do my best to address each concern sincerely.
Fielding the man’s rather angry question, I talked about my belief that kids should indeed be held accountable for their actions; that they should learn that what they did affected not only their victims and their families and communities but also the young offenders themselves and their families and communities. What I couldn’t support was the punitive quality of that accountability as it is now practiced in our prison system.
I could tell that evening’s questioner was pretty disgusted. I was one more bleeding heart, one more knee jerk liberal, one more sucker taken in by “those kids.” He was gracious about it. He didn’t say any of that out loud. He didn’t have to. I’d heard it all before.
But his comment stayed with me long after the event: What did I feel about the victims?
I talk a lot about victims in my book. But the victims in this case are the locked up high school students I worked with for those 10 years. In telling their stories — stories of childhood neglect and abandonment; of sexual abuse; of violence in the home and on the streets; of parental addiction and disease — I wanted readers to at least be aware of the fertile ground of mistreatment in which these children grew up. From my challenger’s point of view I’m sure I do go on too much about “those kids” and not about the people who suffered because of their crimes. (It’s important to note, however, that many of the teens I came across in jail — and this holds true for prisons nationally — were serving time for victimless, nonviolent offences.) I was beginning to wonder if maybe the guy was right. Maybe I didn’t care about crime victims?
Like all good questions, this one stayed with me well afterwards. Yet despite the doubts he raised for me I knew that I did care deeply about the people hurt by crime; that, in an odd twist on the title of my book, “I don’t wish nobody” to have their lives damaged by the irresponsible acts of others, young or old. I turned the question over and over until finally I understood more clearly where I stood: the only way to protect society from youthful offenders and to prevent more crime was to protect the offenders themselves.
Study after study has shown that the harsh treatment of young people locked up in our nation’s jails has not only failed to reduce recidivism but has also created angrier, more bitter, more violent juvenile offenders. Lock a 14- or 15- year-old up in an adult prison with its toxic environment of noise and dirt; of abuse, intimidation and paranoia; of violence and aggression, and that kid will not leave jail with a heightened sense of responsibility towards society, ready to re-examine and change his or her behavior.
I know that my reasoning wouldn’t convince those who feel that any punishment for criminal actions is not harsh enough to give victims the justice they seek. But the more I think about it the more convinced I am of the wisdom — and commonsense, which wisdom often is — behind it: if we truly care about victims, if we want to shield people from the hurt of crime we must look at and change the way we bring juvenile offenders — all offenders, really — to true justice.
During my tenure as a jailhouse teacher and while I was writing my book, I always thought of the kids I taught as children of disappointment, children let down time and time again by the world of adults — parents, teachers, clergy, neighbors. Prison breeds disappointment, and as I did my own 10-year jail bid I watched many of my students come in as children of disappointment and leave young adults of disappointment.
That’s a transformation no one truly wants and protects no one.