new york: task force on transforming juvenile justice - *now* can we imagine a new way??

The recently published new york times article about youth detention facilities in new york state details a persistent state of "crisis" rampant in these institutions.  The article is based on a report written by New York Governor Patterson's Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice.  Juvenile prisons are described as "both extremely expensive and extraordinarily ineffective" by the report, as cited in the article.  The statistics are at once disheartening and familiar: more than half the youth in detention facilities are incarcerated for minor offenses (theft, drug possession, truancy); over 80% are black or Latino; almost all of the new york city, who comprise 76% new york state's juvenile detention population, are housed outside of the city and out of reach of their support networks due to prohibitive costs that might make frequent travel impossible.

While I was pleased to see alternative mentioned twice in the article, which has garnered attention quickly since it was published, the mentions are limited: one about the need for alternatives such as therapeutic foster care and another about an overall recommendation made by Gladys CarriĆ³n, the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, "that judges find alternative placements for most young offenders."  I have spent eight of the last fourteen years involved with incarceration alternatives as a teacher, tutor, researcher, and volunteer, and in that time have come to appreciate the nuanced possibilities for reimagining futures that alternative to incarceration (ATI) programs can provide.  One of these programs is located in new york city and has a rich history of innovative programming to support the post-incarceration lives of youth.  As a researcher I have been able to document the varied and situated practices of the staff of this program for the past five years and what is consistent, amidst the diversity of approaches, is the commitment to court-involved evident.  Teachers, case managers, counselors, court representatives, administrators (for the most part) share a personal connection to the Justice System and bring with them an empathy and a sense of possibility to their work with the (mostly) young men at the program.  Education and employment work in tandem as dual objectives that are addressed by the program's offerings, which include arts and media electives and a college preparatory program.  What is readily evident in this space, and what feels quite absent from the austere environs and discourses described in the Task Force Report, is the embodied understanding of what Maxine Greene describes as the "not yet" - at 14, 15, 16 or even as young as 10 and 11, how many of us were already the person we are today, and what are the many ways in which we may continue to change years from now, if those around us will allow it.  Greene's response to her own question ("Who am I?"), "I am who I am not yet" is imbued with a deep sense of possibility - a narrative necessary for education; perhaps especially important for young people whose institutional scrapes have amounted to war wounds they wear daily like a heavy mantle.

The new york times article ends with this quote by "Clara Hemphill, a researcher and author of a report on the state’s youth prisons published in October by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School"
“It really is barbaric,” she added, “the way they treat these kids.”
I'm reminded of one young man's story about adolescents being called "animal-escents" at the youth facility where he was incarcerated before being offered a spot at the alternative to incarceration program.  This was a term - and presumably an attitude - adopted by many of the correction officers at the facility.  The term ("animal-escents") and the implied meanings send a profound message to those same young people about how they are viewed and how they might expect to perceived in the future.

The seeing of youth as animals may not be a perspective confined to detention institutions; judges, police officers, educators, administrators are all adults who have the opportunity to redirect their gaze away from solely individualistic theories of social transgressions at multiple moments of human interaction with youth.  Yet too many choose to impose un-nuanced and simplified rationales when understanding socially complex realities.  The response to "crime" need not be an unquestioning lockdown mentality.  Rather, there is great restorative potential in the city's ATIs and alternative to detention (ATD) programs (aimed at children and adolescents who are charged with an infraction and placed under the care of the Family Courts when they are ages 9-16).  Restorative is not merely rehabilitative or remediation; restorative implicates all those engaged in the post-incarceration well-being of an adolescent - family, educators, community: the restoration of a sense of possibility, of a future re-imagined.  The ATI with which I have been involved does not dismiss the histories of the young men who walk through its hallways and participate in classrooms, nor does the program find their histories singularly deterministic of their futures.  The "alternative" nature of the site lies in the considerations that have been made to address and attend to the manifestations of multiple social systems that converge on the bodies of adolescents: education, employment, health... But perhaps most significant about the possibilities these ATI and ATD programs hold for court-involved youth to rewrite their futures is their potential to disrupt the larger (and often knee-jerk) public discourse about adjudication, incarceration, and tropes of inevitability. 

Can we imagine an approach to legal transgressions that can be described as imaginative, collective, and caring?  And lest this suggestion call up protestations about the need to punish crimes, let's remember that the majority of the cases for which youth are arrested or sentenced involve offenses that say more about our social systems than any individual proclivity.  We certainly don't want persons in positions of power to continue to manipulate the lives of youth for their own personal gain or out of some personal vendetta.  Moving through ATI and ATD programs are young people - like Patrick and Eric and Ed and Nicole and Brite and Emanuel and Tiffany and Angel and Christian and many more - who are so much than the arrest code hastily jotted on the standard intake form. They are poets and thinkers and social theorists and artists and writers and brothers and singers and sisters whose complete has "not yet" been written.  Can we imagine spaces for young people to not only make their stories known; but also to story themselves differently in the world?

Click here for the complete report by the governor's task force.

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