By: Craig and Marc Kielburger
The city of Seattle, Washington, plans to never put another young person in jail. Is it a naïvely utopian vision or an idea whose time has come?
In September, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a motion calling for zero youth incarceration. Seattle councillor Mike O'Brien told us the idea emerged as community groups met to oppose a county plan to build a new $200-million youth prison.
Interestingly, the story broke right after Craig was in L.A. meeting youth organizations, including the team from the Challenger Memorial Youth Centre -- a detention facility for young people in Los Angeles, California.
At Challenger, educators are using our organization's service learning curriculum to teach empathy and community engagement to young offenders involved with L.A.'s notorious street gangs. Leslie Zoroya, Challenger's lead educator, told us that that simply learning about, and getting involved in, local and global issues is already making many of her young charges rethink their life choices.
Seattle's initiative and the L.A. experience make us question if prison is the best option for dealing with young offenders.
In juvenile detention facilities, youth are disconnected from community and family, with mostly other offenders as role models. This only reinforces negative behaviours and attitudes, according to juvenile justice experts.
"Research shows the earlier and longer youth spend in the system, the worse the outcomes are," says Peter Leone, a professor at the University of Maryland who has studied juvenile justice measures around the world for more than 20 years.
It costs approximately $100,000 a year to incarcerate one young person in Canada. If that individual becomes a hardened life-long criminal, the amount will exceed a staggering $2 million, according to a Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada presentation to a House of Commons committee.
That's why it's important to consider alternatives to jail.
There's restorative justice, where offenders face their victims in a mediated setting outside the courts and agree on restitution. This approach results in surprisingly high levels of satisfaction for victims. New Zealand, a pioneer in restorative justice, has been using it extensively since 1989 as an alternative to putting youth in prison, according to Leone.
"Diversion programs" are another option. They give police, prosecutors and judges the flexibility to waive charges if a young offender accepts help such as drug rehabilitation or mental health treatment.
Councillor O'Brien told us about a Seattle effort targeting adult homeless drug addicts and sex trade workers that provides housing and 24-hour support services instead of prison sentences. The program has reduced recidivism by 60 per cent and may become part of Seattle's zero-incarceration strategy for young people.
Denmark maintains only about 10 youth prison spaces for the entire country, and they are reserved for serious violent crimes, Leone tells us. Other young offenders go into social programs.
Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (a justice reform organization) told us that in the early 1970s, the state of Massachusetts successfully shut down all its youth prisons and transferred offenders to community facilities like group homes. It has maintained that approach ever since.
In Canada, the number of young people in juvenile detention has decreased dramatically since the Youth Criminal Justice Act was passed in 2003, forcing judges to consider alternatives to prison like community service, says Pate. And our country has a growing network of local restorative justice programs.
These approaches are investments in young people that have an economic and social ripple effect, achieving lower rates of youth crime and recidivism.
There will always be a handful of young offenders who commit crimes dire enough to warrant prison. Zoroya admitted there are some youth at Challenger who she believes are just too "ingrained" to ever turn their lives around.
But we share Leone's optimism that, with innovation solutions that tackle root problems instead of aiming to throw away the key, the overwhelming majority of young offenders never need see the inside of a jail.
If Seattle can dream of a world without youth prisons, why can't Canada?
Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.
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"Coming in the building feels like turning in my stuff before entering a jail cell." -- Angel L.
"The teachers can go through the gate without being stopped, and students are stopped and asked to show a pass. Students are treated like they're prisoners. They already have to be escorted by a teacher to get through." -- Karl L.
"This photo represents what we have to go through before entering our school everyday. I think it's uncalled for, and nine times out of 10, if any violence ... would occur it would be outside the school. According to DCLY [D.C. Lawyers For Youth] high quality mentoring for every D.C. child between 10-17 years old would cost $63 million, versus ... paying $305 million just to incarcerate them." - Sean "Lucky" W.
"This photo represents how some African American youth are on a path to prison that they can't see or don't know when it's coming. The reason I say that is because most of us are expected to go to prison sometime in life. Statistics say one out of three African American males will go to prison in their life. In elementary school us African American youth are predicted to go to prison or jail based on standardized test scores and suspension rates." - Sean "Lucky" W.
"This is a picture of the black long gate that surrounds my school, with only three ways to enter and I know that this is a tactic that jails use to keep 'criminals' in or out." -- Mike
"The American flag symbolizes the rights we are granted as citizens and the freedom we have to manifest ideas and expand our knowledge. The bars represent restriction and confinement. Two conflicting ideas. We should not feel like our school system is detaining us and preventing us from flourishing." - Anaise
"My name is Jacqueline S., I [have] lived in Washington D.C. most of my life. Im 20 in the twelfth-grade and excited to graduate in 2013. It took until my last year to figure out how school and education was important. This year has really opened my eyes. Because back then even when I was little I didn't understand why my mom woke me up early in the morning just to go to school because I never felt like it ... In middle school I was suspended a number of times and got expelled from school. But when I was suspended I knew that I was free by staying home watching TV ... I changed because I didn't want to fail."
"Everyday students have to enter through the auditorium doors and place their backpacks on the X-Ray machine. Then they walk through the metal detector to meet their bag on the other side and then must wait for the bags to be searched by a security guard. This makes students feel as if we're going inside a jail to meet someone, or as if the staff sees us as criminals. Statistics show that 70 percent of students [who are] involved in 'in-school' arrests or are referred to law enforcement are black or Latino. If DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] wants to lower these numbers then why do we have the same procedures of entering a jail [instead of] a comforting environment of being welcomed to school?" - Mike
"This photo is of a young man who is sitting at a desk. The desk is in the school hallway and he is the only one outside. 'My teacher put me out here.' In most cases, the student is not at fault. Sometimes teachers do not know how to deal and give appropriate punishments. Restorative Justice should be implemented in our schools because, not only does it help students learn how to deal with their behavioral problems, it trains our teachers to deal with students in a correct manner that doesn't allow their personal judgement to affect the student." - Samera
"Every morning for the past three months after walking through the metal detectors, 17-year-old Skinny has to explain to the security guards before being wanded why the machine went off. Skinny has an ankle monitor on, or 'the box.' With a curfew of 8 p.m. every night, he feels trapped and isolated from the world. Skinny is on probation and was told he would get the monitor off a month ago. When that did not occur he became disappointed. At times he refused to go to school due to his frustrations. D.C. public schools allow up to three unexcused absences until truancy reports are sent out. I am very concerned about his education and the consequences from the days he has missed." - Samera
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