Juvenile Justice Juvenile Justice: Healing Not Punishment Juvenile Probation

Moving From Punishment to Hope and Healing for Kids in the Juvenile Justice System

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By Stephanie Miceli
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Every year in the United States, nearly 250,000 youths are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults.

Though the age limit for juvenile court varies from state to state, the cutoff age in most jurisdictions is 18. Frankie Guzman, a lawyer at the National Center for Youth Law who directs its California Youth Justice Initiative and who was incarcerated himself as a youth, calls this cutoff “arbitrary,” because the adolescent brain continues to develop well into one’s 20s.

“It is immoral and unethical to incarcerate children — especially in a system that offers very little in the way of developmentally appropriate services,” said Guzman at a recent workshop of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, organized by the Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity. The workshop examined the effects of involvement with the juvenile justice system on the health and well-being of adolescents, families, and communities of color.

The intersection of race and place

Communities with high rates of youth incarceration usually have several things in common: poverty, failing schools, inadequate health care, inadequate housing, and negative relationships between police and residents. Much of this burden falls on communities of color and poor communities.

When Guzman was 15, he and a friend stole a car and robbed a liquor store at gunpoint in Southern California, which resulted in six years behind bars. His incarceration was the culmination of many of those aforementioned factors, including financial difficulty, a lack of enrichment opportunities, and few adult role models in a community marred by gang violence.

“In my community, there were no after-school programs, no Boys and Girls Clubs,” said Guzman. “I was stopped and strip-searched in broad daylight as early as age 13, when all I was doing was existing.”

People tend to focus on what punishment a person deserves, rather than what led them to prison in the first place, which was a common theme discussed throughout the workshop.

“Young people are detained by the juvenile justice systems when other systems fail,” said Linda Teplin, director of the health disparities and public policy program at Northwestern University. Evidence also shows that the majority of kids who are in youth detention have experienced trauma and other behavioral health issues, and that punishment-based systems don’t necessarily work to rehabilitate them.

Close to the problem, close to the solution

Several attendees remarked that the criminal justice system has become a catch-all for dealing with problems caused by society’s underinvestment in people.

“We always hear funding for prevention is an issue, but how much does it cost for someone’s incarceration? When I was in San Quentin State Prison, it was $120,000 a year,” said Airto Morales, a site manager at the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Justice Fairness and Equity. “I wasn’t worth that much on the street before, or even when I was in the military. We need to address these dichotomies,” he said.

The workshop featured a panel of formerly incarcerated young people and their parents, who all stressed that those who are directly affected by the problem need to be part of the solution.

If detention is expected to be the answer, the system has to “do more than lock kids up. It has to reach into the lives of kids and their parents,” said Deanna, the mother of a son who was incarcerated.

Some cities are piloting the concept of “credible messengers,” mainly people who were formerly incarcerated who are given a living wage salary and benefits and hired to be mentors, life coaches, and case managers of young people ages 16 to 24 who are on probation. In Washington, D.C., the approach has extended to include probationers’ families.

There has been pushback from some, who say “you’re bringing in felons to tell us how we’re supposed to serve these young people.” However, Guzman applauds such approaches, noting that in his role, “as a formerly incarcerated person, I still chose to engage with a system that did a lot of harm to me and my community. I wanted to be part of the solution, not relegated to the sidelines.”

Alternatives to detention

Opportunities to reform the juvenile justice system are abundant, and states and counties can learn a lot from tribes, said Richard Blake, chief judge of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California. Blake has launched culturally tailored programs for anger management, substance abuse, and domestic violence. In response to the “school-to-court-pipeline,” he also placed resource officers in schools to be a first line of defense for students with behavioral problems — rather than the court system.

Guzman noted that San Francisco is closing its youth detention center in 2021 — a move he hopes other cities will follow. The next big question, he said, should be about whether youth-serving county agencies will more appropriately serve young people on probation.

Ultimately, speakers agreed, the conversation about youth incarceration needs to shift from punishment to hope and healing. Most young people in prison are there for things they genuinely regret doing — not because they got in trouble, but because they want to make things right.

“We have to all work toward the same goal — to restore justice,” Blake said.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) originally published this story.

Image: Frankie Guzman speaks at NASEM juvenile justice workshop. Courtesy of Northern Arizona University.


  • These excuses are getting very annoying now. I grew up in a not so good area. I came from a low income family. My father worked two jobs, totalling 16 days mon-fri. My mother worked a 8-5 job mon-fri. My oldest brother took care of 3 younger brothers including myself. With the little family time we had, my parents made sure to teach us about the quality of life. They taught us that we weren’t going to get things handed to us for free. We had to work very hard if we wanted this gs in life. I never ever thought about committing crimes during my later teen years. This whole story about the brain still developing into the 20’s is just another excuse to pass the blame off of the parents and onto something else.

    You want to stop seeing kids getting into trouble…look into their household. Their upbringing. Their freaking parents. I’m sure you’ll find all the answers you need there.

  • Skippy, if you repeat something over and over, people begin to believe it.

    Criminals are not the victimizers, they’re the VICTIMS.
    “Victims” don’t deserve jail, they deserve TREATMENT.
    Cops aren’t the good people, THEY’RE the VICTIMIZERS.
    “Victims” aren’t responsible for their decisions, it’s everyone ELSE’S fault….teachers, cops, judges, and of course (since most “victims” are black and Latino) a racist “system.”

    Those that we USED to call “victims” aren’t even mentioned anymore. Liberals (and I’m a Democrat) HATE talking about those people. How many articles have you seen on WLA about actual victims (archaic)?

  • LASD Apostle…totally agreed.

    There are many moderate Democrats who became disheartened at what they have seen the party devolve into. Just as the Republican Party had their day of reckoning when the ultra conservative Tea Party wing of the party took control and became the “new voice”, so has the “far left liberal” wing taken over the Democratic Party and become their new voice. This move has not only alienated many long term Democrats but left them scratching their heads, wondering what happened and in a state of hopelessness for the Democratic Party’s future. How can members of a party insult residents of those states they don’t feel are in line with their way of thinking and honestly think they have a chance of winning an election? It’s like going to a restaurant that gives you poor service and maintaining a misguided belief that people will continue to come back. Either your in denial, stupid, arrogant or all the above.

    Once President Trump won, you would think the Democratic Party would have focused on building a solid strategy and candidate to put forth in 2020. Did they do that, no. Instead they have spent the last three year opposing the President, trying to trip him up at every step and as a last ditch effort to impeach him since they no they can’t beat him fairly. Pretty sad and pathetic isn’t it.

    The Republican Party was asleep at the wheel when President Trump swooped in and put forth a message that resonated amongst Republicans an Democrats alike. Shame on the Democratic Party and their leadership for being so out of touch with the people, as you can not win a election by ignoring most of the states in these United States, and not learning from their past mistakes. It also doesn’t help that those cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Baltimore, et.al) and those states ran by Democrats (California, New York, et.al) aren’t exactly glowing examples of competent and effective “Democratic Leadership”.

    The best hope for Democratic Party in 2020 is for an unknown, non-establishment “Moderate Democrat” to swoop in, upset the status quo and give the country a sensible choice. The field right now ain’t gonna do it. Kinda sounds familiar.

  • Skippy, spoken like a true genius – “this whole story about the brain still developing into the 20’s is just another excuse.” What else have you figured out – global warming is a hoax? Evolution is a hoax? The universe revolves around the earth? God created Adam and Eve? Let us assume, for the sake of argument that the parents did screw up the kids, that they were bad parents. OK, so should we not then try to help those children? Remind me what you did to make sure you had two parents?

    LASD Apostle – you got part of that correct – Cops are not great people. The shine is off and this cops-as-heroes idea worked in some places, years ago. Now we know there are drunks, rapist, pedophiles, predators, liars, wanna-be gangsters, etc on the force.

    HMMM, another political genius. Bring in a “Moderate Democrat” to upset the status quo? By definition a moderate democrat is, well, a moderate and part of the status quo. And, they have spent three years trying to trip Trump? Are you kidding me. The man is an idiot that trips on himself. Even you must admit, that he says some the most idiotic things. He is a buffoon with an orange wig and an international laughing stock. We might as well park a god-plated trailer on the White House lawn. Make it a double-wide because he is rich.

    • Cf- Global warming is a hoax. I’m sure you are one of the believers that cow farts are destroying the world. And what did I do to make sure I had two parents? I was raised in a loving household with parents that understood and accepted responsibility. “Should we not try to help the children?” I dont know. We’ve been trying to help the children for a long time. News flash, it hasnt worked. Maybe we should start by helping the parents. I’m totally for helping the children. But when that “child” is 15 years or older, they have already developed the concept of right and wrong. What makes these problems worse are when you and your left leaning buddies make these kids feel like the crimes they commit are not their fault. If you take the consequences away from them, then what is to stop them from doing it again and again? Your left ideology is a false ideology and is it any wonder why cities ran by that same ideologies are shit hole cities?

    • Cf- I voted for President Trump and I support him. I agree with you. He does say some really dumb things. As for him being a buffoon, you’re wrong. Hes done more in his term than any other president has. He does what he says he is going to do. An international laughing stock? You’re wrong again. If you look up media sources from other countries, they like President Trump. A lot of them wish they had someone like him running their country. The only one that hate President Trump are our enemies and brainwashed americans, like yourself, that receive their political stories from instagram and/or facebook. Go out and do your own research, you will come to realize that President Trump isn’t as bad as you think.

  • CF….you are “another left wing moron.” A moderate is part of the status quo, what the hell does that mean? Spoken like true anti-government, my way or the highway, anarchist.

    Your takeaway from the comment is that the voting public is wrong, doesn’t know what they want and should put faith in those elected officials that are elected by them right. Well, the voting public elected President Trump and are okay with the direction the country is going.

    On the other side of the coin, the Democratic party think they have it all “right”, have all the answers and in typical left wing liberal fashion think they “know what’s best for you”. Give me an example of one policy the Democrats have enacted or put forth in the last three years that has benefited the a everage US Citizen?

    Gavin “Clueless” Newsome is a prime example of an out of touch, dictatorial politician as shown by his many executive actions taken which ignore the will of the voters….the folks who voted him in office, his employers, the people who will pay him as you say, “that big fat taxpayers funded government retirement check”.

    No, I’m sorry, the tantrum throwing Democrats are not what the country needs going forward.

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