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Changing Our Perspective on Criminalizing Behavior

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
May 9, 2022

I was today years old when I learned there are conflicting beliefs on what an appropriate minimum age should be to prosecute a juvenile in this country. NPR shared a story about a six year old child that was arrested for kicking and punching school staff amidst an age appropriate tantrum, and the steps that followed in changing state laws. The article goes on to say that this particular state has changed their law so that no one under age seven can be arrested, unless they commit a forcible felony. Although I cannot remember exactly where my brain development was when I was seven, I can certainly appreciate that my “usual childhood behaviors” were not criminalized to the point that I ended up behind bars. Understanding that my own childhood experience is uniquely my own, I believe that children exposed to violence, trauma and neglect in their younger years should at least have the opportunity to receive rehabilitative services to address negative behaviors, rather than legal interventions that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

Working in community mental health, I’ve experienced firsthand the pervasive trauma individuals still feel, years after the initial onset of whatever they were exposed to as a child. No wonder young adults today struggle with emotional control, managing behaviors and building coping skills to work through childhood trauma and scars. We have not allowed them to learn those skills appropriately, but instead punish them with institutionalization early on in their human development. American society has been quick to diagnose and medicate rather than provide behavioral interventions that could potentially help children build skills; and it has left me wondering where and why these gaps remain. How we interact with others around us can be traced back to our development as children—our speech, language, understanding and wealth of knowledge. Lived experience is the best educator in how to react in stressful situations and how to behave in social settings. But if we do not have a solid foundation in how to moderate ourselves in these settings, we are more like a ticking time bomb waiting to be triggered.

I am by no means versed in juvenile justice or the laws that support this system, but it seems to me that labeling young children as delinquent, and punishing them using the same laws that apply to adults, can only have negative effects on their development and social identity. The human brain is not fully developed until adulthood, and while I am not using this as a scapegoat to get away with problematic behaviors, I do believe that an ability to fully understand consequences must be present at the time of sentencing. We should also re-evaluate the sentencing standards for various charges to ensure they truly match the gravity of the crime. If we are telling a child they are “no good” or they don’t deserve to learn from their actions but instead face a criminal outcome, then we are not doing them any favors in keeping them away from those same behaviors later in life. Intervening early on, with age appropriate social services and mental health supports, can potentially ensure a positive outcome, diverting them away from criminal tendencies in the future. How many movies have you seen where that one teacher or child advocate takes the time to understand the struggling child? By investing more time in the development and futures of our community’s children, we are then investing in our own future as a community.

As public administrators, we have the power to influence, write or advocate for change in laws that govern behaviors and the criminal justice system. We must work to close the gap between diversion and incarceration and build bridges whereby making it possible to ensure that our youth have every opportunity to avoid incarceration when possible. In review of this topic of Juvenile Justice, it is clear that there is a higher risk of involvement for youth if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds or are impacted by “co-occurring life difficulties,” and as community leaders we must make inroads in the systems that can end this cycle. Educating ourselves and our communities on these issues and how to disrupt the cyclical nature of crime is the best way to achieve common outcomes for a more developed and successful society. Pursuing funding and program development in areas of rehabilitation, restorative justice and diversion are ways that we can change the narrative for our youth—our future.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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