Treat Justice-Involved Young People as the Young People They Are
The January 31 Wisconsin State Journal story about Dane County Judge Juan Colás' decision to keep 16-year-old Devante James in the adult court system illustrates one of the greatest injustices created by the legislature when changes were made to the juvenile code in 1996. Devante has been charged with being a lookout in a confrontation that ended in the homicide of Jonathon Wilson last October. Finally, after spending over three months in jail, the court did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that Devante's case would best be served by sending his case to juvenile court. In part the court's decision reflects the depth of the tragedy itself, and in part it reflects the notion that community safety comes from "getting tough" on young people, a notion that is sometimes at odds with the best long-term interests of the community.
Polls show that the public believes most justice-involved young people, even in serious cases, can turn their life around. Recent research has provided practitioners with more information about what works and has demonstrated that youth dealt with in the juvenile system are thirty-four percent less likely to reoffend than similar youth sent to the adult system. Youth who are tried as adults and sent to prison face dangerous conditions, including physical violence and sexual assault, and are more susceptible to the negative influences of adults they are incarcerated with. They miss out on age-appropriate specialized education and treatment services—the very things that promote long-term community safety and help the young person at the same time
In painting broad strokes, the article leaves out critical information that illustrates why we need to think about justice-involved young people differently. Devante James is small at 5 feet, 4 inches tall, and his 105 pounds is a result of ongoing weight loss in jail. He did well through middle school with special education assistance. High school brought a greater challenge, but Devante achieved success in a school-based work-and-learn program. He has never been expelled. He has never been charged with a delinquent act. And, in the case for which he has been kept in adult court, he did not kill anyone or even fire a weapon. When Devante's mother found out what had happened on October 20, she took her son to the police station to "do the right thing" by telling police. Without benefit of an attorney, Devante did what we ask of our children. He spoke to the police, and he has been in jail ever since.
The article makes no mention of neuroscientific research showing that the teenage brain is far from mature at age 16. The parts of our brain that are involved in self-control, judgment, self-awareness, and emotional maturity are nowhere near done "cooking" in the teen years. This leads to greater susceptibility to the negative influences of others as well as greater opportunity for positive change given the right intervention and support.
If 16-year-old Devante is convicted in adult court, Wisconsin will pay for him to spend at least 20 years in prison if not many more. Do we want the experiences that are etched into his and other young people's minds and bodies to be the sights, sounds, and interactions of adult prison? Or, can we find a way to achieve justice and increase public safety by treating youth appropriately? Make no mistake about it; unless Devante dies in prison he will return to our community one day from whatever kind of incarceration experience he is exposed to.
There are no winners in cases like this one, and the loss of another young person's life cannot be overcome no matter what happens with Devante James. We believe statutes should be rewritten to give more flexibility to courts to determine what works and make it more likely that young people can turn their lives around and grow up to be productive members of our community. If you agree we can do better or want to learn more about the issue, link to WCCF's Justice for Wisconsin Youth campaign and stay connected with efforts to ensure youth are treated appropriately in our justice system.
Kathy Park is the Vice President at NCCD.