|Juvenile Corrections: A Noble Cause, and a Humbling Experience|
|By Billy S. Humphrey|
We should strive in all jurisdictions to incarcerate young people within secure Correctional facilities only when all other community-based options have failed or are otherwise not feasible. The literature on Juvenile Justice is extremely interesting. There is a terminology which is unique to the field. We actually do not normally regard our juvenile facilities as Correctional institutions. In most instances they are referred to as campuses. We do not consider juvenile delinquents to be criminal offenders or convicted felons. Delinquents are referred to as youth. They are actually not even convicted when they are required to serve a certain amount of time within a secure facility. They are adjudicated.
I was asked to assist with Juvenile Justice reform efforts in 2007. It was one of the most stressful and the most rewarding experiences of my career. There were some immediate adjustments required of me during the early months of this assignment due to the fact that most of my professional background was in adult corrections. It was during a tour of one of the facilities that I truly was able to comprehend what we were doing and why.
A youth was being disruptive in one of the housing units for an unknown reason. The staff reported that he had been kicking his cell door for over an hour and that he refused to comply with orders to stop. I asked the staff to open the door for me as I passed by the cell so that I could visit with the youth. I immediately entered the cell after it was opened and scanned the area for the non-compliant youth. I was unable to locate him initially. It was not until I looked directly in front of me and down that I saw the 10 year old male in this single man cell which I had entered standing directly in front of me . He told me that he was only kicking the door because everyone refused to bring him some clean clothes. I gave him instructions prior to exiting his cell and he complied. That very moment had a profound effect on me. I realized that I had children who were older and taller than this young man, and I also came to fully understand our mission in Juvenile Justice.
Juvenile Justice is not a lost cause. It is actually like any other system. We get out of it exactly what we put into it. My experiences in the field are limited, but I would offer the insight summarized below for those who have chosen Juvenile Corrections as a career.
Refrain whenever possible from responding with physical force when attempting to address or control the behavior of confined youth. If we are not careful, we inevitably develop habits which cause us to respond physically to almost every situation we are faced with in the facility. There are cultural reasons for this, and in many instances it has simply become the norm to utilize physical force as a primary means of modifying behavior within a juvenile facility. In the end, this habit creates additional challenges because there is a causal connection correlation between this readiness to use physical force with youth and other negative outcomes such as youth on youth violence, staff assaults, workers compensation claims and abuse of youth. There are legitimate, alternative means of addressing inappropriate behavior without utilizing physical force. Physical force in Juvenile Corrections should only be utilized as a last resort when all other options have failed or are otherwise impractical. Corporal punishment should never be legitimized in a juvenile correctional facility.
Ensure that there are systems and practices in place which are supportive of control and institutional order. The majority of our organizational stress in Juvenile Corrections is caused by confusion. We don’t really understand our roles. Are we here to treat, to control, to punish? The truth is that we have many roles in Juvenile Justice with a profound emphasis on treatment and positive change in the thoughts that control behaviors. The reality is that we oftentimes lose sight of the fact that treatment fails where chaos flourishes. Morgan Freeman states it best in the movie titled “Lean on Me” where he plays the part of a school principal known as Joe Clark. He asks his staff this fundamental question: “ If you can’t control it, how can you teach?” When legitimate methods of control are in place and functional, it is then and only then that dedicated professionals can concentrate on addressing the inappropriate thoughts which drive the behaviors of our confined youth thus facilitating positive change.
Identify and embrace opportunities to let youth know that we care. This is not meant to advocate for a soft or otherwise weak approach to Juvenile Justice. The reality is that many of our youth are very challenging and in some instances can be dangerous. Generally however, most youth simply want to know that somebody cares. A significant percentage of confined youth have been neglected and / or abused for the majority of their lives. It is reasonable to suggest in many instances that youth assigned to secure institutions are indeed the product of a deficient upbringing. We are necessary as a social institution because we are meant to intervene in this cycle of deviance, alter the behavior, and prevent youth from engaging in criminal behavior as adults. As previously stated, we must control our populations and our facilities if we are to be successful, but it is still acceptable for youth to know that we are genuinely concerned for their well being. Officials who are indifferent will inevitably find themselves conflicted after assuming their role in Juvenile Justice.
Finally, a juvenile facility is much like any other secure institution. The quality of life within the institution depends upon the quality of the leadership. We must be in control of our facilities, but we must also be in control of ourselves. If we as criminal justice practitioners do not have composure, then we are unable to effectively control anything. Self control is essential in both adult and juvenile corrections, as is accountability and respectable leadership. Respectable leaders in Juvenile Corrections willingly serve as role models for everyone within the campus community. They only choose courses of action that are consistent with our fundamental knowledge of right and wrong, and they advocate for decency and the proper manner in which people ought to be treated. By doing so, they help to establish and maintain a healthy, controlled environment where positive change can become a reality. They ensure that everyone truly understands the mission of Juvenile Corrections, and that everyone agrees that it is not our responsibility to punish youth under our supervision. The fact that they are incapacitated is punishment enough. Our primary goal is to return a more stable, productive young person to the community that he or she came from.
Managers and supervisors in Juvenile Justice who teach this to staff daily and help to maintain that necessary balance between control and rehabilitation are both effective and respected by others. Even, and especially in Juvenile Corrections, there is no substitute for effective, respectable leadership.
Editors Note:Corrections.com author, Billy S. Humphrey, began his career in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1989. He has served as Warden and Director of Training / Staff Development in Adult Corrections, and as Deputy Director of Juvenile Corrections. He is currently a Parole Commissioner for the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole.
Other articles by Humphrey:
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