Alabama Youth Justice Alliance

The Importance of Childhood

Without using this tragedy as an excuse to discuss policy or to call for change, I will simply say that what happened in Connecticut on December 14th was a jarring reminder of how precious our children are and how easily their innocence is lost.

It is a lesson those of us who work in juvenile justice reform are constantly trying to impress upon the public at large: that children are children and we should treat them as such until they are fully equipped to be productive citizens. Good news is sometimes hard to come by in juvenile justice work. We are often fighting an uphill battle in achieving reforms for children, so this week’s article in the New York Times was welcome news.

When the Justice Department began investigating the Shelby County, Tennessee juvenile justice system in 2009, they found that African American children were twice as likely as their white peers to be held in juvenile detention and were sent to adult criminal court for minor infractions far more often than white children. According to the article, “Black or white, teenagers locked up by the county attempted suicide at record rates and were sometimes strapped to deep, wide restraint chairs and left alone up to five times longer than the law allowed…They languished over long weekends without proper hearings, were not read their Miranda rights and received crucial court documents just before hearings, if they received them at all, investigators found.”

Shelby County has now reached a settlement with the Justice Department to shift the focus from locking up kids to strengthening community-based programs that have the potential to actually rehabilitate children, a progressive move as studies have shown that children have the unique capacity to learn from their mistakes and change.

This reform is no small feat. It represents the commitment of an entire county to treat children like children. It says to the kids of Shelby county that their government believes they are worthy of the time and effort it takes to ensure that they grow into healthy adults who contribute to society. At the heart of juvenile justice reform is that belief: children are worth the time and effort, even the difficult ones.

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