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Asking ten child psychologists why kids go “off the rails,” get themselves mixed up with the wrong kids and suffer what people would like to think are “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” there will be at least ten answers. One that won’t be heard often is how this or that kid got hijacked onto the wrong path because he or she was locked up for what’s known as a “status offense.” Things such as running away from home (even if only in a fit of anger), or cutting school (even when, in the kid’s mind, the reason for doing so sounded ‘OK’) are prime examples.
A study last year by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that “thousands” of kids are locked up in this country every year for such not-illegal activities. If Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) get their way, their Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Authorization Act of 2014, also known as Senate Bill 2999, or S2999, will slow, if it doesn’t stop, “status offense” incarceration and an assortment of other actions. Their bill, a Rolling Stone article said this month, “aims to reauthorize and update the only federal law that sets national standards for how states administer juvenile justice.”
What their bill sets out to do is to undo and update 40 years of ‘corrections’ to 1974’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). While undoubtedly well-meaning, a sizable share of the changes to that law, reflecting current thinking at the time the changes were enacted, have proven, in the long run, to be more counter-productive than positive advances in the cause of helping kids grow up safe, and “whole,” beyond the concern of the juvenile justice system.
It is documented fact that kids’ directions are affected by a number of commonly known factors. For many, issues such as poverty, or a desire to ‘belong’ to something (such as a gang) when the home structure is weak can be a bad start. Add to that an almost overpowering wish to emulate the kids who, somehow, manage to acquire costly clothes and other status symbols or the too-often-poor examples set by their music heroes, in face, a lack of appropriate role models (for both male and female kids) altogether, and the path for some appears the only one. In addition, among other factors, there is a real sense on the part of many black and other kids of color, that ‘the world’ does not expect as much of them as it does of white kids. Often, society focuses on those issues, and fails to do much to overcome them. Meanwhile, many of the short-term run-aways and school-skippers find themselves locked up and in court. Worse, their incarceration often exposes them to kids with far worse problems, providing far worse influences, for reasons that make no sense.
Chances are, many representatives in Washington are not even aware either of this issue or the bill, S299, aimed at improving a lot of kids’ chances for a brighter future. There is a letter writing campaign aimed at making it more well-known and bringing the issue of not-so delinquent juveniles needing to be helped rather than thrown down the very path misguided legislation was meant to prevent to the forefront. The bill may not address every issue, but this movement feels very strongly that it is a good first step toward taking these hijacked children and offering them a different path..
By Doug Harris
Image courtesy of Chris Yarzab – Flickr License