Friday, August 28, 2009

Juvenile justice system in the news

The past month has been a busy one for the juvenile justice system in the United States. CNN reported that teen offenders in Missouri are "finding a future" through a juvenile justice program that focuses on therapy and education, while the New York Times reported that mentally ill juveniles are straining the system. In either case, it's a good sign that people are talking about the juvenile justice system, which is far from perfect -- and in some cases, far from functional.

In Missouri, teen offenders are housed in dormitory-like buildings that provide colorful, comfortable accommodations. Teens go through therapy and are given the opportunity to go to school and receive job training. Juvenile offenders are also assigned case workers and work closely in small groups, learning about self-control, teamwork, and other skills necessary to become productive members of society. Even violent offenders are given the chance to work toward rehabilitation in small groups, though they live in gated facilities.

While the federal rates of suicide and recidivism in youth offenders remain relatively high, officials in Missouri note that no juvenile offenders have committed suicide while in the program (which began in the 1970s) and only about 9 percent of juveniles in Missouri are back in trouble within three years of release. The low rate of recidivism, in turn, saves the state's justice system billions of dollars by lowering the number of repeat offenders and cutting down on the costs of building and maintaining more prisons.

Many of the young people who go through the Missouri system eventually go on to college and become productive members of their communities. CNN reported that one girl, who was incarcerated in 2005 for alcohol abuse and behavioral problems, said that she had always wanted to go to college, but didn't think it could actually happen. This year, she's graduating from college and applying to law school.

More states should follow the Missouri model for juvenile offenders, ensuring that youth get the attention and education they need to become productive members of society. It is a stark contrast with the Ohio system mentioned in the New York Times article. The system in question houses a juvenile population that includes many teens with mental illness. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of juvenile inmates are dealing with psychiatric disorders. Housing juveniles with mental illness in correctional facilities fails to address the issue at hand, which is getting the youth access to medication, therapy, and other tools that will allow them to manage their illnesses and work their way toward becoming reintegrating into their communities.

The article in the New York Times also reports that juvenile correctional facilities are the usually the only option for teenagers who deal with serious mental illness and criminal records. Once they arrive, teenagers are usually kept on strong psychotropic drugs and receive limited access to therapists and behavior modification programs. The article also mentions that in 2001 over 9,000 families relinquished custody of their mentally ill children to the juvenile justice system so that the youth could get access to mental health services.

It is irresponsible not to allow children and teenagers access to the appropriate resources in any case, but it ought to be criminal to ignore the needs of the mentally ill. If we don't allow mentally ill teenagers some control over their bodies and minds through medication and therapy, how do we expect them to navigate the world in a safe and appropriate way? What do we expect mentally ill teenagers to learn in correctional facilities? By simply locking them up and throwing away the proverbial key, we're only teaching them that no one is looking out for their best interests, so they'll have to fend for themselves.

My hope is that more states will begin to follow the Missouri model. It's appropriate, intelligent, and ultimately better for society if we prepare juvenile offenders for a life outside prison walls. Prepared teens are functional teens, and functional teens become functional adults who stay out of the prison system. The investment with teenagers up front will pay for itself a dozen times over in the end; we just need to be willing to make the investment now to reap the rewards in the future.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Don't judge a book by its cover

This evening, I joined a book club.

Since I'm a list-making kind of girl I weighed the pros and cons carefully before signing up.

  • The club is in town (and within reasonable walking distance).
  • Tonight was the club's first meeting (thereby nullifying the awkwardness of being a newcomer).
  • The club is for 20- and 30-somethings (that's me!).
  • The club focuses -- obviously -- on books (which I love!).
  • Book club people can be nerdy (which I am, but with admirable social skills).
  • Book clubs sometimes read pretentious stuff (when I'm busy re-reading Harriet the Spy).
  • Book clubs can involve investing in books (which was only temporarily a con, since I figured I could beat everyone to the library and grab a free copy!).
So, with free library books overruling having to buy books, the pros definitely won, and I went to the meeting.

When I arrived I was mildly horrified when it was announced that most members wanted to read historical fiction. Historical fiction? No, thank you. In metered doses, perhaps, but not taking over my life. The proposed books were Sula, The Sound and the Fury, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, and The Good Earth. I don't even know that they were all "historical," unless you count being written awhile back "history." I wasn't terribly interested in any of them, though I thought I'd give Sula or The Good Earth a go if I had to.

Then, a savior! An attractive, fit, tattooed guy walked in and approached our table. He looked more likely to be heading for the gym, a bar, or something else manly and cool than to be seeking out our book club. Our club was decidedly not manly or cool. We had but one man among us and the rest of us were women -- a few of us polished and tidy, a few others sloppily dressed, none of us downright cool.

Once he joined us, I thought Tattoo Guy would be an ally. Here's a guy, I thought, that will enjoy a good crime novel or something funny like one of A.J. Jacobs's books. I am not alone! We can sway the populace!

I was sadly mistaken. It turns out that Tattoo Guy reads about history almost exclusively. He's also the type to read several books at once (as am I), but since they sounded like big, scary, involved books, I gave him more credit for reading half a dozen at a time. Do not judge a book by its cover! I thought lamely, no pun (originally) intended.

In the end, we decided on The Most Famous Man in America (though how famous can the man be if I've never even heard of him?) and I, peer pressured by my new-found nerd friends, will be reading something that I find mind-numbingly dull. Tattoo Guy will probably be quite pleased. I've read a few pages thus far and it's going to be a long journey for me. One that traipses through quite a bit of boredom, but leads to what Calvin's dad (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) would call "character building."

If nothing else, I hope that the book club finds me some new friends or acquaintances, if not (at least this month) new favorite books. As I walked to the library to borrow a copy of this month's book, I spoke with another attendee, Linda, who was very friendly and not overly nerdy. She seems pleasant and I can imagine being friends with her. Since Tattoo Guy didn't work out as an ally, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that maybe Linda will have a secret infatuation with Helen Fielding or Susan Jane Gilman and will second my nomination for something a little frivolous the next time around. At the very least, perhaps we'll read the biography of someone I've heard of.

Here's to hoping!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Vacation, all I ever wanted...

I love to travel.

I like to pack up and get away for awhile. It's the feeling of "away" that I enjoy the most. I'm just as happy to explore a new city as I am on Space Mountain or tucked into a comfy hotel bed reading a book. That's why, even in this rough economy, I am reluctant to give up on the idea of a "vacation" in favor of a "staycation".

Cartoon by Jeff Stahler.

I'm a pretty frugal person by nature. I shop with coupons. I don't have any credit card debt. I recycle plastic sandwich baggies by using them for a week at a time. The most expensive thing in my closet is a pair of $150 shoes that I bought on clearance for less than ten bucks. So when I talk about splurging on vacation, I know that some people think it's odd. It goes against my instincts just a little bit, but...

Ultimately the urge to get away, to go on vacation, to see or do something different, wins. The angel on one shoulder waives a deposit slip and extols the virtues of saving, while the devil in a Hawaiian shirt dangles a passport in my face and whispers in my ear that you only live once. So the devil wins and I grab my suitcase and head off.

Bon voyage!