Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A time for thanks

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and though I try to remind myself daily that my life is full of blessings, it seems especially relevant to do so in light of the holiday.

I am thankful for my family. Not just for all of the generic love and togetherness stuff, but because I am lucky enough to have amazing people to whom I am related. I appreciate my mother's understanding, my father's sense of humor, my brothers' goofiness and friendship, my sister-in-law's upbeat personality, my grandmothers' ability to triumph through adversity, my boyfriend's sense of adventure, my cousins' unique fabulosity (it's a made-up word... so what?), my aunts' advice, and my uncles' protectiveness.

I am thankful for my friends. Again, it's not just because there are people with whom I can hang out and have a good time, but because my friends are unique and wonderful. I won't mention them all by name, but I will say that it's wonderful to have friends who love to talk about books, friends who are up for adventure, friends who are musical, friends who like theatre, friends who I can call late at night, friends who know my past, friends who will be part of my future.

I am thankful for a place to live. It's not just any place to live; we just moved in this month, and I love it. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to paint the walls, to decorate, to reorganize, and to clear out the clutter. I am thankful that I have room to move in this house. I am thankful that I can walk to the post office, the grocery store, and into town. I love that it's in a part of the world that I think of as home. Most of all, I am thankful to have a comfortable place to call my own (even if it's just a rental).

I am thankful for fuzzy friends like the hedgehogs, dogs, hairless rats, and other pets I have had the privilege of knowing over the years. (I am also thankful for non-fuzzy pets!) Animals give us such strength and comfort; I believe that they are every bit as soulful as people. I also love learning about the work people do with animals like Koko the Gorilla (who has been taught to sign with humans) and service animals who help their owners overcome a number of challenges.

I am thankful for language. I love to read and I love to write; I realize that if I had grown up in another country I might not have had such easy access to books and language. I might not have had an opportunity to be educated and to come to love words. My life would be very different without words and language. I also love American Sign Language — it's a beautiful language and one that I feel privileged to learn.

I am thankful for my faith and the ability and strength to believe what I want to believe. My faith is a hodgepodge of beliefs and customs from a variety of religions (for a breakdown of your own medley of beliefs, try taking the Belief-O-Matic), but it is completely me. Having faith helps me get up in the morning and say thank you before I go to bed at night, and for that kind of calm and comfort, I am eternally grateful.

Most of all, I am thankful for the opportunity to be me. I am grateful that I am able to see my family when I want, love whom I choose, live where I want, interact with animals, speak my mind, read about everything, and keep the faith. I know that many people don't feel comfortable expressing who they are because of where they live or who they live with. I am thankful to have been blessed with a pretty good life, overall, and the opportunity to be me — flaws and all!Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Trying youth as adults is ineffective

The Legal Aid Justice Center released a report this month that tells the stories of young people tried and incarcerated as adults in Virginia. The report concludes that trying youth as adults is ineffective.

Virginia is hardly the only state to try children as adults. In fact, all states have provisions for trying people as young as 14 (in some states as young as 10!) as adults in certain cases. The problem, however, is that children are not adults and shouldn’t be tried as such.

The report summarizes four major findings:
  1. Trying and sentencing youth in adult courts increases recidivism;
  2. Youth convicted as adults are not offered therapeutic services (like their peers in the juvenile justice system);
  3. Juvenile justice professionals “support reform of the system”; and
  4. The threat of being tried as an adult is used as a plea bargaining tool and hampers a meaningful defense for the youth in question.
Though this report was only released this month, its findings are hardly new. Juvenile justice professionals have long advocated for a juvenile justice system specific to the needs of young offenders. These professionals request funding for social service programs that would help rehabilitate young offenders, while many communities push for “tough-on-crime” stances that end up increasing the rates of recidivism when juveniles don’t get access to the education and therapy they need.

Inner Thoughts & Outbursts has covered juvenile justice issues in the past. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles. One of the major factors in the ruling was the fact that teenagers’ brains are not fully-developed. This seems like such an obvious justification for education and rehabilitation that though it shouldn’t surprise me, it still irks me to find that many people possess a lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality when it comes to juvenile offenders.

In fact, I was disgusted when I read a recent article about the conviction of Steven Spader, who was convicted of a 2009 murder and sentenced to life without parole. Though his crime was horrific and reprehensible, New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson was out of line when she addressed Spader, reportedly saying, “you belong in a cage… for the rest of your pointless life.” A juror on the case later said that he believed Abramson would have imposed the death penalty if possible, but that Spader was only 18 at the time of the murder and, due to state law, not eligible to be put to death for his crime.

Quite frankly, it is not whether or not Spader should be punished; that fact has already been determined by the law. Instead, I take issue with the fact that the judge felt it was her place to be insulting. Though an adult in some senses, Steven Spader was only 18 at the time of the murder – not old enough to drink alcohol or even rent a car without surcharges. Calling Spader's life "pointless" was unnecessary.

Ultimately, we need to start thinking about the criminal justice (and especially the juvenile justice) system logically, rather than emotionally. If trying and sentencing juveniles as adults leads to increased recidivism, we need to change! It seems obvious that surrounding an impressionable teenager with "hardened criminals" might affect his future in regard to crime; if we instead provided him with an education and counseling, perhaps he might grow up to be a productive member of society.