Experts discuss ways to promote rehabilitation, avoid recidivism
By Kyle Carrozza, Staff Writer, The Times
COATESVILLE – Especially in Pennsylvania, where more adults are serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles than in any other state, alternative punishments must be implemented to keep kids from spending their lives in the justice system.
These alternatives were the focus of Thursday night’s forum held at the Brandywine Center.
Organized by the Coatesville Youth Initiative and Child and Family Focus, Inc., speakers at the forum shared stories from the juvenile justice system and discussed ways to rehabilitate juvenile convicts without entering them into a system that leaves permanent marks on their records and makes them more likely to reoffend.
“Any efforts to keep kids from penetrating the system are worthwhile because once you get sucked into the system, you get a record, and you start being sent away to places where you might be associating with negative peers, it gets harder and harder to get out of the system,” said Associate Director of the Juvenile Law Center Lourdes Rosado.
Rosado, who works in Philadelphia to implement programs to keep children out of detention centers, said that the efforts have to be multifaceted, whether that means working to break the school-to-prison pipeline, obtaining fair trials, or expunging records for people who are found guilty of crimes as children. “It’s important to identify those points early in, where kids come into contact so you can get them off that track,” she said.
Rosado said that many children are treated unfairly even before they enter the system. “Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately being arrested,” she said. She also said that over 70 percent of students who are arrested are Hispanic or black, and black children are three times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white students, even though they make up a smaller portion of the population.
Once juveniles are arrested, they often face unfair trials, and some kids waive their rights to attorneys. In 2008, the Juvenile Law Center’s petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court helped end the “Kids for Cash” scandal, in which Luzerne County judges received money for sending children to various detention centers.
In addition to helping children stay out of the justice system, programs need to keep children who have been found guilty of crimes from returning to it. Through various programs, many offenders can be set on “diversion” paths, allowing them to be punished in other ways than detention centers. “There’s been a lot of empirical research in the last 10 to 15 years about what works and what doesn’t work with juveniles who get into trouble with the law,” said Rosado.
She cited the example of boot camps, which used to be a popular form of disciplinary action. She said that kids who come out of them have higher rates of reoffending. Long-term placement out of the home often hurts more than it helps. “What has really shown evidence of working are programs that keep kids in the community and in their homes and work intensively with the family and the community,” said Rosado. “The problem is, if you send kids away, they may get better in this sterile, rarified environment, but they come back in their communities facing the same challenges and issues.”
Functional family therapy and multi-dimensional foster care are two of the ways to rehabilitate the child and cut down on the risk of recidivism, she said. Rosado also emphasized the importance of expungement. Crimes committed as a juvenile create a record for a person, and often, people do not realize that they have to go through a process to have those records destroyed.
“It [having a record] can affect you in employment, it can prevent you from being accepted into the army. It can also impact your ability to get federal aid when you go to college,” she said.
Two men who went through the system as children also spoke at the panel, sharing the stories of how they got there and how they recovered.
Rob Manriquez, now a youth support partner at Child and Family Focus, said that he grew up with an abusive father and parents who were not always together. After various arrests, he ended up in the juvenile justice system and when he tried to escape that, a jail in Mexico. “One morning, I woke up, looked in the mirror, and saw my father,” he said, describing the moment when he realized he had to change his life.
Manriquez said that he starting pursuing his passions, including using his experience to help prevent young people from making the mistakes he did. “Find the one thing in life you want more than anything else,” he advised young people. “If you’re not going after something, something’s going to come after you.”
Isaiah Heverly, now a senior at Phoenixville Area High School taking college-level courses, said that he got stuck in the system. “I didn’t like being in the system. I didn’t know how to get out of it,” he said, commenting that once he left a center, he’d return to his old ways.
Heverly said that eventually, it was his desire for education that changed him. One staff member at George Junior placement facility pushed him to pursue his education, which changed everything. “He really drilled it in me: ‘There’s potential in you; use it,’” he shared. “That was the a-ha moment for me, I guess you could say.”
Providing resources, such as education and mental health services, for children inside and outside of the system was also one of the concerns on the night. “When I was a kid, if you didn’t give me something productive to do, I would’ve found something else, and I would’ve gotten in trouble,” said County Commissioner Ryan Costello. Costello believes that with all the talk of revitalization in Coatesville and West Chester, people must keep the youth in mind.
Debbie Willett of Child Family Focus emphasized the importance of mental health services for children. “My one son went through the juvenile system, ended up in the adult system, and he had suffered from mental health issues his entire life. He was in the adult system not receiving any kind of mental health services, and a year ago, he committed suicide in prison,” she said.
Willett said that the justice system needs to offer mental health services. “They’re not criminals; they’re mentally challenged, and they need to be able to have a normal life as much as possible,” she said.
Positive changes are occurring because of the efforts of people like Rosado and Willett.
Laws that require courts to explain why a detention center is the best option for a child, rather than alternative programs, are on the upswing. A recent Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Florida, determined it is unconstitutional to impose harsh sentences on juvenile for crimes other than homicide, as children are more likely to rehabilitate than adults.
An Allentown community panel program has won accolades. Making kids do community service severely cuts down on the number of children adjudicated as delinquent, research has found.