Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reforming Juvenile Justice

If you consider yourself "tough on crime" and support trying teenagers and children as adults, I challenge you to volunteer as a mentor to an inner city kid for six months and we'll see if you have the same opinion. Or work in a youth ministry setting with economically disadvantaged minority kids for a while. You just might change your tune.

PBS ran a story this week called Juvenile Life Without Parole and it's worth a look. The Supreme Court has rejected the death penalty for juvenile offenders, but 44 states still can sentence them to life without parole. In my opinion, that's a tragedy, and I think our entire society will be held accountable if we don't move away from this trend.

One of the cornerstones of some political conservatives' opposition to affirmative action is the principle of "equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcomes." In other words, leveling the playing field is good, but quotas are bad. In principle, I agree with this. But if you've hung out with the urban poor for any length of time, you know that equality of opportunity is a myth. There are several reasons why:

  • There is a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. There is no such thing as equality of public education in lower income communities... rich school districts get the best teachers and the most money. Urban kids have figured this out and many of them feel like second class citizens. The kids who do want to be honest see drug dealers living the "good life" while they're working for 7 bucks an hour (if they can actually get a job). I've had to talk Christian teenagers out of selling drugs when some of the higher level dealers tried to recruit them.
  • Materialism is a problem with the poor, too. Cable TV and cell phones are considered essentials today, not luxuries. Wealth is an idol, even among many people who aren't wealthy. But this attitude is instilled in kids from a young age, learned by example and reinforced by popular music and culture. So we're dealing with a mindset, a stronghold if you will, often a spiritual one. Those aren't easily brought down with a conversation or two.
  • Fatherlessness is an epidemic in urban communities. At one point in youth ministry, I counted four kids out of 50 who had dads in the home, and three of those guys were brothers! I understand that there are single moms out there who are doing the best they can, and I applaud them, but the fact is, children (especially boys) need fathers.

While we all have some sense of right and wrong (Scripture confirms this), that sense can become warped and often hasn't been fully developed among at-risk youth. I've dealt with "good kids" who had never even been challenged on "little transgressions" like littering or sneaking food out of a buffet restaurant. When I've pointed these problems out, I've met resistance, but guess what? Things began to change. Not overnight, but light has a way of overcoming darkness if you keep shining it. If nothing else, horizons expand. I've even had kids who aren't Christian tell me that by hanging out at church, they find they can't steal anymore because their consciences start getting to them.

I can't give you a statistic, but I'll go out on a limb and say that most juvenile crimes are probably committed by disadvantaged teenagers. How can we as a society lock them up, throw away the key and offer no chance for redemption? We say we treat everyone fairly, but when our whole economic system is stacked against poor minority kids, how do we in good conscience punish them like we would punish a 40 year-old?

James 2:13 says that "judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment." This scripture is, not coincidentally, immediately after an admonition not to show favoritism to the rich. In a democratic society, I believe God holds us accountable as a nation for structures that screw the poor and perpetuate poverty. When we sit in the suburbs, protect our own kids and allow them to benefit from better schools while inner city kids remain caught in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness, I think God is going to deal with us. With some of the felony murder laws, kids can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or be influenced by the wrong adult and end up doing life in prison. That grieves me.

I'm not advocating a system that allows minors to commit crimes without any personal cost. What I am advocating is a system that administers justice with mercy, especially for young people who, for whatever reason, are dealing with obstacles that many of us in middle class America couldn't even imagine. Sure, there's always the person who, through determination, overcomes these obstacles and breaks the cycle. But those are few and far between. And that desire to overcome is often instilled by strong parents. What if there isn't anyone there to instill that attitude?

If you want to learn more about how to make a difference, or to get involved in juvenile justice ministry, check out Straight Ahead, an organization established by Dr. Scott Larson. The more you learn, the more you'll realize that this is a whole lot more complicated than the talking points you hear on cable news shows. Straight Ahead also has information on becoming a mentor to an "at-risk" kid. I urge you to get involved, whether you think you're gifted at this or not. Helping the poor is not a spiritual gift, it's an expectation God has of every Christian.


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