Op-Ed

Ky. Voices: Reform juvenile justice system now

The school to prison pipeline is all too familiar for significant numbers of poor and minority communities, like Ferguson, Mo., Albuquerque, Oakland and Watts.

2,500 youths were arrested or charged in Jefferson County public schools in three years. 1,409 Americans have been found guilty but later declared innocent of crimes since 1989.

There is a message here and it is that the American criminal and juvenile justice systems are seriously flawed.

This is not to say that there are not good things happening in criminal and juvenile justice. By and large those who work in these fields are dedicated, underpaid, honest people who saw a way to make a difference in the communities in which they live.

Yet, those of us who have spent careers studying crime and criminal justice, and many who have made these fields an avocation, have long known that our approach to crime has been misguided and our resources poorly allocated.

This is the result of policies that likely produce as much crime as they prevent. What is distressing is that we know quite a bit about why people engage in crime and what might be done to reduce it. In the United States, however, this knowledge is rarely reflected in policy or in the training given to those who work in criminal justice, because crime policies and training have been largely dominated by a get-tough approach built around arrest, prosecution, incarceration and punishment. Training values toughness, a warrior mentality, following orders, aggressive action towards those labeled as a threat and a narrow understanding of the context in which one's work takes place.

The results are processes that primarily function to destroy lives — of the offenders, their families and of the future victims of the system's many failures.

Many people who work in juvenile and criminal justice are harmed by environments characterized by human degradation. The predictable results, when people are placed in situations where failure is normative, are disenchantment, cynicism, burnout and job turnover.

Yet there may be some reason for optimism. Even champions of get-tough policies have begun to admit they were misguided. And people are beginning to question a range of juvenile and criminal justice policies.

We could do much better but it will take some time. Most people in criminal and juvenile justice understand these problems all too well. It is time to get partisan politics out of the crime policy process and to begin to develop policies based on our knowledge of crime and justice.

We must do a better job of preparing those who are chosen to do this important work. They deserve our support and the best tools to do their jobs.

There is no simple solution to crime and justice, but there is a smarter path than the one we have been on for the last 40 years. Ferguson is just one recent example of the need for change.

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