America's 'Third-World' Approach to Juvenile Offenders


So-called “zero tolerance” policies in schools and juvenile justice systems have made the United States “almost third world in punitive measures,” according to a former Chief Judge of the State of New York.

Judith Kaye told a gathering of advocates and criminal justice practitioners that many widespread “tough-on-crime” juvenile justice policies do little to deter violence, but effectively hold back large numbers of young people in need of help.

“These commitments are not just overwhelmingly expensive, they are also ineffective,” said Kaye, who is chair of the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children.

“Shame on us for doing this to our kids, for greasing the downward spiral.”

Kaye was among dozens of attendees and speakers at an all-day conference on Restorative Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City last week.

Restorative Justice is a practice that focuses on repairing the damage caused by criminal behavior, often through mediation that includes victims, offenders, their families and members of their communities. Among the speakers at the conference was New Zealand Principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft, who described his country's transition from “zero-tolerance”-style juvenile justice to a system that emphasizes “Family Group Conferences.”

He said in the 1980s, New Zealand authorities arrested and charged all juvenile offenders, and relied solely on court-based decision-making.

“The result was high rates of institutionalization,” Becroft said.

But during the last 20 years the country has initiated a series of reforms, including a first-of-its-kind provision preventing charges against juvenile offenders if there are alternative means available for dealing with the matter.

For the most serious offenders, roughly 20 percent, Becroft said communities, victims and families are given partial decision-making powers as part of Family Group Conferences.

The country also formed a specialized youth-focused police division.

“At first people considered it kind of soft policing,” Becroft said. “Now it's considered an elite force and there are people queued up to join.”

In the U.S., restorative justice advocates have sought to bring the practices into schools, where suspensions have disproportionately affected black youth.

Anne Gregory, an associate professor at Rutgers University, highlighted research that found racial disparities in school suspensions have gradually increased since the 1970s. She said research shows that the disparities have little to do with socioeconomic factors other than race.

“I can confidently tell you that achievement gaps and special education referrals do not explain these disparities,” Gregory said. But she pointed to a University of Texas study that found that teachers in the state who use restorative practices have a much lower racial discipline gap than those who don't use restorative practices.

Gregory cited Oakland as an example of a city that is effectively implementing restorative justice in certain schools.

Oakland has used the practice since 2007 to address punitive racial disparities and reduce the number of youth who are incarcerated, said Fania Davis, co-founder and executive director of the non-profit Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth.

“From the beginning when we started our work, we were aware of the need to break the school-to-prison pipeline,” Davis said, adding that part of the Oakland model is addressing judicial bias about who should be afforded diversion.

“You can do diversion and not effect racial disparities at all, because most of the juvenile chosen for diversion are white. We've seen that,” Davis said.

One of the most important steps is changing both the policies and approaches of school officials, according to Eric Butler, the restorative justice school coordinator at Oakland's Ralph Bunche Continuation High School.

“I love when people ask me, is this a slap on the wrist or are we changing behavior? And I say, 'Yes,' the adults on campus have really changed their behavior,” Butler said.

Butler said restorative justice practices at the high school include calling in large groups of family members for both the victim and perpetrators of bad behavior. The discussions can take hours, and often get intensely emotional, Butler said. He added that suspension and violence have been all but eliminated at the school, which is a repository for students with behavior and academic issues.

One student from Ralph Bunche Continuation High School attended the conference. Amari Henry said the restorative justice circles helped him learn to control his emotions and open up to teachers.

“I've been calmer and more respectful…and I've been more motivated, my family motivated me,” Henry said. “I just want to go to school and keep up with the restorative justice, I like how things are going.”

“I don't hold grudges, I just go about my day.”

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates. He welcomes your comments.

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