Fixing the time in youth crime: Long, harsh sentences not seen as way to rehabilitate

Published: Monday, Feb. 20 2012 9:00 p.m. MST

The country is barreling toward a kinder, gentler era in juvenile justice, experts say, but the road ahead is still hazy. As prisons close, states are scrambling to figure out the next steps. While advocates for children's rights are hopeful, some worry a less punitive approach in the juvenile justice system may push prosecutors and judges to try more children as adults.

"We are a long way from coming to our senses, but we are in the midst of a huge trend toward deinstitutionalization," said Bart Lubow, director of the juvenile justice strategy group at the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. "The question is, will we take this to its logical conclusion and create a continuum of care that will actually make a difference?"

Bad behavior

The stories have similar beginnings. A boy and a girl from broken homes got in trouble for stealing. For Michael Kemp, 22, of Washington D.C., the age of first arrest was 12. He helped himself to a bicycle a neighbor left unchained in the front yard. Police caught Stephanie Garcia, 23, of New York, stuffing her backpack full of goods in the corner drugstore at age 11.

But they unravel very differently.

Kemp was in and out of juvenile detention so many times he lost count. Because he was a four-hour drive away from home, Kemp lost contact with his family. Behind bars, he said, "I wasn't getting a lot good counseling from adults."

Investigations into the Washington, D.C., youth detention center where he was corralled — which at its peak housed 208 kids — revealed that staff members had beaten juveniles with bricks, knives, chairs and milk cartons in addition to old-fashioned hands-on beatings. Children's eyes swelled shut. They suffered broken teeth and noses, dislocated shoulders and kidney injuries. "I spent a lot of time sitting around with a bunch of other kids, talking about crime and how to do it better," he said. Released, he headed straight back to the streets. His crimes got progressively worse, until, one day, at 16 years old, Kemp found himself in adult prison for armed robbery.

Garcia, who confessed, "I shoplifted every single day," racked up a formidable list of charges as well. But when it came time to dole out punishment, her judge opted to take a more therapeutic approach. After three months in a small New York group home with minimal security, she was assigned to an experimental program that connected her with individual and family therapy, set her up with an adult mentor and allowed her to stay at home.

Both stories have happy endings. Both Kemp and Garcia have left their days of crime behind. But, while Kemp believes he succeeded despite the system, Garcia believes she succeeded because of it.

Garcia's mentor helped her deal with the problems she was having with her family and, in just one year of intense studying, she completed three years of high school. She graduated with A's and B's and is now a happily engaged, stay-at-home mom of two.

"Having one person believe in me changed my attitude," Garcia said. "(My mentor) didn't just change my life, she helped all my brothers and sisters, too."

In adult prison, Kemp didn't have access to formal schooling, but he worked hard to earn his GED. When he was released at 21, he spent some time bouncing between homeless shelters because, "I couldn't go back to my old neighborhood, my old friends and my old life of crime." The felony on his record made it tough to find a job, but he eventually found work as a youth advocate, talking about his experiences in the corrections system in hopes of inspiring reform.

"It was hard to do it all by myself, but you gotta do what you gotta do," he said. "I didn't like the way my life was headed."

By sharing their stories, they both hoped to promote the same message.

"Don't give up on kids," Kemp said.

"There is hope," Garcia said.

Forces for change

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