Guest Commentary: We Must Do Better for Our Children

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By Lindsay Weston, Lisa Lance, Nora (Wellman) Oldwin, Ann Block, Karen Hamilton

We are in a polarized election season. While political candidates take positions on victims and victimization and how to achieve and maintain safe and healthy communities, we write this open letter with the hope that we can shine a light on the problem of youthful incarceration. It is our opinion that practices in Yolo County create victims, both youthful and adult. It is our wish that a better understanding of the facts respecting youthful incarceration can lead to better solutions for addressing youth crime than those practiced in our county and in our name.

We are attorneys and we are mothers; we have raised our kids in this county, and feel responsible for, and love, many children besides our own. We believe we are a village, and that it took, and takes, a village to raise children. At the same time, some of us have been victims of violent crime, some at the hands of young people the same age as those we seek to protect as parents. We speak not as partisans, but as members of our village.

According to the International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. 13 (2017), of the 86,823 youths arrested in California in 2014, 1,181 were under age 12. Of these, 420 were ten years old or younger. This is of great concern to us as attorneys, who work with the California policies and practices designed to address criminal behavior of youthful offenders between the ages of 10 and 21. As professionals and as mothers, we have compared the treatment that youths can expect to receive in Yolo County with the other 57 California counties. Yolo county is an outlier: while the website Data USA reports that Yolo is the 28th most populated county, it has the third highest incarceration rate of youth ages ten to seventeen in the entire state criminal justice system. (Judicial Council of California, 2017; California Sentencing Institute) As we will explain, incarceration does not serve our youth, or our community.

  • Any parent knows how stupid youth can be. Kids are prone to lapses in judgment and are vulnerable to peer and other societal pressures. Usually, as children age, they will acquire adult skills and naturally “age out” of impulsivity and poor judgment. According to California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, (CACJ) the Supreme Court accepts the legitimacy and relevance of scientific research relating to the adolescent brain and behavioral development. Their opinions, based on science, confirm an acceptance of biological differences between youth 10-21 years old, and older adults. In contrast, the high rates of incarceration in Yolo County show that we are criminalizing the consequences of having an immature brain. A brief review of the literature concerning the developing brain, such as“Why teenagers act crazy” and “Friends can be dangerous” (New York Times, 2014), indicates that the new findings in brain science require us to change the ways we think about criminalizing juvenile behavior. We note that a Justice Policy Institute Report cites studies finding that incarceration may interfere with the normal “ageing out” pattern.  We must not continue practices which are outdated, do not comport with scientific research, and clearly do not serve our youth or our community.
  • Studies underscore the fact that youth detention and incarceration has significant negative effects on the physical, emotional and mental well being of incarcerated kids, which lasts into their adulthood. This, in turn, creates further costs to the community both economically and socially. For example, in a recent report from the Justice Policy Institute entitled “The Dangers of Detention,” the authors conclude that detention has a “profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being, their education, and their employment. . . .” The report indicates that incarcerated youth are less stable employees, and that they will face educational challenges in school when released from detention. Not surprisingly, one third of the youth in this study experienced onset of depression during incarceration.
  • Research shows increased chances for detained or incarcerated youth to recidivate, thus putting all of us at greater risk of being future victims. As stated in the Justice Policy report: “ For a variety of reasons. . . there is credible and significant research that suggests that the experience of detention may make it more likely that youth will continue to engage in delinquent behavior and that the detention experience may increase the odds that youth will recidivate, further compromising public safety.”
  • Based on the research, we have reason for concern not only for the safety of our youth, but for our safety as community members if youth are locked up indiscriminately during their impressionable years. If we accept that an adolescent or young adult of under 26 years (when the brain has fully developed) is more prone than an adult to peer and societal pressures, then sending a youth to adult prison almost guarantees a return to criminal behavior. While we do not doubt our current District Attorney’s sincere belief that he is working on behalf of victims, our research and analysis indicates that indeed the policies and practices of this county will inevitably create more victims.
  • Because of the demonstrated vulnerabilities of children, professional associations from several fields have adopted standards regarding juvenile justice jurisdiction and law. Two key examples are:

-The national academy of sciences recommends using developmental research to guide juvenile justice decision making (National Research Council 2013)

-The American Academy of Pediatrics officially recognizes incarcerated youth as a high-risk group of children and adolescents with high rates of unmet medical, developmental and mental health needs. The Academy called to reduce the number of youth confined in the USA and for all confinement to be developmentally appropriate (American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Adolescents 2011)

We strongly believe that the policies and practices of the District Attorney should not be in conflict with the community’s values of child raising, or with the documented research on juvenile development, or with the policy recommendations by professionals in the field. Whoever wins this election, that person would do well to familiarize himself with the current literature on child and youth development, and with the current thinking on youth justice. We must, and we can, do better for our children.

Lindsay Weston, Lisa Lance, Nora (Wellman) Oldwin, Ann Block, and Karen Hamilton are attorneys in Yolo County.


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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One thought on “Guest Commentary: We Must Do Better for Our Children”

  1. Tia Will

    I thank the authors for a well written piece on the downsides of incarceration of youth. It has long been my feeling that impulsivity and a youthful tendency to test boundaries in cases which are non violent should be treated as means to engage youth in productive mandatory contribution to the community and restoration of that which was taken or harmed as opposed to incarceration.

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