Get Tough??? Get Real...


Before that new policy…

There has been a lot of discussion in Saskatchewan around the topic of “getting tough on Crime”; despite a plethora of studies that show how that strategy backfires, succeeding only in labeling youth for life, giving a young person a powerful identity as a “Criminal” and filling our prisons. This is an indication that the primary result of “Get Tough” responses has been to perpetuate a welfare state filing our institutions with the hopeless and alienated, while garnering votes of the uninformed and fearful.

As this topic continues to grow in this Province (and throughout North America), it indicates a need for more serious research of the issue and best-practice strategies that can be applied locally. The articles below indicate that research needs to be done with a focus on recidivism, what practices actually reduce repeat offenses for adolescents. 

This must be done prior to legislating new legal standards for or against tougher practices. I know all-too-many young people in the States who were sentenced under get-tough policies who will never have their lives returned. Once inside the system, it is too late to turn practices around. Those years, lives and labels can never be returned and if we’re going to take them, we better be absolutely sure it was for a better reason than punishment. Frequently we simply wind up punishing the traumatized and making them worse. Our primary question needs to be, “What will keep this from happening again?”

Recently, NPR (National Public Radio) did a series of interviews and articles highlighting the failure of such “get tough” policies—including their impact on Indigenous people.

Article I

Sentenced To Adulthood: Direct File Laws Bypass Juvenile Justice System, August 15, 2017, Renata Sago

This article is primarily about youth being “direct filed” (sentenced as adults while they are still teens) and the lasting impact it has on these adolescents and thus, their healthy participation in society.

Called into question in this article is whether society wants to focus on restoring and rehabilitating youth or isolating and punishing them. The article calls for additional research on current practices and creating standard measurements focused on recidivism (how many youth re-offend after being involved with the Criminal Justice system).

It does point out that current practices treat people of color differently than anglo offenders. 

“Human Rights Watch, in a report on juvenile justice, criticized Florida's direct file statute as an example of disparate treatment of people of color. Its report found that from 2008 to 2013, black boys in Florida were disproportionately sent to prison, whether for first- or second-time offenses.”

Additional research by Juvenile Justice advocates in California and Florida found;

  • “Research has shown that taking kids out of the juvenile system and putting them in the adult system makes them worse off.”
  • “…sending kids directly to adult court undermined the rehabilitative mission of the juvenile system.”
  • “They voiced concern that California's direct file statute opened the door for longer sentences and psychological trauma as a result of being processed through adult criminal court, which meant lifelong consequences for youths and their families.”


Article II

Juvenile Justice System Failing Native Americans, Studies Show, Laurel Morales, July 31, 2015

“State courts are twice as likely to incarcerate Native teens for minor crimes such as truancy and alcohol use than any other racial and ethnic group, according to the Tribal Law and Policy Institute. And juvenile detention facilities around the country have a disproportionately high number of Native American youth, according to an Indian Law and Order Commission report.”

Addie Rolnick, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, states,

  • “According to the Indian Law and Order Commission report, these youth suffer from post-traumatic stress at a rate higher than military personnel who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So Rolnick says incarceration should be the last option for kids exposed to so much violence.”
  • "Because if you have a kid who's been damaged when they come into a system, just about the worst thing you can do is to lock them up, put them under surveillance all day and have guards watching them.”

The U.S. Attorney General's advisory committee on Native children says “prevention, treatment programs and case workers have proven to be more effective than incarceration.”

Article III

Meant To Keep Youths Out Of Detention, Probation Often Leads Them There, Soraya Shockley, July 29, 2017 

All of this doesn’t mean that case work and probation are always the best option either. If the parameters of probation are unclear and the goals poorly understood, the probation can be a poor substitute.

Kate Weisburd, an attorney who co-directs a youth justice program at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, pointed out that probation can often be arbitrary with poorly defined outcomes. She states about one of her own young defendants,

  • “Instead of sending him to juvenile hall, a judge put him on probation, which can last until age 21. His court orders included nearly two-dozen conditions he had to follow.”
  • "Attend classes on time and regularly," she read. "Be of good behavior and perform well ... be of good citizenship and good conduct."

Weisburd also says that while adults on probation mostly have to avoid committing a new crime, kids on probation have to abide by these sometimes subjective requirements — or be locked up.

  • “The 15th order, ‘obey parents and guardians,’ was one that tripped up the teen who took the shoes, moving him into juvenile hall. And the electronic monitor on his ankle sent him to the hall multiple times.”

David Muhammad, a national youth probation consultant states, “Many of the young people, when they first engage in the system, would be considered low-risk — and involvement in the system increases their risk," he says. "There is a mountain of research that says, when the juvenile justice system touches a young person, that their likelihood of dropping out of school skyrockets, their likelihood of later being involved in the adult criminal justice system skyrockets." 

Get Tough??? Get Real…

The key to rehabilitating young people who have committed a criminal offense is recognizing that adolescents are going through a period of immense brain growth and most of the growth is in the area of iimpulse control and emotional regulation. 

They are looking for a strong identity that can support them through this tricky time of life and into adulthood. Defining youth as “criminal” is a strong and powerful identity. Helping young people identify other courses in life and other identities that are positive and healthy should be the basic goal of every community—not just the juvenile justice system.

No one gives up a strong identity for a weaker one, not even adults…

It is beneficial when adolescents experience appropriate consequences for poor choices, but the balance has to be between consequences designed to help young people mature and those just designed to arbitrarily punish. 

We need to “get real,” getting tough on youth who commit crimes, backfires and leads to emotionally handicapped adults who WILL eventually be our neighbors. 


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