Juvenile detention centers should focus on rehabilitation, not punishment

Kati Gardella, Crier Staff

Detainment is extremely psychologically damaging in general, but imagine its impact on one who has not even reached the age of 18.

The cutoff age where an individual becomes morally responsible for their actions is seven years old, however, the brain does not fully develop until the mid-twenties. There are other factors besides knowing right from wrong that make juveniles vulnerable.

Various court protections have already been in place for juveniles. Miller v. Alabama held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. Roper v. Simmons states that those who have committed a murder before they turn 18 cannot be sentenced to death, and Graham v. Florida prohibits life imprisonment for juveniles convicted for non-homicide offenses.

We sometimes see loopholes in the justice system, where they make the judgement call to try juveniles as adults. Excluding extreme crimes (such as the 2014 Slenderman stabbing), I believe that most offenders under the age of 18 should not be detained in an outwardly prison-like correctional facility.

Incarceration in such a harsh environment is immensely psychologically damaging even for adults; therefore, it is completely unethical to detain children in this manner.

Youth are a vulnerable population, and are the most vulnerable (along with those who are mentally ill) to a false confession. Therefore, it is essential that the young are not harshly prosecuted. During the critical period of adolescent development, it is necessary that they receive close guidance and supervision.

Developing young boys are very susceptible to negative influences, especially negative peer influence, as they are trying to make and impress friends.

There is an abundance of youth gangs in prisons, and this is not the only downside to youth prisons.

In Maine, many prisoner rights advocates and criminal justice reform groups are fighting to shut down the youth prison Long Creek Youth Development Center.

The majority of the inmates there are teenagers with severe mental illnesses. A population such as this will be much better served by community-based mental health treatment, rather than detainment behind bars.

The Missouri-model is an inspirational and reputable alternative to youth prisons. It is composed of a network of closely clustered homes that will focus more on the education and rehabilitation of the young offenders, rather than punishment.

Group homes are the most effective solution, as home brings forth images of family and stability.

High security and metal bars only further label the child as a criminal. A group home has the potential to resemble a normal life. Living together in a relaxed setting with peers of a similar age, as well as older adult role models, is the ideal healthy scenario.

When an individual commits a crime at such a young age, the most likely scenario is that the crime was produced by a lack of resources and sufficient education, rather than pure malice.

Aside from the fact that Long Creek is not as effective as group homes or a similar set up would be, there are other significant demerits. There is limited mental health treatment, which is one of the greatest downfalls of the criminal justice system.

A large concern in society is how much incarceration of offenders costs taxpayers. To detain one inmate at Long Creek costs taxpayers $250,000 annually.

After an inmate’s suicide at Long Creek in the fall of 2016, the call for reform has been louder than ever, and it is likely that Maine legislature’s criminal justice committee will propose alternatives to Long Creek.

Of course, you cannot simply close down a prison. There must be a stable next step and new location for the inmates. Some of the inmates, left without proper treatment, could provide a genuine threat to public safety.

Some of the children may lack a safe place to return to upon release, especially if they came from a home of psychological and physical abuse. Devastatingly, for some of the children, detainment is the safest option.

Community resources such as afterschool programs are good deterrents for crime, and good resources for children in general. The most important resources, however, are those who are diligent to the needs of children.