The following post was written by a guest writer. As such, the views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Prison Fellowship® and are not an endorsement.
"Commit an adult crime, do adult time." It sounds logical and even just, but it has produced many unintended and devastating consequences. Namely, a juvenile justice system that has harmed far more people than it has helped. And at enormous cost to society—both economically and through its failure to provide public safety.
In 1899, reformer Jane Addams helped launch the juvenile court in Chicago. The guiding doctrine was parens patriae, which inferred that the court had a responsibility to act in place of parents. The court was to tend to the distinctive developmental needs of adolescents. It was understood that with proper intervention troubled youth could be reclaimed.
Sadly, over the past several decades, record numbers of minors have been tried as adults and placed in the adult prison system.
THE HIGHEST CRIME-COMMITTING AGE
Research by psychologist Terrie Moffitt, reveals that 17 is the highest crime-committing age in society. The combination of adolescent identity search, peer influence, peaking of testosterone levels, and an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex creates a perfect storm for delinquent behavior.
Studies have also shown that two-thirds of those who were highly delinquent at age 17 were doing fine by age 30 … depending on how much they encountered the so-called "helping system." The more contact youth had with the juvenile justice system, the less likely they would be doing well as adults! Dr. Moffitt also notes that one of the biggest contributors to mental illness in adolescents was large numbers of anti-social peers in a non-nurturing environment (group home, juvenile detention center, etc.)
And because policing occurs most heavily in urban communities, the arrest rates among youth of color are five times that of white youth, even though they are committing crimes at roughly the same rates.
HOW TO RESPOND
So, what can Christians do? One answer is to become informed and advocate for justice within a broken system so young people are not being further harmed. A second way is to actively engage with those who are already caught up in the system. After all, incarcerated juveniles need the same things that any teen needs to enter healthy adulthood:
A GENUINE ENCOUNTER WITH JESUS CHRIST
Most decisions to follow Christ are made in these formative teenage years. Juvenile detention centers are a prime place for kids to encounter the love and power of Jesus Christ.
A DREAM TO FOLLOW
Kids need something bigger to say "Yes" to than all of the "Don'ts" that are typically used to try to correct destructive behaviors. Until someone gains a vision of their identity as an image-bearer of God and grasps the truth that they were created for a purpose far beyond themselves, punishment is mostly just about "sin management."
Proverbs 29:18 states: "Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint." It is far more effective when a young person governs and restrains themselves than any external attempts to restrain them. Having a vision does that.
AN ADULT WHO BELIEVES IN THEM
The role of parenting is the crying need of young people in juvenile halls across the country. Our churches are filled with folks who can do that. They just need to be properly equipped and connected.
ABOUT SCOTT LARSON & STRAIGHT AHEAD MINISTRIES
Dr. Scott Larson is president and co-founder of Straight Ahead Ministries, an international faith-based organization working with youth in both detention centers and community-based re-entry.
Dr. Larson has written 13 books on working effectively with this population. He is also the founder of the "Every Youth, Every Facility" initiative, focused on partnering with ministries to reach every youth in the 1,300 juvenile detention centers in the U.S.
Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.