Questions Raised About Rehabilitating Juveniles

In January, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died at a Florida "boot camp" for juvenile offenders after being beaten by guards. Now Florida officials have pulled funding for these so-called "intimidation-based programs." Ed Gordon looks at rehabilitation programs for troubled teens.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The January death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson in a Florida boot camp has raised serious questions about the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. Some states like Missouri and Maryland are revamping their juvenile justice systems. But many people are concerned that the growing number of youth entering the system are not being effectively dealt with, and may find themselves in as much danger as they did out on the streets.

We're joined in our Washington D.C. studios by Malik Russell, communications director for the Washington D.C. based non-profit, Justice Policy Institute. Also with us is Dr. Raymond Crowell, vice president for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services at the National Mental Health Association. He formerly served as director of Child and Adolescent Services for Baltimore's mental health system. I welcome you both, gentleman.

Mr. Crowell, let me start with you. Many people are familiar with, in fact, this case. It has made the news. So many talked about, and we should note that the death of this young man is still being investigated. We don't know if, in fact, it came at the hands of the sheriff's department.

But one has to question whether or not we are seeing a growing number of abuses in the juvenile justice system today.

Dr. RAYMOND CROWELL (Vice President, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, National Mental Health Association): Well, hello to you, first of all. My immediate response to that is I don't know that we're discovering a growing number of abuses, or whether or not we're becoming more aware of the kinds of practices that are going on in boot camp. Boot camps operate on a punishment model, and compliance is their goal. And in order to gain compliance, boot camp staff will oft times decide that it's necessarily to get verbally and physical rough with a child.

And that, unfortunately, as we've seen in Florida, can oft times lead to negative outcomes: hurt children, broken limbs, and unfortunately in some cases, death.

GORDON: What we are seeing, though, Mr. Russell, across the board are states who are rethinking their juvenile justice practices in terms of, perhaps, not handing out a slap to youth, but a hug.

Mr. MALIK RUSSELL (Communications Director, Justice Policy Institute): Definitely, Ed. And most people point to Missouri as the place or the model that other states should ascribe to. Missouri, in 1983, eliminated their youth prisons. They replaced them with small campus-like settings, and got rid of the prison guards and replaced them with counselors and teachers, and the results have been amazing. The recidivism rates in Missouri are way below the national average, and way below most states. As well as the fact there has been no type of incident, no violent injury or incident that has occurred or death has occurred in a Missouri system since they made this transformation.

So, people are pointing to them as model of where states should go. Others are also embarking on the same path. If you look at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, they're operating in several different states and jurisdictions as well. And it's all based on the belief that most young people are capable of being rehabilitated. The overwhelming majority of people, young people that are incarcerated in this country are non-violent offenders. So, two-thirds of the people incarcerated are non-violent offenders. Yet you have people being placed in boot camps as kind of a punitive measure when most of these kids are just kids that kind of gotten off the wrong track and can be pulled back on.

GORDON: We should not, too, that in Missouri and some of these other states, they see the importance of changing the environment. The boot camp that we talk about and that comes to mind immediately is kind of the gated barbed wire boot camps. But now we're seeing a movement towards campuses and school-like environments.

Mr. RUSSELL: That's definitely true. And what we're seeing with juvenile advocates all around the country, you know, the MacArthur Foundation, the Models for Change Initiative, which is operating in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Washington, and now has moved into Louisiana, and they're operating on the principle that most kids can be rehabilitated, that there are developmental differences between youth and adults that--and this was highlighted last year in the Supreme Court in the Roper v. Simmons case.

So, people are recognizing that there is room for young people to be rehabilitated. They can't be rehabilitated, though, in an environment that resembles a junior prison.

GORDON: Raymond Crowell, we should note that it's important to understand that young people process information differently, and we may not and should not, perhaps, handle them in the same way that we would handle an adult quote, "criminal".

Dr. CROWELL: That's right. The research has given us an incredibly--a much greater understanding of adolescent development, and we know that adolescent brain, the brain, human brain now develops much more slowly than we thought. And the sections of the brain that govern impulse control, judgment, reason, and thoughtful responses don't develop until the early to mid 20's. So that adolescents, then, you can expect will be more emotional, more impulsive, and much more willing to take risks and experiment than their adult counterpart.

They look at skateboarding down a stairwell very differently than I would look at it, and in a sense, the risk benefits much more differently than we do.

GORDON: Malik Russell, talk to me about why we should care, particularly those who do not have children, about this phenomenon. Again, when we look at the death of Martin Lee Anderson, seemingly--and I say seemingly because we don't know the details of the camp situation and incident--at the hands of sheriffs who were on videotape beating this young boy. If this is not atypical, why should we care outside of the human interest side of caring?

Mr. RUSSELL: We should be concerned, Ed, for several reasons, one of which is the fact that this incarceration in itself disproportionately impacts the African-American community way beyond our numbers in a general population. And it's the same in juvenile justice. African-American youth are way more likely to locked up than their counterpart white youths for the same offenses, with the same type of criminal record. So, we should be concerned because of the fact these young people, just like each year, 600,000 former inmates return to society, each year a bunch of young people are returning back to their communities. How are they returning? Are they going to return as individuals that are able to contribute and that are rehabilitated to have a purpose in life? Or are they going to come back as greater or as better trained criminals?

And that's something that we have to concerned about. And just simply the fact that, you know, when we look at, most people look at the fact that, you know, all these kids are locked up and they are concerned about the fact that, you know, they're overly violent. But the majority of young people that are locked up are not violent. They can be rehabilitated, and the data is available now to prove that.

GORDON: Doctor, let me ask you, Raymond Crowell, when you think about rehabilitation, allowing these kids that opportunity, and then setting them back out in the streets, isn't part of the problem from the beginning the idea of even before hitting boot camp, that they just don't have the kind of environment, the kind of stable environment needed by young people?

Dr. CROWELL: Well, they absolutely come into the environment, into boot camps or detention with histories of abuse and neglect and less than supportive environments and the lack of oft times supporting nurturing adults. And so, in thinking about returning them, we have to think about not just their delinquency behavior, but about the supports that they are going to need once they're back in the community to succeed. Absolutely.

GORDON: How realistic is it to assume that in sheer numbers we're going to able to see that kind of thing?

Dr. CROWELL: I think it's realistic. I think that it's totally realistic. It's totally doable. We have skills and knowledge and technology to be able to deal with children absolutely before they go in, in fact, before they encounter the juvenile justice system. But certainly on the back side of that, with our systems and with family and community engagement, and with some of the models that are out there, we certainly can impact them and keep them out.

GORDON: Malik Russell, isn't part problem, and how do we correct this, that the least among us often don't receive the attention needed? And we talk about the least among us in this country, whether we want to admit it or not, we're talking about teenagers, young people.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yes, that's true, Ed. And what we look at is the amount of money being spent on incarcerating young people and adults, as well. Now, if that money was invested on the front end, you know, what type of results would it produce? And that's what we have to begin looking at when we're looking at, instead of incarcerating kids, placing them in rehabilitative environments.

There's a savings of money. That money can be reinvested in community-based alternatives, and really, it comes down to just presenting opportunities for young people, making sure that young people have the right, the access to education, healthcare, and just some opportunities in life. And that is very important if we want to have an actual deterrent to a, say, criminal lifestyle.

GORDON: Raymond, let me ask you this. How do we convince people that now is the time? Quite frankly, I've been hearing this kind of thing for decades, not necessarily about the boot camp, but intervention into young people's lives. And again, truth be told, I hate to sound so pessimistic today, but I think we have to be realistic. Things seem to be continuing to go south.

Dr. CROWEL: Well, I think the people have to understand that young people's development is very much a function of their environment, and that if we change the environment and do the work now--they have to get this message consistently, I think, that if we change the environment up front, we'll decrease the number of kids that are going into the system. And if we provide them support, then alternatives after being in a system, in the detention system or in the juvenile justice system, that they can become productive members of society.

GORDON: Malik Russell, before we let you go, let me ask you. Your non-profit, Justice Policy Institute, how do you think that you and your group are received by those who certainly you reach out to for help? Are they seeing and starting to understand the gravity of this problem?

Mr. RUSSELL: I think so, and Ed, as you pointed out, you know, the assumption is that crime among juveniles is increasing, but if you really look at the numbers after reaching a peak in 1995, crime for juveniles has just really been going down nationally. But the perception among the public is that, you know, crime is up, because we're getting more media coverage of certain sensational crimes. And so, we try to counter that, and we try to counter a lot of the myths.

And it takes a while, because a lot of times, it's hard for people to swallow the fact that some of their widely held perceptions that they have are not correct. But we are working in terms of changing that. And I think people are now beginning to accept the fact that there is another way of treating young people. There's another way of treating societal problems, as opposed to using incarceration as the main method.

GORDON: Yeah. It's important to note that we need to really look at youth as our future, as opposed to just a catch phrase, and make sure that we take care of that. Malik Russell is a communications director for the Washington, D.C. based non-profit, Justice Policy Institute, and Dr. Raymond Crowel is vice president for mental health and substance abuse services at the National Mental Health Association. I thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.

Dr. CROWEL: Thank you.

Mr. RUSSELL: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: Coming up next, the battle over immigration, and Rice says no to '08 once again. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable, up next.

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