America persists in having the highest incarceration rates in the world. Juvenile justice, though, presents a somewhat brighter picture.
Author Jeff Hobbs', whose last work The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace was published to acclaim, has written a new book examining America's juvenile justice system.
Children of the State: Stories of Survival and Hope in the Juvenile Justice System provides background on the evolution of America's juvenile justice system — but it is primarily about people, not statistics. Many of the statistics are grim and the outcomes depressing. America's penal system is overly punitive, infected by racism, and generally not geared toward rehabilitation, Hobbs writes.
Most crimes are a matter of state, not federal law. Dispensing "justice" are courts and institutions in a hodgepodge of 50 states, the District of Columbia, and myriad sub-governmental entities, such as counties and municipalities. Depending on where a crime is committed, the offender may or may not be subject to the death penalty, will receive a longer or shorter sentence, and so on. Legal definitions of what constitutes a crime vary widely across the U.S.
Though egregiously late in doing so, the Supreme Court outlawed juvenile executions in 2005, acknowledging "the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty." And the number of incarcerated youth declined 77% from 2000 to 2020, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. These are significant steps, but for those who remain incarcerated, the system continues to destroy lives and families, a point amply illustrated by Hobbs.
Hobbs tells the story from three points of view. In the first third of the book, called "Residence," he follows Josiah Wright, a young Black man from Wilmington who is released after 11 months in detention but ends up with a longer and more severe sentence for violating his parole. (Technically, prisons are for adults, and detention is for juveniles. For people behind bars, this can be a distinction without a difference.) Escalating punishments for violating parole, even for very minor infractions, helps keep America's incarceration rates high.
Hobbs follows Josiah and his peers to classes, visits them when they are released, and listens to their opinions. All but a tiny handful of these young people are Black or brown. Some, including Josiah, make stupid and impulsive decisions, as all teenagers do. The difference between these kids and their peers on the "outside" tends to be deep childhood trauma, and being born into low-income families who lack the ability to help shape their children's lives due to the necessity of keeping food on the table. Wealthier parents, whose children make the same stupid and impulsive decisions, have access to resources, including time, financial and legal means, and social connections that tend to keep their kids out of the system.
In the book's midsection, "Education," Hobbs homes in on the Woodside Learning Center in San Francisco. "Depression was one of the most prevalent afflictions at Woodside. Young people thrived on connection yet were also quick to retreat inward to ... a protected space with their spirits: walled, hard, dark, much like the rooms in jail."
Hobbs focuses on the adults tasked with teaching and counseling young people convicted of crimes. Woodside has plenty of committed caring staff with long experience in the system. They too, have trouble balancing the stress of the institution with their home lives. They are barely consulted when San Francisco embarks on a major effort to redesign and institute reforms. Woodside is given a closing date. Closing legacy institutions is a goal for many juvenile justice advocates, but without a constructive alternative, closure may repeat existing weaknesses in the system, Hobbs notes.
In the final portion of the book, entitled "Exile," Hobbs spends time at Exalt Youth, a New York City agency charged with helping youth in the juvenile justice system get internships and jobs. This is important work, and a small group of young people get launched in potential careers. But for many of them, it is too difficult to meet the challenges of working in a world that is so foreign to them (read: white and wealthy), or they are unprepared academically, or their internships are meaningless, or depression and self-defeating behaviors are too overwhelming.
Throughout, Hobbs lets his characters describe the broken system, rather than writing as an advocate. With admirable research, he does a wonderful job bringing out his subjects' humanity. The reader cares about these people — adults and young people alike — and wants them to succeed. Sadly, this is rarely the case.
Hobbs concludes that America's youth incarceration system "is convoluted, flawed, and above all intractably mired in generations of seesawing, opportunistic, naïve, racist thought — but, for the time being, it is incrementally improving and being redesigned, with deeper concern for the individual."
Hobbs doesn't stop there. He writes that "the humans within the system, both those tasked with operating its many layers and those subject to its labyrinthine laws — [are] impassioned, benevolent, weary, admirable, and truthful. Above all, I've found young people incarcerated, even for truly heinous acts, to be redeemable..."
If only redemption were the overarching goal of America's penal system.
Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and was published by Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022.