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A Balanced Response to Youth Violence

A hand on a chain link fence
A teenager at a residential detention center in Maryland, September 16, 2014. © Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times/Redux

As a crime survivor, having lost my brother to murder, one of the most difficult challenges in moving forward is accepting that you cannot do it alone. Treatment is important so you don’t get stuck in the moment. If you don’t move forward, you will not heal and you will continue to relive the trauma. Most victims of crime do not merely want to exist after experiencing victimization, but to survive and eventually thrive.

Unfortunately, in many cases—my mother's, for example—a lack of services means that you are merely existing. To exist is to be in neutral; surviving and thriving is getting your foot back on the gas. I’ve watched my mother exist, following trauma and victimization, because she never accessed treatment or services that would have helped her move on. 

Traditional justice system responses have put so much emphasis on punishment that crime survivor needs were an afterthought. Thankfully, a newly released report from the Justice Policy Institute and National Center for Victims of Crime—Smart, Safe, and Fair: Strategies to Prevent Youth Violence, Heal Victims of Crime, and Reduce Racial Inequalitypresents a refreshing, crime survivor–centered approach to treating youth who have been involved in violent crimes. 

This approach allows crime survivors the necessary services to heal and move forward in a way that encourages rehabilitation of the person who caused the harm. As a crime survivor, I fully agree that the best way to deal with a youth involved in violent crime is to ensure the youth receives the treatment they need, increasing the likelihood that no one else is harmed. Like many crime survivors, I want accountability—but I also want to have a say in what accountability looks like. 

As an African-American male, I know that the justice system disproportionately impacts our communities and fails our youth. We’ve seen too many young people removed from their homes and communities and returned more broken than when they left. Smart, Safe, and Fair avoids this mistake by recommending that youth are treated in their communities. Keeping youth at home not only helps them be accountable to the crime survivor; it does it in a way that promotes pride and ownership in that community. Once you feel a sense of ownership, then things such as pride and a desire to do better define the boundaries in which you operate. 

In order for this to happen though, we cannot ignore that youth operate on impulse and without the cognitive development to fully understand their wrongdoing. This is not an excuse; it's an appreciation of how consequences and accountability are two luxuries not yet fully afforded to young people whose cognitive abilities are still developing. (Car insurance companies, for example, understand this—it's why they charge higher insurance rates to those under the age of 25.)

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we should know that cognitive development has a larger influence over young peoples’ decisions than does ill will. Youth live in the here and now; for brains that are still developing, thinking about the consequences of getting involved with the justice system is neither. Most of the youth I grew up with rode that thin line between stupid and illegal—all the way into adulthood. The challenge is deciding what should be done with those young people when someone crosses that line. I could give endless examples of people who crossed that thin line as a youth; we all could. 

Smart, Safe, and Fair was developed to reach out to the victim’s community and find out how people would feel about changing the justice system so more youth are treated in their neighborhoods, rather than being locked up. The report calls for common-sense, victim-centered approaches that hold youth accountable while also appreciating the role underdeveloped cognitive development plays in young people's decision-making. It recognizes that the justice system treats youth charged with violent offenses in ways that are needlessly expensive, ineffective, and unjust.

I stand with many of the crime victims with whom we spoke, who called for transforming a status quo that is not only broken but actively damages youth and their families. Our justice system today makes the future worse for all, while failing to meet the needs of crime victims. As this report’s recommendations make clear, we can—and should—demand better.

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