Through your letters and through interviews with others who are in prison, I have a growing understanding of what life in prison is like and frankly, I can’t understand how anyone can effectively reintegrate into society after years of incarceration after becoming accustomed to such a brutal world. If you could instantly transform the system into anything at all, how would you design a system to accommodate and attempt to rehabilitate juveniles convicted of murder or felony murder so that society would be safe and those with the mental and moral capacity to return to society as assets could achieve that?
Wow, envisioning an effective juvenile justice system which meets both the needs of rehabilitation and punishment is a daunting task. The first step would be to decide from the outset what the presiding philosophy of the system would be – punishment, rehabilitation, incapacitation, or retribution. Since we are dealing with children, I think the two most important factors should be rehabilitation and incapacitation – i.e. keep them put away where they can’t hurt society until a time they are no longer a threat, with treatment designed to attain that goal.
Rehabilitation is almost impossible when a kid has no hope.
A life sentence or extremely long sentence sends the message to the child that society has given up on him and that he is a worthless creature to be banished forever. The way kids cope with that is to embrace convict society. They give up on the world that gave up on them and they try to adapt to their new world. That is why so many of us have problems when we first get locked up. Our goal at that point is survival and escape from the pain of being rejected by society. We run into the arms of a society which accepts us. For some kids it is a temporary comfort, while for others they become a permanent part of convict society.
Because of that, any system I designed would have to allow a child to retain hope and a connection to the real world so he has a reason to accept rehabilitation. I would also try to eliminate the intense “us vs. them” mentality in prisons. As long as the prison administration is seen as unreasonable and the enemy, rehabilitation will be resisted. When prisoners are in a hostile environment, they resist all things the prison tries to force upon them, they won’t see even the most reasonable and useful information as something which will help them, they will take it all as a personal attack. Children, especially juvenile offenders who have probably never had it, need structure and they need to be taught self-discipline. I would definitely begin the program with some sort of regimentation but with the constant reinforcement that it is not because the staff are being petty or on a power trip, but because they care about how the child turns out and wants what’s best for them.
Aside from educational and vocational training, I would have many hours of cognitive restructuring classes, empathy building restorative justice programs, morality and character building classes, and therapists who would have a small case load and work with the kids on a one-to-one basis a few times a week to both serve as a mentor to help them personalize the program and to help them overcome their pasts. One-on-one work with a caring positive person makes all the difference in the world. Often a rehabilitation course will have general concepts which some don’t see how it applies to them. Having a personal coach allows the information to later be individualized and tailored to be effective in the child.
Such a program would be terribly expensive, but there are ways to reduce cost (inmate labor, growing food, etc.) but the expense must be weighed against the cost of housing a juvenile for life and the consideration that juvenile crime is largely the fault of our society and culture. We owe it to ourselves as a country to face that fact and take responsibility for it. Children are not born violent, they are made that way. Worldwide statistics show that the scourge of juvenile violence in American is not natural, there must be a cause fairly unique to our culture and until we root out that cause as a society, it is our moral obligation to spend what it takes to deal with the consequences.