Engaging ideas, transforming minds
Engaging ideas, transforming minds

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by Judah Oudshoorn

Some argue that the youth justice system is broken and needs reforming. Others say it is working as intended—to keep marginalized and racialized people down—and needs to be thrown out. Either way, there is work to be done to put “justice” back into youth justice approaches.

It seems to me that the essential purpose of a justice system should be to be just.

Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten lost.

Instead of creating safe communities, we’ve built a criminal justice machine that squashes community safety and wellbeing.

Juvenile justice contributes more to disparity than fairness.

  1. We’ve criminalized struggle: Prisons are bursting with young people who are experiencing poverty, addiction and/or mental illness.

  2. We’ve criminalized certain people over others: Prisons invite an overrepresentation of African American, Latinos, and Indigenous peoples.

What will it take for us to find our way?

Reason 1: The path toward justice will take introspection.

When it comes to juvenile justice, we need to know who we are and who we want to be!

For the past decade, I have worked to support and hold men accountable who have used violence towards their partners and children. Like the violence they have perpetrated, we cannot ignore the childhood traumas that many of these men have experienced. If we want men who use violence to stop using violence, we have to help them heal.

Helping someone heal does not let them off the hook for acting violently. Support can be offered without making excuses for harms.

My belief is that men who use violence have lost sight of who they are. A damaged, toxic, male identity that enacts power and control through violence is often formed as a result of childhood traumas.

I often ask these men: When you use violence, who are you? Is that who you want to be?

These questions provide opportunity for ethical introspection. When a person considers whether or not their actions represent who they want to be, it typically promotes accountability and lasting change.

Those of us working in the field of criminal justice must ask ourselves similar questions.

In Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice in the United States, I wrote:

“A (perhaps) surprising discovery about the juvenile justice system is that it is better to do nothing than it is to intervene; that is, once the juvenile justice system becomes involved in a young person’s life, they’re more likely to come into conflict with the law again than they would have been if nothing had been done” (Oudshoorn, 2016, 94).

  • What does it say about us when our justice system responds to harm by adding more harm?

  • What does it say about us when our justice system criminalizes struggle?

  • What does it say about us when our justice system racializes crime?

  • What do we want our justice system to say about us?

The Trauma-Informed Justice Resource Blog will be a space for asking difficult yet critically important questions about justice, who we are, and who we want to be.

Reason 2: The path toward justice will take dialogue.

When it comes to juvenile justice, we need to have a fresh dialogue.

We need to talk about why we criminalize certain young people, as much as why young people come in conflict with the law.

Why do young people come in conflict with the law?

Mostly, young people come in conflict with the law because they are hurting. Research has found that as many of 90% of juvenile offenders have experienced some sort of trauma.

  • Individual traumas such as neglect, family violence, and sexual abuse.

  • Group or collective traumas such as poverty, male violence, colonialism, and racism.

Traumatized youth are struggling to cope—so they sometimes behave in ways that mobilizes punitive criminal justice responses. But, we can’t punish our way to safer communities. We need a trauma-informed dialogue about juvenile justice.

Why do we criminalize certain people and struggles?

I am increasingly convinced that the answer has to do with our beliefs:

  • We criminalize addictions because we believe we can punish people into doing what we want them to do—because we don’t know that addictions are a health issue.

  • We criminalize poverty because we believe that every individual has equal opportunity—because we don’t know that people can’t simply ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’.

  • We criminalize Indigenous peoples because we want their land and resources—forgetting the two row wampum commitments we made.

  • We racialize crime because of racism, white supremacy, and an unwillingness to make meaningful reparations based on structural violence—forgetting that all humans are human.

  • In other situations, we criminalize people because we think it is what people who have been victimized need—ignoring that prisons are not victim services. If the answer to why we criminalize certain people and struggles lies in what we believe, then it is time to reorient the focus of dialogue in juvenile justice. The picture below gets at what I mean.

If I were talking about homelessness, the picture above challenges me to ask, ‘why are people homeless,’ and, ‘how are people able to walk by, or live in wealth, when others are homeless’?

Since we are talking about juvenile justice I want to know: why young people come in conflict with the law and why we criminalize certain people and struggles.

A trauma-informed approach to juvenile justice starts to give us some answers.

What do you think?