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A New Year, A New Language

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Before the beginning of every year, organizational presidents, vice presidents, and board members sit around the table trying to develop a winning strategy for the coming year. It is the same in the world of advocacy. We review the past season's accomplishments and the items that we could not check off our list. We look at the current political climate, the agendas of other organizations, we toss around the general feelings of the public, count the opposition, and start a new plan.

The story is always the same, the debate is always the same, and it is always based around the current political climate. We feed off of each others' catch phrases, we hire experts to help us frame our message appropriately so that we reach a wider audience, and we try to ascertain who our allies are. These are all good strategies if we are trying to work within the constraints of the political process.

As the course is set for the coming year, there are statistics to consider. These are not figures reported in the countless documents that are generated concerning the size of our problem. The consideration should be the individuals who become the statistics in these reports. As we develop strategies and confer with each other concerning the politically correct message that will cause change, our prison population ages. As we agonize over words, pictures, and messages, 14-year-old kids are being sent to adult prisons. As we divide the lists of politicians into "friend or foe" people are abused, mistreated, abandoned, and condemned to a life in prison.

If we are to have any impact I believe we need a new language and a new level of awareness. This is not about the political process, government agencies or any of the old rhetoric we have become so accustomed to using. This is about people, reality, honesty, and justice. We need to be prepared to speak truth and accept truth.

In October of this past year, a 14-year-old boy in Colorado was arrested and charged with killing his parents. In Colorado the District Attorney has the sole authority and right to decide whether or not this young man should be charged as an adult. He was. Then the court was left with the problem of where this kid would be housed. The arguments were heated and loud as the judge tried to decide whether or not to send this young man to county jail where he would be held in solitary confinement during the course of his proceedings and trial. We are a country that declares you are innocent until proven guilty yet we are willing to subject a possibly innocent person to cruel and unusual punishment. Even if this child is guilty of the crimes he is charged with, did it ever occur to anyone that he was in need of serious help? Fourteen-year-old kids do not kill out of  malice; only adults with an agenda do that.

Because we, as advocates, have been met with hostility and vehement opposition from victims advocacy organizations and district attorneys, we have softened our stance, our language, and learned to re-present the truth in a more palatable manner. It has not worked.

We need to start by stating the facts. Our current criminal justice practices have not worked in preventing crime.  They have only increased crime. We have 7.3 million people under the authority of prison systems in the United States. A system full of, and fraught with, criminals and instances of continuing criminal acts. These acts are acts of violence between inmates, abuse inside of facilities, drug use and corruption inside of facilities as well as the crime against the human spirit which causes a breakdown of social skills. If you take the current rates of crime, add our current prison population, and then add the population of people who will carry the label of criminal for the rest of their lives, we are creating a large population of criminals through our laws and practices. Instead of allowing individuals to serve penance for their wrongs, helping them to find healing for themselves and those they have wronged and restoring our communities from destruction into prosperity, we are choosing to live in brokenness… forever.

In order to see change come, we must become bold in our statements. We must confront our authorities with the truth of the consequences of the laws in place. If we believe that we are innocent until proven guilty and that is the law of the land, then we need to hold our authorities accountable to those laws. If we believe that these are broken children who are in need of intervention and that we are judged by the treatment of our children then we must hold our lawmakers accountable for their protection. We can no longer afford to be cautious and calculating and we must be prepared for opposition. The cost is too great: destruction of our nation; poverty and brokenness; human life.

Instead of "tough on crime" or "soft on crime" rhetoric we need to confront our policymakers with the human cost of incarceration practices to the citizens of this country. Instead of juvenile justice reform policies we need to speak of child protection policies, rehabilitation policies, and the future of our nation. Instead of emphasizing crime rate statistics we need to emphasize criminal reform statistics. We need new language, new benchmarks, and new strength. When confronted with victims advocacy organizations, we need to be prepared to speak of the pain and loss that our current policies create and to remind them that healing is for everyone, as much for the criminal as for the victim.

I challenge all of us to look again at the challenges we face as advocates and see those challenges from a new perspective. Look at them with fresh eyes and maybe this year we will leave a legacy behind instead of a wish list for next year.

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About The Rev

  • Baronius

    An interesting article. One bit of compositional advice: you can have a non-specific title, or a non-specific opening, but when you’ve got both it takes the reader a while to figure out what the subject is.

  • I don’t think you’re correct in claiming that a 14-year-old is incapable of acting out of malice. But it is true to say that the mind of a 14-year-old, even a calculating and sociopathic 14-year-old, isn’t fully cognisant of the gravity of killing someone. So you are right that an adult jail is an inappropriate place to put someone that young.

  • I agree with #2. That being said, we need to take a hard look at our criminal justice system starting with an overhaul of drug laws especially with marijuana. We also need to bolster support for juveniles. Like it or not, contemporary society virtually requires the “it takes a village” mentality. For a generation now children have been the ultimate victims of parent disinterest for lack of a better word. They are supervised by television and video games. They’re pressured among their peers far worse than it was in the 60’s. Kids need continuity and a strong, positive adult influence in their lives. And that doesn’t come by way of Jerry Springer and Aqua Man.

  • 1970 “Future Shock”, Alvin Toffler commented that raising our children is one of the most important things we do. Yet it is one vocation for which society requires NO qualifications.
    This is a problem that has no easy solution and I fear that it may never.
    On another point, isn’t it important to remember the VICTIMS of crime? How do they feel about the perp?
    Where are the victims’ advocacy groups on this issue?

  • Doc, minor tweak on your otherwise fine statement:

    “But it is true to say that the mind of a 14-year-old, even a calculating and sociopathic 14-year-old, may not be fully cognisant of the gravity of killing someone.”

    Some 14 year olds are very aware of what they are doing…

  • That very well may be, but it’s rather hard to ascertain. Perhaps that why many societies employ a more or less arbitrary standard of biological age, for legal purposes, to distinguish between adults and minors.

    Similar, one might say, to the manner in which medical definition of death is used.

    One might hope the same might be instituted when it comes to the definition of birth, but that issue is too controversial.

  • Dreadful,

    Could you email me – I have a technical question. Must have misplaced your email address and your blogsite doesn’t help.


  • As someone that was indicted into adult court at the age of 15 (in 1975) and sentenced to 3 to life in adult prison, I can say I am familiar with this subject. I agree that prison is only a business at this point in time. And that the current minimum time served system benefits no one including the tax payer. But using a 14 year old multi-murderer as an example is a poor choice. No one at that age could do such a thing without practice, such as killing helpless animals and the like. His parents should have addressed any issues he had before he caused their demise.
    As for the prosecutors, it is their job to protect the public, the judge determines guilt, and the prison restrains or executes the guilty.
    Eliminating the juvenile justice system was a huge mistake, it was started to rehabilitate youths (except for murderers), and deter recidivism, finish school and teach a trade. Once the kid turned 21 he was released with his records sealed. Now a 14 year old is marked for life for even a minor drug possession charge, not to mention whatever effect adult prison may have on him. Did you know that the younger you are when sentenced may cause up to 6 times the number of years served before parole is recommended? Why is a juvenile so harshly punished compared to an adult that knew exactly what they were doing? I invite any comments.

  • Thank you for your comments and your honesty. Although I do not know the details of this particular case, every case of patricide (murder of parents) that I am familiar with involved abuse. It is amazing to me, as well, that juveniles are given such harsh and indiscriminate sentences. I hope there are comments.