Youth PROMISE Act: Shouldn’t ‘justice for all’ include youth?

By Cheryl Kaplan, Peace Alliance Action Team Leader,
& Radha Selvester, CDS Family & Behavioral Health Services

“When will justice come?  When those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.” — Leo Tolstoy

The injured are our youth — and because they are young and powerless, they cannot speak for themselves. So it is up to the adults to express our indignation and work for change.

Youth incarcerated in our Juvenile Detention Centers are often damaged by the system. Considering that 80-90 percent of youth commit delinquent acts during their adolescent years, including one-third committing serious crimes, we need to support programs to help young people correct their behaviors.*

We can’t incarcerate our way out of delinquency. Youth are a work in progress and are destined to make mistakes as they grow up. Many youth we label “delinquent” are really survivors of trauma themselves — abuse, poverty, neglect, and addiction. These experiences create youth who break the law out of desperation.

Treating the initial trauma, or better yet, creating a society where all children live with caring families in safe neighborhoods, is much more effective than throwing kids in jail. It should also be noted that statistically speaking, poor youth of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than those who are affluent and Caucasian, even though their rate of delinquent acts is the same or sometimes less than rich, white youth!

Kids are often locked up for small offenses, and then, as they express their anger and frustration at a system that doesn’t help them, get more time tacked onto their sentences. Sometimes they are even put into solitary confinement.

The United States has one of the highest rates of incarceration of youth (as well as adults) of any country in the world. The United Nations called for an “absolute prohibition” on the practice of keeping juveniles in solitary confinement and deemed anything over 15 hours in solitary as torture for adults. Yet our Juvenile Justice system still puts kids in solitary confinement! Youth are further traumatized by abuse and assault from other inmates as well as staff! This is all happening at a crucial time developmentally (adolescence) creating an increased likelihood that these youth will end up career criminals.

Many have said there has to be a better way — to help wayward young people develop into law-abiding citizens who can contribute to society.

In Nell Bernstein’s new book, “Burning Down the House,” the history of the Juvenile Justice system and reform is discussed. Her conclusion is that separating children from their families and communities because they have committed a crime, and locking them up with other angry or mentally ill criminals under the watchful eye of, perhaps, underpaid, overworked, or uncaring correction officers is NEVER going to help youth become better people.

Forget reform, we need to start with a fresh new look at the whole problem.

THERE IS A SOLUTION! Right now, in Congress, there is a piece of legislation called the Youth PROMISE Act. PROMISE stands for “Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education.”

This is a piece of bi-partisan legislation that would fund evidence-based programs in our communities — programs that are chosen by our community that would reduce violence, save lives, and reduce incarceration by teaching our young people new strategies to deal with anger, frustration, and conflict.

This would be financed by an underutilized fund in the Department of Juvenile Justice, not our taxes. A recent study showed that for every $1 spent on intervention and diversion programs, we can save $5.50 on future incarceration costs. So we can save money and save lives all while teaching our young people to become contributing citizens.

The Peace Alliance ( is leading the way to encourage our elected officials to become co-sponsors of the legislation. Right now it’s in committee, but as more and more of our legislators become educated about why the Youth PROMISE Act is so important for our country, and especially for our young people, it will be brought to the floor for a vote. Every day this is delayed means more young people are lost in a system that causes more damage to already troubled children.

We have several programs already established in Gainesville that help young people at-risk of Juvenile Justice involvement. With Youth PROMISE Act funding, more could be added.

The River Phoenix Center for Peace Building (RPCP) is doing wonderful work teaching youth to resolve conflicts using Restorative Justice Circles. RPCP also works with the Gainesville Police Department to create a dialogue between police officers and youth. This program has had a very positive impact on at-risk youth.

CDS Family & Behavioral Health Services offers free Family Action counseling to youth exhibiting behaviors that are often precursors to criminal acts like breaking rules, cutting school, substance use, and running away. CDS also offers the Interface Youth Shelter for families in need of a short-term break. Youth stay at the shelter and participate in a social skills development curriculum while counselors work with the whole family to resolve the issues at home.

Another great example of a unique local program is “Summer Heatwave” established in 2008. Gainesville’s Departments of Recreation and Police joined forces with the State Attorney’s Office to offer positive engagement (sports, pool parties, and life skills classes) to youth most at risk of arrest during the summer with fantastic results. We have so many creative and caring local citizens in Gainesville, Youth PROMISE Act funds would undoubtedly be well-utilized to save lives — and money.

Please join Gainesville’s own Peace Alliance Action Team. The Team is dedicated to sharing the importance of this legislation. It’s time to take action to help our young people experience justice and become the best they can. Please email to learn more.

* All statistics are from Nell Bernstein’s book, Burning Down the House. D

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