My abbreviation was young when I caught the cases

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{Dwayne Betts}


A few days ago, the Jena 6 ordeal was settled with a plea of "no-contest" in District Court. But I'm not interested in re-hashing the drama the case caused. See I was asking myself in my head how many folks have heard the term juvenile certification, and realized that many people are likely like my family - having no idea what juvenile certification means until someone you know who's under eighteen find themselves calling a jail cell home.

The boys from Jena 6 were all initially certified. In the end they were all tried in juvenile court, but what I didn't see, that I would have liked to see, is a larger conversation on the consequences of sending juveniles to prison.

Background: When I was sixteen years old I was certified as an adult. After that, I did 8 years and three months in some of the craziest prisons in VA. I had no idea what certification was before I caught my case - my first case. And learning what it meant was one of the lessons that have become a part of whatever it is I do in this world. For the past few years I've been speaking at juvenile justice conferences around the country on the issue, I've written a few articles about the issue and my memoir, A Question of Freedom, chronicles my years in prison. 

I read the article about the Jena 6 and remember an opportunity lost. At least I see it as an opportunity lost. Back in the late 80s, when Willie Boskett committed the crimes that sparked the legislative shift that spread from state to state, lowering the age for juveniles to be sent to prison - whatever outcry there was got muted by the stories of the super predator youth. And now, any outcry against the policy, any discussion of how juvenile certification increases the likelihood of these kids committing further offenses, any discussion of how contrary to what was first reported most juveniles who are certified aren't certified for murder and rape, any discussion of the increased likelihood of juveniles in prison falling victim to physical and psychological abuse gets muted by budget concerns, a lack of imaginative alternatives and a basic lack of information by the public.


But there are imaginative alternatives that have never been appropriately used. I recommend anyone interested going here: http://www.aecf.org/Home/MajorInitiatives/JuvenileDetentionAlternativesInitiative.aspx
to read about the Annie Casey Foundations Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which by offering better ways to deal with the less problematic young folks, would allow better resources for the young people who are really troubled. Also, check out the Kids Count essay that the Annie Casey Foundation published here: http://www.aecf.org/~/media/PublicationFiles/AEC180essay_booklet_MECH.pdf. The essay gives a background to the juvenile justice system and a critique of it.

I thought a national discussion, even a broader regional discussion on juvenile certification would happen when the Jena 6 issue occured - but I was wrong. I waited for someone to remember the young boy in Florida who received life without parole at fourteen. (Later, his sentence was thrown out and he got 5 years time served.) Nothing happened though, because by centering the conversation around race people lost sight of the insane policy that allowed the issue to morph to what it became. 

For a minute I intended on getting the heavy ammunition for this post. On throwing out the statistics that would make me an expert and get someone to take what I'm saying seriously. But all I'm saying is that it's misguided to believe that certifying juveniles as adults is an appropriate response to juvenile crime. I plead guilty - expected to be punished and in retrospect know that it was a greater risk to public safety to expose to the insanity of prison than to let me get the programming, the treatment, the rehabilitation that is supposed to be part of the juvenile system. The question for me now is always how to frame my argument, so that it doesn't appear to be soft on crime, so that it doesn't look like I'm looking to give young people who commit crimes a free pass. The answer for me is to point out that the juvenile justice system is not a free pass, but a system designed to handle the particular needs of juveniles.

Then too, I was watching MSNBC the other night. One of those programs telling how life in prison is - and after about thirty minutes, I figured anyone who has seen this program has to know that a sixteen year old has no business in a place where violence is the chief currencyl. It's a complex issue I know - and welcome the opportunity to flesh out what I'm saying more by having to respond to others.
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