Why Juvenile Offenders Need 'Aftercare'

Article excerpt

The heart-wrenching Daily Herald series recounting the 2008 attack on Elgin High School teacher Carolyn Gilbert has taken its readers to places few of us can imagine and where none of us want to go. Through the words of the victim and the attacker, as well as the views of experts in law enforcement and juvenile behavior, Kerry Lester's reporting has provided a balanced account of this horrendous crime. To avoid these tragedies, it's important to try to understand what happened and how future assaults can be prevented.

Learning from this youth's actions in no way excuses those actions or trivializes the very serious harm to Ms. Gilbert. Medical research clearly shows that the adolescent brain is not fully developed. Teenagers are still developing judgment, impulse control and coping mechanisms. Under the best circumstances, the maturation process is a struggle for some youth. But when youth experience physical or emotional trauma, it can significantly disrupt healthy brain development.

Unfortunately, far too many youth today are exposed to violence. They may be victims of or witness brutal fights or violence in their neighborhoods. They may experience domestic violence in the home or suffer when a parent has mental health or addiction problems. Even when there are no visible wounds, these traumas can have a profound effect on the developing brain -- effects which may not be evident until days, months or even years later.

As daunting as these facts are, there is good news too. Most youth involved in the justice system never commit an act of violence. And almost all youth -- even those who have made serious mistakes -- can become productive members of our communities, if we provide the necessary support, structure and supervision.

Fortunately, the American justice system recognizes the differences between adults and juveniles and the ability of youth to change for the better and is developing ways to hold youth accountable for their actions but also provide for the rehabilitation of young lives headed down the wrong path. …