Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Juvenile Justice: How the Youth Correctional System Hurts the Very People It's Supposed to Help

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Juvenile Justice: How the Youth Correctional System Hurts the Very People It's Supposed to Help

Article excerpt

Joseph Rodriguez hovered at the edge of a roof contemplating suicide when he was a teenager incarcerated at the notorious New York City lockup, Rikers Island. Remarkably, at that very moment, be says, "They called my name. I was going home. I was quite lucky they called my name."

Though Rodriguez's run-in with the law took place more than 30 years ago, it has stayed with him. He gives voice to that experience in his photographs, which share an intimate and harsh look at how the juvenile justice system is working--both for and against--young offenders today.

His multimedia project, Juvenile Justice, is part of a pilot program for high school students. "I would like younger audiences to get a closer look at what it might be like to go through the juvenile justice system;' Rodriguez says, "and through the stories of these individuals, perhaps learn something."

One problem with the system is that youth, often looking more grown-up than they are, are tried as adults in most states. That means teenagers face longer sentences for a whole spectrum of offenses, from graffiti to homicide.

The downward spiral teens often find themselves in is a product of broken homes, drug addiction, gang affiliation, and inadequate foster care. Once they are convicted, many find themselves in a cycle that's difficult to break out of as they run away or violate their probation.

Our society, says Rodriguez, is unforgiving and unwilling to offer teens in trouble the redemption they need. He zeroes in on California, which has the largest prison budget of any state. Since 1984 California has constructed 21 prisons and only one state university. The Department of Corrections added 25,864 employees, while the higher education workforce was reduced by about 8,082, according to Tara-Jen Ambrosio and Vincent Schiraldi in their report, "Classrooms to Cell Blocks: A National Perspective" (Justice Policy Institute).

Carlos, 19, seemed to be making his way through the system by taking advantage of its educational opportunities, but his story is not exactly one of success and redemption. Carlos learned English and got his GED while doing 16 months for assault. At one point he tried to go to business college but was discouraged when the admissions counselor threw away his application, assuming he wasn't interested.

Carlos came to the United States from El Salvador at age 9. It took three days for him and his younger sister to cross the border, without their mother, who was a dishwasher and came here before they did. He got involved in dealing drugs for fast cash and used drugs himself.

"I was doing crack, and I did it for five days straight;' he says. "You get dehydrated, and then it takes everything out of you. You get emaciated. You usually don't eat. I been there, man."

Carlos is working and has a daughter but is still affiliated with his gang, the 19th Street gang in San Francisco. He hangs out on 19th Street and Mission, where drugs, gang activity, and addicts are endemic.

The alienation and desperation that spawns drug addiction seems to be a common thread among all of the stories of young people trying to fit in--with their friends, their families, their gangs. It's clear that doing time can further isolate youth. It is particularly rough during adolescence, when fitting in is most crucial.

Katrina has had trouble fitting in for most of her life. She has been in foster care and juvenile corrections systems her whole life--yet she expresses strong feelings for her father. …

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