On Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023, hundreds of kids broke out into fights near Emeryville’s AMC theater. It was the day of AMC’s four dollar movie ticket sale, and the streets were flooded with up to four hundred kids, who then broke out into violence. According to ABC7 News, one shot was fired and one juvenile was stabbed. This is just one example of the violence that can come from issues within the juvenile justice system that are harmful to the development of teens. Instead, a more restorative approach should be taken.
According to data from the Board of State and Community Corrections, in March of 2020, there were reports of 3,259 youth in county facilities, daily. “What we’re seeing is that especially in disadvantaged communities and communities of color — Latino and African American communities — youth are not treated as developing young people, but rather criminalized and punished,” explained Meredith Desautels, a directing attorney at the Youth Law Center.
Desautels specializes in the reformation of the juvenile justice system. She highlights the most prevalent issue in the juvenile justice system, one that draws parallels to the rest of the judicial system, that, “from the moment of arrest to incarceration of juvenile hall, to the sentences in the cases, young people of color are treated more harshly.”
This may come as no surprise. Since the War on Drugs started in 1971, mass incarceration continues to be a very concerning issue in society, which is exemplified in the juvenile justice system. However, what makes the issues in the juvenile justice system specifically concerning is the fact that Berkeley High School students and the Berkeley community are directly involved.
While students are going through their high school years, their brain is going through crucial development. It is scientifically proven that during this development, teens are more prone to making mistakes, in which they could find themselves within a correctional facility.
“Over the past few decades, it’s become very clear that adolescence is a time of significant brain development. Specifically, it’s the prefrontal cortex in the brain that’s still developing throughout adolescence. The parts of the brain that are still developing are the types of problem-solving skills, planning, impulse control, and ability to consider future consequences, the kinds of things executive functioning that are important to be able to function as an adult,” stated Desautels, explaining trends she has found throughout her time working with youth.
Treating teens and adults in the same form of punishment for mistakes is very unfair, to say the least. However, some argue that it would be equally incorrect to let teens and young adults off the hook, as this sets them up for failure and could lead to the repetition of the same mistakes when they are adults. How does a community help youth in need of support? Obviously, there is a larger problem at hand that involves the entire juvenile system itself, however, there are some ways BHS could help support its students in an elevated manner.
According to the West Ed Justice and Prevention Research Center, studies have shown that heavy reliance on exclusionary disciplinary actions such as expulsion and suspension, “increase students’ likelihood of dropping out of school and becoming involved in the criminal justice system.” Luckily, BHS has implemented some forms of restorative justice, but there’s still more to be done.
It is proven that the traditional forms of punishment practiced in the sentencing of teens are actually not beneficial to their growth and prevention of violence in the future. There are a few things that need to change. First and foremost, to prevent the acts of violence that could occur, it’s important that students and teens have at least one space where they feel they can belong and express themselves. BHS provides many options for students in a variety of areas that different students could have an interest in.
Furthermore, BHS could provide the crucial presence of an adult who truly cares and is concerned with each individual. It is really important that teens feel they have a positive connection with someone like a mentor, coach, or teacher. If a student is lacking the attention of a family member, this could be a great way for BHS to give beneficial support to the student. This connection is not one that is found in the judicial system. Desautels gives the example of probation officers by saying “their role is really punishment and control. Instead of a probation officer, what young people really need is a positive adult figure in their life.”
This support can look a few different ways. First, it’s important that adult figures check in with students and make sure they are receiving some of the most basic needs; food, shelter, and clothing. Desautels highlights that “of course, a high school could not meet all of those needs, but what’s great about high school is that the teachers can get to know the students so well, they might be able to identify when those needs aren’t being met and try to work with organizations or city departments to make sure they’re able to access the resources that they need.”
However, support doesn’t always have to come from one individual. Support groups are a great way for students to really tell their story and feel heard.
If BHS implemented these methods, we could build a stronger community and lower the amount of students involved with the justice system. BHS could set an example to other schools and change the juvenile justice system norms. This could create a better future for us all. Next time you see or experience a situation like the one at AMC, challenge yourself by looking at each person involved, as a whole, and not defining them by a single mistake.