America remains highest imprisonment rates in the world. However, juvenile justice presents a somewhat brighter picture.
Author Jeff Hobbs, whose last work The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace was published to acclaim, has written a new book examining America’s juvenile justice system.
Children of the State: Stories of Survival and Hope in the Juvenile Justice System Provides background on the evolution of America’s juvenile justice system—but it’s primarily about people, not statistics. Many of the statistics are grim and the results are depressing. America’s penal system is overly punitive, infected with racism, and generally not rehabilitative, Hobbs writes.
Most crimes are a matter of state, not federal law. Dispensing “judiciary” is the hodgepodge of courts and institutions in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and numerous sub-governmental entities such as counties and municipalities. Depending on where the crime took place, the criminal may or may not be subject to the death penalty, receive a long or short sentence, and so on. Legal definitions of what constitutes a crime vary widely across the United States
Although it was too late to do so, the Supreme Court outlawed the juvenile death penalty in 2005, Accepting “The Heavy Weight of International Opinion Against Child Death Penalty.” and the number of incarcerated youth 77% decrease from From 2000 to 2020, according to the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. These are important steps, but for those incarcerated, the system continues to destroy lives and families, a point Hobbes vividly illustrates.
Hobbes tells the story from three perspectives. In the first third of the book, called “Residence,” he follows Josiah Wright, a young black man from Wilmington, who is released after 11 months in custody but faces a longer and more severe sentence for violating his parole. (Technically, prisons are for adults, and detentions are for juveniles. For people behind bars, it may be different without making a difference.) Increased penalties for parole violations help keep America’s incarceration rates high.
Hobbs follows Josiah and his friends to classes, visits them after they are released, and listens to their thoughts. All but a small handful of these young men are black or brown. Some, including Josiah, make foolish and impulsive decisions, as all teenagers do. The difference between these children and their peers on the “outside” stems from deep childhood trauma, and being born into low-income families that lack the ability to help shape their children’s lives due to their need to put their lives on the table. Wealthy parents, whose children make similarly foolish and impulsive decisions, have access to resources including time, financial and legal means, and social connections that tend to keep their children out of the system.
In the middle of the book, “Education,” Hobbs lives at the Woodside Learning Center in San Francisco. “Apathy was one of the most prevalent miseries at Woodside. Young people thrived on connection, but they were also quick to retreat inside … a safe place with their souls: walled, hard, dark, like prison cells.”
Hobbs focuses on adults who educate and counsel youth convicted of crimes. Woodside has a very committed caring staff with long experience in the system. They also have trouble balancing the stress of the organization with their home life. They were barely advised when San Francisco began a major effort at redesign and institutional reforms. Woodside has been given a deadline. Closing legacy institutions is a goal for many juvenile justice advocates, but without creative alternatives, closings could repeat existing weaknesses in the system, Hobbs notes.
In the final part of the book, titled “Deportation,” Hobbs spends time at Exalted Youth, a New York City agency charged with helping youth in the juvenile justice system get internships and jobs. It’s important work, and a small group of young people are starting out in potential careers. But for many of them, the challenges of working in a foreign (read: white and rich) world are difficult for them to face, or they are not academically prepared, or their internships are meaningless, or the apathy and self-defeating behavior is too overwhelming.
Throughout, Hobbes lets his characters describe a broken system rather than writing as advocates. With admirable research, he does a wonderful job of bringing out the humanity of his subjects. The reader cares about these people—adults and youth alike—and wants them to succeed. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.
Hobbs concludes that America’s youth prison system is “convoluted, flawed, and above all mired in a generation of short-sighted, opportunistic, naïve, racist ideas—but, for the time being, it is gradually being reformed and redesigned, with deep concern. Personal .”
Hobbs doesn’t stop there. He wrote that “people within the system, both responsible for operating its many layers and subject to its labyrinthine laws— [are] Passionate, charitable, tireless, admirable, and truthful. Above all, I find young people in prison, even for truly heinous acts, to be redeemable…”
If only salvation were the main goal of America’s penal system.
Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. His first novel, The Three Muses, Won the Petrichor Award for Finely Crafted Fiction and was published in Fall 2022 by Regal House Publishing.