Come on, you know where this is going. Via Newsday:
About half of all 16- to 18-year-olds coming into New York City’s jails say they had a traumatic brain injury before being incarcerated, most caused by assaults, according to a new study that’s the latest in a growing body of research documenting head trauma among young offenders.
Experts say the findings, published this week in The Journal of Adolescent Health, could lead to better training for correction officers on how to deal with the possible symptoms of such trauma, which include problems with impulse control and decision-making.
To those of us whose job it is to defend these youths, this comes as little surprise. We talk to them, listen to them, watch them and shake our heads as they walk away. We see the lack of impulse control. We hear how an astoundingly poor choice is made at a critical juncture. And there they are, in a meeting with a criminal defense lawyer.
Not all young people find themselves in lockup because of traumatic brain injury. The study says half, and that sounds about right, but fails to explain the other half. My highly scientific anecdotal experience is that the other half is there for lack of “apparent” better options and really awful role models.
The comments to the Newsday article are a nightmare. Most reflect a knee-jerk reaction like this:
The shrinks and lawyers are always looking for a way to absolve bad behavior in people and blame it on a medical condition. Evert time a child acts up, the shrinks will blame it on a mental condition and medicate the child into a zombie.
Is there always an excuse for the criminal. This is what society has taught us. Always find a way to blame others and society for the poor criminal. When is society going to say, take responsibility for your own actions and suffer the consequences.
And if a child gets cancer, it’s the oncologist’s fault. Any why won’t those damn blind kids see, for crying out loud? Just take responsibility and look harder.
In contrast, the New York Times editorial goes the soft route:
It is a mistake to assume that all children held in juvenile facilities represent “hard cases” beyond redemption. Indeed, a new study, by the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Atlanta, shows that nearly two-thirds of the young people who were confined in 2010 were confined for nonviolent offenses.
Moreover, disproportionate numbers of these young people have special needs. Federal data from 2010 show that 30 percent had learning disabilities, 45 percent had problems paying attention and 30 percent had experienced physical or sexual abuse. It should come as no surprise that most of the young people entering juvenile residential institutions are behind in reading and math.
This juxtaposition of a hard explanation and mushiness explains the angry reactions to the study reflecting the prevalence of traumatic brain injury among the juvenile prison population. It’s not that the statistics quoted in the Times’ editorial are wrong, but that they feed into the reaction that this is all bullshit, causing a great many, perhaps the majority, to reject any explanation short of personal responsibility.
They’re criminals! Hey, I sucked in school and I didn’t become a criminal. So if I turned out to be a law-abiding citizen (and let’s not talk about my drunk driving, pot smoking, tax cheating, wife beating ways), so should they!!!
[Ed. note: for those who may be unclear, this is not a quote, but a snarky aside.]
The significance of both the Newsday article and the Times editorial is that there are reasons why these things happen, that children act impulsively and make poor decisions that violate criminal laws. This means there are ways to head this off at the pass, and ways to deal with them afterward that might be a whole lot more effective at bringing them back to us as law-abiding citizens rather than the mythical child-predators.
But society won’t use them, won’t admit that there is a problem that needs fixing, as long as we have a simplistic explanation that makes saving the children impossible and absolves us of any responsibility to do better. They’re criminals!!!
The Times editorial concludes with an admonition:
Most important, however, the states need to redefine the mission of their juvenile justice systems. That means refocusing from warehousing and punishing juveniles to a much more positive mission: educating troubled youths who typically suffer from an array of psychological and educational challenges.
While the point is true, the mushy language strikes me as the very sort that makes ordinary folks’ heads explode.
Pander to the child criminal? I pay a fortune in school tax to get my kid educated, and they want to give child-predators Cadillac services? How about we just beat them to a pulp and make sure they know that if they do it again, they get beaten again. Just like my pappy used to do.
[Ed. Note: Another snarky aside. Not a quote.]
If the upshot is that the input to our juvenile prisons comes out worse for it, and that we have the means to recognize the problem and fix it, why not do so? The answer is because we make people pretty damned angry by couching solutions in terms of touchy-feely, do-gooder liberalistic rhetoric.
An argument can be made that one solution is to teach all the morons why their knee-jerk hatred of criminal kids is wrong, and it might work after a few thousand years of indoctrination and metacognitive elevation. But it’s unlikely that the kids who need help now can wait that long. If, on the other hand, we lighten up on the vague rhetoric that’s so appealing to those inclined to care about these issues, and focus instead on the pervasive evidence of traumatic brain injury, maybe we can save a lot of children from lives of misery in prison.
They will still suffer from lack of impulse control and poor decision-making, but with a bit of appropriate help, they won’t have to do so in prison, and, if you need a more personal reason to support the concept, it won’t be your house they break into. See? It’s good for the morons too.