When I was a kid, I made quite a few mistakes. My 16-year-old self wasn’t nearly as smart or as grown-up as she thought she was. Activities I engaged in at 16, 17, or even 18, I would have thought twice about at 19, 20… and probably not even considered by age 25. Hindsight is 20/20, right? More than one error in judgment could have ended with me in police custody if events had transpired differently. I could have even spent a night in the local county jail; after all, I grew up in a state where youth are considered an adult by the justice system at age 16.
Given what we now know about the adolescent brain and normal stages of development, one would hope that the collective response to kids today would be better – that our responses to youthful mistakes would be informed by research and that kids who make mistakes today would have a better chance for a positive outcome. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If anything, policy and practice have become more punitive. In fact, more than 200,000 kids under the age of 18 are tried in courts meant for adults each year and nearly 10,000 kids are held in an adult jail or prison on any given night.
Did you know that only 5 percent of kids who are arrested have committed a violent crime? Yet one-size-fits-all policies mean that the other 95 percent often face the same fate. The pendulum has swung towards increasingly harsh punishments for youth whose actions break the law. Too many youth end up trapped in a system that has an implicit mandate to punish, not rehabilitate. Last week, PBS aired the Travis Smiley report Education under Arrest – an examination of the repercussions of Zero Tolerance policies. Consider that schools have become a key entry point into the justice system – one out of every three teens arrested is arrested in school – and that justice involvement is too often the beginning of the end – 66 percent of kids who have been incarcerated NEVER return to school. The mistakes we make as kids shouldn’t ruin the rest of our lives.
I was fortunate. I was never seriously hurt and no one was injured by my actions. I was given more than one chance to learn from my mistakes so that I could grow up to be the best version of me. I am grateful for the many chances I was given and for the individuals who believed I deserved that second, third, or even fourth chance. My mistakes did not define my life choices; rather, the lessons I learned helped me grow into the person I am today.
Please visit the Mistakes Kids Make website. Learn more about what you can do to speak up for kids, and to help communities hold kids accountable for their actions while giving them the support they need to become their best selves.
>>> Mistakes Kids Make is a storytelling project to remind us that the mistakes we make as kids should not ruin the rest of our lives or the lives of our families.
>>> Policy maker or practitioner? Learn about juvenile justice reform models that work. Visit the Models for Change website.