By Yashodhara Varma

On October 29th, I attended the youth incarceration meeting at Art 180. People from all parts of the justice system were there to make their voices heard.

The main issues discussed were prevention, alternatives to incarceration, community engagement in the justice system, and reentry of formerly-incarcerated youths into the community.

Prevention was most focused upon, and the biggest preventative method taken by the justice system is investment in earlier education. This is because most of the kids who end up in a Juvenile Detention Center are about 3.5 years behind in school and have family problems (including violent, incarcerated, or addicted family members.) They often skip school, or have mental health problems.

Another goal of prevention efforts is to accurately assess how much involvement someone may need, given their risk levels. Currently, the Virginia Code allows for a lot of behaviors to be classified as delinquent or criminal, and many kids end up in court for petty offenses. For example, a girl from my former middle school faced assault charges because a she jokingly threw a baby carrot that accidentally hit her teacher. This is a waste of resources and is unfairly hurting her future.

For me, there were two large unanswered questions about prevention: systematic, ground-level change and mental health. As was pointed out by audience members, the oft-ignored need for neighborhood-based change is just as important as education reform; we need root-level and systematic change, including community awareness and more support for mentoring programs. That cannot just happen by throwing money at the problem.

Additionally, there is currently little funding for proper mental health services, and mental health is only being discussed in the context of violence. Both of these are very concerning because kids do not have access to the resources they need and it stigmatizes people with mental health problems as violent.

Engagement was only briefly discussed. This section of the conversation focused on police engagement in the community. There is a good amount of police involvement with inner city youth, and most of it is positive, according to the presentation.

The Police Chief’s biggest push, for instance, is youth engagement, demonstrated in programs such as the Chief’s Advisory Board and the Police Athletic League (PAL) Program. The goal of these programs, as I saw it, is to attempt to redefine police-community relations and give kids an adult they can trust, as most kids who end up the Justice System do not have adults they trust.

However, one of the activities that was mentioned as part of these programs was putting kids in a simulation activity in which they would have to decide whether or not to shoot a criminal. As someone in the audience stated, this is a dangerous idea. It exposes kids to even more gun violence and may even be triggering for some. Law enforcement should
focus more on de-escalating conflict. I definitely agree. I believe the best way to strengthen police-community relations is to focus more on peaceful conflict resolution.

Reentry of incarcerated youth into society was also a main point of discussion. Reentry into the community is very hard, and time spent incarcerated will undoubtedly hurt someone’s future opportunities. A formerly incarcerated youth told the audience he was unable to attend his high school of choice simply because of his criminal record. Even programs built to circumvent this problem still discriminate against those who were formerly incarcerated. Someone’s qualifications are often disregarded just because of their record.

Yashodhara Varma is student at Maggie L Walker Governor’s School and  a member of the Richmond Youth Peace Project’s Youth Leadership Team.

ART 180 and the Legal Aid Justice Center was just awarded a 3-year $500,000 Robins Foundation Community Innovation Grant. The grant is intended to strengthen the mentorship, services, and support for incarcerated youth and use art and advocacy to connect the voices, struggles, and ideas of incarcerated youth with those in power to impact the lives of teens across the state and disrupt the school to prison pipeline.


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