Giving Voice to Youth Incarceration

Posted by Sophie Karpf

Aug 2, 2016 10:30:00 AM

A simple phone call could change the way you view juvenile justice

I’ve read the reports. I know the statistics. I am acutely familiar with the disparities that permeate the juvenile-justice system.

I’ve read books, too. Books threaded throughout with personal, heartbreaking stories that attempt to bridge the gap between the abstract idea of youth incarceration and the true experience of living through it. And I’ve been touched by those stories. I’ve felt the secondhand pain of the kids and families whose lives were ripped apart by incarceration.

performing_statistics_impact_of_juvenile_incarceration.jpgBut nothing has touched me like the simple messages that I heard by calling 804.234.3698 and hearing the voices and stories of 11 currently incarcerated youth in Virginia. Eleven short messages, no longer than 30 seconds each, all that began "If you were me..." These brief statements are part of Performing Statistics, a project out of Richmond, Va., that is trying to break down “the invisibility and marginalization our young people locked up in youth prisons face” and connect their stories inside with us on the outside. [To hear their voices, call 804.234.3698, and press an extension number between 1 to 11]

More than statistics are needed

Truthfully, how many statistics can you hear and read about before they begin to blend together and lose their impact? The numbers only tell one side of the story. The other side, the human side, is the one we often do not get to see or hear, and the one that so desperately needs to be listened to for true change to take root. The despair and the hopelessness, but also the sustained hope, in these young people’s voices, make you realize we need to make a change. We need to do better by our youth. 

Every single young person spoke about their family—their love for their family, how much they miss their mom, how they desperately need a father figure, a mentor, how they hope their family can forgive them when they are released. They spoke about their hopes and dreams for the future. One wants to be a computer programmer, one a youth counselor. They are smart. They see the problems in the system that turned them into casualties. They see the need for more teachers, more after-school programs, more pro-social activities and opportunities for young people who struggle to stay out of trouble. They want to be better. They want to do better. To move their families out of the projects, go to college, achieve their dreams, and not be labeled and judged by their actions or their skin color. Is this not what all of us want? For ourselves, for our children, for our friends? 

These young people, they’re not numbers. They’re not statistics. They are just like us, and they know it. If we deserve a chance to correct our mistakes, shouldn’t they have that same chance?

Multisystemic Therapy (MST) can’t fix a broken system by itself. It will take dedicated advocates, enlightened politicians, money for alternatives to incarceration—it will take us all working hard to make a difference. But in the meantime, MST changes lives for the better—one child and family at a time. 

To read more about how MST is positively impacting at-risk youth, download this white paper.

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Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform