I had an early taste of spring this year when I visited Reedley, a small city surrounded by the rural lands of central California. I enjoyed the hospitality of my neighbors, the sweet Mexican bread from bakeries, the fiery sunset to the west and the snow-capped mountains to the east.
But there is more to Reedley’s story. Many residents are undocumented, preventing them from accessing basic human rights. Approximately 30 percent of city residents live below the poverty level. For a variety of reasons, children and teenagers are susceptible to the pressures of gang affiliation and violence, as well as the “school-to-prison pipeline” – the reality that students who are suspended from school are much more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.
It was in this context that the Reedley Peace Building Initiative (RPBI) emerged in 2011, bringing together West Coast Mennonite Central Committee, the Reedley Police Department and the Kings Canyon Unified School District to explore alternatives to criminalizing youth behavior. In the past, a first-time drug offender would face an automatic expulsion due to the school system’s zero-tolerance policy.
Now, RPBI offers mediated sessions to students using drugs or committing other infractions such as verbal fights, vandalism, theft and skipping school. The sessions aim to make students accountable to their victims and community by signing contracts, creating apology letters, and compensating for damages through restitution or community service. The results have been remarkable, even in the short few years of its implementation.
Unfortunately, the broader juvenile justice system has lagged behind this vision. In 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was passed to ensure that youth with status offenses – offenses that would not be considered crimes if they were adults – would not enter a detention facility. In 1980, however, Congress created a loophole that has resulted in youth still being locked up.
Adolescent girls are disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of status offenses, serving longer detention time than boys. Many of them are locked up for running away (a status offense), often in an attempt to get away from sexual or domestic violence.
Not only is an overly harsh justice system contrary to the Gospel values of justice and compassion, this system is also counterproductive. Many former prisoners say that prison time only makes one a “better criminal” instead of helping them reintegrate into society. As the results of RPBI have shown, it does not make sense to place youth behind bars when they can have a transformative experience through restorative justice.
Now is the time to support justice for our youth. On February 28, Rep. Cardenas (D-Calif.) introduced H.R. 4123, a bill that would repeal the harmful JJDPA amendment. Urge your members of Congress to support reauthorization of the JJDPA as well as the passage of H.R. 4123. Please also tell them that restorative justice works!
Like waiting for spring after a long winter, we anticipate the restoration of our juvenile justice system. Along the way, we see hopeful signs showing God’s kingdom at work. My brief time in Reedley has shown me that changing our broken juvenile justice system is possible when there is trust among community stakeholders, and when there is courage to change systems. As people of hope, we can count on the fact that God’s justice is indeed breaking through.
Peace on the Hill is a monthly column in PeaceSigns written by staff of the MCC Washington Office highlighting congressional developments and detailing ways the church can continue to be engaged in the work of peace and advocacy.