by Alesha Seroczynski,
Institute for Educational Initiatives, University of Notre Dame
Read more about Seroczynski's virtues project.
I recently read some disturbing statistics from studies conducted on juvenile death row inmates before the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders in 2005. In 2003, Chris Mallett, Public Policy Director at Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau in Ohio, collected academic, psychological and socio-historical data on 53 of the 80 juveniles on death row. He found that 74% had experienced family dysfunction, 60% were victims of abuse and/or neglect, 43% had a diagnosed psychiatric disorder, 38% suffered from substance addictions, and 38% were indigent. More than 30% of those studied had experienced six or more distinct childhood traumatic events; all offenders averaged four such experiences (Mallet, 2003). In addition, 70% of those juveniles studied had been identified as either mentally retarded or developmentally delayed (MRDD), 25% of these early in grade school. By ninth grade, however, 30% of these death row juveniles had dropped out of school. Mallett found that this mitigating evidence was presented to juries in fewer than half of the offenders’ trials and often “only in a cursory manner” (Mallet, 2003, p. 456), despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the “court must consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances in relation to both the crime and the offender” (Cothern, 2000, p. 3) when sentencing a juvenile.
This study only added support to a growing number of disconcerting findings about juvenile death row inmates. For example, Robinson and Stephens (1992) found that in addition to histories of poverty, abuse, addictions, and mental illness, one-third of 91 cases reviewed evidenced low IQ or borderline mental retardation. In an earlier study of 14 juveniles on death row (38% of the total juvenile death row population at the time), nine had major neuropsychological disorders, all but two had IQ scores under 90 (100 is average), nine had below average reading abilities, and three had learned to read only after arriving on death row (Lewis, et al., 1988).
I work with juvenile offenders at the other end of the continuum. Students in Reading for Life are first-time offenders; their hearts still p rick with guilt when they consider their crimes and the consequences realized by their families and community. Because nearly six out of ten first-time offenders return to court (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006), helping these kids make more virtuous choices is critical. It’s not easy, however; and for reasons related to some of the finding discussed above. For example, at least half of our students score below average in reading ability, and several have tested no better than a third grade reading level. Let me reiterate: 16- and 17-year-old high school students can read no better than the average third grader. For those of you with children, that’s an 8-year-old reading Junie B. Jones, which barely qualifies as a “chapter book,” and certainly is not a novel.
In our groups, we teach the students about seven classic virtues: Aristotle’s four (justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude), and Aquinas’ extension of those (fidelity, hope, and charity). We define each and use modern literature to help the students find ways to adopt and practice each of the virtues themselves. Justice, we tell students, is not just related to the law—justice is any judgment that is fair. To be just is to be equitable to all parties, whether the decision is coming from a judge, teacher, parent or friend.
So I ask you, does the sentencing of dozens of children with the psychological, social, emotional, intellectual and academic profiles given above seem just? It certainly did not to me. Instead it felt like some grand failure on society to intervene early and often enough to provide these kids with the counseling and educational assistance necessary to nurture them into productive members of society. I could almost see these kids in my mind, sitting in an empty cell (often for a decade or more), awaiting the date of their executions, mulling over and over the injustice of their birth, their parents, their schools—albeit, their lots in life. Shame on us!
No doubt there are many ways to slice the blame. Children who cannot read often have parents who never read to them (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002; van Steensel, 2006). In our project, we have encountered more than one student who remarks that our book is the first they have ever received. One girl even brought in a 12”x12” crate with about a dozen books in it and declared, “Look! I’ve started a library!” She was grinning from ear to ear. I nearly wept; my own children would need a semi-truck of crates to contain their personal library. Most of these families have to choose between food, utilities, and rent; books are an indulgent luxury—like rock candy and Christmas oranges during the Great Depression. We must do more to get books to these children, even in infancy.
Programs like Head Start and other low-income preschools (e.g., see monroecircle.com) have been phenomenal at preparing at-risk children for grade school; there is no doubt that preschoolers who attend quality Head Start programs perform better in kindergarten and beyond (Hindman, Skibbe, Miller, & Zimmerman, 2010; Lee, 2008; Zigler & Muenchow, 1992). But something happens to a lot of these kids, and we seem only modestly concerned. No Child Left Behind has done more for the industry of standardized testing than it has for struggling students; states have found a myriad of avenues to bypass NCLB standards. Instead of improving the quality of the educational setting for our nation’s students, NCLB has instead resulted in an almost universal reduction of state standards in order to satisfy NCLB requirements and maintain federal funding (Cronin, Dahlin, Adkins, & Kingsbury, 2007). In Indiana, third grade testing requirements are statistically significantly lower than those of eighth graders; 7% of Indiana middle school students who passed our ISTEP in third grade can expect to fail it by the eighth grade (Cronin, et al., 2007). This gives both educators and parents the impression that students and schools are doing better at the elementary level than they are as kids move into middle school. Moreover, students who pass ISTEP (Indiana Statewide Testing for Education Progress) in third through seventh grades may suddenly be confronted with an exam which they are no longer capable of passing, especially if they were already performing in a low-average range of academic achievement. I doubt that it is more than just coincidental that students can begin dropping out of school (and become significantly more delinquent) in ninth grade, just about the time that they can no longer pass the mandatory academic achievement examination. It is easy to have 100% pass rates, which are federal NCLB requirements, if along the way you lose the 30-40% of those who can’t cut it. This is a national academic injustice!References
Cothern, L. (2000). Juveniles and the death penalty. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/184748.pdf.
Cronin, J., Dahlin, M., Adkins, D, & Kingsbury, G.G. (2007). The Proficiency Illusion. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Hindman, A.H., Skibbe, L.E., Miller, A., & Zimmerman, M. (2010). Ecological contexts and early learning: Contributions of child, family, and classroom factors during Head Start, to literacy and mathematics growth through first grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25, 235-250.
Lee, K. (2008). The effects of children’s Head Start enrollment age on their short- and long-term developmental outcomes. Social Service Review, 82(4), 663-702.
Lewis, D.O., Pincus, J.H., Bard, B., Richardon, E., Prichep, L.S., Feldman, M. & Yeager, C. (1988). Neuropsychiatric, psychoeducational, and family characteristics of 14 juveniles condemned to death in the United States. American Journal of Psychiatry, 145, 584-589.
Mallett, C. (2003). Socio-historical analysis of juvenile offenders on death row. Criminal Law Bulletin, 39(4), 445-468.
McGurk, N. (2008, October 17). Low graduation rate in South Bend a hot topic. The South Bend Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.wndu.com/home/headlines/31148759.html.
Robinson, D.A., & Stephens, O.H. (1992). Patterns of mitigating factors in juvenile death penalty cases. Criminal Law Bulletin, 28(3), 246-275.
Sénéchal, M. & LeFevre, J. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children's reading skill: A five-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73(2), 445-460.
van Steensel, R. (2006). Relations between socio-cultural factors, the home literacy environment and children's literacy development in the first years of primary education. Journal of Research in Reading, 29(4), 367–382.
Snyder, H. N. & Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from http://ojjdp.ncjrs.gov/ojstatbb/nr2006/downloads/NR2006.pdf.
Zigler, E. F., & Muenchow, S. (1992). Head Start: The inside story of America’s most successful educational experiment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons.
First, while much social policy on youth and crime is based on
sensational news reports from urban centers such as Los Angeles,
Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose, many at risk youth live
in more rural regions of the state and the country as a whole.
Juvenile justice issues in those communities tend to involve lower
income whites. This an area of juvenile justice and inequities based on
class that desperately needs to be exposed and discussed.
My second issue is concerns the ever increasing numbers of girls
and young women who are committing criminal acts. What is frightening
about this development is that the children of these young women often
themselves fall prey to the inadequacies of the foster care system and
the juvenile dependency system which by many professionals are strong
predictors and precursors to juvenile crime and delinquency. The four
young men you featured were predictable outcomes of the tattered system
of care we as a society provide for our children. Replica Watches
The costly imprisonment of these youth well into their adulthood only
diverts resources away from solution oriented alternatives including
parent training and education; substance abuse and rehabilitation
counseling; and programs that promote the development of healthy
functional family units. Rolex Submariner Replica Watches
5848 South University Avenue | Chicago, Illinois 60637 | (773)834-3475