“Justice by Geography:” The Importance of Location for Young Offenders

Oregon Live featured a story by News21 highlighting the importance of location in regards to crime and justice, specifically for young people.   

According to data from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, of the 750,000 cases processed across the United States in 2018, about 200,000 involved detention – as authors Katherine Sypher and Anthony J. Wallace described it, “removing a young person from home and locking them away.”  

Sypher and Wallace explained that depending on where a young person lives, the way they are punished for their crime can vary greatly. Even if the crime is lesser, like assault or gun possession, a young person can be subjected to multiple forms of discipline, from rehabilitation programs and group homes to “prisons for kids.”  

Justice by geography  

A developmental psychologist at the University of California Irvine, Elizabeth Cauffman calls this concept “justice by geography.” One example of this is comparing the cases of Zyion Houston-Sconiers of Tacoma, Washington and Will Lewis of Riverdale, Georgia.   

Houston-Sconiers and Lewis are both Black, 25 years old, grew up poor, and eventually joined gangs for a sense of community and emotional support which they were not receiving from their families. They both eventually committed robberies as teenagers and had their cases brought before an adult court.   

However, Houston-Sconiers is currently serving time at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Seattle, while Lewis is raising his daughter and working at the Brighter Future Initiative at United Way of Greater Atlanta while searching for a job as an IT specialist.  

Though they have similar physical traits and backgrounds, Houston-Sconiers and Lewis ended up in completely different places for their crimes. Houston-Sconiers was sentenced to 31 years in prison, and Lewis was given the opportunity to participate in a second-chance program.   

Who is counted as responsible and who is not?  

Cauffman explained that what happens to young people after their mistakes can be very random and up to the “biases, beliefs, and decisions of the adults who control their future.”  

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s data from 2018 showed that almost 40 percent of Black juveniles charged with weapons offenses were deemed responsible for their actions by a juvenile judge, and about 13 percent were put into secure facilities away from their homes. On the other hand, 27 percent of white juveniles facing the same charges were deemed responsible and five percent were placed into secure facilities.   

Sypher and Wallace explained that researchers and advocates have data that shows how detention “hurts the development of young people, making them less likely to graduate from high school or find a steady job, and more likely to end up in prison as adults.”  

The article also asserted that most advocates and many politicians agree that placing youth in prison-like facilities should only apply to specific, rare cases, if not gotten rid of completely. In place of these facilities, many advocate for rehabilitation programs.   

The tipping point  

Cauffman also oversees the Crossroads Study, an ongoing study at UC Irvine which analyzes how “tipping point” offenses such as burglary and assault are handled by the justice system.    

“The more punitive, the more harsh, the more the severe the sanction, the worse the outcome for the kid,” said Cauffman. “If you really want to improve public safety, if you really want to reduce criminal offending, getting tough is not the solution.”  

In the case of Houston-Sconiers, he was ultimately released after five years due to the work of Jeannie Darnielle, who was elected to Washington’s state senate almost immediately following his arrest in 2012, and led the effort to undo the legislation for his case.   

Unfortunately, Houston-Sconiers ended up re-offending and is now serving the first year of an 11-year prison sentence for gun and drug crimes.   

The hard numbers  

The number of youths incarcerated in the United States has declined over the years – nearly 2.5 million kids were arrested in 1999 and more than 100,000 were detained in a juvenile facility. In 2018, 730,000 were arrested and 37,500 were detained.   

However, the U.S. still leads the world in youth incarceration. This is despite the fact that a study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2014 “found that the brain’s decision-making centers are still wiring themselves until ‘the early 20s,’ and while they’re under construction, young people are largely driven by a desire to bond with peers and seek novelty.  

Researchers have also found in recent years that the trauma an adolescent may face – such as incarceration for multiple years – has a significant impact on brain development. These experiences can greatly alter an individual’s life.   

By Cara Nixon