Prison, We Must Do Better for At-Risk Teens

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Guest Commentary

Published August 16, 2015

Since the late 1980s, at-risk teens have been subjugated to terrible injustices. Being socially labeled super-delinquents by politicians and media, legally tried as adults under get-tough legislation, and psychologically stunted by zero tolerance in schools and abuse in correctional facilities.

Today, you would imagine that America has found a better way to deal with juvenile delinquency and youth-gang crimes, but unfortunately, many states still implement outdated, misguided policies that continue to funnel teens into the juvenile justice system. This populates our prison systems. And to make matters worse, recidivism keeps increasing this rate—that is, teens become damaged goods after cycling through “the system” and often return to prison as adults.

According the Annie E. Casey Foundation, despite the good intentions and regulations in our system, teens do learn how to become better criminals from inmates, and they do develop long-term mental health and developmental problems due to sexual and mental abuse sustained in prison. Furthermore, incarcerated teens face insurmountable discrimination when attempting to enroll in college, apply for a decent job, or ask for a credit loan to buy a house. This is because many states don’t have fair expunging laws to protect them. In all fairness, the system leads at-risk teens to a dead end, so what other choice do they have besides crime, drugs, or suicide?

I implore concerned citizens (especially grown-ups) to consider what this means for the future of America. Recent studies reveal that our prison systems are over-capacitated, inefficient, and costing states ginormous amounts of money, which indicates state funding, your taxpayer’s money, is going down the drain. It also means that we won’t have an eclectic workforce contributing to Social Security, because many of our colored, LGBT, marginalized youth aren’t going to college, but instead to prison. Thus, less people working means less revenue for your retirement and Medicare/Medicaid; in fact, the Social Security trust fund is expected to dry up by 2033. And last but not least, it means that we have failed to evolve and understand the developmental needs of our teens.

Neurobiological research confirms that during adolescence the teen brain is rapidly maturing to improve synaptic connections for effective working memory. As a result, teenagers have more difficulty making rational decisions like adults, especially under stress. It’s no wonder that at-risk teens—those who live in poverty, have a mental health illness, or struggle with bigotry and conflict on a daily basis—are dealing with extraordinary stress and have difficulty making wise, lawful decisions.

It’s possible that the average teenager has a supportive family/community, and when he/she acts out, it’s totally normal and easy to resolve. However, they don’t live on the edge like at-risk teens do where delinquency and youth-gang crime–where using drugs, shoplifting, and even killing–is sometimes the only thing separating them from life or death. We must do better.

Indeed, we can! It’s called the Youth P.R.O.M.I.S.E. Act (HR 2197). The acronym means Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education. Congressman Robert “Bobby” Scott introduced the Act to Congress on May 1, 2015. The Act grants federal funding to communities that use evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies to curb juvenile delinquency and youth-gang crimes.

Although it has bipartisan support and lots of sponsors and endorsees, it hasn’t passed through legislation, due to funding and wording issues. Recently, the funding strategy was changed to rely on 20% of the Youth Mentoring Fund in the DOJ of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the FY16 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bill. This seems very promising.

Congressman Scott expressed that the Youth PROMISE Act doesn’t eliminate current “tough-on-crime laws.” Yet, it does mandate the usage of pilot programs, similar to coalitions that involve the coordinated efforts of at-risk teens, their support networks, law enforcement, schools, human service providers, and other stakeholders, which has been PROVEN to save money, save lives, and reduce crime. That’s certainly doing better. If you care about the future of our teens, our workforce, and the overall public health of America, contact your Senators, today, and urge them to sponsor the Youth PROMISE Act. You can also learn more and sign the petition at

Mark Keene (Cherokee) is an artist, metaphysician, and human rights activist. On July 29, 1974, he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii into a military family. His father, a Marine, and mother were originally from a small town in West Virginia. He spent his early years in various U.S. cities, such as Oceanside, CA, Charlotte, NC, and Beaufort, SC. In 2001, he acquired his bachelor’s degree in Human Relations at the Golden Gate University in San Francisco, CA. From 2002-2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada, he practiced his education implementing vocational rehabilitation and support-living services for people with emotional-intellectual disabilities.

From 2010-2015 in Meridian, Idaho, he assisted children with severe developmental and cognitive disorders like Autism, leading to work as an extend resource room paraprofessional. Currently, he lives in Seattle, Washington where he is completing a master’s in social work focused on community organizing, planning, and administration (COPA) via the University of Southern California’s (USC) virtual academy center. 

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