Our Justice System is Failing Teens of Color But One Alternative-to-Jail Program Seems to Have an Answer

Our Justice System is Failing Teens of Color But One Alternative-to-Jail Program Seems to Have an Answer
thumbnail image of author |


 Here in America, we have a serious issue with how we treat our nation's troubled youth. More specifically, we have a serious problem with how our judicial courts perceive, alienate, and fail to "rehabilitate" millions of minor, juvenile offenders - especially when it comes to teens of color. 


Our Juvenile Justice System Is Failing Our Youth

When it comes to America's judiciary system, troubled adolescents and non-white teens in particular (whose adolescent, frontal lobe in charge of critical decision making hasn't yet fully developed) are often treated scarily similar to that of adult criminals. 

Rather than attempt to rehabilitate and restore the lives of troubled teens, however, our juvenile court system throws an all-too adult-sized book at them with little to no empathetic regard as to how it could harshly stigmatize and personally devastate them for the rest of their natural lives.

What’s more, instead of treating their criminal activities as likely symptoms of a mental health disorder (most young offenders suffer from mental illness, 70% according to some experts [1]), our juvenile courts incarcerate mentally ill teenage delinquents for lengthy prison-like sentences, with black teens four times and Hispanic teens 65% more likely to be convicted than Caucasian teens, respectively [2].

The racial disparities (of course) do not end there. According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency's January 2007 report ‘And Justice for Some:’

"African-American youth overwhelmingly receive harsher treatment than white youth in the juvenile justice system at most stages of case processing. African-American youth make up 30% of those arrested while they only represent 17% of the overall youth population. At the other extreme end of the system, African-American youth are 62% of the youth prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence. [3]"  

Consequently, by treating teenage offenders -- the overwhelming majority of whom are teens of color -- as if they were fully developed, grown-up criminals -- who, are also, by and large, unfairly punished for non-violent crimes -- our "justice" system has transformed juvenile detention centers into 'revolving door facilities.' After further investigation (or any investigating, really) one can only surmise that our juvenile-criminal rehabilitation system's repugnant rate of success may have more to do with monetary-incentivization of keeping criminals of any age behind bars, than its seemingly pathetic efforts to do otherwise.

The Many Similarities Between the Two Equally Ineffective Justice Systems

Juvenile detention centers of today now appear and operate more like that of actual prisons than facilities designed to rehabilitate and restore the lives of struggling children who are most likely in need of therapeutic treatment. The uncanny similarity between the two inept justice systems, unfortunately, continues: Recent statistics show that as many as 75% of teens who spend time in juvenile detention centers are incarcerated later in life. Compare these statistics to that of America’s industrial prison complex which boasts a prisoner return rate of 76.6%. To make matters even worse, one-quarter of these highly inept and draconian facilities are at or over their capacity, which, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice, "impairs the ability of the facility to properly care for the youth. [4]" 

Needless to say, when America's juvenile offenders are being rehabilitated at nearly the same dismal rate as our world-record-setting population of incarcerated men and women (roughly six million), and when our adolescent juvenile detention facilities also mirror the racial injustice of their notoriously racist and ineffectual, adult-counterparts, I think it is safe to say that it is time for its citizens to demand that their policymakers look for alternative ways in which we as a nation, handle adolescent, behavioral reformation. United as a nation, we must finally demand equal, fair, and therapeutically proactive judicial solutions for all child offenders, regardless of the offending child's color of skin.

Introducing the Stargate Theatre Company: An Effective and Compassionate Alternative to the Incarceration of Young, Disenfranchised Teens

It’s one thing to address the moral issues and obviously stunning ineptness of our juvenile justice systems, but it’s another thing entirely to find genuinely effective, alternative solutions to replace said abhorrent issues. But while juvenile rehabilitation is a complicated problem to tackle, there are some who have seemingly found a solution that offers hope to even our society’s most disenfranchised, troubled youth. 

And, like most complex, societal issues, the means of addressing our country’s treatment of troubled teenage delinquents are sometimes answered by the unlikeliest of champions. The caring and truly revolutionary people of Stargate Theatre Company are such unforeseen heroes.

Stargate Theatre Company is just what it sounds like, a theater production company that creates on-stage performances with a cast of trained actors. What makes this theater troupe unique, however, is their trained and professional actors who are exclusively made up of young men who have been involved in the criminal justice system -- young men who were deemed "at high risk" for future incarceration.

According to Stargate’s website, the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC)-funded theater company “provides rare and profound opportunities for self-expression, confidence building, and joyful participation in a collective creative enterprise.”

Through the guidance and professional training of the Stargate Theatre Company, each year 10 – 15 young men, who would have otherwise been incarcerated, are selected to create an original theater production.

The coolest part? All of Stargate’s original productions are created by using the real-life experiences of the troubled young actors who play in them. How’s that for outside-the-box, therapeutic alternatives? Rather than judging, condemning, and literally caging talented and promising (albeit troubled) young men for their self-destructive mistakes, Stargate ingeniously finds artistic inspiration from their troubled pasts.

Christopher Thompson’s Story: A Powerful Representation of What Could Be

For proof of Stargate's overall effectiveness in rehabilitating troubled young men, we can look to the inspirational story of Christopher Thompson, a 17-year old from Brooklyn who was initially incarcerated at one of the country's most notorious prisons, Ryker's Island.

At 17 years old, Christopher Thompson (you guessed it, a black teen who was unfairly treated by our flawed juvenile justice system) found himself incarcerated in one of the nation's most ruthless prisons after he punched a white classmate for incessantly harassing him with racial slurs and taunts.

Although he was two years removed from being an adult, and despite the fact that it was his first offense (Again, an 'offense' that he was disgustingly and unjustly punished for; an offense that ironically included a fist-full of justice connecting with a well-deserved jaw that belonged to a cartoonish-ly-racist classmate who, himself, was apparently federally protected from receiving karma-induced comeuppance of any kind) -- New York's court system deemed Christopher too dangerous for the consideration of therapeutic rehabilitation.

(Seriously, New York City juvenile courts, what in the literal hell is wrong with you?)

That's right, instead of receiving any form of treatment that would have otherwise kept him from an unimaginably unfair and harsh sentence that would traumatize even the most hardened men (see, Lil’ Wayne), the judicial  (again, I use that word lightly) powers at be shipped Christopher to Ryker's Island to "learn" how to properly control his 'misplaced' anger.

(Queue the collective facepalms and angry sighs of every decent human, ever)

Luckily for Christopher (and humanity's last hope of any sort of moral redemption), an alternative-to-incarceration program recommended him to Stargate - an MTC funded production company that produces Broadway and off-Broadway productions using a cast entirely made up of young offenders like Thompon, many of whom were much like himself: unfairly persecuted teens of color.

Thanks to a truly inspirational and unexpected turn of judicial recourse,  instead of counting down the days until his release from one of the nation's most hellish of prisons (again, and I can't touch on this enough, AS A f-ing CHILD!), Christopher was being paid to be an actor. David Shookhoff, the director of Stargate's Productions, gives his take on the company's unique and effective approach to treating troubled young men: 

“We’re hiring these young men to be members of a theater company,” says David Shookhoff, education director of the Manhattan Theatre Club and an acclaimed director, most recently of the Off-Broadway hit “Breakfast With Mugabe.” “Their job is to write and to perform and to operate as an ensemble [4].”

The most impressive part of director David Shookhoof and the rest of Stargate's artistic approach to rehabilitating troubled youth is the program's overall effectiveness. While they admittedly employ only a small group of troubled youth each year (no more than 15), none of their graduates, including Christopher Thompson, have reoffended since completing the program. In fact, most of those who have graduated have even improved the grades of their high school studies (lest we forget, these "hardened criminals" who New York once considered "too dangerous to live in society," are CHILDREN!). 

We Must Learn From Caring Revolutionaries Like Stargate Theater Company

While Stargate Theatre Company’s revolutionary take on rehabilitating troubled, and largely mistreated young men like Christopher Thompson is just a “drop in the bucket,” their compassionate and ingeniously therapeutic approach is an inspirational one. Just think of Stargate Theatre's contribution to the world as being a small spark that could one day light a revolutionary roaring flame of supremely-needed, justice reformation. The revolutionary program's legacy and ultimate success will hopefully come from inspiring the future development of countless more alternative behavioral reformation programs, much like their own, that could one day replace the insanely counter-intuitive 'treatment' methods and overall hateful stupidity of unjust juvenile justice systems of today.  

Rather than judging, condemning, and literally caging talented and promising young men for small-time, criminal mistakes, Stargate ingeniously finds artistic inspiration from their troubled pasts and channels it into artistic stage productions. Essentially, Stargate provides young men the chance to learn from their troubled past by developing a story based on their otherwise societally ignored, personal struggles. 

Obviously, not every troubled young person may find behavioral restoration from participating in revolutionary stage productions. However, programs like Stargate show us that there are other, more effective ways in which we can rehabilitate young offenders from all races.

Lest polarized and largely partisan-divided, white Americans forget (this White Boy included), our current “Prison Industrial Complex for Children” emits an odor that is strikingly similar to that of the stench left over from the Jim Crowe laws of our not-so-distant past.

In spite of some of our policy-makers’ barely-coherent attempts to disguise the smelling foulness of racial injustice by soaking our failed juvenile justice system in America’s so-called, sweet-smelling fragranced ‘freedom’ and the hardly deodorizing potpourri of ‘due-process,’ the prejudicially, prevailing stench will linger evermore to plague our senses until drastic action is taken.  

In other words, we as a society must take it upon ourselves to demand more from our judicial system – especially when it comes to the rehabilitation of our unfairly treated youth. For the sake of the troubled young men and women of our country, we must demand therapeutic solutions that will replace barely functioning and archaic punishments that have done nothing but exacerbate the very issues they were "supposedly" designed to alleviate in the first place.

And it should go without saying… We Americans must come together to eradicate racial discrimination, if not entirely from our culture (after all, unfortunately, stupidity and misplaced anger will always exist because there are too many stupidly angry people in the world and in this jaded country in particular), then at the very least, from our courts whose very function is to ensure unilateral equality by protecting the civil rights of ANYONE lucky enough to call America their home.   

...Want Change? Then it's Time to Get Frustrated, It's Time to Get Impatient, It’s time to Get Angry, and It Sure as Hell is Time to Turn to These Emotions and DEMAND Change, Rather Than Wait for That Change to Never Occur...

To be able to fully draw blood from the vein of ingenuity, we the people must unanimously demand that the judiciary treatment of all of our young undergo systematic and significant changes. And in order for that crucial first step of reformation to take place, we must succumb to the emotions that provoke such revolutionary undertakings:

  • First, we must succumb to the frustration we feel from having a judicial system that alienates, condemns and ultimately destroys the lives of young, non-violent offenders, and in particular, teens of color, who otherwise could have been fully rehabilitated if more effective solutions were made available. 
  • Next, we must draw from our impatience with political leadership’s lack of concern in order to correct said judiciary issues. Politicians, even when corrupt, must appease the demands of those who vote them into office. If your senator, congressman, or commander-in-chief fails to answer his/her voters' demands of saving the lives of troubled young men and women, remind them who they work for by replacing them with someone who will. 
  • And lastly, every parent, sibling, aunt, grandparent, and friend of our nation’s millions of troubled youth must draw from their rage. We as a nation must draw from the collective rage we feel from having watched millions of our young men and women turn to a life of self-destruction after being spit out by an ineffective system of punishment. Like the founding fathers of America, we can overcome any obstacle with bi-partisan anger aimed at a government who refuses to listen. Rather than arm ourselves with muskets, however, we must take action by supporting like-minded advocates, and join community outreach programs, social network groups, and even take it upon ourselves to run for some type of political office in order to promote change from within the belly of the overstuffed, and highly prejudice beast.  

After all, every positive change our country has ever seen came from the emotions of its proud and united peoples. Civil Rights overcame Jim Crowe Laws, LGBTQ’s fight for equality overcame proposition 8, and the 19th amendment (finally?!?) gave women the equal right to vote.

But most importantly, let us not forget how these revolutions were started.

Much like the revolutionary movements of Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, and Susan B. Anthony, it was none other than well-focused and channeled, profound frustration, impatience, and unsatisfied rage for a broken system that led the Stargate Theatre Company to take action to save the lives of its community's young offenders.

Of course, if ever given the chance, you should buy a ticket and watch a literal revolution in action…

At the Stargate Theater Company, you can take part in saving the lives of talented young actors who, had it not been for the honing of their newly developed craft, would have otherwise lived a tragic life of regret, despair and more than likely, judiciary enslavement – a life that our current judicial system claims these actors deserve. 

 

Related Article