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Turning the Tide of Juvenile Justice

Turning the Tide of Juvenile Justice

In recent years, more juveniles — particularly Black males — have been entering the criminal justice system and being tried as adults. From her perch as a faculty member at Texas’ Prairie View A&M University, Dr. Camille Gibson wants to do something about that.

“Many law enforcement offices would rather not interact with juveniles; they don’t know the laws and aren’t com-fortable — we want to improve that,” she says.

Now, Gibson, an assistant professor of criminal justice, is in a position to do so. With offices in the new $18 million state-of-the-art College of Juvenile Justice and Psychology building, Prairie View is also offering the nation’s only doctoral program in juvenile justice. There, Gibson and her colleagues teach, research and advocate public policy to increase understanding of juvenile offenders.

It is not pretty work, especially when dealing with sex crimes, Gibson says. But the majority of teen offenders do not repeat their crimes if they get proper treatment.

“Some judges know this,” she says.

Others do not.

Gibson wants to ensure that all segments of the juvenile justice system have the most recent research and training when it comes to young offenders. Attorneys should be aware of the psychological research con-ducted on juvenile offenders and be up to date on the changes in juvenile law, she says. And judges should be kept abreast of treat-ment options. Social workers can also be trained in tech-niques that have proven effective in research.

Gibson, a native of Jamaica, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminology from the University of South Florida. She went on to earn her doctorate from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York system. While in New York, Gibson says she came to believe that the solutions for the juvenile crime problem could be found in the training and quality of the people working with juveniles, from school teachers to law enforcement officials. She was also struck by the social isolation of many minority communities, and says children in those environments often don’t see any positive opportunities or possibilities. Many are stuck in failing schools and see selling drugs as their only potential source of income.

“The emerging research is even stronger that juveniles are not as developed as adults,” Gibson says. “They don’t get it. They have a shorter term perspective, don’t assess risk properly and are mentally less developed.”

When these children do break the law, their fate is often determined more by politics than policy, she says.

Recent high-profile cases involving teens, such as the case of 17-year-old Washington, D.C., sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, have shifted the nation’s perception of juvenile justice. “We have been sending more juveniles at younger ages into the adult system,” says Gibson. “It used to be a lot like civil court; very informal. But now it’s more adversarial. That has happened because the political winds of the day have changed from rehabilitating to ‘just desserts — do the crime, do the time.’”

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, ruled that persons under 18 years of age could no longer be sen-tenced to death — perhaps indicating movement to a more rehabilitative approach.
“Treatment is a good thing. A juvenile can be saved,” Gibson says.

By Christina Asquith

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