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Why changing juvenile corrections is critical to American criminal justice

Prison reform is a major topic within the national political conversation. For many incarcerated people, the path to jail begins in the teen years; at any given time, roughly 50,000 young people are held in juvenile prisons. Johnnie McDaniels, former executive director of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center, shares a brief but spectacular take on the "revolving door" of juvenile corrections.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    On any given day, approximately 50,000 young people in the U.S. are held in juvenile prisons.

    Johnnie McDaniels, a judge in Hinds County, Mississippi, believes America's mass incarceration problem actually begins during teenage years. McDaniels spent three years as executive director of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center, and offers this Brief But Spectacular take.

  • Johnnie McDaniels:

    Being a prosecutor is about making sure that justice prevails. I'm an absolute advocate, and I advocated from the courtroom, that if a person wasn't guilty of something, the system is designed that that person should be let go.

    The criminal justice system was always interesting to me. I'm the youngest of 10 children. One older brother has had the misfortune of having got caught up in the criminal justice system, and actually went to prison.

    I would go and visit him with my mom at the state penitentiary in Parchman. And he would always give the most wonderful story when we were there with my mom, you know, "I'm doing fine, and I'm going to be OK, and they treat me nicely," and that type of thing.

    When she was gone, you know, you would hear the other side of it. You would hear the difficulties associated with being incarcerated in the state of Mississippi, the difficulties associated with not having proper legal representation.

    So, I was always saying, you know, at one point, you know, I'm going to go to law school, and I'm going to be a great defense attorney. And I'm going to make sure that I can make a difference for people like my brother.

    As I stood in the courtroom prosecuting young people between the ages of 18 and 21, one of the first dynamics that I absolutely encountered was, all of them have some type of involvement with the juvenile justice system.

    So, seeing that, I naturally began to ask questions about what's going on with juvenile justice issues in Jackson, Mississippi, and found some pretty astonishing things in terms of the number of young people who were not being adjudicated, the number of young people who were not receiving the type of services that were necessary.

    The system not having the proper mechanisms in place to deal with the revolving door of juvenile justice is absolutely problematic. Many of those juveniles have been the subject of some type of abuse, some type of neglect, some type of trauma.

    That's why it's so important to have the right type of mental health professionals in place when you're dealing with juveniles who are engaged in the criminal justice system.

    If you allow it to just kind of not receive the proper attention that it deserves, you're going to have a young person who's going to matriculate from age 13 engaging in behavior, all the way until they do something so unfortunate and sensational that they're on the 5:00 evening news. And, at that point, there is no more saving.

    I absolutely believe that we can divert and rehabilitate young people, so that we won't have so many people in the criminal justice system. And if you don't get it right at the juvenile level in the context of criminal justice, you're never going to get it right at the adult level.

    I'm not talking about, you know, making communities unsafe. There's a way to do this in such a way that we can have smart justice, safe communities, but make sure that our jails and prisons are not full of people who shouldn't be there.

    My name is Johnnie McDaniels, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on the revolving door of juvenile justice.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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