I am 72 years old. When I was in kindergarten my best friend, “Mark,” moved away. At age 16 or 17, he and an accomplice shot and killed two police officers in an eastern city. The officers were at their hotel room to investigate the stolen credit card they had used to pay for the room. Mark and his accomplice were subsequently killed in a shootout with the police after a high-speed chase. These juvenile offenders were, of course, just children, right?
Newspapers of the day referred to them as teenage “hit men,” who were part of a Murder Incorporated-style criminal organization that groomed and paid juveniles to kill off their enemies. To this day, adult criminal gang members use juveniles to do things for them like carry their weapons. They do this because they know that if juveniles get caught, they will likely just get released, or will only serve a short sentence in a juvenile correctional facility. (Unlike a convicted felon who could do years in prison for possession of a firearm).
There is a well intended but misguided movement to close juvenile correctional institutions, based on the belief that community-based correctional efforts are better for “children” than incarceration. The 2019 closing of Boys Totem Town in St. Paul is an example of this effort, although that closing clearly had complicated mitigating factors. If I remember correctly, my friend Mark was on escape status from that facility when he was shot by the police. Everyone, including Mark, would have been better off if he had been incarcerated at the time.
Have you ever seen a parent tell a child “no,” over and over again, and then they finally say, “I’m not going to tell you again, and this time I really, really mean it!” Well, prison is the place where society says “No!” and this time it really, really, means it. Seriously, one time in federal prison I saw a man in his late 50s get down on the floor and cry and kick and scream like a toddler having a temper tantrum. Why? Because for the first time in this man’s life, someone told him “no” and actually carried through with the sanction, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Decades ago I worked for two years at Boys Totem Town. Many a time I saw the lives of juveniles turn around when they hit that wall of “no,” when someone (like me) finally set the limits for them. For these boys, incarceration was an uncomfortable blessing that benefitted both them and society for the rest of their lives.
But for others, incarceration made them more angry, defiant and determined not to let that wall of “no” win. Proponents for closing juvenile correctional facilities use the fact that some boys come out of the facility more angry and defiant, to make the case that incarceration turns troubled teenagers into hardened criminals.
It should not be presumed that the institution is responsible for this happening. Nor should it be presumed that angry, predatory, troubled teenagers who make the free will decision to continue with their harmful ways are themselves not responsible for their own bad behaviors. Good juvenile correctional facilities, just like properly run prisons, are in the really messy business of saying “no,” in a controlled environment that keeps the public safe. The mission of a good correctional facility is to attempt to turn wayward lives around, with public safety coming first as a higher priority.
Over time, some things just don’t change. Frequently, children are sent to correctional facilities by the courts, because they are incorrigible (beyond the control of the parents). I’ve known good parents who have tried so hard to get their children to behave that it is a much-needed relief for them to have their child out of the house and in a place where they can no longer victimize innocent people (including their parents).
I have seen juveniles who are relieved to be incarcerated so as to escape horrible, abusive home life situations. Clearly, there have to be better community-based solutions than incarceration. I have seen juveniles in correctional facilities who fell so far behind in school that they were just plain lost, and being lost is a hopeless, terrible place to be.
The specialized schooling they received at Totem Town brought many boys back up to grade level, and sent them forward into their lives with reason to believe that their future would be OK. No doubt for many juveniles this could and should be happening in community-based correctional efforts, with one important caveat. Without incarceration that essentially forces them to stay on track, not all juveniles have the self-discipline necessary to do the hard work of “catching up,” in the presence of more interesting temptations, distractions and peer pressures found in the community.
The increase in carjackings is sending the public a message. Teenagers can be very dangerous people who are capable of doing great harm in so many ways, and on so many levels. At some point, the protection of society has to become more important than what is best for the child. Society needs a place where it can safely tell these offenders (children) “no,” and this time, really, really mean it. And that place, for teenagers who are a threat to society, is not in the community.
John A. Mattsen is a retired federal law enforcement officer with a degree in secondary education specializing in the social sciences, and a minor in psychology.