Why changing juvenile corrections is critical to American criminal justice

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. JUDGE JOHNNIE MCDANIELS, Former Executive
Director, Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center: 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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