Monday, June 28, 2010

The Rosie-Eyed View Even a Feel-Good Movie Rejects

I took my son to see Toy Story 3 last Friday, the same day I read an op-ed piece in the Sun that insisted that practically no juvenile offender be incarcerated.

The villain of the movie was Lots-o’-Huggin’, a stuffed bear that formed a gang to bully other toys at a child care center. Traumatized when he was abandoned as beloved toy, he now compensated by controlling other toys.

When his victims escaped from the day care center with Lots-o’ in pursuit, they fell into a perilous situation and saved Lots-o' from death. But when his chance came to redeem himself and return the favor, he sneered and left them to die.

This took me by surprise. Like my son I had hoped for (and expected) the emotionally damaged bear’s transformation through the power of love and forgiveness. While most of his gang did change their behavior, Lots-o’ didn’t. I admired the movie’s creators for disappointing the audience with this honest dose of reality.

And thought of that polemic by a family mediator from Oregon named Matthew House. House makes the dubious claim that a juvenile courts system created in Chicago in1899 “almost completely eliminated recidivism” and that if we just returned juvenile justice to its historical roots (no punishment, only rehabilitation) we could accomplish the same thing now.

So House, from his Oregonian perspective, opposes the building of a new juvenile jail in Baltimore and assails the life term given to Lamont Davis, who at age 17 shot and maimed 5-year-old Raven Wyatt in an attempt to kill someone else.

He claims (wrongly) that Davis will never have a second chance, and argues that treatment “in the community” is always better than incarcerating juveniles. Ironically, Davis was already being supervised “in the community” when he shot little Raven. Had he been in a juvenile jail instead, he wouldn’t have had the chance to wreck both of their lives.

The new juvenile facility is designed to detain dangerous juveniles charged as adults for gun and violent crimes while they wait for trial. Right now they are housed with adult offenders in a dilapidated old detention center, something nobody thinks is a good idea. This new jail will improve our current handling of juveniles, and is not the product of a plan to lock up more juveniles.

House does admit that detention may be necessary “as a last resort” without giving any examples. The Lamont Davis case apparently doesn’t qualify.

But deciding what constitutes “the last resort” is the very core of the issue. House wants to rehabilitate every juvenile in the community. I’d like that, too. (And why not every adult while we’re at it?) But what “community” are we talking about?

The day before House’s piece and Toy Story 3 I was riding the #27 bus when a sharp “Shut up!” caught my attention. There sat a woman in the front seat with a little boy and girl no more than three or four years old each. I hadn’t seen or heard anything the children did to earn such a rebuke, and in fact they were quiet and well-behaved.

But apparently they annoyed this woman, who never looked up from an electronic device she was manipulating with her fingers and listening to through earphones. She stared into it while issuing half a dozen loud Shut Ups to the children.

At one point the boy fell off his seat. As he was climbing back into it she yelled “Get back into the seat!” and hit him audibly in his back (while still staring into her device.) The boy neither flinched nor cried, unsurprised by this treatment. When he asked, “Is this our stop?” she yelled “No! Shut up!” But he was right, and when she finally looked up she jerked the children off the bus in a hurry.

It’s a scene most of us who live in Baltimore have witnessed. And it’s just a tiny glimpse into the lives that many children lead, as their parents stop short in public of criminal child abuse.

I've seen worse. Children shuffled around from place to place, custodian to custodian, and school to school, many with harsh, abusive parents who don’t like their kids or know how to raise them but keep having children anyway. Addicted parents, mentally ill parents, parents with little or no meaningful employment throughout their entire lives.

When I look into the faces of kids like those on the bus and at the shelter I work for, I see brightness and promise and hope. A decade later, that promise may be flickering or extinct.

Like the reformed gang members in Toy Story 3, many kids can navigate their way through this upbringing with their own resiliency or with help from mentors, government institutions and second chances. But some, like Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, won’t. The trauma, the lack of love, the violent drug culture--this just can’t be ameliorated for every violent youth to the point where he or she no longer poses a life-threatening danger to others. For some, the best hope lies with aging their way out of the violent expression of their anti-social feelings.

Do I think that jails and prisons make anybody better people? No. They just house violent offenders separately from the rest of us. I hope that inmates are offered schooling and training and therapy and treatment that gives them a chance to succeed when they come out, assuming they can get jobs (for which much more assistance needs to be given.) But in the meantime, they can’t inflict damage on others.

The real issue is not whether we need to lock any juveniles up. It is who to lock up, in what kind of facility, for what behavior and for how long, while doing our best with alternative solutions and prevention programs for others.
This isn't 1899 Chicago. We've got juveniles who think nothing of gunning down others over "disrespect."

Even in a feel-good movie, Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear could not transcend his trauma. It’s the sad, tragic truth of real life as well.

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