Jeff Hobbs’ ‘Children of the State’ examines the juvenile justice system : NPR
America persists in having the the highest prison rates in the world. Juvenile justice, however, presents a slightly brighter picture.
Author Jeff Hobbs, whose latest work The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace has been published to acclaim, he has written a new book examining America’s juvenile justice system.
Children of the State: Stories of Survival and Hope in the Juvenile Justice System provides background on the evolution of America’s juvenile justice system – but it’s primarily about people, not statistics. Most of the statistics are grim and the results depressing. America’s penal system is overly punitive, infected by racism, and generally not aimed at rehabilitation, Hobbs writes.
Most crimes are a matter of state, not federal law. Dispensation “justice” are courts and institutions in a hodgepodge of 50 states, the District of Columbia, and a large number of sub-governmental entities, such as counties and municipalities. Depending on where a crime is committed, the offender may or may not be subject to the death penalty, receive a longer or shorter sentence, etc. Legal definitions of what constitutes a crime vary widely across the United States
Although very late to do so, the Supreme Court presided over the executions of minors in 2005, he acknowledges “the enormous weight of international opinion against the death penalty for minors.” And the number of young people in prison decreased 77% from 2000 to 2020, according to the United States Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. These are significant steps, but for those who remain incarcerated, the system continues to destroy lives and families, a point amply illustrated by Hobbs.
Hobbs tells the story from three points of view. In the first third of the book, called “Residence,” it follows Josiah Wright, a young Black man from Wilmington who is released after 11 months in detention but ends up with a longer and more severe sentence for violating parole . (Technically, prisons are for adults, and detention is for juveniles. For people behind bars, this can be a distinction without a difference.) Increasing the penalties for parole violations, even for very minor infractions, it helps keep America’s incarceration rates high.
Hobbs follows Josiah and his friends in the classrooms, visits them when they are released, and listens to their opinions. All these young people except a little girl are Black or brown. Some, including Josiah, make stupid and impulsive decisions, as all teenagers do. The difference between these children and their peers on the “outside” tends to be a deep trauma in childhood, and to be born in low-income families that do not have the capacity to help shape their children’s lives because of the need to keep food on the table. Wealthier parents, whose children make the same stupid and impulsive decisions, have access to resources, including time, financial and legal means, and social connections that tend to keep their children out of the system.
In the book’s middle section, “Education,” Hobbs homes in on the Woodside Learning Center in San Francisco. “Depression was one of the most prevalent afflictions in Woodside. Young people lived in connection but were also quick to retreat inward to … a space protected by their spirits: walled, hard, dark, like the rooms in the prison.”
Hobbs focuses on adults charged with teaching and counseling youth convicted of crimes. Woodside has many dedicated caring staff with long experience in the system. They, too, have problems balancing the stress of the institution with their home life. They are hardly consulted when San Francisco begins a major effort to redesign and initiate reforms. Woodside is given a closing date. Closing legacy institutions is a goal for many juvenile justice advocates, but without a constructive alternative, closing could repeat existing weaknesses in the system, Hobbs notes.
In the last part of the book, titled “Exile,” Hobbs spends time at Exalt Youth, a New York City agency tasked with helping youth in the juvenile justice system get internships and jobs. This is important work, and a small group of young people are launched into potential careers. But for many of them, it is too difficult to meet the challenges of working in a world that is so foreign to them (read: white and rich), or they are not academically prepared, or their internships are meaningless, or depression and self – the behaviors of defeat are too great.
Throughout, Hobbs lets his characters describe the broken system, rather than writing as a lawyer. With admirable research, he does a wonderful job of bringing out the humanity of his subjects. The reader cares about these people — adults and youth alike — and wants them to succeed. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.
Hobbs concludes that America’s youth prison system “is convoluted, flawed, and above all intractably mired in generations of racist, opportunistic, naïve, racist thinking — but, for now, it’s getting better with ‘an incremental way and is being redesigned, with a deeper concern for the individual.”
Hobbs doesn’t stop there. He writes that “the humans in the system, both those tasked with operating its many layers and those subject to its labyrinthine laws – [are] passionate, benevolent, tired, admirable, and truthful. Above all, I have found young people in prison, even for truly heinous acts, who can be redeemed…”
If redemption were the general goal of America’s penal system.