Statement by Colette Cook
First and foremost, thank you for your efforts and for taking the time to hear from people.
I am the mom of a young man who committed violent crimes against another person. My son turned 23 just before it all happened. He had never been a violent person before this incident occurred. Rather he was quite the pacifist, quiet and shy, prone to rescuing stray animals and writing poetry. He had no prior record and no one died during the commission of his crimes. But multiple counts and a judge who deemed him “incapable of rehabilitation” left him with a virtual life sentence. While I am keenly aware that his actions are deserving of punishment, I also find myself extremely saddened that his very lengthy sentence means I will likely never see him outside of prison before I pass on from this world. Still, I have not given up hope that there will be an opportunity for him to have a second chance before then. To this end I implore your thoughtfulness and action based on research, as well as criminal justice programs and reforms that have been enacted in other states and countries, who recognize that juveniles and emerging adults have proven to be extremely receptive to evidence-based rehabilitation practices.
There has been quite a bit of research over the last few decades that shows human brains are still in development through the mid to late-20s, that hormonal changes are still happening rapidly during this time, and that through this stage young men are the worst when it comes to impulse control and being able to envision the long-term consequences of their actions. Further, the propensity to commit rash acts begins to significantly drop off once a young adult moves past this stage. Additionally, much research shows that enacting overly lengthy or virtual life sentences provides little to no benefit and that most offenders age out of the period when they lacked self-control or behavioral maturity. Do you think the same way or choose the same behaviors at 40 as you did when you were 20? No - we all grow, change and adapt our thinking and behaviors based on life experience and influencing factors.
The recent pandemic has exacerbated circumstances so there is little to no contact with family, no programs to partake in and even less recreational outside time. For the inmates housed in pre-trial facilities there is often zero outside time available and extremely limited opportunities for programming even under normal circumstances. The situation is stressful for both inmates and those of us who love them. One of the things that gives someone on the inside hope and reason to keep going is the connection to family and friends. Connection is a huge factor in avoiding depression, providing positive reinforcement and reducing recidivism. Other things that provide motivation and encourage change are opportunities for education, mental health treatment, exercise, vocational training, mentorship and being treated like a human being.
More often than not young people who enter the criminal justice system have been subjected to violence and/or trauma as a child. The cycle of violence perpetuates when a young person who was hurt or traumatized as a child then perpetrates violence on others. My son is no exception and when given a standard ACES test two years ago scored an 8 out of 10. Juveniles and young adults who are incarcerated are much more vulnerable to maltreatment by guards and other inmates, subjecting them to further violence and traumatization. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put programs in place aimed at breaking the cycle?
I try to encourage my son to use whatever opportunities available to him for programming, education, etc. But it’s difficult when there is so much he’s not allowed to do for various reasons. Inmates with longer sentences have a hard time being approved for programming until they are closer to the end of their sentence. Because he requested to be housed in a PC mod there are many programs he is not allowed to participate in such as the rescue animal program. He’s in a PC mod because he refused to join a gang and was being threatened. He has signed up for mental health counseling, but he only gets one counseling session every 3 weeks. Apparently, this is a standard counseling schedule. In what scenario is a counseling session once every 3 weeks deemed effective? Much less for someone who’s been deemed a violent offender. How can we expect anyone to heal or change if they are not given the tools and opportunity to do so?
We can do so much better for the juveniles and young adults that become involved with the criminal justice system. And the research in criminal justice, sociology and neuropsychology supports this reform. The use of evidence-based, trauma-informed practices has proven highly effective in rehabilitation of juveniles and young adults. But it will not succeed without well thought out rehabilitation programs being funded and fully implemented along-side legislative changes. What is not helpful is incarcerating them with numerous other individuals while providing little to no diversion, treatment or hope of being able to change their circumstances. Providing a second chance opportunity for those convicted as juveniles and young adults has been successfully implemented in various other countries and US states. Even better is a tried and proven approach wherein the criminal justice system places rehabilitation and restorative justice over exceedingly lengthy sentences and a punitive incarceration model. This leads better outcomes and lower overall cost when compared with excessive incarceration. It also serves to lower recidivism because a rehabilitated person is a healthier person.
Promoting real rehabilitation initiatives, reforming sentencing and removing barriers to re-entry are all important steps to reducing mass incarceration. Providing a second chance and rehabilitation programs to juvenile and young adult offenders is common sense, compassionate and evidence-based good policy.
Written By: Colette Cook
Community-Based Responses to Justice-Involved Young Adults https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/248900.pdf
Emerging Adults: A distinct population that calls for an age-appropriate approach by the justice system https://www.hks.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/centers/wiener/programs/pcj/files/MA_Emerging_Adult_Justice_Issue_Brief_0.pdf
Young Adults in the Justice System https://fairandjustprosecution.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/FJP_Brief_YoungAdults.pdf
Bulletin 5: Young Offenders and an Effective Response in the Juvenile and Adult Justice Systems: What Happens, What Should Happen, and What We Need to Know (Study Group on the Transitions between Juvenile Delinquency and Adult Crime) https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/242935.pdf
T2A - Transitioning to Adulthood: Promoting a Better Justice System for Young Adults https://www.t2a.org.uk/
Youth Justice in Europe: Experience of Germany, the Netherlands, and Croatia in Providing Developmentally Appropriate Responses to Emerging Adults in the Criminal Justice System https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/24751979.2018.1478443
Trajectories of Antisocial Behavior and Psychosocial Maturity From Adolescence to Young Adulthood https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2886970/