Children Are Not Too Old to Change

By Ellis Cose

One day, treatment of young people who run afoul of the law may be guided by logic rather than politics, prejudice, and uninformed passion. That was the implicit message of a report delivered to New York Gov. David Paterson last month, just in time for Christmas. The report, from the governor’s task force on reforming criminal justice, came on the heels of a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found New York’s juvenile penal system to be tragically mismanaged.

Youngsters in custody were routinely assaulted by staffers. Beatings were so severe that teeth were knocked out, bones were broken, and some kids were rendered unconscious. The assaults were sometimes sparked by infractions no more serious than laughing or stealing a cookie. The incarceration and the primitive methods accompanying it came at a substantial cost: $210,000 a year per child. Wouldn’t it make more sense, task-force members reasoned, to reserve incarceration for those who posed a threat to public safety? For youngsters who are not deemed dangerous, other methods seem more reasonable. “The state should treat and rehabilitate them, not hurt and harden them,” wrote the task force.

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