I normally don’t read Philippine news, but I have google news alerts for “juvenile justice” e-mailed to me and it is interesting what ends up in my inbox. An article, “What youth offenders need” in Tuesday’s Manila Standard Today caught my eye as an example of how not to fix an ailing juvenile justice system.
The Philippines have had a horrible track record when it comes how youth have been treated in their criminal justice system. They had been placed in over-crowded jails along with adults. My position (one I share with the author of this article, Rita Linda V. Jimeno) is that juvenile offenders should not be placed in detention alongside of adults, ever. Why? There are four reasons why I hold this position:

  • Their vulnerability: We do not want to see kids victimized by a prison culture that often preys upon the weak.
  • Their brains: Current research regarding the teenage brain (yes they do have them) shows that the adolescent brain is immature in precisely the areas that regulate the behaviors that that are typical of adolescents who break the law. There seems to be lower impulse control, and they do not have the ability to consider long-term consequences in the same way as adults. This doesn’t not excuse criminal behavior, but it does show that the decision making process for teenagers is quite different than it is for adults.
  • Adult prison is often a criminal training ground: Do we want to put kids in an environment where they learn how to become better criminals? We don’t want to see kids become hardened by serving time in an adult environment with adult criminals who will be a negative influence on impressionable kids.
  • The current mentality that leads the charge to treat juveniles as adults: I feel is this mentality more about making political statements and making oneself appear to be “tough on crime” than it is about justice. Those who advocate this position, especially those who are followers of Christ need to be reminded of this verse – “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God,” (Micah 6:8, NIV). When you propose the same sentence for a 16-year-old as you would for a 45-year-old is that acting justly? Where does mercy come in? Are we walking humbly before God seeking His wisdom, or are we acting in a knee-jerk reactionary way? This is something we need to consider.

Back to the Philippines… in April 2006 the Philippine Congress passed a law called the “Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act”, and according to the article I just read this law states that:

…youth offenders—15 years and below—are exempt from criminal liability. This means they cannot be prosecuted or imprisoned and must immediately be released to a social worker upon apprehension. Moreover, those in jail serving their terms, or awaiting the court’s verdict upon the enactment of the law, are also to be released if, at the time of the commission of the offense, they were 15 years of age or younger. And if a minor is above 15 but below 18, and commits a crime without discernment, then he will also be released.

I was just thinking about what would happen if we took this law and applied in the United States. Mass chaos would be the result. I would submit to you that this doesn’t line with with the command in Micah 6:8 either… is this acting justly? No because it doesn’t give any thought for the victim(s) involved with the crime. Is this loving mercy? Is it merciful to not hold juveniles accountable for their actions at all? No it isn’t. These juvenile offenders in the Philippines who just got their “get out jail free cards” can re-offend, re-offend and re-offend and not learn a blessed thing. There are no consequences linked to their actions and that is frankly quite dangerous for them and for society in general. I would suspect that the Philippines will see an increase in juvenile crime. The only thing that has been reduced, as a result of this law, is the number of youth who are incarcerated.

What does it mean to act justly and to love mercy in regards to our juvenile justice system? We, who are in the body of Christ, need to be advocates; just like the apostle Paul advocated on behalf of Onesimus, the runaway slave, in his letter to Philemon. Under Roman law, Philemon had the right, as Onesimus’ owner, to put him to death. Paul wisely saw that this young man (most Bible scholars agree that Onesimus likely was a teenager) was not a “throwaway kid”, he had value. We need to recognize that juvenile offenders have value. They are also created in the image of God. They need the hope and healing that Jesus brings. They often need a voice. What does it mean to be an advocate?

  • Lobby for improvements in your state’s juvenile justice system. While our system is certainly better than what we see in the Philippines, there is always room for improvement. Let’s make sure that juveniles are treated as who they are – kids. This doesn’t mean that they are not to be held accountable or even avoid incarceration, but they shouldn’t be treated exactly as adults and viewed as throwaways.
  • Visit youth who are incarcerated. They love having people come visit them, and are often amazed when people spend time with them when they are not being paid to. Jesus said that when we visit those who are in prison (and that would also include juvenile detention centers) then we have also visited Him, (Matthew 25:34-40). Serve Our Youth Network has many opportunities for people to get involved as Bible discussion group leaders, volunteer chaplains, mentors and visitors. If you do not live in Iowa – check out Straight Ahead Network and its affiliates to see if there is a ministry that reaches out to juvenile offenders where you live.
  • Welcome them when they are back home. This is key. Youth need encouragement that they can make changes. It is one thing to be resolved to change when they on the inside, but quite a different story on the “outs”. Kids need help with job skills, they need to be given a chance with employers, and sometimes need advocates when it comes to getting back into school. They need life skills training. They need loving, supportive accountability. They need people who are going to welcome them into local churches because that is not a natural transition for them.

If the Church does not do this… who will?

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