Teachable Moments

Photo by Rawle C. Jackman

Photo by Rawle C. Jackman

In writing for the majority in the landmark Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama, Justice Kagan sums up a large body of scientific research beautifully. “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”

Parents, teachers, probation officers, police officers, juvenile court judges, and social workers who deal with teenagers on a daily basis need to hear it again.

The hallmark features of a teenager are: immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.

Can you think of things you did as a young person that were immature or risky? I can. Fortunately, my transgressions were primarily treated as “teachable moments.” I was allowed to mature, and reach my adult potential unharmed by the justice system.

For the past 20 years, we seem to have forgotten the concept of teachable moments for kids, instead, leaving it up to the juvenile justice system to ‘teach our kids a lesson’. Youth have a narrow margin of error when it comes to making decisions that are an essential part of growing up. For youth of color, the margin is razor thin.

Don’t take my word for it. Data from juvenile justice systems around the country and the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention support this.

For instance, most youth who are incarcerated are locked up for nonviolent offenses. In 2011, 74 percent of youth incarcerated in juvenile facilities nationwide were there for non-violent offenses. That represents 45,730 youth. 65 percent of the kids locked up for nonviolent offenses, or 29,688, were youth of color.

BI’s new interactive state data map allows users to examine these and other publicly available data. Data focus on youth justice involvement and disparities in juvenile justice systems nationwide. For example, here’s a map of the data described above. The interactive data tools and customize options allow users to answer their own questions.

Although data show that we have begun to reduce the use of incarceration for youth over the last decade, we have a long way to go. Arrest and incarceration are still used to punish youth rather than ensure kids can learn from their mistakes. The data found on the BI website are a starting point for better understanding how we adults continue to miss out on so many teachable moments.