VOICES: The blindspot in our justice system

Guhan Krishnan is a senior at Mason high school, Jury captain of the Hamilton County Youth court, and a fierce advocate for local youth justice. (CONTRIBUTED)

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Guhan Krishnan is a senior at Mason high school, Jury captain of the Hamilton County Youth court, and a fierce advocate for local youth justice. (CONTRIBUTED)

For many Americans, getting the “Dear Citizen” letter associated with jury duty is an inconvenience synonymous with excruciatingly long trials and loss of pay. But, for the youth of Hamilton County, jury duty conjures a very different picture.

Hamilton County Youth Court is a diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders, offering them an opportunity to learn from their mistakes through positive peer pressure. For the past three years, I have had the privilege of serving as a jury member on the court, an experience that opened my eyes to the strengths and, more importantly, the pitfalls of our justice system. Hearing cases of teens arrested for everything from jaywalking to minor curfew violations made it clear to me that there is a dire need for change. In the adult justice system, the roots of a better institution are growing. For the youth of America, however, the seeds of change are yet to be planted.

The crux of the issue lies in incarceration. In 2018, 81 percent of Hamilton County warrants were issued to African American children who comprise only 31 percent of the youth population. Although similar trends can be recorded amongst adults, juvenile detention is significantly more problematic as it neglects rehabilitation and instead torpedoes the future of youth deemed ‘delinquent’.

In fact, a study by the Université de Montréal and the University of Genoa finds that juvenile detention in boys leads to a seven-fold increase in the odds of “adult judicial interventions”.

Even brief encounters with the justice system had long-term damaging consequences. For example, boys who were sentenced to community service or other penance were twice as likely to be arrested as adults.

Unfortunately, ensnarement in this system is now a greater threat than ever. Caitlin Burgess, a senior trial attorney in the Hamilton County Public Defenders’ office, explains that “Having police officers in schools (...) increases arrests and involvement of youth in the juvenile justice system for things that would not necessarily need to be handled by a formal filing.” Burgess clarified that this was known as the school-to-prison pipeline, explaining that youth are now being put behind bars for offenses that would have previously landed them in the principal’s office.

Our government’s allocation of funding only worsens the problem. In 2019, Ohio spent $86 million on juvenile correctional facilities, but only 11 percent of the Department of Youth Services (DYS) expenditures were allotted to community alternative placements. As a result, minority youth are starved of resources and the very institution that traps them is funded with rare enthusiasm.

The failures of the youth justice system are observable in every facet of our society. It is up to us as a community to work towards change.

Glenda A. Smith, a local attorney who has spent decades fighting for youth justice, describes how it is important that changes be administered “on a personal level.” Attorney Smith is the founder of YES4Ohio, a free enrichment program that focuses on keeping children out of the criminal justice system. She has partnered with local churches to provide at-risk youth a place to go after school, empowering them with critical skills and helping them avoid altercations with law enforcement.

Programs like these are cost-effective and a great way to shield children from the insidious prison complex. To get involved in this cause, consider donating to organizations like The Juvenile Justice Network or mentoring youth within the institution through the DYS. Hands-on service in Hamilton County Youth Court opened my eyes to the struggles of my peers. If you are a teenager, I urge you to get involved in your own local teen court programs through the Global Youth Justice website. We must be our own advocates and work to shine a light on this blind spot in the system because America’s youth should be worried about prom, not prison.

Guhan Krishnan is a senior at Mason High School, Jury captain of the Hamilton County Youth court, and a fierce advocate for local youth justice.

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