When it comes to juvenile offenders, most Americans prefer to look away. Few of us have any real insight into the experiences of children and teens caught up in the juvenile justice system.
“When people approach the topic of juvenile justice, they are, more often than not, unable to relate to the kind of people involved in the system, and tend to see them as scary teenagers or bad kids,” said Taryn VanderPyl, a visiting assistant professor in Pacific University’s Criminal Justice, Law & Society undergraduate program.
The phenomenon, called “othering,” is one that VanderPyl has sought to combat through her juvenile justice and delinquency course.
Students in the inaugural course in Spring 2017 sat down with young men on parole for Measure 11 crimes to share experiences and come up with ways to improve the juvenile justice system.
Measure 11 is Oregon’s controversial mandatory minimum-sentencing law. Under the measure, defendants ages 15 and older charged with certain crimes are tried as adults.
“One of the main goals (of the course) is to allow students to see the bigger picture before they become law enforcement officers, attorneys or parole officers,” VanderPyl said.
We “do that by partnering with people in the community to put a face to the stories we read and give context to what’s in the textbook,” she added.
The community partner for the juvenile justice course was Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice, which oversees juvenile offenders and adults on parole and probation.
Several parole officers also took part in the class, which broke into groups tasked with designing projects to help at-risk kids and those who are incarcerated or reintegrating into society.
One group designed a website that VanderPyl describes as “one-stop shopping” for information on resources in Multnomah County for parolees who need help finding housing, jobs, healthcare services and even food.
Another group hosted a university-wide symposium, called Voices, billed as a view into the criminal justice system from the perspective of those who have been through it. Speakers shared powerful and sometimes shocking stories about their lives.
One young man recalled the physical and psychological abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. Turned out on the street at the age of 13 after one violent confrontation with his father, he joined a gang in search of the kind of validation he never got at home. The price of admission was a severe beating by a half dozen gang members that left him bloody and semi-conscious.
Gang culture, he said, is often misunderstood and derided by society. But the bigger problem, he added, is that society that tends to turn a blind eye to troubled children and teens.
“There is not enough people stepping out of their cozy [expletive] homes and making a difference or being involved: Not enough people care, and that’s just about as real as it can get,” he said.
The course was an eye-opener for many students, including those who at the outset of the class believed they already had a good understanding of the juvenile justice system and the young people it serves.
“I actually had to meet (juvenile offenders) to realize they are real people,” said sociology and education double-major Ashley McKenzie ’17. “It made me confront my own privilege.”