In Their Own Words: Young People’s Experiences in the Criminal Justice System and Their Perceptions of Its Legitimacy

While there is a growing consensus that the country needs to re-examine the criminal justice system’s prosecution of serious young men or women, there is little documentation of how this population experiences and perceives the laws, policies, and practices that are intended to hold them accountable.

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To address this shortcoming, the John Howard Association, Illinois’ only non-partisan prison watchdog, has completed a provocative new report, In Their Own Words, that chronicles six young serious inmates’ journey through Illinois’ criminal justice system, from arrest to incarceration. Based on this work, JHA's report offers four steps that policymakers should take to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system’s response to youth prosecuted for serious crimes:

  1. Empower judges to determine whether serious young inmates should be tried in juvenile or criminal court, regardless of the crime they are accused of committing.

  2. Provide young inmates with greater access to counsel during police encounters and pre-trial custody.

  3. Ensure that attorneys and judges who deal with this population are trained in adolescent brain development and how to effectively communicate with young people.

  4. Establish separate correctional facilities, treatment programs, and a sentencing scheme that takes into account young inmates’ mental immaturity and ongoing development.

Alongside these specific policy recommendations, In Their Own Words focuses on the root causes of violence that plague some of the country’s poorest minority communities, from parts of Chicago's South and West Sides to Ferguson, Missouri. Instead of over-relying on severe criminal penalties, JHA argues that the justice system must build the kind of civic trust that will promote safer communities by meeting people where they are and listening to them in their own words. 

Allie Kelly2014