My son is 17, and like most young people, he’s wide-eyed and active. He loves playing basketball and channeling his creative energy through rapping and art.
My son also has challenges that he’s learning to overcome. He has trouble controlling his impulses and has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder. As parents, his mother and I have had to learn how best to help him. It hasn’t been easy, but we were able to get him into counseling and sought other ways to help him. But eventually, my son’s challenges led him down a path to where he is now: in Bon Air youth prison.
However, I’ve watched as my son’s challenges and obstacles have been met with only punishment, instead of a real chance at rehabilitation. I’ve watched the negative effects of my son’s struggle to receive appropriate mental health support. This is every parent’s worst nightmare.
When I learned that the Virginia General Assembly is considering building new youth prisons, I knew I had to share our story. From our experience, it’s clear that what young people need are investments in their education and better access to health services, not more youth prisons.
Youth prisons do not work, and they cost a great deal, both in dollars and in damage to families. Another major problem with youth prisons is that they use a one-size-fits-all approach. My son is just one of many kids who struggle with their mental health every day — so it’s no wonder that this approach doesn’t help him or other young people get ahead of their problems and go on to lead safe and healthy lives.
If our political leaders were to ask the parents, young people and community members who have experienced Virginia’s juvenile justice system what should be done, they would come up with a different answer. After all, who better to help youth in the rehabilitation process than the people who know them the best? We need to focus on those solutions. Politicians need to see the world through my eyes and invite parents like me to have a voice as they plan the future of the juvenile justice system.
I was excited to hear that money from the closure of Beaumont Juvenile Correction Center in Central Virginia is being reinvested in community-based alternatives that will help keep young people in their communities instead of in a far-off youth prison. This is a huge step in the right direction, and we should continue investing in more community-based programs.
I love my son, and I know that therapeutic community-based services can help him and all of Virginia’s children better than a huge, distant, institutional youth prison ever will. It took a long time for Virginia to start fixing its broken juvenile justice system.
Virginia legislators should take more time to truly listen to those who are the real experts: young people in the juvenile justice system, their families and their communities.
If Virginia invests in new youth prisons, we’ll be on the wrong side of history. My son, and all of Virginia’s children, deserve better.
Maurice Johnson is a parent and community organizer with Cubz 2 Kingz. He lives in Newport News.