UCSB photography professor Richard Ross published a new book — Juvenile In Justice — after five years of extensive research and photography on teenage delinquents within the American penal system.
The book showcases photographs collected over the course of Ross’ journey as he travelled the country aiming to expose the abuses and injustice that incarcerated juveniles across the country face. Ross visited 31 states and 200 juvenile detention facilities, all the while conducting interviews, taking pictures and documenting the conditions the incarcerated kids faced.
According to Ross, the treatment of troubled teens is often disproportionately harsh with relation to the offense and rehabilitation efforts seem close to non-existent.
“As a teen, [their] cerebral cortex isn’t fully developed,” Ross said. “I mean, a teen that sees an iPod lying around and he took it […] if he was black or Latino, he could be jailed for the rest of his life.”
Ross said the current justice system isolates young people and pushes them into environments that perpetuate their behavior and actually prevent rehabilitation.
“We take the kid out of his community, away from his family and the people who can help him … and we put him into a hard institution,” Ross said. “We are setting him up for failure later.”
According to sociology professor and author of Punishment: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys Victor Rios, Ross requested his assistance in his research with the juvenile disciplinary system. Rios said as a youth, he was headed down the same path as many of the kids that Ross visits, but was able to succeed with the help of an inspirational role model.
“Before I graduated UC Berkeley and got a PhD, I was once a teen delinquent,” Rios said. “But I had one teacher that believed in me. She believed in my potential.”
Rios said life would have been dramatically different had he not received the support and attention that this particularly understanding teacher provided.
“I’d be in prison right now,” Rios said. “Growing up in Oakland, […] my best friend was shot to death just before I turned 16. My mom and dad didn’t have time for me because they worked. They thought I wasn’t going to amount to much, so they didn’t waste any resources on me. But I had that one supportive person in my life. She went against the grain and believed I could go to college.”
According to Rios, the majority of these facilities are detrimental to children because they set them down a path that could be mitigated by exposure to positive role models.
“What people don’t understand is, when they simply view these kids as irreparable and put them away, they don’t realize that these kids are going to be let out again one day,” Rios said. “These kids then learn ‘prison rules’ that they apply when they come back to their communities.”
Ross said the Zero Tolerance Policy system currently instated by many public schools is one of the roots of the problem and could be improved by taking a more ‘restorative justice’-based approach, in which teachers and counselors work with children to understand the motives behind their actions and more effectively prevent them.
Ross’ wife, UCSB lecturer Cissy Ross, currently teaches journalism with an emphasis on justice.
“They need to be told, ‘Hey, you fucked up, now this is how you do it right,’” Ross said.
Agreeing with Ross, Rios said the juvenile justice system oftentimes results in a self-perpetuating loop of bad habits because of the few opportunities it offers for rehabilitation.
“The Zero Tolerance Policy doesn’t give people room to learn,” Rios said. “You college kids might be like, ‘Oh, we worked hard while they messed around,’ but no college student will admit they never messed up. They’ve either gotten high, gotten drunk, stole candy from a store or hazed someone. The difference between a college kid and those kids is that they are locked up and you’ve had a chance to learn from your mistakes.”
Ross said the whole state is affected economically because California ultimately spends much more money on prisons than higher education.
“I guarantee that class you couldn’t get into was because those tax dollars that was supposed to be paying for it went to someone that was locked up in a cell,” Ross said.
According to Rios, Missouri’s constructive system of juvenile discipline involves more therapists and books and has proven to be highly successful. Rios said only 30 percent of incarcerated teens returned to detention centers in Missouri compared to California’s 70 percent.
“You can invest [less money] to rehabilitate and educate these kids, or you can invest [more money] for a cage.” Rios said.
The in-depth view of the project can be seen at www.juvenile-in-justice.com.