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Redefining Juvenile Justice Through Art

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January 30, 2018

“If today I had to choose between a weapon or a brush, I would choose the brush” – Young man detained at the Juvenile Rehabilitation Center of Pacora, Panama

UNICEF estimates that more than 1 million children today are behind bars. In 67 countries, some of these children have been sentenced to life imprisonment and will spend the rest of their days in detention facilities.

According to neuropsychiatrist David Arredondo, a child’s interaction with the juvenile justice system is “a key opportunity for a society to unequivocally illustrate its true values.” Yet, youth incarceration practices around the world paint a grim picture, one where children are shoved into punitive and often inhumane environments, and where forgiveness is in short supply. This goes against extensive research in child and adolescent development, which supports young people’s unique capacity for change and positive growth.

Juvenile justice systems fuel vicious cycles of recidivism. When deprived of their freedom, youth lose their civic, political, social, and cultural rights. The resulting social isolation they experience is counterproductive to their physical and mental wellbeing and also affects the families and communities around them. It is important to acknowledge as well that children from minority groups, children with disabilities, and displaced children are often disproportionally at risk of detention and imprisonment. 

The human and monetary burdens of youth detention systems around the world are colossal. In the United States alone, the long-term costs of youth confinement are approximately between $8 and $21 billion dollars per year. This includes the costs of recidivism, additional health care, and loss in future earnings of confined youth, among others. Indeed, the overreliance on the detention of youth as a means of crime control or social protection is a lose-lose situation.

It is senseless to stunt the growth of incarcerated youth toward successful adulthood through punitive detention. Instead, juvenile justice programs must uplift and support. In recent decades, artistic communities and innovative policy makers have stepped up to address this challenge. Initiatives around the world are providing positive development opportunities to detained youth or youth at-risk of entering the criminal system through music, theatre, visual arts, fashion, and storytelling.

The Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in the prison of Pacora, Panama has become a model for youth rehabilitation, with artistic development being a key pillar of their integrated approach. The Pacora model offers creative courses — such as painting, cooking, and music — in combination with vocational training and employability partnerships with private enterprises. This institution believes in reconnecting youth to their communities and in nurturing their creative selves to support their successful re-entry into society. The Pacora model has gained international recognition and achieved recidivism rates that are significantly lower than the national average.

Artistic Noise is another effort that is harnessing art to disrupt the traditional juvenile incarceration system. Through art teaching, art therapy, and art entrepreneurship programs, this Boston-based organization provides spaces for creative expression to youth who are incarcerated or on probation back in their home communities. Through a wide range of artistic mediums, participants engage with topics such as friendship, loss, sexual violence, community, freedom, identity, and other themes.

The program’s impacts are significant. “Artistic Noise gave me a voice I never had. When I turned 18 DYS (Department of Youth Services) kicked me out with no knowledge of the real world and Artistic Noise took me in . . . Now when I go back as a mentor to teach, it feels good for the girls to know I was there and I turned my life around and they can do the same.” This is the testimony of Minotte Romulus, a former participant of Artistic Noise, and now an Assistant Director for the organization.

Other initiatives focus more heavily on populations at risk of entering or re-entering the criminal justice system. This is the case of Clean Break, an organization that offers theatre performance and production courses to previously detained women or women at-risk in the UK. Their programs are designed to offer participants hands-on work experience with theatre companies while improving their anger management, literacy skills, and mental health and wellbeing. Their workshop “Girls Like Us” is specifically designed for young women.

Until the systemic causes of mass youth incarceration are addressed, it is imperative that our juvenile justice systems protect detained youth from emotional and physical trauma. Art can be a vehicle for personal rediscovery through which detained youth can engage, develop new skills, and improve their relationships with themselves and others. This is why we must empower them to find their artistic voices, thereby fostering personal understanding, community belonging, and healing.