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A Plea for Compassion: The Urgent Need for Juvenile Justice Reform and Second Chances

August 3, 2023

In May 2020, a mother named Molly was faced with a devastating choice that no parent should ever have to make. She agreed to a plea deal that sent her 15-year-old son to a juvenile detention center in Louisiana for two years. The alternative was a trial as an adult that could have resulted in a prison sentence of 15 to 55 years for a fight her son had with other teenagers. Molly, a single mother, felt cornered with no resources to hire a lawyer and the threat of an adult trial hanging over her son's head.

Molly's son, like many other young people in similar situations, struggled to understand his circumstances. His frequent phone calls home were filled with confusion and fear, causing Molly sleepless nights. As of October 2020, over 25,000 young people were detained in juvenile facilities across the United States, with Louisiana's Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) holding 434 children in secure custody in the first quarter of 2023.

The trauma of arrest and court proceedings can often exacerbate underlying issues and lead to a cycle of re-engagement in problematic behavior. For youth who experience detention or are removed from their homes, the harm is even more profound, with their parents and families also suffering emotional and psychological impacts.

Molly was prepared to provide her son with the healing, counseling, and anger management he needed when he got into trouble. However, she was unaware that her son would not receive any care or services while in state custody. He was not attending school, not receiving mental health treatment, and for the first six months of his confinement, he was not let out of his cell for more than 15 minutes a day.

The conditions at his first facility were so horrific that Molly's son didn't even want to tell her about his living situation. She found out about it through a news article by the Marshall Project. Her son had been left to sleep on the floor of a flooded cell, told to drink from the toilet when he asked for water, and kids were sleeping on iron beds, sometimes with feces in their living spaces.

Molly believes that the system is harsh on youth who find themselves in legal trouble, focusing on their wrongdoings and imposing lengthy detention periods when they need opportunities for growth, change, and supportive resources. She advocates for every child's right to a second chance before being placed in custody.

The separation from her son has been especially hard for Molly and her two younger children at home. They miss their older brother and frequently ask when he will return. Molly's son has never been granted a home pass—an authorized family visit away from the detention center—during his approximately three years of incarceration.

Molly hopes for her son's future and wants him to attend the Youth Challenge Program. She also believes that the juvenile legal system needs to provide services and teamwork to show these kids that they have a future.

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