Instead of imprisonment, what if we offered youth in trouble the support they deserve?
Watching his older brother navigate a juvenile detention facility at 13 had a profound effect on Sean Goode. He went on to lead an organization dedicated to supporting young people at risk during critical moments in their lives.
Editor’s note: CHOOSE 180 is a winner of the 2020 Renewal Awards, an annual program of The Atlantic and Allstate that honors nonprofits that are creatively solving problems in their communities. This summer, five winners each received a $40,000 prize from The Atlantic and Allstate. Find more essays from this year’s winners here.
My first engagement with the criminal legal system was as a 6-year-old boy.
It was a Saturday in 1987 when my sister picked me up to go on a secret trip to visit my brother, who was living in a juvenile detention facility about an hour from our home. Although it was only 60 minutes away, my father had put a much greater distance between himself and his incarcerated child, who was to be locked up until he was a 21-year-old man. I’m not sure if my father was embarrassed or felt complicit as his addiction and mental health condition kept him from being the dad he desired to be, but I do remember he was angry. This anger dominated our house, this anger broke my mother’s body, this anger allowed for discipline to become abuse and for fear to be felt in lieu of the love we all desired. This is why our trip had to be secret, because if he had found out, the cost would have been more bruises, well-hidden, on my sister’s beautiful black skin.
We entered the prison, which was given a name that sounded much more like a retreat center, Maple Lane. That was the extent of the deception as the barbed wire fences and armed officers made it clear to my 6-year-old mind that this was not a place of escape but of imprisonment. A place where young people who make bad decisions are kept in cages, hidden away, until adults feel like they have been rehabilitated and are ready to rejoin their families. In my brother’s case, that would be eight years—2,920 days, 70,080 hours, and 4,204,800 minutes of separation from us because of a choice he made as a 13-year-old boy.
The guard who greeted us and took our names gestured to an article on the wall behind us that was written about my brother. This was not the one that was in the local newspaper detailing the event that ultimately led to his incarceration, but from a school, sharing the impact that he had as he spoke to the students there about the power of their choices. My brother, capable of so much good, possessing so much light, was restricted in his ability to let it shine outside the confines of this prison.
My brother came out to meet us, we walked together around the courtyard and he did his best to make me feel as though this place wasn’t that bad. Our walk together couldn’t have been much longer than the time it took to get there but, in my mind, it lasted eight years. This is the earliest memory I have of him, and the last until we were reunited when I was 13, the same age he was when he was taken away.
My first engagement with the criminal legal system wasn’t because of a choice I made but because of my brother’s choice, which at 13, to him, didn’t seem like much of a choice at all.
Life is full of pivot moments, where the choice you make can dramatically shift the direction of your life.
Life is full of pivot moments, where the choice you make can dramatically shift the direction of your life. Depending on the tools you have to make good choices, and the people who are around you at the time you make your decision, these moments can either lift you up as a possibility or bury you as a problem. Capitalizing on pivotal moments like this is at the heart of our cause as we create moments for young people, much like my brother, who are in the midst of making life-altering choices—to pause, pivot and commit to a new direction.
Our organization partners with prosecutors which allows us to interrupt the process of criminalizing youthful behavior and intervene by offering community support instead of a criminal conviction. Ninety percent of our participants don’t return to the criminal legal system within 12 months of participating in our programing. Work like this didn’t exist in the 80’s when my brother needed it, but it does today, and because of it, there are siblings, parents, and loved ones who have created many memories together.
I’m not able to go back in time and help my brother make a different choice that would allow for us to grow up with each other. Through the work of CHOOSE 180, we will, however, continue to pursue a future where youthful behavior is decriminalized, and young people are not put in cages but given the freedom to make right what was wrong and live beyond their mistakes.
Sean Goode is considered a national expert on justice reform and is frequently sharing the work of CHOOSE 180 and the transformative power of restorative practices throughout the country. He has been appointed by the governor to the Washington State Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice where he serves as the vice-chair addressing statewide issues of the criminalization of adolescent behavior.