Reporting Juvenile Justice Success Stories

By Zach Schalk
October 21, 2010 10:01 AM

All too often the juvenile justice coverage picked up by the media is bad news.  The New York Times ran an editorial criticizing New York’s juvenile corrections system as “wasteful and ineffective.”  While the article includes praise for positive initiatives that are being run in the state, it focuses mainly on the system’s sky-high recidivism rate along with its bloated staff and budget.  On the West Coast, the LA Times featured an Op-ed decrying the decaying state of the Los Angeles County Probation Department through the eyes of a former juvie inmate.  This in a state that spends more on its prisons than it does on education!

Perhaps it is true that there is more bad news to report than good when it comes to the corrections industry—and in the cases above, the criticism seems both poignant and warranted.  But it’s also important to learn about the things the system is getting right.  With juvenile crime rates decreasing and states turning towards more streamlined, community based juvenile corrections systems—in the interest of both the kids and the states’ budgets—there’s also a lot of good things to report.

One of those stories recently ran in The Dallas Morning News.  The article tells the story of Don Smarto, who runs a Duncanville, TX, based youth ministry service called Youth Direct.  Over the past six years, Smarto has also taught creative writing and poetry to over 800 incarcerated teens.  His work gives kids a window into their own talent and potential—opening doors and opportunities they might have never known in their life outside the prison walls:

When Smarto teaches the four-hour-long poetry seminars, he said he envisions the young men not dressed in their prison uniforms, but in a surgeon's coat or a graduate's cap.

"When I look at these kids the first thing that hits me is nobody is born to be a failure," said Smarto. "Nobody has told them they're smart. Maybe the greatest gift is to give them the vision of possibility."

Obviously not every story about the juvenile justice system can be this uplifting.  But it sure is nice to see something positive make it into the media.  Hopefully this story or others like it will inspire people to follow in the steps of Smarto by giving the kids a hand up.

Posted on October 21, 2010 .