Kyla Sobers age 16, Jaden Turnage age 16, Janari Ricks age 9, and Jaslyn Adams age 7. What do all of these names have in common? They are just some of the many teens and children that have been impacted due to senseless violence primarily inflicted from the prevalence of guns in our communities. There are far too many more children to name than the ones already in this article. Not every victim was a gang member and often they were innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of gunfire. Whether a child is in a gang or not, this epidemic is worsening and taking more children’s lives on a daily basis. Our community leaders acknowledge the gun violence epidemic but all too often are laying the blame on the COVID -19 pandemic. The pandemic is a convenient response to a problem that has plagued communities long before COVID-19 did. Countless times resources are poured into the neighborhoods and funds are routed toward Cure Violence groups. There are many that put their lives on the line to help better the communities yet the small percentage in improvements are barely having a sustainable impact. Our children are dying yet we are putting more energy into fighting mask and vaccine mandates. Where is that same energy to demand better for all children?
There is no substantial public outcry in response to the devastating loss of young life. Furthermore, there is no acknowledgment of the role we play as adults in both protecting our children and in deterring youthful offenders. There is virtually no accountability anymore once we entertain discussions of making excuses for violent youthful offenders. Take the verdict involved with the recent killing of a college student in New York City. One of the perpetrators, at 16 years old, was sentenced to 9 years. Some argue this is not nearly enough time and others say this is enough time for the teen to become a repentant and productive member of society upon his release. Someplace in the middle is the solution. As a parent, I understand both why the argument for a harsher sentence exists as well as the hope that someone young can change. Make no mistake, the change can only happen with adequate support systems within a juvenile justice and adult prison system that is in many ways already broken and failed.
It seems as though society’s answer is now to just focus only on the sociological issues that lead to crime and violence as opposed to simultaneously addressing the lack of substantial rehabilitative efforts within the prison and subsequent probation system. Many agree there is an existence of a school to prison pipeline in some communities. As such, they advocate that more needs to be done to fix it and institute programs to address kids before they become violent offenders. According to the National Council on Disabilities, 85% of the young people in juvenile detention centers nationwide have learning disabilities. What resources are provided for these teens both in the system and out to help them to be productive law-abiding individuals? A teen that shoots another teen is committing this violent act not solely because they do not have a job or because they have a learning disability. There seems to be a parallel universe where those in need of assistance and support are locked up while those who are more capable of doing harmful crimes are free to roam the streets and terrorize others. It becomes a vicious cycle for some who are often arrested several times for increasingly violent offenses. A teen has to value their life and the lives of others. This has to be the first step in showing remorse for their actions. The simple answer may not be employment or a social worker at the point that someone decides to murder someone else. Lots of children struggle and are exposed to insidious outside factors such as abuse and violence and still are able to value the lives of others. To make a sweeping judgment that all youth can be saved the same way with just access to jobs and social workers is not addressing all facets of this complex issue. It is also victimizing all over again the hundreds of families and their children that have been impacted by the violence. Families deserve more and perpetrators need accountability in order to learn from their transgressions.
There has to be a demand for accountability to reach children and intercept violent tendencies where possible before teen years. This does not mean that all teens are unreachable but we cannot act like some are not inherently destined to commit pernicious crimes and as such need rehabilitation in a setting that is away from their peers and society for safety reasons. A serial killer does not kill because of not having access to a good education or employment resources. A teen that shoots up a park full of children and other innocent people needs rehabilitation in a setting that will not allow them to further endanger others in society. There needs to be more emphasis on accountability on parents that are failing their children. There is also a need for adequate support for teen parents who lack the appropriate resources to raise a child because they are children themselves. The saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” holds true, yet we fail to see it often practiced in today’s society.
It is easy for so-called stakeholders to say releasing everyone from prison or having lighter sentences will solve the issue when their loved ones are not victims of violence. Would providing summer jobs or access to social workers have helped the brazen attackers and murderers of 15-year-old Lesandro Guzman-Feliz who was hacked to death by a mob of teens in public? Would it have helped Kyla Sobers who was shot while in the park with her friends also in public in broad daylight? How about 13-year-old Ke’lan Allen who was shot in his bedroom while playing on his iPad? Where was the justice for David Pacheco Jr. just 2 years old shot in his family car? As our community leaders sit in their upper middle-class areas often flanked by a private security detail, they do not have to worry about the harsh realities of society. School shootings where innocent children are often murdered are equally as important as a child killed in their own bedroom, neighborhood park, or restaurant. When is it enough?
Right now we are looking for an easy solution that in fact negatively impacts the victims and often victimizes them again by saying their hurt and suffering does not matter. Releasing people because they carry a gun but do not use it is senseless and irresponsible. Putting more focus on the Cure Violence programs and church groups working in concert with local law enforcement is necessary. Having programs that reach kids as young as elementary school and following them through their educational careers is worth an investment. As it stands now, there is no incentive for children intent on committing violence to stop. Poverty can no longer be the excuse that prevails. Cutting our school funding for arts and sports programs is not the answer. In redesigning correctional facilities, having a model that simply releases prisoners is also not the answer. Investing in those that have committed redeemable crimes and providing the opportunity for offenders to have access to education, jobs, and mentors can be a key attribute in true rehabilitation. Pretending that the problem does not exist will only cause more detriment to the children of our society. We can no longer stand for families planning funerals instead of birthdays, graduations, or other monumental celebrations.
It may not be too late for Luchiano Lewis, who was 14 at the time of the murder of Tessa Majors who was a Barnard student in New York. He recently received 9 years for his role in the attack 2 years ago. During his sentence, he may either use the opportunity to better himself and seek forgiveness or he could become a further hardened criminal and be released as a young adult free to commit more violent crimes. Which will it be and which route will we demand for Kyla, Jaden, Janari, Jaslyn, David, Lesandro, and so many others?