Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Brain science, youth and juvenile justice

Part of the process of aging and maturing involves the recognition how much different we are from our parents and how much we are the same. I notice any mention of this to many women I know becomes an irritant--do we really want to become our parents? What was once awe steadily becomes suspicion--which in maturity eventually becomes acceptance of identity. We are products of both nature and nurture--and I do not believe I will ever be able to distinguish either pole in the magnetics of my identity.

My parents and I rarely discuss politics in this season of our lives. Maybe we have too many raw memories of getting together in the 70's and 80's during the holidays as a family where the well-prepared meal and festivities turned into a shouting match because I had an aunt who would inject her views into any conversation. My colleagues in my current congregation might call her a "freaky Bible person." At this juncture in our lives, getting together 3-5 times a year is a time to celebrate the family and to watch our daughter do whatever it is that she is going to do. Once in awhile, any one of us my lob a discussion topic out there as an experiment in conversation. On the last trip in December-January, I lobbed a discussion about juvenile prosecution as adults. I believe this is a sick practice, one of the most disgusting symptoms of a zero tolerance culture. In my interest and study in congregational systems, I have also studied the brain. Though I do not pretend to be a neuro-scientist, I have learned enough to know that there is not enough we know about the brain. We do know that brain development is fragile and tenuous--it is neither fair or just to punish for a lifetime someone whose brain is not fully developed. Throw in all the ritalin, paxil and other chemical soups we create and give to children--and the brain reaches new levels of complexity. Punishing children as adults is nothing short of barbaric. I lobbed this discussion to my parents several weeks ago--I was visibly disgusted with a story related to this topic and my mother said "I agree." My father seemed surprised at the discussion, at least reflective. He asked, if this is true, what do we do?

What do we do?

Our anxious political culture would not allow a politician to say juvenile punishment for crime needs to change. In an anxious political climate (big time anxious), no politician interested in keeping their high status job will be interested in acknowledging the complexity of the brain and say that trying children as adults is barbaric. Even the most liberal of politicians do not want to be pegged as soft on crime.

I hope the discussion of juvenile criminal justice (oxymoron?) will once again enter public discourse. Hope springs eternal after reading an article in the Seattle Times originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article may not be a scientific journal article, but at least an article in a mainstream publication may bring back some helpful conversation about justice and children.

I have also been inspired to reflect upon this topic after hearing about the child of a colleague who is being punished for understandable brain activity and a system that encourages non-reflective formulaic anxious responses. Zero tolerance is a preferred value over honoring the complexity of the brain that God gave us as a gift. As a father, I see that I set up all kinds of systems that separate me from my daughter--I don't know if I have the courage to break these systems. I see that it will be harder for both schools and the juvenile justice system to break the barriers society has created when zero tolerance is the primary value.

Zero tolerance culture was created in the name of safety and security. Relationships are not safe and secure--they are difficult and take hard work. I often fail in this work and know that society often fails as well. This condition is known as sin. Relationships are the only way we learn the love of God. Since the beginning of time, we have been running away from that love in all forms.

Christ, have mercy.


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