I grew up in what would be considered a rough part of Philadelphia in a neighborhood filled with challenges. There, I found street culture and used drugs as an escape. I was handcuffed for the first time at age 13.
I cycled through several youth detention centers. Those places often made kids more bitter and hardened at heart, including me. Looking back, I can’t recall many opportunities for redemption — only punishment. I never heard anyone talk about my potential to change.
The Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force recently issued several recommendations to lawmakers. The goal: better ensure that youth who break the law are held accountable in ways that are meaningful but don’t cut them off from community support. This means limiting out-of-home placements like group homes or residential facilities and expanding access to diversion opportunities. As someone who was on the street at a young age and later convicted of a grave violent crime, I can’t overstate how families and communities can influence, and even reroute, someone’s life for the better.
As a teenager I never had positive role models, a safe living environment, or anyone available to walk with me through all of the emotions and challenges that I was processing. I turned to the streets looking for the love and community that I wasn’t experiencing. I looked to drugs to numb the anger and pain that I felt, and I committed crimes seeking to fit in and be accepted. I was a teen searching for ways to fill voids in my life. When families, community organizations, schools, social services, and local leaders collaborate for the good of our youth, they help to fill the internal and external voids with the health and support that many of our youth are seeking to find.
Sometimes, placing youth in group homes is necessary to keep communities safe and provide intensive services. But the further along you go, outcomes for young people tend to stay the same or worsen. Pennsylvania’s rate of juvenile justice residential placement is higher than the national average — with many residents having limited criminal histories and cycling through too many facilities. In Pennsylvania, most people in youth residential facilities are identified as being at moderate or low risk for reoffending, with no felony or personal offense on their records. Our young people should be held accountable in settings that are aligned to their behavior and risk of future misconduct — places that offer opportunities to safely grow and change.
In Pennsylvania, 64% of young people with a low risk of reoffending do not receive diversion opportunities like apprenticeships, mentoring, and community service. At least two-thirds of youth are referred to the juvenile justice system for misdemeanors or failure to pay court fines and fees. Often, probation or a group home can be ineffective and counterproductive.
As a teen, I cared little about my future and had no concept of my ability to change — until years later when I was an adult returning home from prison and someone else believed in me. Years later, it was the employers who saw past my record and provided me job opportunities based upon my character and qualifications. It was my local church that embraced me, saw my humanity, and welcomed me into their community. It was the countless men and women whom I met along the way that provided wisdom, encouragement, and cheered me on as they regularly welcomed me to their dinner tables.
As helpful as these experiences were, I didn’t have them until I had gotten too far down the road as a formerly incarcerated adult. What if these were my experiences as a teen? Expanded use of diversion, mentorship, and community service can help young people experience active accountability and start a new life by drawing on the assets of their communities.
That includes communities of faith. As a teen with limited resources and no positive role models, I gravitated toward a life of crime, without hope. Now, as a pastor, I see the impact of the love and support of the family of God. Churches have unmatched capacity to provide intentional guidance for youth who are on the wrong path. Church members provide safe spaces in homes around their families; positive, consistent role models; healthy routines like after-school activities; and affirming relationships with mentors. Churches can also be a wealth of resources for jobs, housing, and life skills. Our physical presence in the lives of our youth brings far more long-term impact to a teen than governmental programs alone.
Our young people must be held accountable for the harms they cause in ways that recognize their great capacity to grow and change. Diversion opportunities like those recommended by the task force, supported by community members and churches, are a strong step forward. Our young people are more than their choices. With guidance and support, we can help them reach their God-given potential.
Jon Kelly is the lead pastor of Chicago West Bible Church.