Bonnie Boswell Reports: The Arts and Healing Justice Network | Bonnie Boswell Reports | News & Community
The improvement of the juvenile justice system is slow in coming. The first time I saw a juvenile prison was when I was working as a researcher for a study on juvenile detention at Harvard Law School. I was visited by a local detention center and saw cells for children as young as eight years old. I was told that most of these young people had committed the “crime” of being a “runaway” or an “incorrigible”. Years later, I spoke with a young woman from Central Juvenile Hall in downtown Los Angeles who told me she was a runaway. She didn’t explain why she left the house, but said it was “because of the things that are going on there.” I could only imagine.
The arrest of young people did not have positive results for them. A 2013 study from Northwestern University found that more than 92% of youths at Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Detention Center had experienced at least one trauma. A 2017 report from the California Division of Juvenile Justice showed that 74% of incarcerated youths were rearrested. And a study by The Imprint found the annual cost per inmate in California jumped to $770,000 in 2020.
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I am relieved to see that things finally seem to be changing in the approach to juvenile justice. Seeing that the old punitive system was both costly and ineffective, California began closing juvenile facilities a few years ago. The effort now is to divert at-risk youth from the justice system if possible and prevent them from returning to prison. Josh Green, director of criminal and juvenile justice programs at the Urban Peace Institute, told Bonnie Boswell Reports that a care-based approach helps young people and creates safer communities. But moving from a system based on punishment to one based on acknowledging past trauma requires resources and well-funded programs.
One of the most exciting programs I have come across in Los Angeles is the Arts and Healing Justice Network (The Network). For my three-part series on The Network for Bonnie Boswell Reports, I spoke with CEO Elida Ledesma. Elida told me that the Network is made up of thirteen member organizations that work inside and outside of prisons to help young people affected by the system. Elida says art gives young people a chance to process some of the trauma they have been exposed to in life.
Kevin Rodas, 23, is one of the people who has benefited from these programs. Kevin told me that when he was a kid, his main role model was his older brother who went back and forth in prison. Kevin’s mother worked 16 hour days to make ends meet and taught him to stay out of trouble, but his life just started to go the other way. Why? “Because of the things I felt inside and the things I went through.”
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Kevin started “hanging out with the wrong crowd” and eventually found himself in trouble with the law. But a day after his release from prison, a friend told him about The Network. Kevin felt hesitant at first, but finally decided to give it a try. Through The Network, Kevin met Fabian Debora, the executive director of Somos La Arte/Homeboy Arts Academy. Fabian himself had his first experiences with the juvenile justice system, but then he discovered art, a healing force that anchored him. Kevin learned from Fabian and other young artists that art could be used productively, to process, create and communicate.
The network’s youth leadership manager, Julian Harris, said he’s seen Kevin really open up and take on a leadership role in the organization. Julian, who is only three years older than Kevin, says seeing this kind of transformation in people inspires him.
Kevin is now a success in every way. He has a job he loves, a new baby and his own apartment. He also sees the connection between his life and art. “When you paint or draw something and you make a mistake, you get a little angry. But then there are ways to cover that up or mix it up. It’s kind of the same with my life. Low stuff happened to me, and I used to get upset. But when I started this art program and saw people opening their arms to me, I saw how much similarity life and art had. There’s a lot going on in life, but you need to use that as motivation rather than an excuse.
Kevin’s insight and the life he has now built is a testament to the healing power of art.