A child plays on Bricolage Academy's playground after school on March 26, 2019.

The first rollout of vaccines across Louisiana felt like a time of renewal and hope. Yet, for me, it was difficult to feel hopeful after reading the news of incarcerated youth who have endured almost a year of isolation and quarantine during the pandemic. 

It is always difficult to feel hopeful when I see news of how our criminal justice system continues to view and treat youth like criminals and adults, which is too often. I am concerned with the impacts on children of color who are growing up in a society where institutional, structural, and interpersonal violence against them is normalized and accepted. Instead of holding our systems accountable, we easily fall into the trap of vilifying and policing our youth, especially those who are Black and brown. 

In this season of change, it’s time to do something different. We, as a society, must take responsibility for the youth and for creating an environment where they are protected from violence and crime. We must let kids be kids by acknowledging how adolescent brain development impacts the decisions that they make before judging them and treating them as if they have the same reasoning skills and thought processes as adults. When a young person makes a mistake, we need to look at our decisions and how we react. Should we try to support and rehabilitate them, or simply lock them up and throw away the key?

I am saddened that our systems continue to fail our children. I am angry that we blame and castigate them for the mistakes of our society. We must, instead, continue to show that we are rooting for them; that we are fighting for them; and that we have hope for them. We must continue to push for community-based services and support, rehabilitation, restorative justice, and policy changes that address education, poverty, and mental health. We can do this by bolstering the policy structures that are already in place. The Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission and the Children and Youth Planning boards address youth justice on the frontend with real solutions. 

Despite media narratives that vilify our young people and the local policy climate, a poll by Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children showed that a vast majority of Louisiana residents favor investing in community-based alternatives rather than incarcerating youth. The poll found that 73% of the respondents support a youth justice system focused on prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment. Even though it may be difficult for many to be hopeful, the poll does bring some hope, as well as the opportunity to take a different approach. It is critical for our community to advocate for divestment of prisons and investment in opportunities for youth. 

Freedom Fox Richardson is the child of formerly incarcerated parents. He is deeply committed to prison reform. Freedom is a graduate of Loyola University New Orleans. He majored in Political Science with a minor in Criminology and Justice. He also served as Loyola’s Student Government Association President. 

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at astelly@thelensnola.org.