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Behind Bars and Behind the Gun

His last moments alive were spent in pain and humiliation after his pleas for help were rebuffed by the guards at the juvenile detention facility.  The grand jury came back with a scathing condemnation of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) but they could not press charges since Florida law specifically makes DJJ employees exempt from most forms of child neglect and abuse.  This was the fate of Eric Perez in 2011 in Palm Beach County. [1]  A year later, at the other end of the state in a Santa Rosa County girls’ detention center, a 15 year old girl was beat by guards with no apparent provocation and multiple teenage girls were sexually molested by a mental health technician.[2]

Nationally, from 2000 to 2010, The United States arrested 22.3 million juveniles.  Actually, the United States arrested more, but the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention modified the data after a law passed in 2010 making it not a criminal act for a teen to run away from home.[3]  Many of these crimes were trumped up at best.  For instance, in 2006, one juvenile was charged with a felony for a bomb threat that derived from drawing a picture at school.  The charges were later reduced to the misdemeanor charge of pulling a false fire alarm.[4]

In many states, juveniles are processed determinant upon how they rate on the MacDonald Triad.  The MacDonald Triad was originally posited as a way to pre-select and screen juveniles as potential violent murderers and serial killers.  The triad consists of a childhood history of bedwetting, setting something on/playing with fire, and animal cruelty.[5]  Some contemporary researchers are re-asserting what researchers in the 1980s, as well as what MacDonald himself, concluded – there is no conclusive proof to the MacDonald Triad and the results are unreproducable.  Indeed, it would appear that other issues such as parental neglect, abuse, truancy, bullying, etc. may have a greater impact than the MacDonald Triad.[6]  Yet, for all of the data, the legal system still refuses to take heed.

Obviously, the vituperative nature of the status quo of the American Juvenile Justice System is onerous at best.  However, this does not mean that communities are held hostage to the status quo.  There are ways for society to fight back and take control.

The  first thing that free societies must understand is that most crimes are opportunistic and predicated upon the criminal’s belief that a given community expects crime to happen or does not care if it happens.  One theory that supports this notion is Broken Windows Theory which notes how crime is more likely to happen in neighborhoods where windows of buildings are broken and a general lack of upkeep and care is present.  The lack of care by the community ultimatly translates into the criminal’s mind as a cue that criminal activities are allowed to happen and maybe even expected.[7]    This theory was predicated upon the much earlier Palo Alto Car Experiment where two similar cars were placed in the affluent city of Palo Alto and one in the ghettos of the Bronx.  Naturally, the car in the Bronx was stripped in no time while the Palo Alto car was left untouched until finally the researchers damaged the car and subsequently induced the community to strip it out similar to the Bronx car.[8]  Verily, most forms of criminal activity can be successfully displaced and averted by a community that properly maintains its buildings and facilities and outwardly embodies a sense of care and concern for the wellbeing of others.

Using this understanding, Collaborative Justice measures can then be embodied to handle conflict when it happens.  Collaborative Justice is the merging of Conflict Resolution (a.k.a. Alternative Dispute Resolution or ADR) practices with that of Restorative Justice (a.k.a. Balanced and Restorative Justice, BARJ, and RJ) practices into one unified form of dealing with catabolic conflict by pairing the best of ADR and RJ while minimizing their weaknesses.

Extreme success has been found using circle sessions in schools, churches, and other venues.  Circles are an RJ process which involves people gathering in circles to talk about issues of the day.[9]   While it can be used to prevent crime from happening, it also can be used in rehabilitation of of persons with criminal activity on their record.[10]

The use of mediation is another way to resolve issues.  The benefit of community mediation is the empowerment of communities and individuals to develop their own solutions while also providing opportunities to assemble and to handle disputes as they happen with minimal or no involvement from the justice system.[11]

Finally, using some sort of RJ-based conferencing, panels, or Circle Justice (a.k.a. Justice Circles) are all ways of handling higher level issues of catabolic conflict.  The key is to make sure that the group uses reintegrative shaming rather than stigmatic shaming.  Reintegrative Shaming Theory was first theorized in the 1980s by an Australian criminologist.  Rather than using stigmatic shaming, the community shows love and compassion to the offender while also expressing disdain for their actions.  This ultimately induces the offender to wish to seek atonement so that they can be reintegrated back into the community with no social stigma being attached to them.[12]

It is only by way of community organization, cooperation, collaboration, negotiation and involvement that communities can take back the legal process.  Collaborative Justice approaches, when applied with proven and effective Criminal Justice theories and concepts, can be a transformative and transvalent catalyst in the fight against not only America’s juvenile justice dilemma but also catabolic conflict in society as a whole.



[1] Menzel, M. (19 October 2012).  Report: DJJ Guards Ignored Juvenile’s Pleas As He Died.  Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved on 5/6/2013 from

[2] PNJ (11 February 2013).  Sexual Assaults Reported At Milton Girls’ Detention Facility. Pensacola News Journal.  Retrieved on 5/6/2013 from

[3] Data obtained by combining the following report data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency   Prevention:  (OJJDP 2010 Juvenile Arrest Report; other yearly reports can be found from this link.)

[4] Milstead, J. (2006).  Personal Interview.  Santa Rosa County Teen Court:Milton, FL.

[5] MacDonald, J. (1963).  The Threat to Kill.  American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 120, No. 2, 125-130.

[6] Mehregany, D.V. (December 2011).  Firesetting in Children.  Jefferson Journal of Psychiatry, pp. 18-28.

[7] Wilson, J. and Kelling, G. (March 1982) The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows. The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 29-38.

[8] Zimbardo, P. G., (1969). The Human Choice: Individuation, Reason, and Order Versus Deindividuation, Impulse, and Chaos. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 17, 237-307.

[9] Amstutz, L. and Mullet, J. (2005).  The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools: Teaching Responsibility; Creating Caring Climates. Good Books:Intercourse, PA

[10] Swanson, C. (2010).  Restorative Justice in a Prison Community: Or Everything I Didn’t Learn in Kindergarten I Learned in Prison.  Lexington Books: New York.

[11] Hedeen, T. & Coy, P.G. (June 2000).  Community Mediation and the Court System:  The Ties That Bind. Mediation Quarterly,  Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 351-367.

[12Sullivan, D.& Tiff, L. (2006). Handbook of Restorative Justice. Routledge:New York.


Ken Johnson

Ken Johnson is a Collaborative Justice writer, lecturer and practitioner with former teaching experience (public and post-secondary), 15 years experience in the criminal justice system, certification from the Florida Supreme Court as a County Court Mediator and training in Restorative Justice from the College of Professional Studies at the University of… MORE >

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