looking beyond the law’s letter

looking beyond the law’s letter

MJTC Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center for mentally and emotionally disturbed juvenilesMinority youth caught up in Wisconsin’s justice system face some of the nation’s worst racial disparities, according to the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families. African American, Native American and Latino youth are much more likely to be detained, charged and found delinquent than white youth referred for similar offenses. Less than five percent of juvenile arrests are for serious or violent offenses. In Dane County, which handles the state’s second largest youth caseload, disorderly conduct is the primary criminal allegation that  brings youth in contact with the juvenile system. Those who matriculate to the adult criminal justice system, which has jurisdiction over all 17-year-olds, face a lifetime of discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, voting and jury rights–a multi-general legacy.

tcw, mendota juvenile treatment center, photo by richard ross


equity is flip
To help UW-Madison students better comprehend these challenges, the Center for Law, Society and Justice offered the pilot service-learning course Looking Beyond the Law’s Letter in Fall 2012. The course title references equity–the constitutionally vested prerogative to look beyond the law’s letter–that underpins the juvenile justice system and community-based interventions to deter delinquency. Described by Saint Thomas Aquinas as a virtue that sustains the public good, equity is associated with the best and worst discretionary practices in the juvenile justice system.

summa theologica, II-II cxx

Course participants investigated the juvenile justice system by engaging equity, service learning and digital technologies. Reflecting on their field experience, they collaboratively developed a digital multimedia introduction to the juvenile justice system.

chicago juvenile court c1900Juryless courts of equity, a Roman canonical heritage, can craft discretionary remedies according to the dictates of conscience and alternative legal traditions. Courts in the United States are constitutionally vested with equity as well as common law jurisdictions. The world’s first juvenile court—established in Chicago in 1899—drew deeply on equity’s historical power of guardianship over orphaned and neglected children, which was expanded to include juvenile delinquents. Unlike common law criminal courts, which punished children for past wrongs, equitable juvenile courts could suspend a juvenile sentence, or take action in a child’s best interest even before s/he committed an offence. But from the beginning, youth of color have been far more likely to become caught up in this discretionary system than their white counterparts.

chicago juvenile court, 1907. chicago history museum, dn-0005149

studio

In service-learning expressive art workshops, students helped mobilize the critical insights of minority teens whose families, communities and personal lives were entangled in the justice system. Under the direction of an expressive art facilitator, the teens were prompted to give voice to their personal experiences in artwork and verbal reflections, which were digitized by UW students. The workshops fostered self-expression, skill development, and community engagement among both teen and UW student participants. Developed in collaboration with the Dane County Juvenile Court Program and ArtSpeak, a program offered by Community Partnerships, Inc., the workshops were offered to teens in the FOCUS and Shelter Home residential programs. Students also visited the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center and mentored at-risk teens in the Goodman Community Center’s CLUE skateboarding and media art club

artspeak studio, community partnerships

designlabtextaquinasWeekly seminar discussions incorporated student reflections, readings, and the insights of visiting juvenile justice agency staff members. The seminars were held in DesignLab, College Library’s new media studio and consultancy service that fosters digital composition and design skills. The course culminated in the development of peer-evaluated student digital media projects, which included graphic essays, audio slide shows, and videos. Teen workshop participants visited DesignLab for a farewell party, where they viewed and commented on project drafts.

designlab, college library

notfree

Course participants collaboratively envisioned their multimedia productions as an introduction to the juvenile justice system for minority teens, but the projects ultimately spoke to the students’ awakening insights. The students agreed that the artwork and verbal reflections of the teens they had met offered the most powerful introduction to the juvenile justice system. Course creator Nancy Buenger hopes that the CLSJ pilot project can ultimately be expanded to include media art workshops for court-involved and at-risk youth across Dane County. Projects featured on CLSJ Media include the work of these Wisconsin teens, providing an educational resource on juvenile justice and connections to burgeoning youth media programs nationwide.

anonymous artspeak participant

Here are excerpts from the multimedia projects developed by UW students and their teen partners in Looking Beyond the Law’s Letter. Publication is limited to excerpts to protect the identity of justice-involved teens.

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a post-service learning perspective

monica raven

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what is your avatar?

anonymous artspeak participants

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how the system “fixed” me

patrick roedl

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what does it feel like to be incarcerated?

anonymous artspeak participants

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skateboarding at the goodman community center

colin tucker

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who is there for you?

anonymous artspeak participants

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dane county juvenile shelter

john kreuser, briana eaton, and anonymous shelter participants

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reflections of care givers working in the juvenile justice system

anonymous

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a visit to the wisconsin state public defender’s juvenile unit

danielle greis

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dane county juvenile detention center

corey davis

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welcome to the juvenile justice system

colin tucker

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milwaukee teens reflect on rap and juvenile justice

andy gunta