Archive for the ‘evidence based policy’ Category

…but not because of what you think.


In our endless election cycle, the one that seems increasingly like a joke, every GOP candidate keeps talking about how this country has lost it’s way, it’s greatness, because of being “politically correct.”  In their understanding, speech has to be limited because somebody might be offended, and that’s NOT FAIR, damn it.



America is a place where your job determines your worth.  It is shorthand for your personality, your motivation, your education, your skills.  What you do equals your values, your interests, and your plans.  In America, you are what you do.

We are one of the only places on earth where “what do you do” comes up in the first 30 seconds of almost any conversation.

Part of my passion is rehabilitation of people with disabilities.  Jobs are an extraordinarily helpful part of recovery from mental health concerns.  Working decreases hospital stays, increases medication compliance, increases community inclusion, and increases self-esteem while reducing acute mental health symptoms.

Working saves all of us money – it’s less people on disability, welfare and food stamps.  It’s less people in the emergency room.  It’s fewer police calls to deal with suicidal behavior.  It’s fewer beds in the psych ward because people didn’t take their medication.  Working is the key.

Working is super important.  If you’re not working, you don’t have a purpose, don’t have a strong self-concept.  You’re not contributing anything, you have little to do on a daily basis.  Is it any wonder that retirees maintain their mental and physical health better if they’re doing some sort of work, even volunteer work?  It is fundamental to our functioning as human beings.

People with disabilities have it especially tough, for three major reasons that all go together.  We’ll list them, then discuss how they interact.


My nightmares have been haunted, of late, with the technology called CRISPR.  I’m going to put its basic premise into far too simple terms and analogies, in the interests of time.  CRISPR is gene sequencing technology, allowing scientists to splice differing genes into an organism’s actual genetic structure.  The scary thing is that these changes can be passed along to all future generations, using what’s called a “gene drive.”

Yesterday scientist Kevin Esvelt spoke with On Point about gene editing, and was talking about how Lyme disease could potentially be eradicated within 10 years; it’s passed from mice to ticks, so if you remove Lyme disease from mice, you remove it from humans.  The scientist discussed how since this would affect the shared environment, whether or not science proceeds is up to all those who would be affected by the shared environment (that means all of us, kids!).  He asked if we could be affecting other things in the environment.

What stuck in my mind was him saying he didn’t think we would affect the entire environment.

EVERYTHING we do has consequences.  We have brought invasive species into pristine environments.  We are heating the oceans enough to eradicate fish and bacteria existing for centuries.  We have introduced other species to try and fix our first mistakes, leading to more and more issues and complications in the natural environment.

We have messed with nature, and it shows.

And now we’re discussing changing the actual genes of an entire species.  We are playing way outside of our competence, here.  Who can know the long-term effects we could have on the environment?

Diseases are horrible, yes.  But they exist for a reason.  Everything in nature is subject to basic population controls – if a species becomes too populous, nature will introduce a disease, a plague, a predator, and balance will be restored.  Whenever we humans have messed with this basic premise, problems have resulted.  Look at the proliferation of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes – we thought this was going to be the end of the world as we knew it, because carp and other freshwater fish would no longer have seaweed and silt to hide in; instead, we’re seeing other fish gain prominence and the zebra mussels acting as a food source.  Nature is doing its best to fix our screwups, but instead of learning, we continue to mess around.

Humans are subject to the same natural laws as all other organisms.  We should not be messing around with species’ genetics in order to make our lives easier.

At least this particular scientist is bothering to ask if we should do something, rather than simply if we could.

A 70 year old man in Oklahoma is making headlines.

So is an 11 year old boy.

The first has been imprisoned since age 16, when he murdered a police officer.

The second murdered his 12 year old neighbor after she refused to show him her puppy.  Prosecutors are apparently considering charging this child as an adult.

The US Supreme Court ruled that children who commit crimes must have their circumstances considered.  In 2005, it ruled the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.  In 2012, life sentencing was limited.  However, many young people are still locked up for life, over 3000 in the US alone.  This is absurd!  Here’s why.

The Biological Argument

The American Bar Association recognizes differences between adults and adolescents, based on new information coming from scientific advances in understanding brain development and function.

A brief explanation of brains.  Most of what we consider “common sense” and “adult choices” come from the frontal lobe; this is where our organization, planning, and impulse control are centered.  Juvenile brains are different; let’s get that out of the way right now.  Frontal lobe development doesn’t stop until the mid-twenties; to expect a teenager to make decisions as an adult isn’t accurate.  While the abstract reasoning in teenagers is likely the same as adults, the emotional maturity is much different.Hormones also differ as we age.  Adolescent boys have an enormous amount of testosterone to deal with, which is associated with increased aggression.  Behavioral changes, like hating your parents and demanding more privacy, also start around this time.

The biology of teenagers may serve to diminish their capacity/responsibility for crimes committed, but is still being debated.

The Behavioral/Environmental Argument

Children are products of their environments; few are bullies without violence at home, or delinquents without poor parental supervision.  Over 30% of juvenile offenders on death row had experienced 6 or more traumatic events in childhood.  Adult offenders are far more likely to come from traumatic backgrounds than normative samples.

Witnessing or being the victim of violence in the home can spark violent behavior in children and adolescents; what teachers or adults read as a “bad seed” is likely the result of a bad environment.

Labeling behaviors as criminal also serves to mask other underlying concerns, such as low IQ, mental health issues, and social struggles (i.e. living in poverty, having a parent in prison, living in a violence-prone neighborhood etc).

Criminalizing children through the school-to-prison pipeline reinforces structural inequality, especially for children of color; it makes it more likely people with mental illness will not seek treatment, that trust in authority is reduced, and that violence festers in neighborhoods.

When we put children in jail, we also put them at risk of further victimization. A traumatic history increases vulnerability for future trauma, and prison itself can be traumatizing.  Many children are assaulted by jail/prison staff and other inmates; over 13% suffer sexual abuse while incarcerated (mostly from staff members).  We are making it more likely these children will have future problems, or even stay in prison longer, in the name of punishment and protection.

The Rehabilitation Argument

At its heart, juvenile justice needs to focus on changing and improving a mind that is still malleable and developing.  Juvenile courts have an excellent qualitative track record of success, though recidivism data is gathered by individual states and is difficult to analyze.  We do know that the more times someone is incarcerated, the lower the chances of rehabilitation.  There are a number of alternatives to incarceration that have shown promise, are based on research and data, and show promise to improve outcomes for incarcerated youth as well as the communities they live in.

(Plus, incarceration is EXPENSIVE.  We shouldn’t forget the dollar dollar bills)

Nationally, our recidivism rates are abysmal.  Over 67% of people who are released from prison are re-arrested within three years; the number rises to over 75% after five years.  Obviously, what we’re doing isn’t changing minds, changing lives, or changing attitudes.  We shouldn’t subject children to broken systems that aren’t even effective for adults.

None of these arguments are meant to excuse those who commit crimes – we have to consider our response.  If a teen can choose to do wrong, they need to pay the consequences, but it’s our responsibility to ensure the consequences are appropriate to the crime.  With the new information at our disposal, it’s now up to us to create sane and humane punishments that will help protect society by rehabilitating these children, rather than locking them up without hope of redemption.

Children can do horrible things.  This doesn’t mean we should also do horrible things to them.