A new institute at Keystone College aims to reduce juvenile incarceration and strengthen the community.
The Keystone College Juvenile Justice Institute opened this fall in Harris Hall, providing real-life opportunities for students and help for area children.
“For our students, it’s great. It gives them some job experience,” said associate professor Deborah Belknap. “Hopefully we’ll be able to make an impact for the community as well.”
Belknap and fellow criminal justice and psychology faculty members Stacey Wyland and Marie Andreoli, will tackle juvenile justice issues in many different ways. Goals of the institute include helping children avoid involvement with the juvenile justice system, offering alternatives for resolving cases of children already involved, and aiding incarcerated juveniles in their reintegration to society.
The institute will offer mediation services for families, schools and juvenile courts and train school personnel in using peer mediation to resolve issues before they escalate. Organizers also plan to work with local schools, law enforcement and others to provide “trauma-informed” services.
“By recognizing that certain behaviors in young people may be rooted in trauma, it may be possible to address the problems before the behaviors escalate, possibly even into violence,” Belknap said.
Starting this spring, the institute will offer a program to help children deal with the trauma of parental incarceration, deportation and separation. The program will begin with a small group of children at Charles Sumner Elementary School in Scranton, with the goal of reaching more children later this year.
The institute has already started assisting in resentencing proceedings for juveniles serving sentences of life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court case of Miller v. Alabama ruled that automatically sentencing juveniles to life in prison, without considering the child’s life circumstances, is unconstitutional. Belknap and Wyland, assisted by student interns, conduct extensive investigations into the backgrounds of juveniles previously sentenced to life in prison.
“The more we started looking at reasons kids get involved with the system and commit crimes, in every single one of those cases, the behavior was rooted in trauma,” Belknap said.
The institute will work with children on how to express their emotions, including how to practice yoga and how to meditate, Wyland said. Research shows that when children experience trauma, they are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system.
“No one is teaching children that their emotions are OK and there’s a way to channel their emotions that is acceptable. It’s okay to feel angry, sad or however you’re feeling,” Wyland said. “People are hurt inside, and
we have to be able to recognize that.”