Jessica: In the U.S., if you are under the age of 18 and you have broken the law, it is often the case you will not be treated the same way as you would be if you were an adult. A juvenile court is a court for young people who have committed a crime and where they can be sentenced to juvenile jail. But this often sets up young people for a life of crime — something one Missouri judge decided to change.
Judge Jimmie Edwards: Good morning, everyone.
Jessica: This is the juvenille court of Judge Jimmie Edwards.
Judge Edwards: You can’t be in a gang with me, you can’t smoke dope with me.
Jessica: Direct and passionate, Edwards gives straightforward advice to kids accused of crimes.
Judge Edwards: When I get ready to lock you up, nobody is going to be down here supporting you.
Jessica: Too often, it is too late.
Judge Edwards: The toughest part of my day is when children come in and I know that they need help. And they’re unable to get it. And that’s so important to me because I know unless somebody is getting involved in their lives that they have no opportunity of succeeding.
Jessica: Judge Edwards wanted fewer teens in the courtroom and more in the classroom. So two years ago, he opened the innovative Concept Academy, a school for the young people who have been expelled or appear destined for a life of crime. More than 700 students have enrolled.
Judge Edwards: If you read on the third grade level, I’m going to go back and get you a third grade book and we will teach you how to read at that level. And then we’ll teach you how to read on the fourth grade level, irrespective of the fact that you might be nineteen years old.
Jessica: Instead of seven years in jail, Jakayla is spending time in school.
Jakayla: I think I really changed a lot. I’m doing better in school, I’m more helpful with my mom around the house.
Jessica: Most juveniles in Saint Louis do not commit serious felonies. But going to juvenile jail can have serious consequences. A twenty-year study found those who ended up in juvenile prison were 37 times more likely to be arrested again as adults.
Judge Edwards: You have to be brave to stand out and to say let’s go in a different direction. Let’s not lock them all up. Let’s not be so punitive; let’s teach them. And what’s so great about teaching them is they want to learn.
Jessica: Alonti Wiss, Deyon Smith and Nadia Jones have all raised their grades along with their optimism.
Nadia: I want to be a forensic detective.
Deyon: I’m ready to go to college when I leave here. Somewhere. Probably take up a trade or something.
Allonti: I just want to be everything. There’s so much I could do. There’s so much I can learn. I just want to learn, learn, learn; get more. I want everything. I want to be everything, if I can.