Putting An End to Recidivism Among Former Foster Youth in the Justice System

Former foster youth too often fall into societal traps, our criminal justice system being a menacing offender. The system provides an inherent risk to anyone yet it is especially detrimental for former foster youth, against whom the odds are already debilitating.

Former foster youth face the world in a far different light than the majority of the population. Growing up in an unstable environment causes severe long-term harm. Many former foster youth leave the system with lingering mental health issues derived from long-term abuse that have not been properly treated. Even being removed from your home and your acquainted normalcy to be dropped into someone else’s is significantly traumatizing. Once on their own, they often turn to the wrong outlets and end up more than likely in legal trouble.

The justice system was created as a means of rehabilitation with the intention of societal protection. Yet for former foster youth – who make up a sizable portion of California’s prison population – the most prevalent outcome of a sentence served is recidivism.

America incarcerates six to 12 times as many people per capita as any other prosperous country. We as a country contain five percent of the world’s population yet a massive 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. Our prosecutors win the majority of their cases, many of which conclude without a trial. Those that do end up going to trial receive more than three times the sentence they would have if they had taken a plea deal.

There have been various studies and massive amounts of data collected in an attempt to solidly understand the volume of former foster youth who have been incarcerated, and the paths their lives took after they aged out. The problem with such data is the inconsistency of the research methods utilized. One such study reported that 14 percent of prison inmates in California were former foster youth. However, this study only polled 2,564 inmates. I am a former foster youth. I have lived in eight foster homes and two group homes. Out of all of the youth I lived with in those placements, I cannot name a single person who has not spent time in jail as an adult as a direct result of their background.

Youth voice correspondent Jessica Woodward. Photo: Jessica Woodward
Youth voice correspondent Jessica Woodward. Photo: Jessica Woodward

As noted above, our current “criminal rehabilitation” system for the average offender is statistically inefficient. This inefficiency is grossly multiplied in severity for former foster youth. Kids who have grown up believing they aren’t good enough for their own families are thrown into a system that will simply recycle them.

I was able to sit with Robert Sheahen, a seasoned criminal litigator who has practiced law for 35 years, and discuss the atrocity that is our criminal justice system. He has represented many members of the Hells Angels, including their president, George Christie, as well as Rick James when he was accused of torturing a woman with a crack pipe. He also represented the woman accused of murdering John Belushi.

When asked why the system fails, Sheahen asserted, “The system fails because it is run by politicians who are bought and sold … All that the prison system does is warehouse people. It takes human beings and it turns them into animals. It puts them in cages for five, ten, twenty years, and then they are released and they are substantially worse off than if they had never been in. They have learned no skills except how to be a better criminal.”

We lock them up for 23 hours a day, provide them with minimal necessities, and expect them to possess the skills necessary to reenter society when released. However, punishment does not change the issues facing the offender population. Throwing someone in a room for months or even years teaches them nothing. What do we do to fix a system as corrupt and ominous as the one we have created? How do we go up against entities possessing overwhelming power and assets? Where do we start?

Sheahen believes we must fund the public defenders as much as the district attorneys.

“The district attorney’s office is usually funded five or ten times more than the public defenders,” he said. “The disparity is enormous. You’re doing the same work.”

There is a huge gap that deprives us of our ability to access proper legal defense and procedures. Public defenders are paid substantially less and expected to provide adequate service on inadequate pay. They are overworked and underfunded.

The gap is widened for those who cannot afford proper legal counsel, a common problem for former foster youth. Often, private attorneys represent clients who can pay the steep retainer fee, many of whom have familial support in providing that payment.

“If you have a family paying, you have a support system,” said Sheahen. “Public defender clients don’t have that. Public defender clients generally hate their public defenders. They think they’re getting second rate lawyers.”

Many of those public defender clients are former foster youth with little to no life skills and no family support system. This all provides the foundation for the failure of a former foster youth and the inevitable statistics before them.

Most foster youth don’t have access to necessary resources and obviously don’t have strong familial ties or support. They are left to their own devices from a young age and must survive on their own. The system is supposed to provide legal counsel for those of us who lack the ability to provide our own. However, the counsel received in correlation with your constitutional rights is subpar. A study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2012 showed a 63.7 percent recidivism rate. That means that more than half of the inmates we have “attempted to rehabilitate” have been failed by the system. Incarceration in a county jail is intended to have a deterrent affect yet statistics have proven the contrary.

The historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainright ruling determined that those who cannot afford an attorney will be appointed one, requiring states to establish public defender offices. What this case did not set precedent for was the ability to adequately fund these offices in order for them to handle the substantial clientele they would amass, a vast majority of that clientele being former foster youth.

“For every one case I handle, a public defender handles seven or eight,” said Sheahen. “They don’t have the time to do a good job, and they don’t get any rewards for doing a good job.”

Those who are blatantly in need of help are being “warehoused,” as Sheahen described, within a high-stress, dangerous, criminally active, downright thriving environment. They are then released with even fewer necessary life skills than before, and assumed to be “rehabilitated.” How exactly has our system remained stagnant this long?

Should we really continue to “lock them up and throw away the key?”

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Jessica Woodward
About Jessica Woodward 1 Article
Jessica Woodward, 22, has recently begun the process to become a volunteer at Rosemary’s Group Home and Penny Lane where she was placed while in foster care with her twin sister. She is working toward a bachelors degree in Business Finance after which she intends to attend law school so she can reform the justice system.