‘Orange Is The New Black’ Hits Home For Local Juvenile Justice Programs

By Laura Heister

In the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library’s One Book One Community read Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman invites us into her life while she spends a year in a women’s prison for a drug crime committed nearly a decade earlier. Kerman was a well-educated college graduate with a longing for adventure, and her crime was born out of the desire to live life to the fullest. Like Kerman, many young people today make poor choices in the pursuit of adventure, acceptance, fun, or adrenaline.

Kerman’s focus in the book is what happens next. When an adult or youth commits a crime, does the traditional justice system make a difference? Kerman says no:

“Our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed. (I was lucky to get there on my own, with the help of the women I met.) Instead, our system of ‘corrections’ is about arm’s-length revenge and retribution, all day and all night. Then its overseers wonder why people leave prison more broken than when they went in.”

Here in Evansville and the surrounding communities, we have superb law enforcement offices, attorneys, and judges who have made it a point to explore alternatives for youth and adults: youth and adult Drug Court, Vanderburgh County’s pre-trial diversion program, EPD Juvenile Division’s diversion opportunities, and Youth Resources’ Vanderburgh County Teen Court Program are a few of the restorative and diversion options available.

YR’s Teen Court is a restorative justice-based diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders. Teen Court is led by high school students who conduct real sentencing hearings and volunteer as jury members, attorneys, bailiff, and judge’s assistant. All youth volunteers are mentored by licensed adult attorneys who give their time weekly to the program. Youth jury members hand down sentences that use consequences for crime in a way that allows the juvenile offender to gain the skills, confidence, and support needed to become contributing citizens of our community.

Kerman writes, “The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others.” I am encouraged by the youth and adult volunteers who consistently give of their time to Teen Court. They are not indifferent; they actively choose, week after week, to restore young people before it’s too late.

Laura Heister is the Vanderburgh County Teen Court Program Coordinator at Youth Resources.