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A Lesson from Spider-Man for New Jersey’s Broken Juvenile Justice System | opinion


By Ashanti Jones

In the new Spider-Man film No Way Home, Doctor Strange rejects Peter Parker’s optimism about rehabilitating the multiverse’s “baddies” rather than sending them back to their universes to perish. He says confidently: “Death is their destiny. You can’t change that any more than you can change who they are.”

Doctor Strange believes that there is no hope for the villains, that there is no point in investing in them because they are beyond saving. Your fate is sealed, so why bother?

Thankfully, Peter prevails and the villains are rehabilitated so they can return home cured and reintegrate into their society.

As in many films, we find a parable here, and it’s not too much of a leap to apply it to the universe of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, where those in power treat troubled youths as villains who are thrown into punitive juvenile detention centers only so as to continue their alienation.

Doctor Strange’s reflexive cynicism is similar to New Jersey’s own standard approach to punitively responding to our youth, particularly the black and brown youth who make up 91% of engaged youth — and our black youth, who are nearly 18 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, although most crimes are committed at similar rates.

But what if, like Peter, we didn’t just pay lip service to the concept of rehabilitation, we actually believed in it? What if we believed that justice could be restored and not just cruelly administered? That there are endless opportunities for all of us, including those who commit crimes?

Through Peter’s compassionate vision, No Way Home essentially delivers the practice of restorative justice in cinematic form – an effective way to gain accountability, restore communities, and rehabilitate people without subjecting them to counterproductive incarceration.

Real-life restorative justice is a model of justice that focuses on healing and meeting people and communities where they are. It is facilitated through community conferences and peace circles that allow for a fellowship between the harmed person and the person who caused the harm. In a space of restorative justice, accountability is key, and conflict is resolved by agreeing on a common plan to repair the damage.

The film’s “bad guys” exhibited some of the same triggering behaviors that we see in our young people. Green Goblin suffered from an untreated mental illness. Electro strove for power and prestige. And Doc Ock was the victim of outside influences over which he had no control.

Despite her reputation and history, Peter saw through the actions that ensued from those circumstances. He saw people worthy of a second chance. He invested his time, energy and resources to ensure they had access to that better future.

In the real world of New Jersey, we have historically refused to acknowledge this potential in our youth and make a meaningful investment in both preventing transgressions and helping young people once they have committed. Not only that, but we’re paying good money for it: A lone incarcerated New Jersey juvenile inherits a $445,504 annual investment in a traumatizing and antiquated system designed for his failure.

Instead, we must follow Peter Parker’s example and take responsibility for the people entrusted to us. Just as Peter turned to his experienced Spidermen, friends and family to help implement his vision of restorative justice, New Jersey must rely on the thought leadership of service providers and the insights of affected youth to find ways to get creative in at-risk Investing young people who strengthen our communities, restore relationships and transform their destinies.

We’ve seen restorative justice work in places like Chicago, where 282 youth criminal incidents have been solved – and Oakland, where school suspensions have been reduced by 87% by enacting restorative justice practices. If urban centers like this can do it, New Jersey can.

Some will point out that the outcome of “No Way Home” wasn’t perfect. Aunt May was eventually killed.

And yes – in real life things are messy too. We don’t always know how things will turn out and sometimes the outcome is better than others.

What we do know, however, is the fate of juveniles incarcerated in our state, over 70% of whom will return to prison within three years of their release. Many will exit with aggravated mental health issues and lifelong trauma. We know our cruel, cynical, and costly approach is a failure. How about we try a compassionate approach with a good track record? An approach that not only heals the offender, but the whole community?

New Jersey has taken a commendable first step by implementing the new Restorative Justice for Youth and Communities Pilot Program Act, which provides restorative justice centers for youth in select cities. This is a promising and exciting attempt. Nevertheless, we must go further.

  • We need to expand the new law by establishing restorative justice hubs nationwide.
  • We must finally close our country’s juvenile prisons, which were supposed to be closed more than four years ago.
  • And we must invest in a community-based continuum of care that heals, restores, and supports the future of our youth.

Spider-Man showed us that it’s easy to throw away the people we’ve already written off. The hard work challenges our standard thinking and belief in ourselves and each other.

As many Spider-Man have reminded us, “with great power comes great responsibility.” To the leaders of the Garden State: They have great power – the power to rewrite the future of our youth. Use it well.

Ashanti Jones, MSW, is campaign manager for 150 Years is Enough at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and your friendly neighborhood comic book fan.

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