Whitman Students and the Juvenile Justice Center


Tywen Kelly

Photo by Tywen Kelly.

Kamna Shastri, Features Reporter

Agriculture, social inequalities, high-class wine culture, and educational institutions intermingle along with all aspects of the criminal justice system here in Walla Walla. Still, it’s easy to stay inside the invisible walls of Whitman, with an occasional meander down Main Street serving as a taste of the world outside the Whitman bubble. However, there are many students who have seized opportunities to interact with the larger society of which Whitman is a part, one being the criminal justice system.

“It’s funny in a way [because]  Walla Walla seems out in the middle of nowhere, but we have the entire criminal justice system right here before our eyes. Through various kinds of detention, police, and sheriffs, [there are] lots of opportunity for kids to get involved especially when you have a thesis program like we do here,” said Laura and Carl Peterson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences Keith Farrington, whose research specializes in criminology.

Senior Rose Gottlieb spent her summer interning at the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC), where at-risk youth and adolescents who have committed crimes and misdemeanors undergo corrections programs. The center’s goal is to provide a supportive and safe environment conducive to rebuilding and reflecting rather than simply punishing. During their stay at the JJC, usually for one to three weeks, adolescents go through an education program and learn to reflect on their actions and the resulting implications for the community.

Photo by Tywen Kelly.
Back wall looking down at alleyway of the Juvenile Justice Center. Photo by Tywen Kelly.

Gottlieb led a class about employing dialectical behavior management, an approach that suggests that two disagreeing parties can both be right. “It’s trying to break down that black and white thinking that teenagers especially get stuck in,” she said.

One of the class goals was to give youths the tools to understand their own emotions and reactions. Music served as one of many avenues to begin the exercise. Gottlieb would play a pop song and ask the students to share their resulting experiences without filtering out how they felt.

“I was just trying to get them to have some idea of looking within and knowing what your emotions are doing, because the first step is recognizing what is going on within yourself,” Gottleib said.

During her experience, Gottlieb did face challenges. In the beginning, students would swear or be distant with her. Over time, she gained their trust and was able to create a cooperative environment.

“I think they definitely were more willing to trust me than the other adults in the facility because I was younger. I think that makes a big difference in terms of being approachable and being seen as a mentor,” she said.

Gottleib did see changes in youths from when they came into the program feeling disgruntled and hesitant to when they left, understanding their actions and the larger impacts of those actions.

Working at the JJC doesn’t come without somewhat of an emotional toll. Gottlieb had to grapple with the fact that sometimes all she could do was listen to the stories. There wasn’t always a way for her to directly better the situation outside of the JJC’s environment. 

Senior sociology major Marlee Raible has also volunteered and toured at the JJC and has had similar feelings.

“It’s a very emotionally hard thing for me … because these kids have never had someone listen to them. And so, I would go in there and they would just tell me things and I was like I don’t even know what to say!” she said.

Despite that, Raible’s passion for criminal justice has fueled her community engagement during her time at Whitman. She currently stands on the JJC’s Community Accountability Board (CAB).  The volunteer-based CAB is made up of community members who speak to youths about the crimes they commit, how the community is impacted and what actions to take to make amends. According to the JJC website, the goal is to “impress upon the youth the connection between themselves, their community, and their offender activity.”

When Raible meets with youths and their families, she says  it often becomes apparent as to why they choose certain actions.

“You can see everyone in there, people who are very angry, people who are sad, crying, and very apologetic. You can get people in there and you need to refer them to mental health services… by seeing these kids and talking to the mom and dad, you can see pretty quickly some of the reasons these kids might have gotten here in the first place.”

Raible sees the youths as victims of a larger system at play, entangled with our social structures; she emphasizes again and again that juvenile justice – and criminal justice in general – is beyond just the individual.

“We … need to change cultural things in the first place so that people when they are born can have a different experience,” she said.

Scrolling through a 2011 report published in 2013 by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention under the U.S. Department of Justice,  1.5 million minors were arrested. The report also records that minorities are disproportionately arrested and that 51 percent of juvenile arrests for violent crime were black youth. Statistics like these suggest a larger connection between juvenile, criminal justice, and other current issues.

Raible points specifically to racism. “[The criminal justice system] is to me one of the most apparent institutional structures where you can see racism manifested. So when you have extremely significant portion of the population entering into the criminal justice system, it’s extremely important to acknowledge that that is something that is happening and that should not be continuing in the way it is continuing.”

Photo by Tywen Kelly.

Students and Criminal Justice involvement

                Whitman students have been involved on-and-off with juvenile and criminal justice instructions in Walla Walla since the 1980s. Professor Farrington’s expertise lies in criminal justice and criminology, and he has found that direct student involvement with the penitentiary and/or the JJC has been a strong augmentation to classroom study.

“I think that sociology can be exclusively an in-class activity but to me and for a lot of students it really takes on an added layer … you can apply what you learn in the classroom to what is taking place in the real world,” he said.

Farrington said that many students that have had the opportunity to work, volunteer, or intern with the criminal justice institutions have not only created theses, but have also gone on to work in law enforcement. In fact, the managing director of the JJC, Norrie Gregoire, is a Whitman alum.

“You really see students develop an amazingly mature and empathetic, richer understanding, and orientation toward problems associated with crime and delinquency. All of a sudden you can put names and faces and real life situations to the things you are talking about,” said Farrington.

For Gottlieb, the chance to work at the JJC was an opportunity to gain a more multi-faceted perspective on juvenile justice.

“I kind of went in thinking it was just going to be terrible and really disliking the idea of locking kids up, which to some extent is still problematic for me. But I think there are certain kids that really benefit from a highly structured environment and intervention. I have a way more nuanced understanding of detention and adolescents,” she said.