The art of justice: Helping troubled teens

HOLLAND, Mich. (WZZM) – The halls inside the hall of justice in Holland were missing something, and one of the judges at the 58th District Court has decided to do something about it.

The Honorable Susan Jonas had an idea. It involved more than 100 residents of the Ottawa County 20th Circuit Court Juvenile Detention Center. Each incarcerated student used a unique way to learn more about their community and, hopefully, themselves.

This story is about a theory known as restorative justice, defined as turning the justice system into a healing process rather than simply being a distributor of retribution and revenge.

Many troubled teens in lock-up have never thought beyond making bad choices, so a judge decided an art project might change that paradigm.

While serving their time, the juvenile residents have time to think. This project forced them to think about important societal ideals like diversity, tolerance, and sense of belonging.

The hope was that the students would realize their capabilities, rather than focus on the limitations that led to their mistakes of the past.

Jordan Diep, 17, has been incarcerated at the Ottawa County Detention Center several times in her young life.

Retail fraud put her on probation, while drug possession, breaking curfew, and gang activity put her in lock-up.

"Sometimes being locked up, you can think about things," said Jordan, while carefully painting an outline on one of the murals. "You got to own up to it."

Jordan says there were many things happening in her life that most people close to her didn't understand. She says she has attempted suicide several times.

"I was affiliated with gangs, and constantly doing things I shouldn't be doing, just to get the pain away."

Jordan is one of several Ottawa County juveniles paying a penalty for violating the law.

"Yes, they're in trouble with the law; yes, they're in here for a reason, but they're also a part of the community and they need to learn how to impact that," said Lily Marx, the detention superintendent.

The idea came up that maybe some unexpected attention from the same justice system that detained them might help these at-risk teens gain more respect for justice and for themselves.

"It's an education process for them," said the Honorable Susan Jonas, who serves Holland's 58th District Court. "I'm hoping the kids' participation in this will change their lives, because it gives me no pleasure to put people in jail."

Judge Jonas spent time as a school teacher before traveling down a path toward a legal career. She admits that the teacher in her helped come up with the idea for the juveniles to create the murals.

"To have these kids, who are subject to the criminal justice system in one way or the other, have the ability to work on something that will be permanent is really meaningful and significant," said Jonas. "We didn't give the students any ideas for the design; they came up with the ideas for the murals themselves."

The art project consists of three 30x40 canvas panels, created by more than 100 detention residents, which will hang indefinitely in the halls of Holland's 58th District Court.

"They feel that a judge, who shouldn't really have time for them, or really care about them, really does," added Marx.

Detention Center art teacher Angie Briggs-Johnson came up with the theme for the murals: community.

"I ask the provoking questions to get the students thinking about community on a personal level," said Briggs-Johnson.

The students had to consider this question: if you had one hour to go somewhere, even though you were on tether or house arrest, where would you go and why?

Jordan Diep didn't answer that question by picking a place. Instead, she chose an action – an action that's personal to her.

On one of the murals, Jordan created a mouth with the word "voice" on it.

"Every person needs a voice that needs to be heard," said Diep. "I felt no one listened to what I had to say, and that's why I got in trouble all the time."

Other juveniles viewed community differently.

With each stroke of their paint brushes, and with each color, the concept of the art project, and the students' relation to it, began to fill in, helping them see they are a part of something bigger.

"This connects the community, justice, and education all in one," said Briggs-Johnson.

On May 4, 2015, the finished murals were hung on a wall inside the district courthouse. There was a dedication ceremony that day, attended by several Ottawa County judges, court employees, and community members.

"It's really nice; I like it a lot," said Diep, while looking at the murals on the wall. "I think I've changed in so many ways."

In a way, the walls of the Holland hall of justice are no longer desolate; they've been restored, like many of the juveniles who helped create the colorful images.

All thanks to an idea from a judge, who's considered to be a pillar of justice in the community, using her gavel to restore troubled teens, rather than just applying it to distribute retribution.

"It's cool she picked us," added Diep. "It makes us feel like we actually matter."

"We can't lock people up and expect that's going to be the solution to everything," said Judge Jonas.

As for Jordan, she says the project has helped her learn a valuable lesson.

"If I keep doing this, keep accomplishing things, then I will get somewhere," said Jordan. "We're not bad kids; we make bad choices, but we're still a part of the community."

More art may be headed to the Holland hall of justice in 2016. Judge Jonas says the juvenile residents will be asked to create more murals.

Jordan Diep was released from custody in April, and it didn't take her long to find a job. She's currently working as a nanny for a family in the Zeeland area. She has also applied for re-enrollment in Zeeland Public Schools.

If she's accepted, she plans to graduate on time next year.


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