50 Years after the Dream: Why Are We Filling our Jails with Kids of Color?

This week, fifty years after the March on Washington, President Obama stood on the National Mall and listed out some of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. High up on the list: not letting our criminal justice system become "simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails."

The President is right. For far too many Black, Latino and Native American kids, the justice system is like quicksand: once you step in, it pulls you in deeper and deeper.

Take Luis, who was 14 the first time he was placed on probation. His big offense? Asking another student for $2, and having the student report him for bullying. Once he was under correctional control, it became difficult for Luis to escape the pipeline. A few months later, Luis was hanging out with some friends when one of them chose to steal a few items from a store. Luis was arrested alongside his friend, charged with violating probation, and shipped off to a juvenile facility.

The facility was horrible for Luis. He had never fought in the street, but he learned to fight in the facility. They tried to medicate him without his parents' permission. And when he came home, there were no support services in place.

Given everything we know about the school-to-prison pipeline, what happened next to Luis shouldn't surprise us. The experience of being incarcerated changed him, and since his release Luis has been rearrested several times and now is incarcerated in an adult prison.

It doesn't have to be this way. When kids stumble, we have a chance to pick them up. Forcing them under correctional control pushes them down.

The scales of the justice system are as firmly weighted against young people for color as they were 50 years ago, during the first March on Washington. Discriminatory disciplinary practices are the entry point into a racially inequitable juvenile justice system, in which youth of color experience harsher treatment at each stage of the system.

We heard Attorney General Eric Holder give a major speech a few weeks ago about how too many people are in prison for too long. We know that lots of states have worked to reduce growth in their incarceration populations – and most have made progress in reducing the overall number of kids behind bars. But there's one significant lag: the disproportionate confinement of children of color in these states has actually worsened.

Contrary to public perceptions, the worst racial disparities for African American children exist not in the South, but in the Midwest and Northeast. For example, in New Jersey, African American youth are 4.5 times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated in a state youth prison. In Wisconsin, African American children made up only nine percent of the overall child population but were 73 percent of the children committed to the state's juvenile correctional facilities in 2012.

The disproportionate incarceration of Native American and indigenous youth is just as severe. Native American youth comprise 13 percent of South Dakota's population but represent over 40 percent of the state's incarcerated youth. Similarly, Native Alaskan youth are less than 18 percent of the overall population but make up over a third of the young people in the Alaska's juvenile correctional facilities. Native Hawaiian children are 12 percent of the general population, but they comprise nearly two-thirds of Hawaii's incarcerated youth population.

So what should the President do, what can we do to build a justice system that treats all children equally?

We should expand promising approaches on the community level. We need to confront institutional bias at each stage of the justice system and implement strategies to level the playing field for youth of color. Most importantly, we need to ensure that communities of color have the resources and capacity to divert young people from courts and lock-ups. Only then will be able to pull able to pull young people of color out of the quicksand and guarantee that others never fall in.

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Anonymous

It's a little late to blame the system once your kid gets "Caught up" in it.

Anonymous

The question isn't how to build better facilities for incarceration. It should be how to redirect money from jails to schools. Raze those that merely warehouse kids. Rebuild and staff and support schools to the same level that kids from wealthy private schools receive at THEIR schools. And watch those "underperforming" kids who are now victims of bad schools and hopeless poverty-stricken neighborhoods find out what it feels like to matter, to succeed! Also actually implement "color-blind" justice...a tall order, but way past due.

KLang

I have been so concerned about this issue. Americans of all nationalities are being warehoused in prisons for long periods of time so that private prisons can make big profits. Let's get the word out that the U.S. has many times more people in prison than any other country in the world---less than 5% of the worlds population and more than 25% of the worlds incarcerated population. It is a disgrace. It is shameful. Once released from prison, their record prevents them from obtaining decent employment. While in prison (and some jails), they are often placed in solitary confinement for ridiculous reasons (not that there is ever a good reason for cruelty or torture.) They may get a probation officer that enjoys making their life miserable. It is way past time for our country to be humane, caring and helpful for all who have problems.

Anonymous

Dont do the crime and you wont do any time. They are in there because they broke the law. They are not in jail because of the color of their skin.

Anonymous

Bullshit. I doubt that Luis is the harmless kid they make him out to be. Nice tearjerker from a frustrated writer. It is the candy-assed whiners like you all that are destroying this country. I would suggest you grow a spine and a set of balls and make the true call. Ignorance, Poverty and Hunger are destroying the world. The ACLU only makes it worse by sensationalizing crap like this story. Fricking Losers.

Anonymous

The statistics are of great concern. There is one issue this data does not address or even mention. In situations where the population is relatively small but the incarceration rate significantly higher, what was the nature of the offense that put the child in the system in the first place. i.e. robbery, theft, etc? In most cases kids end up in the system by choice but fail to consider the potential consequence/impact when caught. At the very root of the matter lies the decision made to violate the law. Decisions are not being made to summarily kill people randomly or to walk the streets naked. why not? I think to greater degree it is because of the nature/severity of the consequence.

Anonymous

We need a Miranda rights for cops to allow frisking to be put on trial for supporting camera surveillance private profits lobbyists contractors. If it can be proven their Mirandas on frisk are part of a stop-and-fill-the-institutions policy driver then there should be technical charges allowing the cops to bring RICO against superiors for being on the take in supporting political slush funds for public institutional use.

Anonymous

my son was 14 when he entered the juvie injustice system. he was playing with neighborhood kids, just normal kids, skipping rocks in a creek. he threw one, a flat piece of broken tile, so hard it skipped over the creek about 4 times and flew into the roadway nearby. duh, dumb yes. well, the car stopped. the windshield was scratched. the kids all ran. my boy went to the car, talked to the woman driver and apologized. she called the police. they had my son in the backseat of the car in handcuffs when I arrived on the scene. we had to go post bail. he was charged with a FELONY of some sort. first thing I did was pay for a new windshield the day it happened. it opened up a world of hell for us as a family and my son. we went to counseling we went to court. we did everything we were asked to do. my son was convicted as a felon. he, a boy from an average white home, was put in a 6 month residential center for youths in which he was the only white boy. and a lot smaller than most. it was absolute hell for us and him. he couldn't take school after that. continuous trouble. drugs. he got picked up in a van with others, and someone in the van had a gun, so he was charged with that. he was just catching a quick ride to the beach to surf. he almost died in juvie hall, as he was very ill with a high fever and they had no doctor, just an emt who gave him aspirin. if I had not come to see him that day he well could have DIED! I had him taken to our family doctor for health care the following day after numerous calls to our state capitol and lawmakers. after that, every child in juvie in our state has to be hauled before the judge to examine their condition. god forbid he had been some child with no family to visit and care for him, he would be dead. he has grown up with constant misdemeanors like driving with no license. he has never stole, intentionally damaged, or hurt anyone, but his life is hell. he cannot join the service which would have been so good for him. he has a record around his neck that can never be removed. he is 33 years old and works as a fry cook. if I had known then what I know now, I would have prostituted myself to get him a big name lawyer instead of having faith in the justice system and letting the court appointed lawyer advise us. our country has totally failed its youth.

TammyD

Why does this just sound like affirmative action for jails... Black people/minority races are not victims! Successful black people are not the exception they are the rule! I used to buy this they-are-just-victims-of-circumstances sorry sob crap but then i started noticing the amount of Blacks that are "rags to riches" cases, and if they can make it then circumstances are no longer an excuse! I grew up in a broken family i watched my mother being abused in every which way for over 15 years and yet for some weird, strange, baffling reason i dont feel disproportionally compelled to commit crimes... i did get in a non-school related fight once with another girl and you know what both neither of us were treated disproportionally i think we got off pretty light! im currently studying for a degree in Chemistry and im at the top of my class, next stop medical school... know how i did it? not lashing out, instead i work TWO jobs and refuse to give up... if youngsters CHOOSE to act up then the consequences are their own! when we tell them they are just victims we are telling them they are not responsible for their actions! if black people dont want to be disproportionally put in jail they should stop disproportionally committing crimes!

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