Picture a criminal behind bars. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind? Now sit with that image for a little while. Do you see a child?
We live in a country that incarcerates more people than almost any other nation. But even worse, we incarcerate children. The United States incarcerates more of its youth than any other country in the world—and not only for so-called violent crimes. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, on any given day over 70,000 juvenile offenders are locked up, two-thirds for nonviolent charges like running away or breaking curfew. An estimated 250,000 youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year mostly for non-violent offenses. That means that each day nearly 7,500 young people are locked up in adult jails. And African-American youth make up 62% of those kids in the adult criminal system, and are 9 times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence.
We incarcerate children for being children, for doing things that we did as children. These “status offenses,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice, include running away, truancy, “chronic disobedience,” and incorrigibility. This generation didn’t invent graffiti, writing on the bathroom stalls, truancy, or rolling their eyes and refusing to talk. This generation didn’t invent walking out of school. The question is, why are these children being put in jail for the same things we did?
And if you look more closely at “zero-tolerance” policies, particularly in charter schools like those I’ve written about here in New Orleans, you’ll find that kids are sent into the justice system for things like bringing medicine to school, accidentally bringing chopsticks, have fancy barrettes, refuse to cut their hair, or go to the bathroom without asking.
The system is broken. Worse, we are not trying to fix it. Instead, we seem to be going in the wrong direction. Yeah, a lot of work needs to be done, but that work is not with our children and teenagers. It’s with us, the adults. Where has our collective conscience gone? We are the stewards, here to protect our children, protect their innocence, and to help shepherd them to full adulthood.
Have we forgotten our favorite characters from treasured books, shows, and comics? What about Dennis “The Menace”? Or Huck Finn? The children from Recess? And let’s not even talk about The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink. Smoking weed, dancing in the school, vandalism, criminal trespassing—we’ve taken what used to be teenage fun and games and turned them into criminal offenses for thousands of young people in the U.S.
Just watch anything on Disney. Those kids lie, trick the adults, and engage in all sorts of other naughty deeds. In real life many kids are hauled off to jail for offenses which, on the Disney channel, mean kids only need apologize and say they learned their lessons. In real life, people are on probation, parents neglect their children, also go to jail, and have their children taken away. I haven’t seen that happen on the Disney Channel. In today’s society lots of kids can’t make a mistake and then make up for it with an apology.
Why do we like those characters so much? Isn’t it because we can identify with them, even if just a little bit? And does the perfect, never-made-a-mistake teenager even exist? Kids who make mistakes grow up to be judges, doctors, and even politicians. Talk to somebody long enough, and ask him or her what kind of pranks they pulled as a kid, how many times they skipped school, talked back to a teacher, threw spitballs, made paper airplanes out of boredom, took dad’s car without asking. Who didn’t sneak out to go meet their friends, drink beer, or smoke a little weed?
Even our Presidents have admitted to smoking pot. But we send children to jail over it. Why do some kids go to jail and others get to become President of the United States??
The perfect, model child never existed. I know that I certainly wasn’t one. The punishment for being imperfect is just much more serious for some children than others.