Stop Putting Kids Behind Bars, Report Urges

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Placing young people behind bars has been a “catch-all response” to a multitude of problems experienced by youth—one reason the U.S. has registered one of the world’s highest rates of youth incarceration, according to a new report.

The “disconnect between humanity and treatment” in the way that America treats young people who become involved with the justice system is “appalling,” says the report, prepared by the Square One Project, a three-year initiative created to incubate new ideas in justice reform.

In 2018, there were 37,529 youth in some sort of facility in the U.S. Some 3,400 of those youths were being held in adult jails, according to the report.

This puts the U.S. rate at 60 per 100,000 youth, the highest of 92 reporting countries in the United Nations.

Not only is the youth incarceration rate high, but “50 to 75 percent of incarcerated youth are diagnosed with a mental or behavioral health condition,” says the report.

This means that the youth who are being punished are most likely not getting the help and services they need to properly grow, develop and rehabilitate while incarcerated.

According to the authors, youth detention in the U.S. is “often the go-to mechanism for any behaviors that make society uncomfortable: youth wandering on the streets, youth acting out as a sequela of abuse and neglect, youth resorting to illegal means for survival, youth practicing truancy, or youth raising their voices to fight for change.”

The report continued: “As the socio-political roots of criminalization of youth remain unchallenged, so too does our social tolerance for abuse, neglect and human rights violations.”

The report argues that young people don’t often act criminally out of an “innate sense of malice,” but rather as a response to a litany of traumatic experiences like abuse, poverty, death of a family member or a natural disaster, among others.

“Vulnerable youth coming from complex circumstances who experience criminalization and victimization may develop a sense of inner ‘nowhereness’ due to lack of stability, direction, safety, relatedness, and continuity, all of which leaves them helpless,” said the report.

‘Learned Helplessness’

The researchers call the phenomenon “learned helplessness,” and suggest that if the criminal justice system acknowledged it as a motivating factor of youthful criminal behavior, it could possibly help solve some of the deep-rooted problems within the youth justice system.

Additionally, youth of color represented 67 percent of all incarcerated youth in 2017, although they make up 49 percent of the total youth population, a disproportionality that is also reflected in the adult justice system,

Black individuals are also two times more likely to suffer from poverty than white individuals. If poverty is recognized as a factor in “learned helplessness,” then addressing it –along with other factors that drive bias—can help address racial inequities in the youth justice system, the report said.

“We do not yet acknowledge that so-called “deviance” does not necessarily lie within the person, but may be a condition forced upon a person by contexts and circumstances, lack of opportunities and resources, and societal and historical oppression and prejudice,” said the report.

Disparate punishment of Black and Latinx students in schools is another barrier. Black and Latinx students were four to six times more likely to be suspended in school from 2011 to 2012.

According to the report, students of color are also more likely to be seen as defiant, disrespectful and ungovernable—ideas that have roots in racial profiling.

Schools, which are often thought to be a haven of support and learning, are “no longer safe spaces to restore some sense of normalcy,” in the lives of youths suffering from factors out of their control.

As a result, young people transferred to the juvenile justice system after expulsion or suspension are unlikely to escape becoming enmeshed in the adult justice system as they get older.

Some young people in fact land in the adult system even though many states have raised the age of adult jurisdiction to 17 or 18.

The report found that there were still about 500 youth aged 12 or younger being held in an adult carceral facility.

America’s criminal justice system “does not hesitate to lock up physically and developmentally young children as well,” the authors charged.

The report contains real-life stories of young people who have become victims of the juvenle justice system,

      • 17-year-old Tina, placed in solitary confinement after committing self-harm in the wake of the death of her mother separation from her siblings;
      • 11-year-old Raul, who has the responsibility of putting food on the table for his siblings;
      • 15-year-old Sonya, whose lack of appropriate care landed her back in trafficking.

The report cited these as examples of how the juvenile justice system fails to address the motivating problems—the “learned helplessness” –that land kids in the custody of authorities.

Three Ways to Change

In response, the Square One Project proposed three solutions to work towards a more equitable and responsive juvenile justice system in the United States.

First is a call for change in how the system responds to youth offenses. Instead of enforcing incarceration, “restorative justice practice and policies” as well as viewing youth criminality as a response to negative social situations in a youth’s life could end the penal approach to youth misbehavior.

“Restorative justice acknowledges that crime is fundamentally a violation of people and interpersonal relationships, and that these relationships must be healed and wrongdoings must be made right,” said the report.

Second: social welfare and reintegration programs for youth would help lessen the stigma associated with youth criminality as well as reduce recidivism rates. .

Finally, policymakers at all levels should be encouraged to implement a “preventative” strategy that aims to develop life skills, healthy habits, prosocial behaviors, positive character traits, and work skills in at-risk young people.

Without a shift in the punishment approach, “young people will remain stripped of their humanity, their strengths, and their capacities,” said the report.

“We must listen to their dreams and learn from the strengths and assets that carry them through their journeys in order to support their healing and resilience.”

The Square One “Reimagining Justice” initiative is supported by a consortium of major foundations including Arnold Ventures, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety +Justice Challenge, and the Joyce Foundation.

The authors of the report were Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo of Texas Tech University; and Evangeline Lopoo and Anamika Dwivedi, both of Columbia University’s Justice Lab.

For an in-depth look at the challenges involved in reforming youth justice, see the reports from a recent webinar series organized by the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice.

Read the Square One report, “Learned Helplessness, Criminalization and Victimization in Vulnerable Youth” here.

 Emily Riley is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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