Michelle Chang '19
In this politically and ideologically divisive era, at least we can all agree that children are our future, right? Wrong. Here are some problems and misconceptions surrounding the education system and the juvenile justice system, and their undeniable connection to race, mental disabilities, and poverty. Systemic problems require systemic solutions. I ask that you put yourselves in someone else’s shoes and try to empathize with their struggles.
The United States locks up more kids than any other developed country. All three branches of the government agree that, because children are different from adults, the motivation behind the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate, not incarcerate. If putting kids in jail cells was effective, we should have the lowest juvenile crime rate. So, does it work? Absolutely not. CARE (Child Advocacy Research and Education) screened a documentary on April 6, 2017 titled Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children, which exposes a wide array of issues within the juvenile justice system, ranging from excessive hours in solitary confinement, inability to treat mental disabilities, and the disproportionate number of African-American and mentally disabled children in the system.
The documentary begins with the tale of Zion, a 7-year-old Hispanic boy residing in Broward County, Florida. He has ADHD, anxiety, and occasional seizures. Just in the first grade, Zion earns twenty-five write ups. Think back to your elementary school self. How confused and discouraged would you have been, if you got sent to the office every time you threw a tantrum? Zion’s mom is anxious that the school will contact the police and Zion will be arrested.
Her worries are not unfounded. School incidents involving minorities, particularly African-Americans, Hispanics, and children with mental disabilities, are overwhelmingly more likely to be reported to the police. Incidents such as cursing in the school parking lot have led to police involvement. Furthermore, not only are minorities more likely to be reported to the police, they are also more likely to be charged as adults, accompanied by mandatory minimum sentences.
The “no crimes are juvenile” movement began in the 90s when the media brought into the spotlight a series of violent crimes committed by juveniles. In thirty-three states, there was no minimum age by which the state could charge children as adults; in eleven states, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds were charged as adults. States enacted “zero tolerance” policies in schools that led to the rise of the “school to prison pipeline.”
As Judge Elijah Williams, sponsor of the PROMISE program in Broward County, Florida, points out, there is a huge difference between “kids that scare you” and “kids that make you angry.” Most kids do stupid things that make people angry. The majority of delinquents are not charged with violent crimes. In fact, most of the offenses are not crimes for adults, such as missing curfews or skipping school. Some kids have severe mental disabilities that the communities (school and parents) do not have the resources to handle. Instead of trying to figure out why kids are misbehaving, calling the police is the easier and faster way for schools to get rid of the problems.
Imagine your middle or high school self, writing on the wall or skipping school because, well, why not? Next thing you know, you’re with the wrong people and the police shows up and you’re charged as an adult. Congratulations, you just earned yourself a 10-year minimum stay in jail. You will be in juvie and then adult jail until you’re 26 just because you made a mistake but people are worried you will become a violent predator.
Many kids that end up in the juvenile justice system are living with PTSD. They have been shot at, bullets in their bodies, or have seen people die in their arms. Think back to the last car accident you drove by or the last funeral you attended; can you imagine seeing grave injury and even death right in front of you? I cannot imagine the pain, sorrow, and fear these kids experience in their own neighborhoods at a young age. Unfortunately, some kids resort to gangs for protection and a support system.
The problem persists inside the juvenile correctional facilities. The documentary follows Savannah as she recounts experiencing and witnessing severe depression, cutting, and suicide attempts in an Ohio juvenile facility since she was fourteen. Many facilities use solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool. In theory, solitary confinement functions like time-out. If you misbehave, they put you in time-out so you know not to repeat this behavior. However, recall that a disproportionate number of delinquents have mental disorders. These kids are put in a tiny cell with just four walls, alone with their thoughts for twenty-three hours per day. This can lead to hallucination, depression, and other problems that cause children to behave even more erratically when released, which puts them at a higher risk to return to solitary confinement. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, juveniles are nineteen times more likely to commit suicide when in solitary confinement.
Alternatively, programs such as the PROMISE program in Broward County refer students to counseling programs that address the underlying problems, instead of perpetuating the “school-to-prison” pipeline by contacting the police. Teachers and counselors in these programs help identify the causes of behavioral problems and create action plans to help students get back on track. Its success in Broward County has earned national recognition; no one doubts its success.
But why don’t we see more of these programs around? Money. Although the Supreme Court has identified education as an important right, there is no constitutional right to quality education. The Supreme Court leaves all education decisions up to the states. Like all issues deferred to the states, effective policies come from legislators with great incentives, but ineffective policies come from states in which many people see education as a zero-sum game. It’s my kids versus your kids. Why should I use my money to fund your child’s education? The more they give to your kids, the less they give to my kids. These assumptions ignore the social and economic benefits that could result from all kids having access to quality education. Every kid will be better off in the long run if all kids are given the same opportunities.
One of the most frustrating misconception about poverty is that poor people are poor because they are not trying hard enough. That cannot be further from the truth. I highly encourage everyone to go on playspent.org and attempt to “live in poverty.” This game gives you a budget and you have to make life decisions accordingly. As Professor Coughlin’s Law and Public Service class discussion points out, poverty is about the lack of choices. The things you and I take for granted, such as shelter, food, parents, and access to medical attention, are the reasons we have choices.
Our parents had the choice to attend our school functions so we were motivated to excel. Our parents could afford healthcare when we were sick so we didn’t have to suffer long-term medical conditions. Our parents were supportive of us attending college because our family wouldn’t starve if we didn’t work full-time. We grew up with choices and opportunities. Because we can choose to be lazy and unproductive, we label people on welfare or social benefits as second-class citizens without understanding why they can’t get out.
The game on playspent.org highlights the difficulty of maintaining a job, raising a family, and balancing one’s mental and physical health when one lacks the basic necessities. How do you acquire the skills for a better job when your family needs you to work full-time? How do you stay healthy when healthy choices are more expensive? How do you keep a job when the initial expenses of uniforms and transportation are more than you can afford?
When I was working in Miami, I mentored and tutored both inner-city high school students and nationally-ranked private school students. I saw many underrepresented students with potential and intelligence that surpassed their counterparts in private schools. This is in addition to facing starvation, violence, and sexual assault. However, many of them will not go to college because their parents need them to work. Some of us are lucky to have been born into families with more resources. While not discounting the effort and hard work we’ve all put in to get here, the very least we can do is to acknowledge that not everyone’s starting point is the same. As I stated in the beginning, it starts with understanding the struggles someone else is going through. The next step is to consider giving every child at least the opportunity to succeed.