05/18/2009

National Dialogue Needed on Juvenile Justice

The United States may be faltering as an economic powerhouse, but we're still No. 1 in one important category: locking people up. With one out of every 100 adults behind bars, we're ahead of China, Rwanda, Cuba and every other country. Our prisoner population has nearly tripled over the past two decades.

This catastrophe calls for a serious national dialogue about our criminal justice policies — an examination that should begin with how we're treating troubled children.

Just as a minor league baseball team prepares athletes for the majors, our juvenile justice system — aided by mind-boggling, zero-tolerance policies in schools — is doing a bang-up job of feeding new inmates into adult prisons.

Across the country, vulnerable children are being needlessly torn from their families and locked away in detention centers for weeks or months — typically before they have been found guilty of anything. Tragically, too many of these children encounter horrible conditions in these facilities. And too often, instead of finishing high school, they "graduate" to adult prisons.

Our broken juvenile justice system does little to keep our communities safe or help these children. But it does plenty of damage to young lives.

Consider the case of "D.W.," a 17-year-old African-American youth who is named as a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed recently by the Southern Poverty Law Center. D.W. was confined to a squalid, vermin-infested cell for 23 hours each day. Because the facility was overcrowded, he was forced to sleep on the floor with only a thin mat that smelled of urine. It wasn't unusual for him to wake up covered with bug bites. Scabies and staph infections were rampant in the facility.

D.W.'s mental health deteriorated so rapidly during his first week at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Miss., that he tried to hang himself with a bed sheet. But rather than provide him with counseling, guards harassed and taunted him. They told him his mother no longer cared about him. They said they could do whatever they wanted to him.

That wasn't an empty threat. The teen endured a brutal physical assault by guards who slammed his face into a concrete floor.

D.W. wasn't alone in his misery.

His story was remarkably similar to those told by more than 30 other children and teens who spent time at Biloxi's detention center. In separate interviews, these youths said they received little or no adequate mental health or education services and few chances for exercise.

On most days, the children at the detention center were allowed outside of their cell for only one hour. Guards frequently resorted to violence and verbal abuse. One teen said children were treated like "dogs."

These children are not hardened criminals. Most are accused of minor, nonviolent offenses and are simply awaiting court hearings. Incredibly, some are even confined for "crimes" like truancy and curfew violations.

Thanks to overzealous zero-tolerance policies in our schools, childish misbehavior that in the past would have been handled in the principal's office now often leads to arrest. Schools are sending tens of thousands of children each year to jail, usually for petty offenses and sometimes for things that aren't even crimes when applied to adults.

Most states don't keep a tally of the number of children arrested at school. In Florida, a state that does keep count, the numbers are staggering. Florida schools referred students to the criminal justice system more than 21,000 times during the 2007-2008 school year. Black males are disproportionately represented in Florida's juvenile system, as are children with learning disabilities or mental illness. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice found that seven in 10 youths in the system had at least one mental health disorder. State lawmakers recently passed legislation to ease zero-tolerance policies, but the damage inflicted on those already caught in the system cannot be erased. And much more needs to be done.

We would never treat our own children as cruelly as D.W. and his fellow detainees in Biloxi were treated. And that's the problem. We don't see these children as our own. Instead of giving a child the educational or mental health services he needs to succeed, we treat a truant like a career criminal. And in the process, we nurture a system that destroys their future while feeding new "players" into the big leagues — adult prisons.

As a society, we are facing a crucial decision: We can continue to criminalize our children. Or, we can invest in educational and mental health services that help rather than harm them — and start exercising some common sense when it comes to who should be incarcerated.

The choice should be clear.