Editorial: Criminalizing our Children 12/4/98

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Last month a report was issued by Amnesty International detailing the treatment of children by the United States criminal justice system. The report found that there are over 11,000 children, under the age of eighteen, currently being held in prisons and other adult correctional facilities in this country. The report also cited over 89,000 cases of children being placed in solitary confinement for periods longer than 24 hours. According to Amnesty, such treatment offends internationally accepted standards. The U.S. incarcerates more of its children than any other nation on earth.

For several years now, law enforcement officials and politicians have courted the fears of the American public with dire warnings of "super-predators," a generation of children so violent, so evil, that they are barely human. Despite several well-publicized cases, however, the fact is that murderous children are the rare exception. Most children who come into contact with the justice system are there for far less nefarious reasons. Even of those who are transferred into the adult criminal justice system, more than half, according to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, have been charged with non-violent offenses.

Children who are incarcerated are more than three times as likely to re-offend as children charged with similar offenses who are sentenced to a non-incarceratory alternative. And children under the age of eighteen who are incarcerated with adults are more than three times as likely to be beaten by staff, more than five times as likely to be raped, and more than eight times as likely to commit suicide than children who are incarcerated in juvenile facilities. Still, in the last session of Congress, legislation was introduced which would have mandated that states transfer out of the juvenile system children as young as fourteen who are charged with certain offenses, both violent and non-violent (including drug-related). The bill would have encouraged, though not required, the transfer of thirteen year-olds charged with such offenses.

The incarceration of children, large numbers of children, horrendous as it is, should not be surprising in light of current policies. It is, in fact, the predictable end-product of a society that has slowly but surely criminalized youth itself. In cities across the country, curfews have been instituted, both at night and during school hours. The effect, in some cities, is that for up to eighteen hours a day, it is illegal for a teenager to be out in public without his or her parents. When kids are allowed out on the streets, they are often insufficient public spaces for their activities. Go find a group of kids hanging out anywhere in this country, and there's a good chance that at least one of them has a key chain or a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "skateboarding is not a crime." In many parts of the country, running away from home is a criminal act, regardless of the conditions of the home that the child is fleeing.

Drugs, of course, play an enormous role in the criminalization of youth. "Protecting the children" is the most common excuse given for the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of American adults jailed for consensual acts. But despite the ongoing war, the number of kids using drugs has been unaffected, and they are using at younger and younger ages. For many kids, drug use is very simply an act of rebellion against an adult culture that seems oppressive. The answer, of course, is to lock up more kids. Arrest them for marijuana, arrest them for cigarettes, arrest them for beer, arrest them for being out too late. If we're not catching enough of them, drug test them. Drug test them for school sports, for the chess club, drug test them when they apply for drivers' licenses, or simply drug test them all. Or else, as the town of Peekskill, New York is attempting to do, place surveillance cameras in the places they hang out. Find them. Catch them. Punish them. Our national motto, it seems, is that it takes a prison to raise a child.

In the 1960's, the baby boomer generation, the ones whose children are now such a threat to the fabric of society, wore t-shirts warning not to trust anyone over thirty. Today their sentiment is not to trust anyone under eighteen. Perhaps they've forgotten what it's like to be young. Or perhaps it is a generation so full of self-righteousness, so convinced of their own infallibility and superiority, that they simply don't trust anyone at all who is not a member of their ranks. Whatever the reason, they are doing no favors for their kids.

Today's children are growing up in a world where the state has declared them suspect, and has been given absolute authority to control their lives. Far from the day when an errant child would be brought home by an officer of the law to be dealt with by his or her parents, that child is now routinely taken down to the station, booked, and thrown in a cell with all the rest of the criminals. The parents, who in another time would have had a long talk, or grounded the kid or even tanned his hide for, say, smoking marijuana or even dropping a tab of acid, will now frantically try to secure the services of a lawyer (if they can afford one) and will be left to hope and pray that the child is not sentenced to jail or even held before trial, where he is at risk of being raped or beaten.

Our children are criminals, and they know it all too well. Why then should they obey our rules? Why should they respect our authority? Why should they play the game? Out of fear? That works only when they are in your line of vision. Outside of that, your words, your rules, your wishes will be respected only if the child respects you. And respect is not what we engender when we send the state out after our children. Jail them and they will reject society. Surveille them and they will retreat to the shadows. Drug test them and they will find substances for which you are not testing. Teach them that the state is all-powerful, that the power of the state is to be used as a primary method of controlling behavior, and they will grow up to use the power of the state to do things unintended by our Constitution. Or they will overthrow it.

We will not solve the problems of adult society by making criminals of our children. And we will not solve the problems of our children by locking them up as if they were adults. There are more than 11,000 children sitting right now in American jails and prisons. Many of them are being beaten. And raped. And scarred for life. Hundreds of thousands of other children, living "free" are under the constant scrutiny of the state. It is a perverse way to raise the first American generation of the twenty-first century. They will not always be children.

Adam J. Smith
Associate Director

P.S. In this time of renewed hope, we also give thanks to all of those who helped to make this past election day a turning point for drug policy reform, and all who came before them and who gave of themselves, their time and their energies to educate their neighbors on some of these important issues. We at DRCNet would also like to give thanks to all of you who have supported our work. We hope that if you have, you will continue to do so, and that if you have not, you will consider a small donation as the movement kicks into high gear. Together, with the truth, we will prevail. Thank you.

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Issue #69, 12/4/98 DRCNet Projects and Campaigns | Alert: Show of Support Needed for New Jersey Needle Exchange | US Congress Triples Military Aid to Colombia | Report: New York State Now Spending More on Prisons than Higher Education | Drug War Perjury Highlighted In Congressional Impeachment Hearings | Thousands Protest at US Army School of the Americas | Swiss Legalization Referendum Fails, but Provides Hopeful Signs for Future | Coalition Seeking DC Election Results Grows | Editorial: Criminalizing our Children
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