07/03/2008 03:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mass Incarceration of Children Must End

Save the children.

We've heard it so often and seen the pictures on television. We think we understand.

But we tend to forget that it's not just children in the Third World who need our help. Children right in our own communities are suffering, too. And although we might not think about it very often, all of us have a tremendous stake in their futures.

Vulnerable children are being ground down by bureaucratic forces in overburdened juvenile justice systems that start them on a lonely path to a life behind bars.

They're being shoved aside by schools that have adopted incredibly punitive and counter-productive zero-tolerance policies.

They're being locked up in harsh, prison-like facilities for misbehavior that in an earlier era would have warranted after-school detention or extra chores.

These juvenile facilities are like minor-league farm teams in baseball -- they just keep developing and feeding new talent into the big leagues, in this case, adult prisons. Today, across our country, there are almost 100,000 children in custody.

This reliance on mass incarceration of children is not only cruel and counterproductive, it's extremely costly to taxpayers. And it damages our economy by sapping so much potential from our youth.

It's also taking a terrible toll on African Americans. The sad reality is that black children from poor households are far more likely than their white counterparts to enter this "school-to-prison pipeline." They are suspended or expelled from school at three times the rate of white kids, and they are incarcerated at four times the rate.

When kids are suspended or jailed, they are less likely to graduate from high school. It's no wonder that fewer than half of all black males in our country get their high school diploma.

Nationally, our graduation rate is an abysmal 71 percent. In most Southern states, where there is more poverty and a larger population of African Americans, it is far worse.

Teachers are dropping out, too, at alarming rates. Many report being frustrated by chaotic classrooms and the lack of effective discipline policies.

It's time to break this cycle.

First, we need to stop putting so many kids behind bars, especially those who haven't committed violent crimes or haven't committed crimes at all. The large institutional facilities that are supposed to provide rehabilitation are really just big prisons that do little or nothing to lead children toward a better future.

For most children, incarceration should be replaced with meaningful rehabilitative programs that are based in a child's community, where parents and others can provide support.

Ultimately, the best alternative to incarceration is keeping kids in school in the first place. This will require a sea change in schools -- both in their approach to school discipline and in the services they provide to children with disabilities.

The kids most likely to end up behind bars are those with emotional disturbances or learning disabilities that affect their ability to keep up with their classmates. Too many public schools are ignoring the mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which require special academic and behavioral services for children with disabilities. This must change. The math is simple: If we don't invest more in schools, we'll keep paying more for prisons.

In addition, we must replace "zero-tolerance" policies with a smarter discipline model. All relevant research shows that these policies do not result in safer, more orderly classrooms.

Many schools now simply call the police when children misbehave. This results in thousands of kids being funneled into the juvenile justice system for behavior that isn't even criminal. In Florida, for example, more than 20,000 students are "referred" to the juvenile justice system by schools each year. The majority of them committed non-violent offenses; they receive little or no rehabilitative services.

Our nation now spends $65 billion each year to incarcerate 2.3 million people - more than any other country.

This is not the inevitable result of cracking down on crime. It's the result of a series of failed policies enacted over many years.

We need to find a better way. We can no longer afford to just throw up our hands in frustration and retreat to gated communities. Change must begin with the way we take care of our most precious resource -- the next generation.

For, as the author James Baldwin reminded us, "These are all our children. We will profit by, or pay for, whatever they become."