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A Childhood Behind Bars

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I co-authored this post with a colleague of mine, Philadelphia native and former juvenile delinquent Marvin Bing. Marvin (@MarvinBing) is a product of the foster care system and currently working on the "Raise The Age" New York Campaign.

We've all witnessed a 5-year-old temper tantrum but if you're one of those rare and lucky people who hasn't, take some time and walk in your local toy store. Hovered around every baby doll or toy car, children who haven't gotten all they wanted will sometimes act out; this is nothing out of the norm. But now for many young people around the country, a moment of childish rebellion has been criminalized in our justice system, in some cases extremely harshly. In 2005, a 5-year-old Florida girl, was forcibly thrown on a table and handcuffed by three St. Petersburg police officers, and then placed in a police cruiser. Stories like those are becoming all too common in cities and states around the country, with any indiscretion, as grounds for arrest.

When we examine the juvenile justice system, people often recall the stories they've seen on the news. They imagine youth that are committing heinous crimes running through the streets of the city unsupervised and out of control. A more accurate archetype is that of a young boy, maybe 15 years old, who has made a non-violent mistake, probably while hanging out with friends. Without regard to the nature of his offense, this young man is locked up in a detention facility, away from his family, his school, and with other, more serious offenders -- possibly with adult criminals. He is scared, alone, and racked with guilt and apprehension for what impact this stupid mistake will have on his future. Instead of receiving counseling and guidance on making better decisions as he matures, he is treated like a career criminal. It should come as little surprise, that the likelihood of this young man becoming a career criminal has increased, when the same system tasked with changing his behavior have further encouraged and no doubt informed him on becoming one.

According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, even with juvenile offences on the decline, the population of youth confined in secure detention facilities before trial has grown. More than half are 15 years old or younger -- a third are 14 or younger -- and 70 percent of them are being held for non-violent offenses. The disturbing fact is that a disproportionately high rate of these youth are youth of color, specifically as a result of zero tolerance policies and legislation which proponents advocate to decrease crime, has resulted in increasing crime and unnecessarily inflicting extreme punishment on children in and out of the classroom.

These zero tolerance policies which originated as a response to high incidents of violence, drugs and weapons on school grounds, have in recent years turned into mandated consequences regardless of the specifics of the infraction and have been widened to now include almost any school disruption, leading to a spike in suspensions, expulsions and arrests. A policy created to protect all students and provide a safe learning environment should not be used as a tool to increase the pipeline to prison, specifically for students of color. The Civil Rights Data Collection reported that in 2009-2010 school year, black students accounted for only 18 percents of student enrollment but makeup nearly 35 percent of students suspended. The data also shows that 46 percent of black students suspended were suspended more than once and 36 percent faced expulsion.

As compared to their white counterparts, African Americans are three-times and Latino students are nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended. Systematic inequality and institutional racism has become a norm in which students of color are disciplined from a far more pugnacious posture. Our country has a history of segregated schools (those mandated by law or white flight), lack of accessibility to resources within poorer districts, racially motivated stereotypes and hostile learning environments. These policies have failed and lauded some into a false sense of safety and effectiveness, while not protecting anyone but the system it supports.

Many of our laws intentionally limit the scope of decisions young people are able to make. The law prevents teenagers under 18 years old from voting, getting married without parental consent, purchasing tobacco or enlisting in the military, to name a few well-known restrictions. These laws are based on the understanding that the decision-making facility of the brain is not yet fully developed until 25 years old, an understanding that is backed up by modern brain research. Yet 44 states and the District of Columbia regard children as young as 14 years old as mature enough to stand trial as an adult. In New York and North Carolina, 16-year-olds are automatically charged as adults. Which means, they are considered to have acted intentionally with full knowledge of the consequences, and they run the risk of being thrown into jail with adults, this is a system that doesn't lower our crime statistics, it simply breeds more crime.

Youth who are remanded to an adult prison facility become vulnerable targets. Incarcerated youth are 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon, and face a higher risk of sexual assault, than children placed in youth facilities. Additionally these youth have shown a greater propensity for psychiatric problems, including suicide attempts, stress-related illnesses and drug abuse than those in a juvenile facility.

The most alarming of all of the youth juvenile statistics is the fact that charging children as adults doesn't reduce crime -- So why do we do it? Many policy makers and elected officials will and have outlined a number of benefits resulting from the current state of our justice system but facts are telling a different story. Any given year, thousands of youth, in some cases as young as 13 years old, are charged as adults. As highlighted by research organizations like the Justice Policy Institution, charging youth as adults actually increases the likelihood these young adults will offend again. Youth who are transferred to the adult criminal justice system are more likely to be re-arrested for crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system. In a case study done by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (No Place for Children) reports that an overwhelming majority -- approximately 80 percent -- of youth released from adult prisons will go on to reoffend, often for more serious crimes.

Around the nation, just a few localities have reversed this trend and the results are clear. In counties from Illinois to Washington to Texas, alternative programs, which involve community-based treatments, counseling and mentoring, have not only reduced recidivism but also saved taxpayers millions of dollars a year. The juvenile justice reform movement is nascent, however early indications have demonstrated how misguided strictly punitive policies are and the facts show that they've exasperated the problem.

Public awareness campaigns across the country are pushing to "Raise the Age" so that a more comprehensive approach can be taken for criminal responsibility. In New York, activists are petitioning Governor Cuomo to change the age at which children can be charged as adults. Others are calling for more proactive and innovative solutions, that allow for a child's age and circumstances of their offense to be taken into consideration. As a country, it's extremely foolish to ignore the psychological and social challenges that are contributing to delinquency among our youth. Punitive policies are not working and will not work to decrease crime or eliminate youth re-arrest. For a step in the right direction, we must first recognize that young people are not criminals and shouldn't be treated as so.