Every election year, politicians talk about getting tough on crime. One easy and politically popular strategy is to show voters you are tough on crime by spending billions of dollars sending people to prison. This requires more prisons to be built to keep the ever expanding incarcerated population behind bars and reduces the money available for investment in health care, education, work force development, and early childhood development to prevent children from going into the Pipeline to Prison.
The Children's Defense Fund works nationally to stop "lock 'em up" legislation that favors punitive measures for children and youths over preventive investments. This year our fight is not limited to federal legislation. In the coming weeks we also will focus on defeating Proposition 6--a horrendous California ballot initiative that would criminalize youths through massive revisions to the state's juvenile justice codes.
Under the pretense of creating "safer neighborhoods," Proposition 6 changes current law to require that more children, as young as 14 years old, are tried and sentenced as adults. This despite the fact that a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that youths sentenced to adult prison commit more crimes and more serious crimes after release compared to their counterparts in the juvenile justice systems. Trying children as adults is inappropriate for developmental reasons (a 14-year-old's brain is not the same as an adult's brain) and is also an ineffective crime prevention strategy. We should not abandon thousands of youths to lives spent going in and out of a revolving door to prison.
Proposition 6's sweeping revisions target at-risk Black and Latino youths in socio-economically disadvantaged communities, making it especially dangerous for young people who are already struggling to stay on the right track. For example, Proposition 6 puts youths at risk of a new jail sentence for infractions as minor as failing to provide local officials with their current address. Another provision subjects families receiving federal housing assistance to yearly criminal record checks for all residents, including children. If a youth has been arrested for certain crimes, the family would lose housing assistance; this places entire families at imminent risk of homelessness. It would also make it impossible for many youths who have served their time to move back home with families who receive federal housing assistance.
In a state like California, where elected officials have not been able to raise new taxes because of a "supermajority" requirement for passing tax measures in the state legislature, any initiative that creates new program obligations without direct funding leads to less money for education, health and other programs. Proposition 6 includes no provision for new revenue yet requires new spending of more than $500 million each year for law enforcement personnel and prisons. It also mandates $500 million for new prison construction. There is no requirement to measure the effectiveness of these provisions and no plan to re-evaluate or re-focus state efforts at some later date.
Proposition 6 specifically weakens community efforts to help at-risk youths. Despite research that shows how community workers and organizations are a key component of crime reduction strategies, Proposition 6 explicitly removes community members from county Juvenile Justice Coordinating Councils. Community leaders currently provide crucial oversight over how laws are enforced and how limited resources are distributed. Their representation on these Coordinating Councils promotes community involvement that is necessary to assist youths who are discharged from juvenile facilities without the tools they need to re-enter their community and succeed.
Nearly one in five children in California is poor. More than 80,000 California children are in foster care, many of them facing tragically negative educational and economic prospects, and more than 750,000 California children lack health coverage. Even before the billions of dollars in new spending that Proposition 6 would make necessary, California already spends more than 20 times as much on each youth in a state juvenile facility as it spends on each student in public school. This is a completely backwards human and economic investment policy.
It's time for a new strategy and vision that makes prevention and early intervention, rather than punishment, the policy--in California and across America. The Children's Defense Fund supports a federal gang, delinquency, and crime prevention and intervention bill called the Youth PROMISE Act, which addresses the root causes of youth and gang violence before crime occurs. Rather than creating additional and duplicative punitive approaches that do little to prevent youths from engaging in delinquent conduct, the Youth PROMISE Act builds upon evidence-based and promising practices to reduce youth violence and delinquency.
All communities should be free of gangs and gun violence. All children should be safe. Proposition 6 is not the way to make that happen. You and I must demand that our nation stop criminalizing children at younger and younger ages and instead institute policies that place all children on a path to productive adulthood. We cannot allow Proposition 6 to become law. Do everything you can to make sure that Californians vote to reject it.
To learn more about CDF California's work to defeat Prop. 6, visit http://www.cdfca.org/.
For more information about the Children's Defense Fund's America's Cradle to Prison PipelineSM report, go to www.childrensdefense.org/CPPreport.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
Mrs. Edelman will release her new book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, September 23, 2008. The book will be a look at what's been done and what still needs to be done to make our world safe and fair for all children.