12/30/2016 07:39 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2017

Our Youth Belong In Schools Not Prisons


On any given day upwards of 50,000 young people are living apart from their families in detention centers, youth prisons, and other facilities as a direct result of our nation's broken juvenile justice system. Another 5,500 youth are held in adult jails and prisons. The financial cost, passed on to taxpayers, of caging thousands of children -- more than any other country in the world -- far exceeds the cost of providing therapeutic alternatives and educational opportunities. The tragic untold cost, however, is the emotional and physical toll on our youth, families, and communities.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth, especially LGBTQ youth of color, make up a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated. In fact, according to a new report by the Movement Advancement Project, LGBTQ youth comprise 20 percent of all incarcerated youth and 40 percent of incarcerated girls. Of all the LGBTQ youth who are incarcerated, 85 percent are youth of color. These youth who already face increased risk of discrimination, often experience a confluence of factors -- from family rejection to biased teachers and law enforcement to complicated and outdated laws around drug use and sex work -- that funnel them out of schools and into the prison system. This is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Kortnee Armanii Davinie of Florida came dangerously close to becoming another statistic. As a young black transgender woman she was bullied in school and treated differently by her school administration. She began to skip class to avoid the stress and was soon caught up in a world of drugs and engaging in sex work in order to survive. "Then it hit me," she told us, "that I have a life, and I have so much more potential to do a lot of things that people said I never could, so I beat the school-to-prison pipeline stereotypes. I'm currently a college student making big changes in myself and my community."

Sadly, for every Kortnee there are many more youth who end up in and out of the system, finding it difficult to ever get back on their feet. One young person, Christian Haro Cotero, who is featured in last month's San Francisco Magazine, is spending upwards of 9-years in jail after being tried as an adult for committing a non-fatal crime at the age of 14. Cotero suffered many years of abuse at home and in the streets, none of which was taken into consideration during this sentencing in Santa Clara County, where the notorious judge on the case has a reputation for trying children as adults. Between 2010 and 2014 Santa Clara County filed 35 percent more youth as adults Los Angeles, the largest county in the nation.

Youth who enter the juvenile justice system are more likely to return later in life. In a study of youth in Pittsburgh, about half of youth involved before turning 18 had a subsequent conviction before the age of 25, but after 25, the rates of reoffending dramatically dropped. In a survey by Black and Pink of more than 1,100 currently incarcerated LGBTQ adults, the majority (58 percent) had been arrested before age 18.

Name a statistic -- suicide rates, abuse, school suspension, bullying, and so on -- and chances are LGBTQ youth and youth of color are at increased risk due to the perfect storm of prejudice, systemically flawed policies in schools, and the criminal justice system.

The web of discriminatory laws, biased individuals, and our corporate, profit-driven prison system make addressing these concerns and helping our youth a monumental task, but in order for us to create a healthier and more sustainable society it is one that must be prioritized. Our youth deserve to be in schools not prisons. They deserve to be supported and nurtured in ways that we know will help them grow up to be compassionate adults who contribute and give back to society in meaningful ways.

There are concrete steps we can take right now to support our youth. First, schools need to eliminate so-called "zero tolerance policies" that push students out of school and onto the streets making theme more likely to get caught up in the system. Second, states need to close youth prisons and redirect resources to community-based alternatives to incarceration and youth-serving programs in the community. Third, teachers, police, and anyone who comes in contact with youth should be required to undergo regular training to understand the unique challenges LGBTQ youth and youth of color face. Finally, children should not be tried as adults -- study after study has shown that prosecuting youth in adult court increases the likelihood that youth will reoffend and does not make our communities safer.

Equality Federation and Youth First! are committed to growing our partnership and coalition to advocate alongside youth to end youth incarceration, but we can't do it without your support. It is up to all of us to speak out at school board meetings, contact our lawmakers, and listen to our youth. We can all do something. Even if all you're able to offer is a hug and a heart-to-heart conversation with a young person at risk -- you'll be making a difference.