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The Criminalization of Youth

Who are we really protecting when we treat kids like second-class citizens?
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Juvenile detention center. (Photo: David E Waid/Shutterstock)

Juvenile detention center. (Photo: David E Waid/Shutterstock)

As a theatre artist, I regularly work with young people to write and perform stories that speak back to a society that labels them “at risk,” “delinquent,” “dangerous,” and “apathetic.” The youth are smart, engaged, and innovative. And many of them are in prison.

Drawing on storytelling, movement, and other approaches to performance, participants between the ages of 13 and 21 explore gender, racial justice, and how identity shapes experience in the Performing Justice Project I co-direct with Lynn Hoare at the University of Texas-Austin.

Recently, a young woman performed an autobiographical monologue about selling drugs to pay the mortgage following her mother’s incarceration. Standing alone on our makeshift stage in the prison gymnasium, she implicated the audience: “I know I need help, but I don’t think boot camp is it.”

The Justice Policy Institute recently released new findings that estimated the personal, social, and emotional costs of incarcerating young people to youth, families, and communities at between $8 billion and $21 billion each year.

This young woman reminds me that the United States, with all its wealth and opportunity, continues to treat many young people as second-class citizens, often punishing them for their best efforts at survival. Not surprisingly, youth rights are a contentious issue in this country.

The U.S. and Somalia are the only two countries in the world that have yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty designed to protect children’s rights. Some critics suggest that the U.S. will never ratify the document because it is “anti-family” and bans the option for life-long prison sentences, a penalty most often assigned to people of color.

All too often, young people are ignored, mistreated, or otherwise excluded and incarcerated by society long before they are sentenced to time behind bars. We repeatedly criminalize youth, holding them accountable for systemic failures on the part of our social and education systems, as well as our policing bodies.

It is time to re-evaluate the rights of the child in this country, and re-think the ways that we treat and police children.

As we’ve been reminded repeatedly in recent months, young people in the U.S. must contend not only with police brutality, but also with dangerous assumptions and stereotypes by adults that youth are “would-be thugs,” up to no good, and in need of armed containment. And, in many cases, young people are criminalized not just for their age, but also for the color of their skin, their gender identities, mental health challenges, and poverty or other traumatic experiences.

I’ve worked with teenagers who are incarcerated, at least in part, for their own exploitation in sex trafficking. With zero-tolerance policies, schools are expelling kids at alarming rates—often for non-violent offenses. And government officials continue deporting unaccompanied minors across our borders—returning young refugees to known violent and inhumane conditions.

Last year, a 17-year-old Latino boy in El Paso, Texas, was sentenced to 50 years in prison after a deadly altercation with an aggressive, off-duty police officer. Despite the U.S. ban on “death-in-prison” sentences for youth, this teenager, who had no previous involvement with the law, will be almost 70 when released from prison. This is dangerously close to a death-in-prison sentence, as well as a missed opportunity to positively support a child’s development.

These examples point to how current U.S. policies and procedures can harm young people. They also raise important questions around what it actually means to support children and child rights.

“Some 10,000 children are housed in adult jails and prisons on any given day in America” and “children as young as 8 have been prosecuted as adults, ” according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

The recent police killings of 16-year-old Jessica Hernández, seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice highlight additional dangers facing young people—especially young people of color. And yet, as these horrific events took center stage in the media, there was little attention paid to the fact that these victims were children.

All too often, young people are ignored, mistreated, or otherwise excluded and incarcerated by society long before they are sentenced to time behind bars.

The criminalization and victimization of young people is often framed as an effort to make schools and streets safer. We need to understand, however, who is being protected from whom, as well as the short- and long-term impacts of U.S. policies toward young people.

The Justice Policy Institute recently released new findings that estimated the personal, social, and emotional costs to youth, families, and communities of incarcerating young people at between $8 billion and $21 billion each year. But “community-based approaches to youth offending, and programs individually tailored to a youth’s needs can cost as little as $27,375 a year,” according to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

In Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri, community arts organizations offer creative alternatives for court-involved youth that focus on social justice and positive youth development. Groups such as the Black Youth Project 100 and the Youth First! Initiative are organizing around community-based alternatives to incarceration, such as restorative justice and therapeutic programs. But the U.S. needs to revisit the rights of the child on a policy level.

We need to re-imagine what it means to protect all youth and communities—and not just a few. We need public officials, lawmakers, parents, artists, teachers, and others youth-allies to demand a shift in what this country values and where we target our resources.

We must aggressively stop racial and gender bias in our schools and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. We need to disrupt cycles of poverty and direct more resources to support the health and well-being of women and children. Young people must be allowed to falter; incarcerating youth for non-violent crimes and trauma-related behaviors violates their human rights.

Making systemic change will require that our country acknowledge the deep-seated biases and fears that underpin our treatment of young people in the U.S. We will have to acknowledge to and for children that they have rights. And finally, it will require that more people become youth-allied adults willing to demand, in every public and private space, that child rights matter.