Last week, the Georgetown University Journal on Poverty Law and Policy co-hosted a symposium on “the intersection of juvenile justice and poverty.”
Speakers came at the topic from different angles, but there was remarkable consensus on the big picture. To wit, there are too many juveniles and not enough justice in the juvenile justice system.
Everyone who spoke agreed that the essential thing is to keep youth out of the system because it tends to produce adults who cycle in and out of prison or, at the very least, subsist on the margins of society.
And, though not much was said on this score, the juveniles who are kept out are mainly those whose parents can afford private attorneys, plus those whose white, middle-class background inclines school officials, law enforcement officers and others to let them go with a warning. (Gun possession in school is a partial exception here, but that’s another story.)
Elements of the juvenile justice system can be improved. For example:
- Reform schools and the like could provide better education, training, health care and supportive services that would equip their charges to return to school or get a job when released.
- There could be more and better programs to help discharged youth reintegrate.
- Schools could be required to eliminate barriers they’ve erected to keep discharged former students from re-enrolling.
But, the bottom line, speakers said, is that the juvenile justice system is intrinsically harmful because both detention and the institutionalization that often follows are traumatic and disrupt normal development.
So we need to focus on prevention. This will involve broad-based community programs that address risk factors from birth–or even earlier. And these programs will have to integrate families, schools, health care and social services, housing and community development programs.
A tall order. The research is there and so are promising models. There are pockets of federal funds that can be tapped.
But, as a nation, we are still focused on deterring anti-social conduct by punishing offenders–youth and adults alike. And punishment generally means incarceration, especially if you’re poor.
So we’ll need a major policy shift and a whole new level of commitment to prevent the ongoing waste of human potential that our way of handling juvenile lawbreakers perpetrates.
Children’s Defense Fund has launched a campaign to end our “cradle to prison pipeline.” It’s got action steps for us as individuals and for our communities, organizations and government agencies. There’s a lot to do. But the cost of not doing it is enormous–and heart-breaking.