America has a fetish for incarceration. The population of those this country puts behind bars is not only noticeable for its size (almost 25% of the world’s prisoners are American), but also its demographic makeup. It is not said often enough how over-represented African-Americans are in the American prison system, close to 40% of prisoners are black, while making up less than 14% of the American population. While the race disparities are worrying, another demographic is locked up far too often, juveniles.
When compared to other nations the number of youth incarcerated in America is stunning. Figures collected from the 2000s show that the U.S. youth incarceration rate was 336 for every 100,000. In England and Wales the figures was 46.8, In Germany 23.1, and in Italy 11.3. Having been to all of the countries just mentioned, I find it impossible to believe that American youths are over four times more in need of incarceration than European youths. Even when compared to countries in Africa and Asia, America’s youth incarceration rate is noticeably high, with South Africa locking up 69 per 100,000 youths, and Japan locking up a very low 0.1. (These figures can be found on page 58 of a study on cross-national comparison of youth justice here.)
Wired recently released photos of American youths in detention. It seems wholly unrealistic to think that these sorts of institutions are conducive to rehabilitation. In fact, if you wanted to raise a criminal, you could not do much better than these juvenile detention centers. Youths are locked up, denied a good education, and resolve disputes through violence. That many of these children come from violent homes in the first place and already resentful of authority should encourage policy makers to find a way to rehabilitate children without fostering behavior that will likely see them ending up in prison.
The sorts of crimes that see children sent to juvenile facilities are predictable. When Richard Ross, the Wired photographer visited an Idaho detention center there were six girls who were there for curfew violations, molestation abuse, burglary and possession of marijuana. Humiliation and social depravation hardly seem the right way to deal with these children, who have not even finished cognitive development—some of these girls were as young as eleven.
However it is not only drug use, burglary, and curfew violations that are seeing American children being put in front of judges. In Texas, where in some schools police patrol schools, some children have been ordered to court for not tucking in their shirt or for “Class C” misdemeanors such as truancy.
Our court system was not designed for children who write on their desks or swear in class. Police should not be doing what has traditionally been the remit of teachers and parents. It is very worrying for children to be familiarized with police authority at such a young age in a setting such as a school.
Politicians in this country are betraying America’s children in so many ways. A failing education system, growing government debt, wars abroad, and the increase in surveillance are the legacy America’s children can look forward to. The least we can do is not lock so many of them up, especially when other countries have demonstrated that there are alternatives.
Image: Richard Ross