The Criminalization of Youth

If we want to offer children a better future, we need to get the criminal justice system out of their lives.

Ben Koditschek / Jacobin

“Gang bangers,” “superpredators,” dangerous “illegal aliens.” While the Trump administration has intensified tough-on-crime rhetoric, there is nothing new about equating youth with criminality. Children in the United States continue to be subjected to police abuse in their schools and neighborhoods, or torn away from their parents by the state.

Trump’s efforts to equate immigrants with violent gangs has enhanced the hysteria around gangs. But police across the country have long sought to define the behavior of youth as “gang involved.” They have entered hundreds of thousands of children into gang databases, subjected tens of thousands to injunctions, and swept up thousands in broad conspiracy cases. By defining young people as gang members, police and prosecutors are signaling that these children are beyond help and must be subjected to the most extreme forms of punishment.

This negative characterization of poor and largely nonwhite youth is in sync with the broader push to replace social services with criminalization. As more and more deprived neighborhoods are denied access to decent jobs and schools, their young people are criminalized as “the worst of the worst” to ensure that the problems in these communities are understood as individual and group moral failures, rather than the result of rapacious market forces and a hollowed-out state.

In many cities, however, young people are fighting back. The Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles recently won a victory against the use of gang injunctions. Black Youth Project 100 and other groups in Chicago are pushing back against the use of gang databases. Their recent report, “Tracked and Targeted” showed that 128,000 people are in the Chicago database, including 11 percent of the city’s black population. Youth advocates and organizers in New York City recently pressured the City Council to hold hearings on how the NYPD uses its databases to carry out sweeping conspiracy cases. Among other things, they learned that 99 percent of people in the database (some as young as thirteen) were nonwhite and that police continue to use young people’s social media profiles to target them for inclusion in databases and conspiracy cases.

Young people continue to be criminalized in schools as well. Indeed, delinquency can be assigned to children beginning in toddlerhood — preschools routinely suspend pupils as young as three years old. The undermining of public education through high-stakes testing, cuts to support services, and privatization schemes has been combined with zero-tolerance discipline policies and an increasing number of school police. The result has been high levels of suspension, expulsions, and arrests, especially for students of color and those in special-education programs.

The burden of these policies has fallen not just on young men. As Monique Morris shows in her book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, schools are where girls face the greatest risks of police abuse. Recent school shootings have encouraged calls for even more school police and the arming of teachers, while overall funding for school counselors and alternative disciplinary systems declines.

Groups like the aclu and the Advancement Project are fighting against school policing on the national level by pointing out the gross racial disparities in arrests at schools and the ways in which school police brutalize students. At the local level, students are demanding that resources be shifted from policing to counseling and instruction. Young people organizing with Freedom Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin learned that the $360,000 a year spent on school police was coming out of the school budget, not the police budget. They are demanding that those resources be radically redirected. In New York City, the “Counselors Not Cops” campaign has been fighting to abolish zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and shift policing resources to student needs. They point out that there are more NYPD personnel in public schools than counselors of all varieties.

We have all been appalled by recent images of children being torn away from their parents while seeking asylum in the United States. This separation is part of a dehumanizing policy of “deterrence” intended to discourage future refugees fleeing violence in Central America. Child refugees are usually the most at risk from reactionary border policies. As Reece Jones points out in his book, Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, it is young people who are most likely to die crossing borders and languishing in camps.

Our criminal justice system has long torn families apart under the false logic of deterrence, though. Millions of American children have a parent taken away from them through mass incarceration. Thousands of mothers give birth each year while imprisoned, and most have their newborn infants taken from them within hours or days of giving birth. There is a huge amount of research on the negative consequences for these children in terms of mental health, educational achievement, and future incarceration.

But there is some good news.Overall youth-incarceration rates have dropped in recent years. Several states have moved to rely more on community-based solutions that attempt to work with young people while they live at home. The outcomes from these approaches are usually better, and shuttering locked youth facilities is saving states millions of dollars. Courts have also curtailed the use of the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles.

Unfortunately, as Alexandra Cox found in her study Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People, many of the “reforms” undertaken in the juvenile justice system reproduce a relationship of control and degradation, rather than truly addressing the profound needs of many of these young people. If we want to offer children a better future, we need to get the criminal justice system out of their lives. These young people need sustained care, support, and opportunities to build a safe and stable future, not more threats, coercion, and punishment.