In privileged communities across America, the phrase “kids are the future” is sung to remind children that they matter. But when we put juveniles in prison, it becomes clear that our justice system does not treat every kid, teen or young adult as important to our country’s success, growth and change. If we want ideas that will bring life to worn down towns, voices that will unite, and true equality, we must give juveniles convicted of petty crimes or misdemeanors another chance. We must put more money into the future success of each child in America than we do in punishing those who make mistakes and we must be equal, humane and just in how we punish juveniles.

According to research done by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program, in October of 2015 there were 48,043 juveniles incarcerated in residential facilities across the United States. About ⅓ of these children are in state facilities, ⅓ are in local facilities and ⅓ are in private facilities. While these numbers are large, since 1995 that rate of juvenile incarceration as of 2010 has dropped 41%, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. There is hope for us to continue this trend, but without drastic change in the mindsets and legislation surrounding juvenile incarceration, we will not be able to take a significant step forward.

One, among many problems, in the way we punish juveniles is that the justice system overcorrects. The juvenile prison population has become full of children whose records are clear of homicide and assault, but who are too severely sentenced. In 2010, only one in four incarcerated juveniles had committed a violent offense such as sexual assault, robbery, homicide or aggravated assault, says a report by the Annie E Casey Foundation. Six years later, data collected in 2016 by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that across the country, a total of 40% of all juvenile detentions are due to drug possession, violation of probations, minor offenses of public order or offenses such as trespassing. These kids are not a threat to public safety, yet the systems treatment of them does not, for the most part, differentiate by intent or surrounding circumstances. In 2015, the population of incarcerated youth for “person offenses” such as rape, homicide, assault or robbery was 50% or more of the incarcerated population in only six states, 12% of the country, including the District of Columbia as shown by data collected by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program.

In the United States, we also face a problem in that minority juveniles are vastly overrepresented across the country among all types of correctional facilities. While 38% of the juvenile population is minorities, according to data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative, from 2015, 69% of the national juvenile residential placement population were minorities. Minorities are more often victims of sexual assault. In 2012, 64% of juveniles who reported being sexually victimized by either staff or other juveniles were minorities according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program. The problem of mistreatment of minority juveniles does not stop in the courtroom, but is perpetuated in juvenile facilities of all kinds.

There are two great disparities in the structure of social services and the justice system in the United States when it comes to racial and ethnic inequalities. The first is that minority juveniles have decreased access to high quality public education and support networks which have both been proven to play a large role in keeping juveniles out of prison. The second is that the criminal justice system continues to convict and sentence minorities at the harshest rate. In order to create a more just justice system, work must be done in communities across America to ensure that all children have equal access to the educational and social systems which will give them tools to reach success.

Emma Widra recently wrote an article entitled “Incarceration Shortens Life Expectancy” in which she explains that every year spent incarcerated decreases life expectancy by two years. Nationally, our country’s life expectancy has fallen five years due to the sheer size of the population of incarcerated adults in America. If we continue to put juveniles behind bars, we are continuing to devalue the lives of each individual while also negatively affecting the health of the American population as a whole.

While in many ways, it seems unimaginable to treat juveniles as anything but kids who are growing up and making mistakes, people across the country hold on to the criminal justice system as the answer to public safety and punishment. In many ways, it is easier to lock people up without second thought than it is so invest emotion, passion and time into mentoring, educating, supporting and protecting juveniles who have made mistakes. This is the reason that we spend more on the incarceration of juveniles per individual in many states across the country than we do on the education of minors. For some people, states and systems, there is no way to abolish detention centers and prisons. Many people fail to put themselves in the shoes of those imprisoned, cannot comprehend the pain that life without parole brings and believe that some people truly are “bad.” If politics get in the way,

If we can’t find a way to put an end to juvenile imprisonment as a whole, we should at least work towards what is called “the Missouri Method” in juvenile residential centers across the country. Of the state’s 32 residential facilities, only three of them have more than 33 beds according to a report called “The Costs of Confinement” done by The Justice Policy Institute. The recidivism rate is around 8.7 percent which proves that the low juvenile to employee ratio, high educational standards and intentionally low-population system is not only effective but perhaps even beneficial for juveniles and their communities. Even more impressive is the way in which the Missouri Department of Youth Services has configured their finances. According to Youth First, the state spends about $89,170 per juvenile per year, only 9.7 times more than it spends per student per year in the public school system. $89,170 is not an insignificant number, but in the context of the country as a whole, it is among the lowest.

The United States criminal justice system can no longer operate as the catch-all for kids have made mistakes within the legal realm. Anybody who spends time with teenagers knows how hard it is to create a balance between tough and understanding, but can also knows how necessary it is to support teenagers as they grow up. While the American public education system is constantly working to improve the academic and social lives of teens, it is clear that the same is not being done by the criminal justice system. In order to continue to grow and improve as a country, we have to start with the way we treat those at the bottom of the social, economic or racial hierarchy which is so deeply, and unfortunately, engrained in our country.

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