There has been a lot of background chatter lately about the school-to-prison pipeline, and in Pennsylvania a pair of judges were actually arrested and convicted of corruption in a kickback scheme from the operator of a private juvenile prison. They ruined kids’ lives and kept the beds full, and made a boatload of cash doing it. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated thousands of juvenile sentences, but they can’t really make the lives of those kids whole. They can’t restore the time, and they can’t bring back the child who killed himself after being sold like a steer.
When I worked in public health, and to a somewhat lesser extent in emergency medicine, I came in contact with a lot of juveniles who had diagnosed mental illnesses. Depending on whether their zip code put them east or west of Troost Avenue (when I worked in the ER at RMC) determined whether the kid went to a psych unit or juvie if they acted out, usually because they stopped taking their meds.
I first studied neuroscience thirty years ago, when the department was the bastard child of the Psychology and Biology departments and Graceland was still a College. Since I returned to Graceland to get a current degree in Psychology that I can take to grad school with confidence, the DSM has undergone three revisions and has seen a whole proliferation of diagnoses for behaviors that were previously just chalked up to “being a dick.”
The thing about the proliferation of diagnoses is, it labels a hell of a lot more kids, especially those who live east of Troost, and since the resources stop at the labeling level, the kids east of Troost end up taken to the ER to be evaluated and then on to juvie, while the kids west of Troost get taken home by the cops when busted for the same behavior. My white kid, who has always lived west of Troost, was caught with less than a quarter-ounce of weed at the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. The cheap, brown weed was dumped out into the breeze, the chunks ground into the mud and the kid was given the worst punishment imaginable — handed a business card and told “Tell your mother to call me within 24 hours. Don’t make me come to your house.”
We all know that juveniles don’t have the same rights as adults, that school lockers can be searched at will and have no expectation of privacy, for example. But did you know that kids can be locked up for being excessively tardy or snarky? I would have been so screwed…I was quite the vexation for most of my high school teachers, driving more than one of them to the point that they said out loud that I was a right fine smartass, but I would never make a living at it. They obviously didn’t see the internet coming. Every month when I endorse my paycheck from Washington Monthly, I think of looking them up on Facebook and telling them how very wrong they were.
Every year, an estimated 10,000 youth are incarcerated for non-violent status offenses. These kids often lack support networks, come from broken homes or have mental health needs that contribute to their behaviors. Incarceration has not been shown to help overcome this. Instead, thousands of youth are placed in facilities that expose them to violence, disconnect them from their families and communities, and offer few pathways for rehabilitation. Because of their confinement, the chances they will come into contact with the law again are increased.
This doesn’t just hurt the kids, it hurts taxpayers. The overreliance on incarceration of non-violent youth comes with a hefty annual price tag – as much as $100,000 per child in some states – in addition to the long-term costs to victims and taxpayers that are incurred when too many kids leave lockup more troubled than when they arrived. In other words, the last place where these kids should be is incarcerated.
Kids need support networks, not incarceration. The problem is, those support networks need to be organic. They need to start, ideally, when the child is still in the womb, and they begin with good prenatal care and nutrition, parenting classes and incentives to keep both parents involved in the child’s life. They definitely need to be in place by the time they’re ready for pre-school. We’ve tried every experiment that has been dreamed up in education for the last forty years, and I don’t need to look any further than my own city to see that they’ve all been a complete and utter failure. We need to restore neighborhoods, and that starts with a return to neighborhood schools which serve as anchors where they still exist.
Once a kid reaches adolescence and gets in trouble with the law, it’s a little late to establish the social supports that a kid needs to stay out of trouble with school authorities and with the law, but we can’t just write them off, either. They have been written off and didn’t do anything to deserve it, and it isn’t their fault that society failed them when they were younger, it’s ours, and it will continue to be our fault if we don’t bite the bullet and spend the money to do right by them now. Before it really is too late.