So last week I ranted about criminal justice in the USA. In this post I’d like to combine some more thoughts on this topic with reviews of three excellent books on the subject.
PARANOIA AND HEARTBREAK by Jerome Gold is made up of unedited entries in the journals Gold kept while he worked at Ash Meadow, a juvenile detention center in rural Washington State. The candid and personal nature of this book makes it a compelling read. Gold, although always sympathetic to the juveniles in his care, nevertheless confesses to viewing some of them as incorrigible, irreparably damaged by abuse or just plain irritating. He profiles several inmates who made an impression in him during his years at Ash Meadows but also goes into some depth about the political complexities he faced in this unionized but underfunded environment.
Gold doesn’t take special care in detailing either the background or the race of the inmates he profiles but readers get the impression that this is definitely a racially mixed group, if not very economically mixed. These are poor kids, most of them victims of abuse, some of them are gang involved and many have been addicted. True to its title, there’s a lot of heartbreak in this book, quite a bit of paranoia and not much hope. That’s the reality I guess. Gold was there for fifteen years so he would know.
In contrast LAST CHANCE IN TEXAS by John Hubner offers some hope. This book details a groundbreaking program in a Texas Juvenile Detention center which is literally a last chance for juvenile offenders to avoid long prison sentences in adult jails. Hubner profiles two inmates (they are called “students”), a boy and a girl at the Giddings School. The bulk of the book is made up of harrowing detailed accounts of the group therapy these kids must complete to graduate from the program and be eligible for parole.
Again, the kids are victims of abuse. Again they are deeply psychologically damaged. Again, though racially mixed, the population of this facility is skewed towards minorities. Not everybody succeeds in the Giddings School; Hubner makes that clear. But some do, and records show an unprecedented success rate in rehabilitating the most serious juvenile offenders. The book, as a result, is much more clear in the position it takes about the treatment and potential rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.
After reading two non-fiction works on a subject, it’s always hard to then turn to a YA fiction dealing with the same issues. LOCKDOWN by Walter Dean Myers is the story of Reese, a juvenile who is doing time for theft. Fresh from reading about the messed-up kids in Ash Meadow and Giddings, I found Reese a little well-balanced. I liked his story, the relationship he formed with his fellow inmates, the staff and the residents of the elder hostel where he works on day release. But it all felt a bit sanitized. Even with the mild language and violence I felt Myers could have gone much darker with this story. Still, Myers tends to write for less accomplished readers so perhaps the simplicity of this story was necessary. The inmate stories in the other books were anything but simple.
There are some hard truths to be learned here.
I’ve learned that criminal corrections, especially juvenile corrections is a system that disproportionately affects minorities both in the USA and in Canada. But even once in that system, non-whites are treated more harshly. For example, in the USA of all the inmates currently serving life without parole sentences (JLWOP) for non-murder offenses committed while juveniles, 100% are non-white. 100%. Surely that must set alarm bells off somewhere. It indicates not only the type of sentencing that contravenes UN regulations, but also an unacceptable imbalance in the sentencing of non-white youths. I’m not exactly surprised, by this, given what we all know about the over representation of minorities in the criminal justice system, but it is still jarring. How can authorities and law-makers look at that statistic in particular and not ask themselves if the system is broken?
I’m sure there are all kinds of rationalizations. One is that longer sentences, and JLWOP sentences in particular, often result from a crime that is gang related. Certain courts add years to a sentence based on whether the crime was committed with a gun and/or was gang related. So a car-jacking by a known gang member, committed with a gun, for example will likely result in a much longer sentence than one committed by a non-gang member. Gang members are far more likely to be minorities. Ergo minorities are far more likely to be sentenced to long terms or JLWOP.
Shouldn’t this be a call to arms for reform to our schools, our gang prevention programs, our diversion programs, drug rehabilitation, youth employment and mentoring? Just because it’s only minority kids who are falling foul of these trends does that mean we can just blithely accept it? Isn’t the imbalance MORE of a reason to say “enough”?
The Supreme Court has recently ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles are “cruel and unusual” and therefore non-constitutional. In many cases this will be retroactively applied so that some inmates currently serving JLWOP will be able to apply to have their sentence re-evaluated. This is an important step, but doesn’t mean that all JLWOP sentences will be re-evaluated, nor that JLWOP sentences will no longer be applied, only that courts cannot make them mandatory.
In short, it’s still okay in the USA to send children to jail for the rest of their lives. 2500 young men and women thus sentenced are in prison right now.
I think it is time we all take a step back and look at what I consider to be a war on teenagers, especially teenage boys, and doubly especially teenage boys of color. This is not as reactionary a perception as you may think. Many cultures treat teenage boys with extreme hostility, not the least of which the polygamous Mormon sects right here in Canada and in the USA. It is the biological imperative for powerful men (white, rich politicians and lawmakers in our culture) to mistrust and marginalize young men, because they represent a threat to their reproductive hegemony.
The young men who fall foul of the law are typically abused, neglected or ostracized by the high status males in their own milieu, including almost universally, their own father. They are then routinely and systematically mistrusted, mistreated and maligned by a parade of older male teachers, principals, truant officers, police officers, probation officers, lawyers, judges and corrections staff. Is it any wonder they crack and end up in life sentences? Is this not the exact result that the dominant males are hoping for? Permanent exile? Just like in tribal times, just like with the Mormon sects?
Every generation maligns the one that follows it. My grandparents hated rock n’ roll, my parents hated punk, I’m supposed to hate hip hop , my hip hopping nephew will no doubt hate the inter-planetary bleep that his children will obsess over. In a healthy, self-actualized culture this lack of cross generational understanding is nothing more than a source of tension at the Thanksgiving table. But our culture is not healthy. Doubt and fear permeate the national psyche even in Canada – it is far worse in the USA. People who are unsure of their next mortgage payment, who don’t know how they can afford health care, who feel as though the enemy is at the gates, who wonder if the planet might turn against them operate in siege mentality. The options for the young males in situations like this are twofold: go to war or go into exile. In our culture exile is prison.
High schools are little better than prisons themselves. Many have metal detectors and armed guards. Students are locked in. Fights are almost daily. How bad does this have to get before someone twigs that this is not working anymore? How far will this war on youth go? I don’t have answers for this but I do have a suggestion that I hope you all take up with me.
It is time to start working for teen suffrage. Before women’s suffrage women were routinely marginalized, abused, incarcerated (often in lunatic asylums), disenfranchised and exploited. They had no power and they had no voice because they had no vote. Sound familiar? I’m joining the call to lower the voting age to 16, with voting for 14 year-olds available based on testing, like a driver’s license. Let’s not forget that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in response to American men being drafted to fight in Vietnam before they could vote.
Now teenagers are being tried as adults, they are trapped in an education system that nobody thinks is working, they are supporting themselves, they are plugged in and informed, they are carrying the dreams of their parents on their shoulders, they are raising their siblings, they are inventing apps, they are joining campaigns, they are protesting, tweeting, facebooking and blogging. They have a voice, but no one is listening because their opinion doesn’t matter to policy makers. They can’t vote; they can’t elect someone. Who cares?
They are asking for help; they are not getting it. How can we change this?