Kids. Cuffs. And No Future.
Listen to Episode Five of NPR’s This American Life. And yes I mean Episode Five of a series that has more than four hundred episodes to this date. You can find the original story here under “Act Three” if you’re curious. If not now, then you will be.
So this episode originally aired all the way back in December 1995 - but it touches on a something that seems to be missing in Mainstream political/social discussions alike: kids being tried as adults in the U.S.
Let’s be frank. This is a phenomenon that contributes to the growing marginalization of lower income communities, especially Black and Latino male youth. In the interviews from the people who work closely with criminal cases involving minors you could see only thing: sending a child to an adult prison - for whatever crime - causes more trouble than it prevents. And in the case of minors coming from disadvantaged communities or families with little safety nets, trouble isn’t something that can be easily overcome.
Before I go on, just remember one thing: We have a Juvenile Justice System that’s been in effect since the first Juvenile Court in 1899. However, sending these teens to an adult prison has become a recent trend that threatens all of what we’ve hoped to accomplished with the separate Juvenile Justice System. Let’s take a look at the story from This American Life.
At 13 years-old, JB finds himself a Ward of the State after his mother is sent to jail for substance abuse. His father’s absent, but the boy manages to find a surrogate family in a local gang. We soon find JB dealing drugs not simply for profit, but as a means solidify his bond with his new-found albeit horrible choice of a new family.
So JB loses an ounce. Or rather, it’s taken from him by a rival dealer. He’s now faced with the threat of disappointing the older members of this gang - whom have taken the place of the father figure in JB’s life - but more importantly the threat of losing his own life if he cannot retrieve the heroin. Or.. he could take the gang’s offer, and kill the dealer who stole it.
So he does.
And he gets fifty-two years in an adult prison system. He’ll be released on parole in his mid 40’s without the ability to vote or receive any suitable job because of the felony murder-charge attached to his record.
At age 13: his life is over.
Now, look at the flipside.. While the adult penal system has few opportunities during and after their sentence - the Juvenile Correction Department offers minors mental health services, one-on-one tutoring/focused classroom attention, and counselors who could give JB a second chance at becoming a productive member of society at an age that is still impressionable. He would be released at 21 and only after the mandatory counseling and education that’s missing in his life. He’d be able to vote, get a decent job and have more of a motivation to work within our society rather than at its edges.
But that won’t happen.
JB’s going to be released as man who’s spent more than three quarters of his fucking life amongst career criminals and other people who feed on society rather than edify it.
So what could you possibly expect from that?
by Paul Notice
Originally published by the New Student Union, May 2012.