Juvenile incarceration: a nation’s shame a child’s nightmare

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In the immortal words of Father Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” No truer words were spoken by a real American hero, words that have also been lost on Americans today.

Photo is a screen shot from a YouTube video
Photo is a screen shot from a YouTube video

President Herbert Hoover once said “Children are our greatest natural resource.” It would be our children who carried us to the future, helping America soar to greater heights than ever imagined and extend the helping hand of America wherever it was needed. Society also once accepted the responsibility for teaching and raising them.

Sadly today, it appears we unwilling to help even ourselves. As with most of the natural resources we as a nation consume, abuse and deplete without consideration of replenishing, we’re on the fast track to wasting the greatest of all natural resources, our children. Like most they are a resource not easily replaced.

It’s no secret the United State leads the world in adult incarceration at a rate far above any other nation, including those we accuse of a variety of human rights abuses. The United States incarcerates approximately 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents with no end in sight. Jails and prisons are no longer reserved for criminals, they are big business worthy of investment by major corporations.

A far cry from what the women of Chicago’s Hull House and men of the Chicago Bar Association intended in 1899 with legislation passed to remove children from adult jails and poorhouses by establishing the world’s first juvenile court. Yet we are right back where we 100-plus years ago with the dubious honor of the highest rate of child incarceration in the world. Put into perspective, the United States has five times the number of children behind bars than India, a country of over 1.2 billion people. Reality is child incarceration in these United States in nothing new. The difference is many have figured out a way to turn a buck on it.

Over half of the children prosecuted as adults are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Offenses once afforded correctable measures such as counseling or juvenile probation are now too often reason enough to throw a minor child behind bars, even into adult jails among those already dedicated to a life of crime. Who needs a look at third world countries for problems we can find right here at home? It’s become our society’s shame. The shame of how easily we as a nation can discard like garbage our greatest natural resource, lest we take any responsibility as caretakers and role models for their demise.

The facts should be alarming to every American. It is a horrific journey in which I have some personal experience, so I am quite familiar with the lifelong emotional, mental and spiritual scars of what incarceration will do to a child. The psychological damage done to a child even by short-term juvenile incarceration is damning and often irreversible. Incarcerated children are far more likely to re-offend within a year than those given alternative sentences.

The Wabash Correction Facility in Indiana houses both adult and juvenile defenders, many of whom go from the juvenile section to the adult population because they were sentenced to adult punishments after being tried as adults. (Photo is a screen shot from the YouTube video of an MSNBC program, "Young Kids, Hard Times.”
The Wabash Correction Facility in Indiana houses both adult and juvenile defenders, many of whom go from the juvenile section to the adult population because they were sentenced to adult punishments after being tried as adults.
(Photo is a screen shot from the YouTube video of an MSNBC program, “Young Kids, Hard Times.”

America is creating a generation of socially and morally bankrupt children who can hardly be expected to know right from wrong because we refuse to deal with the social ills they confront. Social ills created by generations before them. In too many cases we give them the tools by which to hang themselves. What’s more the incarcerated child faces worse social and economic prospects than those who receive alternative sentences. In what can only be termed mass incarceration we sentence our children to lives of hardships before they ever get a chance to develop a life of their own. We handicap them before they can even get out of the gate. But in the burgeoning business of for-profit incarceration the intent is quite obvious.

There are far less expensive alternatives to incarceration, however in many cases it’s not at all about rehabilitation or even punishment but about the bottom line, money. Beds need to be filled and kids mean cash. In the culture of greed in which we live everything has a price, even your freedom. The business of privatized for-profit detention facilities turns our greatest natural resource into a hot commodity to be sold and traded like livestock. Once corporations realized they could make millions by relieving the state of the burden of caring for children in their ward kiddie prison became big business. The corporate gods envisioned huge privately run juvenile detention centers where not only would government pay them by the head to house throwaway kids, they could also churn out cheap labor for profit not unlike what has been done in adult prisons for decades.

Almost daily we hear horror stories of children with little life experience just trying to be kids being charged with crimes for things you and I once took for granted as rites of passage. The occasional schoolyard brawl or sneaking a kiss from the girl or boy you have a crush on are now assault and battery and sexual harassment. The curious kids “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” have become criminal offenses with catchy legal names like “sexting.”

Our society raises children on a steady diet of sex, violence and fear and then expects good manners from them. The adults they trust give them the cell phones with cameras school officials allow them to carry in school only to later arrest and charge them with possession of child pornography when they take questionable pictures of each other. They are given the tools by which to hang themselves and then are remanded to juvenile jail, carrying with them a conviction through the rest of their lives. Some of the same corporations who have profited on the backs of our kids have also managed to corrupt the same justice system once designed to protect them.

Photo is a screen shot from the YouTube video of an MSNBC program, "Young Kids, Hard Times.”
Photo is a screen shot from the YouTube video of an MSNBC program, “Young Kids, Hard Times.”

One of the most disgusting and reprehensible cases dubbed “kids for cash” by the media unfolded in 2008 in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. As despicable as it was, what is scarier is, it is not an isolated case. Two judges, President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan were convicted of accepting cash bribes from private juvenile jail builder Robert Mericle in return for bogus convictions and imposing harsh sentences to increase inmate numbers in Mericle’s privatized juvenile jails.

In short, a broken system enabled two highly placed representatives of the juvenile justice system to enrich themselves by selling children like prostitutes or slaves to the highest bidder. Who cares  thatthey ultimately were sentenced to twenty-eight years and seventeen years respectively, sentences far too lenient for scum like them. All it cost society was the life of one child who committed suicide and dozens of others robbed of their innocence and faith in those who were supposed to be their protectors.

What’s worse: what two unrepentant judges who profited from “kids for cash” did, or what our juvenile justice system forces upon decent judges whose hands are tied by the constraints of harsh laws and sentencing guidelines? What about the politically motivated prosecutors seeking to carve out a conviction rate for themselves by any means necessary?

It is painfully obvious our justice system, particularly the juvenile system, is broken. It’s become all too easy for us to deem a child delinquent in today’s society, instead of accepting our failure to guide them in the right direction. It is all too simple to place them in the hands of a legal system which, whether overburdened or unaffected, cares not about the present of the juveniles, let alone their future.

We allow those charged with their care, whether they be parents, teachers, judges or ourselves, to wipe their hands clean and pass the buck. In doing so we create a generation of lost kids who don’t stand a chance at a decent life and never did. There is no such thing as learning a lesson when you had no direction.

I know, I was one of the few kids amongst my friends to make it through the system, though not completely unaffected. It wasn’t easy and even today the experiences of learning to survive and lack of learned social and life skills I missed out on while incarcerated present challenges.

Young kids in handcuffs (Photo courtesy of Teen Advocates USA and the National Institute of Corrections)
Young kids in handcuffs
(Photo courtesy of Teen Advocates USA and the National Institute of Corrections)

The rate of child incarceration continues to soar largely because we as a society have become detached from the responsibility of nurturing our own children. We have handed their upbringing over to an already overburdened, bureaucrat ridden, largely ineffective educational system. Our juvenile justice system has failed our children as have legislative policy makers who enact juvenile sentencing guidelines offering little leeway for those judiciary who truly do care.

Our elected officials have sold out to lobbyists and a relatively few prison privateers who aim to profit off of an entire generation. There is no such thing as a safe kid anymore. Not safe from the system at least, a system every American has allowed to be created. The question is what will we do to fix it? What will we do to save our greatest natural resource? Will we save our children? In a country so fond of touting its good government Christian values, a great man like the late, great Father Edward Flanagan would be rolling over in his grave right about now.