Opinion: America’s youth should lead the fight for criminal justice


The United States incarcerates more of its youth than any other country in the world. The numbers are staggering. On any given day, as many as 60,000 to 70,000 American children spend their night in detention – away from their families and their homes.

As Republicans and Democrats in Congress come together to address our broken criminal justice system, both parties should agree that it is wrong to continue putting children through such harsh treatment.

Both of our organizations have co-hosted national summits and policy discussions to advance solutions and actions needed to achieve meaningful reform. But this week, we joined forces with a new partner, and we’ll focus on a vulnerable population too often overlooked – our nation’s youth.

In anticipation of Fusion’s forthcoming documentary about the juvenile justice system, Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children (airing on Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. EST), the two of us joined Fusion today in our nation’s capital – along with other leading voices for reform including Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the Campaign for Youth Justice, the ACLU and Koch Industries, Inc. – to launch an effort raising awareness about the harsh and devastating realities of our nation’s juvenile justice system – and its impact on our youth.

While figures are certainly shocking, stories from children themselves are more jarring, recounting experiences that no person should have to go through.

“Being in isolation to me felt like I was on an island all alone, dying a slow death from the inside out,” recalled one California youth in 2012, who goes by the name of Kyle B.

Brian, another teenager in Ohio, appears physically rattled and emotionally tormented as he recalls his experiences in solitary confinement: “You start hearing things, and nobody’s in your room talking to you. I was hallucinating a lot … I was tripping hard.”

These aren’t scenes from a post-apocalyptic movie, or recollections of wartime prisoners. These are the stories of kids in America – and their voices capture real experiences in schools, jails and prisons across the country.

Every year, more than 2 million youth become formally involved with the juvenile justice system. Of those, up to 70 percent have at least one diagnosable mental health need. 20-25 percent have serious emotional issues.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially in a nation notorious for its astronomical incarceration rates: we house a quarter of the world’s known prison population, though our nation only represents five percent of the global population.

Our justice system is indisputably broken. That’s why reform efforts have generated support virtually everywhere – from conservatives in California to progressives in Pennsylvania, it’s united the strangest of bedfellows and the unlikeliest of allies.

Fusion’s documentary and investigation come at a critical moment in our nation’s fight for justice: As advocates push for change, thousands of our nation’s children are being arrested or languishing in detention cells, being robbed of a childhood, being cheated of a future.

Studies have shown that any involvement with the justice system increases the likelihood that a youth will go on to commit additional crimes. An arrest is especially traumatic to children, who are often handcuffed and put in leg irons and belly chains to appear in court – regardless of the seriousness of the charge. The indiscriminate shackling of youth causes trauma and stigmatization. 21 states – five this year alone – have reformed their approach to shackling juveniles in court through statute, court action, or policy changes.

Jurisdictions are also implementing changes to safely and effectively divert kids away from the system in the first place. Two-thirds of children held in detention are there for nonviolent reasons that can include conduct that isn’t even illegal for adults, such as status offenses like breaking curfew, skipping school or running away from home.

And with minority youth making up 80 percent of juveniles detained in some states, the system perpetuates an approach that targets behaviors disproportionately impacting black and Hispanic youth – setting into motion a cycle of incarceration devouring too many of our nation’s youth, statistically destined for a life behind bars. Youth of color are overrepresented at every stage of the juvenile justice system from arrest to court referral to confinement.

And once caught up in the system, it’s a long path ahead as many struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and inadequate access to appropriate and meaningful educational and treatment programs.

“We routinely in this country put children in solitary confinement, which has a traumatizing impact on that child’s emotional and mental health,” said Sen. Cory Booker, who has introduced legislation banning the practice.

In Prison Kids, Sen. Booker puts it starkly: “Sixty percent of the kids who are committing suicide in prisons are ones that have been put into solitary confinement. Other countries consider the practice torture, but we do it with regularity.”

Many children are held in solitary confinement upwards of 23 hours a day, sometimes for days, weeks, and (in some cases) months. According to a study by the ACLU, solitary confinement of young people often seriously harms their mental and physical health, as well as their development.

In fact, many international human rights organizations consider solitary confinement a serious human rights violation, and many states have taken steps to end the practice, including Illinois, which became the 20th state to ban the practice in May.

So how has the greatest country in the world become the architect of a system that routinely victimizes its youth and promotes a cycle of incarceration that all but promises a future behind bars for many young people? Are kids in America more prone to criminal behavior, and more deserving of punishment?

The problem isn’t our children. The problem is the system.

Prison Kids challenges us to address whether a seven-year-old should ever be handcuffed and charged with a crime — whether kids should ever be locked up for noncriminal behavior – and whether we are ready to fix our mistakes in creating a bloated, punitive system that treats vulnerable kids as “little adults.”

We’re proud to stand with Fusion this week to spark a larger national discussion to call for urgent reforms in juvenile justice systems across the country. Our youth are too often overlooked, and it’s time to make sure their voices are heard in the fight for reform.

Christine Leonard is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Public Safety, the nation’s largest bipartisan criminal justice reform organization bringing together the most prominent organizations from across the political spectrum including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, FreedomWorks, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Right on Crime; and supported by Laura and John Arnold, Koch Industries, Inc., the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Van Jones is the President & Co-Founder of #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

The authors’ views are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of Fusion or its sponsors.