Editor’s note: The following piece was written by Makenna Whitworth, CHN’s Fall 2018 intern. Makenna is a senior majoring in political science at Brigham Young University.
Orange jumpsuit, shower shoes,
and an armband
Guilt by appearance and judged
by my race
Guilty until innocent in the words
of a D.A.
Lost in a cold dream called prison
Four sharp corners, eggshell
paint, dusty gray floor
No lights and a filthy toile
No tears, just my pen in action
They call me 299-359…
By Makenna Whitworth
These words were penned by one of the approximately 60 youths who are incarcerated each year in the D.C. jail – 95 percent are African American; 5 percent are Latino. Members of the Free Minds Book and Writing Club shared similar poems at CLASP’s Youth Justice event on Tuesday, Nov. 27, where leading activists and experts in youth criminal justice joined together to discuss CLASP’s new report, “Unjustice: Overcoming Trump’s Rollbacks on Youth Justice.”
According to the Sentencing Project, “On any given day, nearly 53,000 youth are held in facilities away from home as a result of juvenile or criminal justice involvement. Nearly one in ten is held in an adult jail or prison.” And, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, black men ages 18 to 24 are “7 to 9 times more likely to end up in prison compared to their white peers.” Panelists at the event shared examples of how young children, many who are not yet tall enough to even see over the bench, have been sentenced to 60+ years in prison. Children, particularly children of color, are often sentenced as if they were adults. Such mass incarceration of youth of color is intolerable.
Unfortunately, this grim reality has only been exacerbated under the Trump Administration. CLASP refers to “unjustice” as “a return to past policies and behaviors that deemed some members of society unworthy of fair and equal treatment under the law.” Looking back over the past two years, the “unjustice”actions of the current administration are striking:
- executive orders to “fight crime, gangs, and drugs [and] restore law and order”
- abandonment of the Smart on Crime initiative
- withdrawal from consent decrees
- rescinding DACA
- repeal of the Obama Administration’s “Rethink School Discipline” polices
- “zero-tolerance” border security policies that separated hundreds of children from their families.
The list goes on and on.
This administration has consistently threatened promising police reform strategies, reversed progress in strategic prosecutorial choices, and criminalized youth culture and immigrant youth in ways that disproportionately harm young people of color. “Decades of research have shown that expanded police capacity and harsher sentencing practices have done little to reduce crime and have instead increased recidivism and created an unsustainable and unethically large prison population,” CLASP states in their report. “Nonetheless, the administration continues to advocate for punitive policies aimed at communities of color.”
Despite these “unjustice” actions, many people are fighting back. A renewed version of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), federal law that protects youth in criminal courts with federal standards for care and custody, is currently in Congress and has bipartisan support. If passed, it will be a significant step forward in promoting youth criminal justice.
So how can we bring about youth criminal justice reform? As CLASP states in their report, “Advocates and policymakers must be intentional about pushing for actionable changes within the current system while at the same time working to abolish racially biased policies and reconstructing a new vision of justice for youth.” Core elements of this framework include:
- Building large-scale employment and postsecondary education pathways for youth at risk of justice system involvement and those who are already involved
- Redesigning education strategies to keep young people engaged in school
- Reforming school discipline policies and practices
- Addressing mental health issues
- Recognizing points when youth experience trauma and providing peer support and other resources to help them move through hardships
- Creating new and expanded funding streams at all levels of government
- Exploring governance approaches across all levels of government that meet the needs of youth
Such alternatives to incarceration are key to supporting at-risk youth of color in our community. Consider the experience of Jordan, one of the poets who participated in the CLASP “Unjustice” event. Jordan was incarcerated as an adult at age 17 for armed robbery. His participation in the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop sustained him through his term in the D.C. jail, and upon his release graduated from Cesar Chavez Public Charter School. In spring 2019, he will be attending Harrisburg University to study business management. Jordan is a reliable employee, active in his community, and has completely changed his life around, all because he was given the education and support he needed.
So again, how can we bring about youth criminal justice reform? Though stakeholders play a large role in youth justice, we also need to hold ourselves accountable. We must consistently ask ourselves, “What am I going to do to fight against ‘unjustice’?”