OP-ED: Extending Justice to All Kids

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John Lash

John LashHumans naturally form groups, and the way we treat those inside our groups is different, usually radically so, from the way we treat outsiders. One cause of this is  moral exclusion, “excluding other individuals or groups from one’s own moral community; i.e. viewing others as lying beyond the boundary within which moral values and rules of justice and fairness apply.”

Those within our group are part of our “scope of justice.” Those outside are treated to varying degrees of fairness. This is why people in churches, normally peaceful places, cheered when Osama Bin Laden was killed. This is why Americans in general are horrified by Newtown and indifferent to children who are casualties of drone strikes in Pakistan.

One of the most glaring examples of moral exclusion and the limited scope of justice in the United States occurs in youth detention. In these places the public tolerates the rape and sexual exploitation of children without the bat of an eye. In the rest of society a great deal of effort goes into preventing such actions, but in the closed world of detention and group homes nearly 70,000 children live with nearly a 10 percent chance of being victims.

The survey, Sexual Victimization In Juvenile Facilities Reported By Youth, 2012, surveyed more than 8,500 youth who had been adjudicated and were detained in secure facilities or less confining group homes. As reported by Pro Publica, most of the youth were victimized by the very people charged with protecting and rehabilitating them. Some 20 percent of victims were violated on more than 10 occasions.

The worst states were Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia and Illinois. In two facilities, one in Georgia and the other in Ohio, one third of the kids reported being sexually mistreated by staff. Some states seem to be getting it right though, including New York, Massachusetts and Delaware where no abuse at all was found.

This is a systemic crisis for sure, and requires a systemic cure. It is expected that representatives of states from both ends of the spectrum will be invited to address the Justice Department’s Review Panel on Prison Rape.

Let’s look beyond the system though, since it is, after all, a product of our society at large. As with any issue, bureaucrats and politicians will often only respond when they are forced to by public pressure. This willingness to exert pressure will only come when a larger portion of the citizenry realizes that these kids are our kids, when we see them as a part of our community, when we are willing to push our own boundaries far enough to encompass them all. Then they’ll have a chance at justice.

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