OP-ED: The Prison of Poverty Will Continue to Fill the Prison of Crime

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Teske-10-771x578crop2Not all prisons are built with brick, mortar and razor wire.

Not all prisons are constructed by state funds or designed by correctional architects.

Not all prisons are readily visible.

But what we don’t see can be a pathway to the prisons we do see — the clanging doors, guard towers and razor wire.

“Prison” is defined by the circumstances, with one leading to another like a maze of twists and turns, not knowing what is lurking around the next corner.

Children in poverty are trapped in a maze, confused by the freedom to move about but limited by the walls that surround them. It is a paradox of freedom — the ability to be free, but in circumstances that limit opportunity.

Paradoxical problems often times lead to paradoxical solutions.

The prison of poverty is such a problem with paradoxical responses, including juvenile justice systems that receive kids to rehabilitate but instead exacerbate their situation — not because it fails to help, but because it tries to help too much.

Poverty imprisons youth in surroundings that studies show abound in educational inequalities, health care, economic opportunities and juvenile justice. Most youth in poverty are males of color shepherded into our juvenile justice systems at alarming rates. The disproportionate number reflects our stereotypes of poverty, masked by a paternalistic goodwill to help the poor when in many cases the system makes them worse — creating a pathway to prison.

There are still those who explain this disparity believing that race is the direct cause of crime. They refuse to see beyond the statistical surface and connect the statistical correlation between race and crime to the histrionics of slavery and segregation and its negative impact on social, economic, political and educational growth.

People don’t commit crimes because of their color but because of their circumstances, which for many include factors associated with being poor.

It is time that all juvenile justice professionals, myself included, acknowledge that although our intentions to get services to youth in poverty are well intentioned, our methodology is not well conceived. How we respond to their circumstances decides the extent to which we push them deeper into the system or pull them from the prison of poverty and onto a positive pathway.

Unwittingly juvenile justice systems lead the poor deeper into crime because our systems are defectively designed to receive the poor like “Lady Liberty” welcoming the tired and the poor, except immigrants tend to fare better with economic opportunities than do youth born into poverty in this country.

In her article “Delinquent by Reason of Poverty,” Associate Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs Tamar R. Birckhead describes this defective design around the concept of “needs-based delinquency” — a system that gives greater weight to the needs of the child and family over the nature of the offense and/or the quality of evidence against the child. When this occurs, children and families with greater needs are more likely to get the “Lady Liberty” treatment resulting in a disproportionate number of poor youth entering the system.

The “needs-based” criteria approach is well intentioned, but like many well intended approaches, the manner in which we operationalize the approach may have unintended consequences — increasing delinquency, which in turn compromises public safety.

Longitudinal studies reveal that court involvement contributes to continued involvement in the juvenile justice system and this in turn creates a pathway to the adult system.

The “needs-based” approach is inherently biased against the poor, including many youth of color. Poor families are far less likely to possess the resources to address their child’s needs, and in desperation they knock on our doors with the misguided belief we can give them what they can’t give their child. Believing we are helping, we open the door to a system that will label them a delinquent — and so they get worse.

It comes down to the “haves and have nots” paradox — the “haves” can avoid the stigma of delinquency, the “have nots” are not so lucky.

The importance of knowing that kids are under neurological construction is knowing that their construction must take place in positive places, and this does not include courtrooms and jails — they should be reserved for the small percentage of kids who truly scare us.

Regardless of what we do to keep the front doors of juvenile justice closed to non-violent kids, we will continue to hear them banging on the door trying to get in thinking that we can fix their manifestations of delinquency born from mental health disorders, zero tolerance policies and poverty.

This banging will never stop until communities begin collective decision-making around poverty and other social, political and psychological diseases that plague our kids everyday. Only through collective decision-making will communities realize a collective impact to eradicate these pathogens of delinquency.

The juvenile court is not a hospital, but its judges can influence the community to build one through collaboration.

Otherwise, the prison of poverty will continue to fill up the prison of crime.