OP-ED: Nell Bernstein and the Abolition of Juvenile Prisons

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John Lash

“The statistic is horrific. One in three children will be arrested by the time they are 23 and many of them will spend time in detention centers, actually prisons, who do little to rehabilitate. In fact, each year some two million children are arrested in this country.”

Thus began a recent interview on Tavis Smiley’s PBS program. His guest was Nell Bernstein,

a former Soros Justice Media Fellow and winner of the White House Champion of Change Award for her advocacy of children with incarcerated parents. She is also a long time writer. Her latest book is Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.

Bernstein’s title isn’t an exaggeration, but a goal.

“The reason that I gave it that subtitle is the more I learned about what juvenile prison does to kids, the less of a reformer I became and the more convinced I became that these were institutions that couldn’t be reformed.”

Bernstein is an abolitionist, though I’m not sure she uses that word herself. Her powerful and sobering assessment of the state of juvenile incarceration is based on decades of experience. The imbalanced application of juvenile laws and incarceration against the poor and children of color is inescapably apparent.

Her main work is in stories, but she cites one statistic in the interview that she “can’t get out of my head.”

“Between 80 and 90 percent of all American teenagers in confidential interviews acknowledge having committed a delinquent act serious enough under the law to get them incarcerated. So we’re not talking about two kinds of kids, delinquent kids and non-delinquent kids.”

It’s no surprise that kids of color and poor kids face the harshest penalties more often. From arrest to sentencing, how they are treated while detained to how they are given parole and probation, these kids are treated worse. And because of this treatment they face increasingly worse outcomes.

“Another thing we know about juvenile incarceration is that it is the greatest predictor of adult criminality and incarceration, more than gang involvement, family issues, more than criminality itself.”

The cure is worse than the disease, and it’s nothing new. Juvenile incarceration has not largely been about rehabilitation for most of its history. More often, including during its early 19th century beginnings, it was more about controlling undesirable populations. In those days it was mainly the children of Irish and German immigrants, along with some black youth. Today the Irish and Germans are assimilated but the system continues to target black kids, with Latinos a close second.

Many of the latest reforms, even when pushed by best practices and research, are only being implemented because of economics. With the downturn in the economy politicians simply don’t have the money to spend to build prisons. The lack of funds has caused governments to reconsider their strategies.

“[O]n average, it costs $80,000 to lock a kid up. On average, we spend about $10,000 to educate a kid,” Bernstein said.

She’s talking about California, but the ratio, if not the numbers, is pretty steady across the nation. It is cheaper to educate kids than imprison them, but that hasn’t been a consideration in times of prosperity.

Bernstein supports justice reinvestment, a strategy of accounting for the savings generated by less incarceration and then using the money to further implement plans that work to reduce delinquency and crime. By using the money to attack potential problems earlier, even in elementary school-aged kids, society can expect to have a greater impact.

Not surprisingly, a threat to the latest trends in decreased child incarceration is a return of revenue for governments. As much as the current political rhetoric focuses on doing what is right, very little reform has actually been based in a moral approach. We are doing what’s right lately, but not for the right reasons.

Because of this, Bernstein expresses a sense of urgency. It’s scary to think that so much of the undeniably good change of the last few years could be undone if politicians simply get more money in their hands.

Her book, although based in research and facts, is heavy on stories, because stories are the way that we come to know one another.

“[I]t’s so much easier to be afraid of someone you don’t know,” she said.

Take a look at the interview and hear some of the stories for yourself. Consider buying her book. Most importantly, especially for those who often come into contact with kids caught up in the system, listen to the stories and share them with others. Re-humanization is a huge task, but it happens one story at a time.

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