We Must Work to Bend Our Democracy Toward Justice Half a Century After MLK’s Dream

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Marcy Mistrett

Fifty years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was tragically taken in Memphis, Tennessee. As we celebrate his birthday and commit ourselves to engage, give back and continue the fight for racial and social justice, I am saddened by how much of his dream has gone deferred, especially with regard to our children.

In our criminal justice system, King’s dream is literally locked down, and has been since his death. Yet, there are glimmers of hope for reforms that can be expanded upon by ensuring questions about the way we treat children are part of the political platform in 2018 midyear elections.

King’s heart would break if he knew how many vulnerable children were arrested and incarcerated in 2018. While the adult system is still solely focused on punishment and remains no place for a child (or really anyone), the youth justice system still mirrors the punitive nature of the adult system in too many ways. Children are still placed in isolation and restraints, officers are still equipped with batons and pepper spray, schooling and trauma-responsive care is lacking, family visits are still restrictive, and the training and pay for high-quality staff is wholly inadequate. In addition, the United States still sends nearly 100,000 youth into the adult criminal justice system each year and nearly 1,000 children under age 18 sleep in adult prisons every night.

The mistreatment of justice-involved youth falls heavily on youth of color. While states have begun investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration (incarcerations have been cut in half), racial and ethnic disparities are worsening, with black youth four times as likely to be committed to incarceration as their white peers, American Indians three times as likely and Hispanic youth 61 percent more likely.

The federal government refuses to act or intervene. Under this administration, guidance for youth fines and fees has been rescinded, regulatory updates to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) excluded updates for disproportionate minority contact, language shifts have excluded vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ youth or interventions such as a public health response to crime, joint guidance from the departments of education and justice are threatened to be overturned, and congressional members are vying to expand the definition of gangs to target immigrant youth. Finally, Congress still has not managed to reauthorize the one law that protects youth in custody, the JJDPA, despite having passed reauthorization bills in both chambers of Congress.

Reaching for the dream

Despite the aforementioned challenges, there are glimmers of hope and opportunities for action. The state legislative sessions have just begun, and the good far outnumbers the bad. Bills advocating that children be treated as children have been filed (or prefiled) in five states.

Newspaper editorial boards in Maryland and Ohio have pushed back on law enforcement that are calling for harsher treatment of youth, pointing to systemic failures, and research that the most effective outcomes result when youth are treated in the context of their homes and families that deal with underlying issues while holding youth accountable.

A handful of local prosecutors have begun to support the research and are redefining what success looks like, embracing prearrest diversion programs and using more transparency and restraint when charging children as adults.

The U.S. Senate just appointed two African-American Democratic senators, Corey Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, to serve on the Judiciary Committee. Despite the grossly disparate impact that criminal justice has had on communities of color, these are the first two African-American senators to serve on the committee since 1999 when Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Illinois, stepped down.

Given that it is King’s birthday, we would be remiss if we didn’t give a shout-out to Alabama. The state elected Doug Jones, known for prosecuting two of the perpetrators of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American girls, to replace U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Senate. It also has a governor who endorsed recommendations made by the state Juvenile Justice Task Force this week, including recommendations that reduce the number of crimes that automatically require a child to be prosecuted as an adult and revoking the, “once an adult, always an adult” statute. Finally, the Equal Justice Initiative will open its Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama in April; it will highlight the injustices against people of color from slavery to mass incarceration.

2018 is a midterm election year. If there is one thing King’s legacy has shown us, it is that civic participation matters in bending our democracy toward justice. There are great opportunities in our local communities to ensure that those running for judges, district attorneys, city councils and county commissioners all include youth justice reform as part of their platform.

Stay connected to the Campaign for Youth Justice this year to see how you can get involved. Fifty years is already too long for King’s legacy to be realized. Let’s together make sure that 2018 is 365 days of service. Our children deserve it.

Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national advocacy organization, and co-chair of the Act-4-Juvenile Justice Coalition.

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