Kids can sometimes see their lives destroyed by the merest brush with the criminal justice system. In one of the most outrageous examples, between 2003 and 2008, two Pennsylvania judges—Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan—sentenced thousands of children to juvenile detention centers, sometimes on trivial charges. These juveniles were sent to private, for-profit detention centers, whose operators paid the judges for filling their beds. [My emphasis.]I blogged about the kids-for-cash case(s) here.
But as the school year opens, and our eyes turn again to young people and the justice system, it’s worth revisiting the failings of the systems we have created. “Kids for cash” is emblematic of a larger problem: the tendency to criminalize so much of what young people do, the tendency to hit them with draconian punishments that are out of proportion to the crime itself, and the ways the system itself profits financially from those impulses.Criminalizing what young people do.
Remember streaking, the foolishness of the seventies? Some states have added that offense to the list of registrable offenses. Forty years ago we could laugh at--or be outraged by--naked kids racing across a football field and let them grow up to become the bank president but are things so different now that a streaker must be added to the sex offender registry that will make it difficult for him to land a job at McDonalds?
Lithwick tells about an 11-year-old boy who was charged with drug possession for bringing a single marijuana leaf to school. He was charged even after the leaf was proven three times to be not marijuana. The school stands by its decision to treat him as if he had brought actual marijuana to school because, you know, zero tolerance protects our children.
Bad behavior at school used to be bad behavior that the school and parents handled. Now, the school leans prissily on zero tolerance rules as if zero tolerance makes any kind of sense and if that's not enough, the school has a police officer wandering the hallways, making the school-to-prison pipeline a reality.
As the school year opens, it’s probably a good idea to remind your youngsters what “zero tolerance” really means: that “it was only a naked photo/fake pot leaf” is not a defense, no matter how clearly the facts are on your side, and that kids are adorable innocents only until the law decides they are vicious predators. There’s a for-profit prison machine out there, and sadly, it eats zero tolerance for breakfast.Plenty profit from the sex offender registry, as well. Too much of what young people do can land them on the registry. Like putting them into a for-profit prison to be forgotten, it is easy to forget those who are on the registry for all the wrong reasons.
Like the judges who knowingly sent kids to prison when they didn't deserve that punishment, the criminal justice system knowingly puts kids on the registry when they don't deserve that punishment.