Human Rights

Would America Stop Locking Up Teens If They Were Mostly White?

Why aren't the horrifying videos of black kids being abused in adult prisons fixing this crisis?

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Last month, Americans were forced to reckon with the cruelty of placing children in solitary confinement when Kalief Browder hanged himself at his mother’s home after spending three years in Rikers' Island, where he was beaten repeatedly by staff and adult inmates, then released without trial. But we haven't learned our lesson: right now, some 70,000 children are currently behind bars at juvenile facilities where solitary confinement is “routine.”

This figure doesn’t even include the 95,000 kids locked up in adult facilities around the country who are also subjected to abuse by older inmates and staff and endure the use of solitary confinement as punishment.

Nearly 2,600 inmates, a dispropotionate number of them black, are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as children. So, when the Huffington Post published a report recently about the terrifying abuse children in adult Michigan prisons were experiencing, the details were sickeningly unsurprising.

The story began with the journey of a young girl from Detroit, "Jamie," who was sentenced to two concurrent six-month sentences in prison for assaulting a family friend and destroying property when she was 17. She denies the allegations. It has since come to light that Jamie’s sentence was bumped up to five years in adult prison for the crime of giving guards what they construed as an “intimidating look.” Accompanying the HuffPo story is a deeply upsetting video that depicts Jamie's treatment. “I can’t breathe,” she repeats as guards force a "spit-mask" over her face. “Please stop doing this to me,” she begs.

Why was Jamie in adult prison, or in prison at all? A defense attorney from Ann Arbor, a suburb of Detroit, said it is unheard of for kids, especially affluent, white kids, to be sentenced to prison for doing what Jamie is alleged to have done. They normally get community service. But Jamie is black and is from Detroit, and the harshness of the sentencing sounds consistent with that of other black kids.

In Michigan, black kids make up just 18 percent of the state’s population, but account for 59 percent of youth 16 and under who are convicted of crimes as adults. While there may be other factors at play besides race, like poverty and lack good schools and opportunity, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the harshest policing and sentencing is meted out to black kids.

From Huffpo:

Following Kalief Browder’s death, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul observed that “white kids don’t get the same justice” —and when it comes to sentencing practices, this is empirically true. One national study found that in a single year, almost 10 times more black kids were committed to adult facilities than white kids. Of 257 children prosecuted as adults in Chicago between 2010 and 2012, only one was white.

Jamie, now 20, was housed with three adult cellmates during her time in prison. She showered with adults and hung with them in the yard. Minors need parental permission to go on a field trip, so why is it okay for a 17-year-old girl to be living with adults in such intimate settings?

While she was locked up, Jamie attempted suicide several times, as did Browder while he was locked up in Rikers.

The Huffington Post’s reporting was outstanding, but will public and official pressure to end sentencing of youth offenders as adults match the story’s persistence and rigor? Stories like Jamie’s must force Americans to ask themselves some tough questions:

  • Why are black kids 62 percent of youth prosecuted in adult criminal courts?
  • Why are black kids nine times more likely than white kids to receive an adult prison sentence?
  • Why, as the Huffington Post reported, of the 257 kids prosecuted as adults between 2010-2012, was only one white?  
  • Why does Florida lead the nation in transferring children to adult courts? Why do black kids make up most of those transfers?
  • Why do America’s schools send 27 percent of their black kids to cops for disciplinary actions, despite black kids making up just 16 percent of enrollment? (This practice is the beginning stage of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”)
  • Why are more than half of preschoolers (who are mostly 4 years old) suspended from school black, despite making up 18 percent of total enrollment?

The criminalization of black kids starts well before they are thrown in jail, according to noted criminologists. “Schools in majority black and brown communities are increasingly becoming criminal justice institutions, as opposed to educational ones,” Alexandra Moffett-Bateau, an assistant professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told AlterNet. “Police patrol the hallways, kids have to go through metal detectors, and instead of being sent to detention, children in some areas have the police called on them."

Before long, those same kids are ensnared in a criminal justice system that is already predisposed to seeing them as criminals, Moffett-Batea says. “We know that racial bias is a pervasive and systemic issue within police forces all over the country. So young black and brown people are more likely to be profiled for 'looking suspicious' or ‘acting suspiciously.'" Or giving an "intimidating look."

Add to this the fact that black children and teens are misperceived as being older and more grown up than their white peers.

“Young black and brown people are rarely perceived as children by the institutions that they come into contact with,” Moffett-Bateau continues. “We saw this in the Tamir Rice case. It just didn't occur to those officers that Tamir could be a child playing with a toy gun. What this means is that when black and brown kids are taken before judges, they are much more likely to receive adult prison sentences. Our kids have been fundamentally stripped of their childhoods and it has devastating consequences for their life trajectories.”

Stories like the Huffington Post's have been written for years, yet little has been done to reverse the policies that keep people like Jamie behind bars and leave people like her and Kalief Browder psychologically broken even after they are free. After Browder’s case came to light, New York City discontinued the use of solitary confinement for inmates under 21, but that rule change came too late for Browder. And elsewhere, children in America are still subjected to solitary confinement in America’s jails and prisons.  

No child offender, regardless of race, should be treated as an adult. But, as the data and research clearly shows, most of the children prosecuted and locked up in American jail cells are black. This trend dates back to the '70s, when the race-based hysteria about "super-predators," young, mostly black and brown youth said to be vicious and lawless was first peddled.

Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, told AlterNet that the racial bias we see playing out in America’s criminal justice system is a structural issue. 

“The type of bias that drives a 14-year-old girl in a bikini to be thrown to the ground at a McKinney pool party manifests at every level of the criminal justice process,” said Brown-Dean, whose research focuses on how politics and race influence decision-making in the criminal justice system. “Various empirical studies confirm this. From a political perspective, the key question is who's advocating on behalf of these young people? Kids can't vote, but their parents can. So if your parent doesn't have the civic capacity to stand before a judge and convince her to place you on probation, or they don't have the economic capital to pay for an accomplished attorney or therapist, chances are you'll be trapped in the system. Public policy is about making choices. If we choose to see certain groups of young people as problems rather than potential, we doom them to having the state dictate every aspect of their lives.”

If white Americans, politicians, voters, and people with power to exert pressure, opened up their issue of the New Yorker to see that a 21-year-old man who looked like their child hanged himself after being abused in jail, or watched a video of a teenaged girl who looked like their daughter being masked and begging to breathe, would they make meaningful changes?

Who knows.

What we do know is that black children are being abused disproportionately, and the people in positions of power don’t seem to care.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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