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What Does It Say About America That We Jail Teens for Having Sex or Being Late to School?

The case of an honors student in Texas shines light on a national problem: teens going to jail for absurd reasons.

Last week, the country was riveted by the story of young Diane Tran, a high school junior age 17, who was tossed in jail for a night because she was missing too much school.

The reason her case attracted so much attention? Tran missed those days of school--or arrived late--due to exhaustion. She worked two jobs to help support her siblings. Her parents had split and moved out of town. She became, in essence, a poster-girl for both the recession and for the criminalization of youth. Even those local newscasters expected to be dispassionate were moved to say their "hearts went out" to this girl.

One of Tran's employers is a wedding planning business, which she assists and whose owners house her with her parents out of town. The other is a full-time job at a dry cleaning store. Her third job, then, is going to school, where she is enrolled in several AP and honors classes, but missed 18 days. After a previous warning, a judge decided that a night in jail would teach her a lesson. He didn't see why people were kicking up such a fuss. "A little stay in the jail for one night is not a death sentence," the judge told the same local news channel.

But then thousands of people around the world read the headline variations on "honors student goes to jail" and began expressing their support--with their voices and their wallets, signing a petition and contributing to a fund for Tran.

At last, the judge in the case agreed to dismiss the contempt charges he had leveled at Tran. News sources reported that with paperwork, she can have her record expunged.

But none of these reprieves happened until Tran had already spent the night in jail.

Tran is an "honors student" with an obviously compelling story. But the question lingers: is jail the answer for any kid under 18, even those who don't have her excuse for offenses like truancy, or worse? Our incarceration system, after all, designed for adults, has deep, perhaps unfixable defects. Why send those we deem too young for a college campus into a cell?

The issue of youth incarceration and an overly punitive attitude toward teen offenses in general isn't confined to cases like Tran's. It affects everyone from young teens of color on the streets of New York targeted by stop and frisk to the Michigan teenager,  a high school senior, arrested for sleeping with his underage girlfriend, a freshman.

The behavior that gets teens sent to jail ranges from merely illegal on paper to truly morally wrong, deserving of punishment, perhaps even dangerous. But exactly what kind of punishments we do issue to young people -- and what kind of help we offer them--speaks volumes about our society. 

A 2007 Campaign for Youth Justice report titled " Jailing Juveniles" points out the obvious flaws in using adult prisons and jails as repositories for youth. First of all, young people in these facilities are vulnerable either to assault by adult inmates, or if siphoned off, the brutal psychological toll of isolation. On a more basic level,

Jails do not have the capacity to provide the necessary education and other programs crucial for the healthy development of adolescents...without adequate education and other services jails take youth off course.

And even though legal requirements for education do exist, they are often unmet or poorly met, the report explains. So rather than rehabilitating kids, sending them to jail often exacerbates whatever problem sent them there.

Beyond the practice of jailing younger kids in adult facilities, youth detention centers have their own intrinsic problems. Just this April  Wired published a riveting photo collection by Richard Ross, whose project, " Juvenile in Justice," uses photography gathered from juvenile detention centers around the country. The pictures, and the piece, pointed out both our massive overuse of such facilities and their failures. Author Pete Brook, who interviewed the photographer, noted:

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