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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.

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The U.S. locks up children at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations. The over 60,000 average daily juvenile lockups, a figure estimated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), are also disproportionately young people of color. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention.

On top of the cost, in its recent report No Place for Kids, the AECF presents evidence to show that youth incarceration does not reduce recidivism rates, does not benefit public safety and exposes those imprisoned to further abuse and violence.

In some studies cited by Brook, states with efforts to halt or reverse the incarceration of youth actually saw a drop in violent crimes committed by under-18s; in other words, the incarceration was increasing crime, not reducing it.

Young people, especially those without resources, will make mistakes and cause trouble, but there are better ways to hold young people accountable than tossing them in prison. One way to start reforming the criminal justice system would be to take a second look at the way it handles, categorizes and "rehabilitates" young people, and consider alternatives.

The logic that young people need a different kind of response for offenses occurs across the board. In January, the Daily Beast profiled moms whose sons, as older teenagers, were arrested and convicted for statutory rape after sleeping with their younger girlfriends (to be fair, some were re-arrested for violating the terms of probation):

Activist groups argue that teens who miss the parameters should go to a counseling or treatment center, not to jail. They also argue that teens shouldn’t be placed on the sex-offender registries.

Alison Parker, the U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch, argues the laws should change. “Common sense says that kids are different from adults,” she says. “Kids can grow and change. They are extremely unlikely to reoffend.”

Whether it's for these kinds of offenses, missing school, or small amounts of drug possession as is currently being debated in New York--or even more serious offenses--the evidence shows that locking kids up doesn't help them.

So why are we still doing it? And if we keep criminalizing kids, how much better are we than those Victorians in Dickens novels who sent their kids to the workhouse?

As Ross, the photographer and force behind the Web site, " Juvenile in Justice," told Wired

Many of these children should be out in the community getting better services and treatment where they stand a chance of rehabilitating and being corrected. From lockdown facilities we’re not going to see a change in behavior. Maybe society needs this to gain retribution against kids that they think have gone wild?" 


















Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @fellowette and find her work at

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