Why Some Kids Go to Prison for No Reason and Some Kids Go to College No Matter How Badly They Act

The following is an adapted version of a TED talk. 

On the path that American children travel to adulthood, two public institutions oversee the journey. One institution, the one we hear a great deal about, is college. Many of you may remember the excitement you felt as you set off for college, maybe some of you are in college right now, and you feel this excitement this very this minute. College may have its shortcomings – it's really expensive, it leaves young people in debt -- but all in all, it’s a pretty good path. Young people graduate from college with pride, with great friends, with a good deal of knowledge about the world, maybe with a future spouse, and hopefully with a job, or the ability to get one.

I want to talk about the second major public institution that is overseeing the journey from childhood to adulthood in the United States, and that institution is prison. The young people on this journey are going to court dates instead of class, they are meeting with probation officers instead of with teachers, their junior year abroad is instead a trip to a state correctional facility, and they are graduating not with degrees in business and English but with criminal records.

This institution also costs a lot, about $44,000 a year for young people in New Jersey, even more than that in New York and California, but here tax-payers are footing the bill, and what young people are getting is not pride and great friends and skills but a cold prison cell and a permanent mark against them when they come home and apply for work. There are more young people experiencing this journey to adulthood than ever before in the US, because over the past 40 years our incarceration rate has grown by 700%. We’ve got a higher percentage of people and by a pretty big margin. What’s more, it’s poor young people who are coming of age in prison, too many drawn from African American and Latino communities, so that prison now stands firmly between the young people struggling to make it and the American dream.

The problem is actually a bit worse than this, because poor kids in the US are not just going to prison. They’re living as suspects and as fugitives, before they go, and after they return home. Probation and parole restrictions, court fees, low level warrants, court cases, halfway houses and house arrest, and a police force focused on make arrests, has created a culture of fear and suspicion. Young people are worried they will be stopped, searched, and seized in their homes, schools, and places of work. This is the hidden counterpoint to our historic rates of incarceration: a shadow world where young people are worried that at any moment they will be taken into custody.

If the problem is worse that what you imagined, there is perhaps also more cause for hope. That’s because for the first time in 40 years, we’re entering a moment in which real change may be possible, where momentum is starting to build to reverse our great social experiment in punishment and find a better way forward. A more human way forward.

I got interested in this other path to adulthood when I was myself a college student, attending the University of Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. Penn is located in a historic African American neighborhood, a mixed income neighborhood, so you’ve got two parallel worlds going on in the same few blocks, the kids who are attending college at this elite private school, and the kids from the adjacent neighborhood, some of whom are making it to college, but may of whom are being shipped to prison.

In my sophomore year I began tutoring a high school student who lived about ten minutes from the university. Soon her cousin came home from a juvenile detention center. He was fifteen, a freshman in high school. I began to spend more and more time in his neighborhood, getting to know his family and his friends. (I’m an ethnographer which means I write about everyday experience, kind of like immersion journalism, but the sociology version of that.)

At the end of my sophomore year I moved into the neighborhood, and began spending every day hanging out there and writing notes. By then, police curfews had been established around the area for those under age eighteen, and police video cameras had been placed on major streets. In the first eighteen months, at least once a day I watched the police stop pedestrians or people in cars, search them, run their names for warrants, ask them to come in for questioning, or make an arrest. In that same period, I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase people through houses. I saw police helicopters circling overhead and beaming searchlights onto local streets, and blocks taped off and traffic redirected as police searched for evidence. During the first eighteen months I spent in this neighborhood, I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks 14 times, just in a four block radius.

Another way to show you how young people are experiencing these historic rates of incarceration and this intense policing is in the games children play. My first week in the neighborhood I saw two boys five and seven years old playing a game of chase where one boy played the role of the cop who ran after the other. When the boy caught up to the other child, he pushed him down and cuffed him with imaginary handcuffs. He patted the other child down and felt in his pockets, asking if he was carrying a gun or any drugs, asking if he had warrants. Then he found a quarter in the child’s pocket, and laughing he yelled, “I’m seizing that!”

In the following months, I heard children yell, “I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you’re never coming home!” Once I saw a six-year-old pull another child’s pants down to do a “cavity search.”

I got to know two brothers, Chuck and Tim. They lived with their mother and grandfather in a two-story house with a front lawn and a back porch. Their mother was struggling with addiction as she raised her sons, not in the kind of shape to really hold down a job, and certainly never got any drug treatment or mental health support. It was their grandfather’s post office pension that supported the boys and their mother. Not much for growing boys who needed school supplies and food and clothes.

Chuck, the older brother, was 18 when we met, in his senior year in high school. Tim, his younger brother, was 10. Tim tagged along a lot with Chuck, looking to him to teach him, to protect him. They were very close.

Chuck had been making C’s and B’s in school, he was on the basketball team and boxing in his spare time. He was proud to be a senior in high shcool; many of his friends had not made it that far. The winter of his senior year, another kid in the school yard called Chuck’s mom a crack whore, and Chuck pushed the kid’s face into the snow. The school cops charged Chuck with aggravated assault. The other student wasn’t really injured, I think it was his pride that was hurt more than anything, but anyway, Chuck was 18, and so this ag assault charge sent him to adult county jail. He couldn’t pay the bail so he sat there in county jail while the pre-trial court dates dragged on and on.

8 months after Chuck had been taken into custody for this schoolyard fight, he was released, with most of the charges dropped, and only a few hundred dollars worth of court fees hanging over his head. The next fall Chuck tried to re-enroll at the high school as a senior, but he was then 19 and the school said he was too old to come back. Even though almost all the charges were dismissed he had to pay court fees, around 225 dollars, and he couldn’t pay them, didn’t have the money, so he got a bench warrant for his arrest. Then he was a high school drop out, living on the run.

Chuck’s younger brother Tim’s first arrest came later that year, after he’d turned 11. Chuck had managed to clear up his warrant and was driving Tim to school in his girlfriend’s car, and a cop pulled them over, ran the car, and it came up as stolen in California. Chuck had never been to California and had no idea where in the history of that car it had been stolen, his girlfriend’s uncle had apparently bought it from a used car auction, but anyway, the officer took both brothers into custody, and down at the police station they charged Chuck with receiving stolen property. They charged Tim with accessory, and later a judge in the juvenile court placed Tim on three years of probation.

With this probation sentence hanging over Tim’s head, any encounter with the police might mean a violation and a trip to juvenile detention, so Chuck began coaching his younger brother on how to run from the police.

I want you to imagine for a second what Chuck and Tim’s lives would be like if they’d grown up in a neighborhood where kids were going to college instead of prison. A neighborhood like the one I got to grow up in.

But these young people are committing crimes, you might say. Don’t they deserve to be in prison? To be living in fear of arrest? Well, my answer would be no, and certainly not for things that other young people with more privilege are doing with impunity. If Chuck had gone to my high school, that school yard fight would have been just that, a school yard fight. It would never have become an aggravated assault charge. None of the young men I went to Penn with emerged from college with criminal records, but can you imagine how many would have if the police had raided their parties for drugs, if the police had searched their pockets as they walked to class, had stopped them and alcohol tested them when they were driving a car.

Ok, you might say. But doesn’t the high incarceration rate partly explain why crime is as low as it is, you might ask. That’s a good question. We did see a big drop in crime through the 90s and the 2000s. But according to a committee of academics convened by the National Academy of Sciences last year, growing the prison population by 5 times over the past 40 years, our country’s great social experiment in punishment, has had a very dubious effect on the crime rate. The crime rate appears to go up and down irrespective of how many young people we send to prison.

We tend to think about justice in a narrow way. Right and wrong, good and bad. Injustice is about being wrongfully convicted. If you are convicted of something you did do, then you should be punished for it. There are innocent and guilty people, there are victims and perpetrators. Maybe we could think more a little more broadly than that.

Right now we’re asking young people who have the fewest resources, who live in the poorest communities, with the least amount of family support, who are living in neighborhoods where violence is an everyday problem, and who face the toughest time in the labor market, who are attending the country’s worst schools -- we’re asking these young people to walk the tightest possible line, to basically never do anything wrong. Why are we not providing support to young people facing these challenges, why are we offering only handcuffs, prison bars, and this fugitive existence?

Can we imagine a new path? Can we imagine a justice system that prioritizes recovery and prevention and civic inclusion rather than punishment? One that acknowledges the legacy of exclusion that poor people of color in this country have faced and that does not promote and perpetuate those exclusions? A justice system that believes in Black young people instead of treating them as the enemy to be rounded up?

The good news is that we already are. In fact our country is poised for reform. A few years ago Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow, which got Americans to see incarceration as a civil rights issue of historic proportions, in a way they had not before. More recently President Obama and the Attorney General Eric Holder have come out very strongly on sentencing reform and reducing racial disparity. New york, California, and New Jersey have been shrinking their prison populations while also seeing big crime reductions over the past 15 years. Lately Texas has gotten in the game too, closing prisons, investing in jobs and rehabilitation and education instead. In the past four years we’ve seen ballot initiatives that decriminalize possession of marijuana, we’re seeing the courts throw out stop and frisk as the civil rights violation that it is. A bi-partisan movement is building, it’s a curious coalition from the right and the left, made up of libertarians and former prisoners, of civil rights activists and fiscal conservatives, of young people taking to the streets to protest police violence against unarmed Black men and older, richer people putting big money into decarceration initiatives. In a severely divided congress, criminal justice reform is miraculously, one of the only issues that the right and the left are working together on. This is a political moment that I did not believe I would see in my lifetime. I don’t think many of the academics working on the causes and consequences of our historic growth in incarceration thought they would see this kind of moment in their lifetime. The question now is, how much can we make of it? How much can we change?

Let me return to young people – the young people attending college and the young people struggling to stay out of prison or to make it through prison and return home. Young people have always led the fight for equal rights, the fight for more people to be granted dignity and a fighting chance at freedom. The mission for the generation of young people coming of age in this, a sea change moment – potentially -- is to end mass incarceration and build a new criminal justice system, emphasis on the word justice.

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