Youth Justice


As most children grow up in America, they hear the out-loud dreams and expectations that their parents and other adults have for them: doing well at school, a fulfilling career and a family. Regrettably, those are not the dreams and expectations that many poor Black and Latino children grow up with. For too many of them, childhood means starting school not ready to learn, not reading at grade level, being pushed out or dropping out of school at younger and younger ages, then hanging out on the corner and getting a “street” education. This often leads to getting sucked into the pipeline to prison, which can best be described as a living nightmare.

As part of a growing campaign to expand public awareness and catalyze action to stop this scourge that threatens the lives of countless children and the future of our nation, the Children’s Defense Fund is joining with five national partners—the NAACP, National Urban League, National Council of La Raza, U.S. Conference of Mayors and PolicyLink—to conduct a California Cradle to Prison Pipeline Summit on February 25-26, 2009, in Sacramento to sound an alarm and share solutions and strategies for dismantling the pipeline to prison and rerouting children to healthy adulthoods. There is no more urgent concern for America or children of color in America. Nationwide, a Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy has a 1 in 6 chance.

California operates the largest prison system in the United States and incarcerates more than one of every 10 prisoners in America. California’s prison pipeline traffic is burgeoning—there were 232,849 juvenile arrests in 2006, more than 600 each day. A large number of them, 36,496, were not for violent or dangerous crimes but for status infractions such as truancy, incorrigibility, running away and curfew violations.

The disparity in spending on youth incarceration compared to spending for education reveals how perverse the state’s priorities have become. During the 2007-08 school year, California spent an average of $11,935 for each K-12 pupil, but the state is projected to spend more than 20 times as much, $250,000, for each youth in a state juvenile facility in 2008-09. Our states spend on average about three times as much per prisoner as per public school pupil. I can’t think of a dumber investment policy. No wonder California can’t balance its budget!

We must mount a concerted national effort to dismantle the prison pipeline by attacking it at its root causes—poverty and racial disparities, lack of access to health care, poor early childhood and public education, a broken child welfare system, and inequitable administration of juvenile justice. Zero tolerance school discipline policies are criminalizing children at younger and younger ages. We are hopeful that the new Obama Administration will begin to transform some of these issues at the national level. A high priority should be national health coverage to ensure that every child and pregnant woman has access to affordable, comprehensive health and mental health coverage for all medically necessary services so that at-risk mothers, as well as pregnant mothers and babies, are identified early, and children don’t begin life with three or more strikes already against them.

We know what to do. There are promising approaches that can be replicated at the state and local levels. For example, the CDF Freedom Schools® program empowers children through academically and culturally enriching summer and after-school programs that promote a love of reading in young scholars and encourages them to engage in service and civic activities. In 2008, CDF Freedom Schools sites served nearly 9,000 children through partnerships with churches, schools, colleges and universities and community organizations. Each young adult servant leader intern works with 10 children from low-income families setting high expectations and helping them believe they can make a difference in the world.

California’s Homeboy Industries, located in Los Angeles, has enjoyed great success as a model gang intervention program diverting thousands of young people from the pipeline to prison for two decades. Homeboy Industries offers intensive hands-on counseling, job training and placement in useful employment. It provides assistance in enrolling in school, legal aid, help with immigration problems and classes that teach life skills. Many youths are employed in Homeboy Industries’ enterprises: Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Café, Homeboy Maintenance and Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery.

The pipeline is not an act of God; it has been created by our human political choices. Our summit is part of an ongoing campaign to rouse the nation to act with urgency and demand new choices for our children and to level the playing field for all children to survive, thrive, learn and contribute according to their God-given potential. Please do your part.

Learn more about CDF’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign.