Child Watch® Column: "Let's Put the "Justice" Back in Our Juvenile Justice System"

Release Date: November 30, 2007

Marian Wright Edelman

Although she had no prior criminal record, 14-year-old Shaquanda Cotton was sentenced in 2006 to up to seven years in correctional detention for shoving a teacher's aide in the small town of Paris in East Texas. Another 14-year-old girl was sentenced by the same judge to probation after she was convicted of the serious crime of arson. Shaquanda is Black and the other girl is White. Shaquanda was imprisoned at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, Texas, under an indeterminate sentence that could have lasted until her 21st birthday. Fortunately she was released in March 2007, having spent a year behind bars, after a wave of protests from civil rights groups prompted officials to intervene. Shaquanda's case is just one of many reflecting the racial inequity in America's juvenile justice system, which funnels low-income children of color into the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and unnecessary detention.

The Pipeline, which sucks many young people into adult criminal justice systems, runs through economically depressed neighborhoods, failing schools, across vacant lots where playgrounds and health facilities should be, and in and out of broken, understaffed child welfare agencies. By the time many children get arrested and are brought before a juvenile court, they have been provided far too little loving and thoughtful adult support only to face purported child serving systems that treat them unjustly. 

The juvenile justice system is a major feeder into the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. The high volume of cases that juvenile courts administer—over 1.5 million cases each year nationwide—is attributable to the frequent inadequacy of counsel for poor youths; the cultural incompetence or bias of many judges; and the increasing criminalization of children at younger and younger ages for behaviors that used to be handled by families, churches and community organizations.

With overflowing dockets, many Black children get swept up in a judicial juggernaut where they are unlikely to be treated fairly. Often, a judge's hands are tied with mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, especially in drug cases.  Judges scrambling to dispose of as many cases as possible commonly hand down verdicts in minutes.  However, racial disparities are evident.  Although Black and White teens report using drugs at a similar rate, Black youths are almost five times as likely to be incarcerated as White youths for drug offenses. Far too few effective substance abuse prevention and treatment programs exist.

Poor youths have a hard time receiving the evenhanded treatment that is extended to more affluent White youths. A White, neatly groomed teen in a coat and tie appearing before a judge with his father and mother and a private attorney has a stronger chance of getting probation and no detention than a Black youngster with an overworked public defender and, too often, no adult family member present.

The White youth will likely be prepped to address the judge as "Your Honor" and his parents will be coached to make the right suggestions to the court: That they will place their child in a drug treatment program or send him to military school.  They may implore the judge not to ruin their boy's chances of going to college. By contrast, the Black teen may meet his public defender for the first time on the day of his trial; may not fully understand the seriousness of his situation; and may lack social skills, making him appear disrespectful and resulting in harsher treatment. Public defenders also frequently counsel youths to plea bargain rather than present a defense. This may guarantee the youth some form of incarceration.

We can do better.  Incarceration shouldn't be our society's first or primary response to a minority youth in trouble. Judges need to look for opportunities to offer poor young and minority defendants the same second chances most privileged youths can count on.  These include alternatives to incarceration such as restitution, community service, electronic monitoring, drug rehabilitation treatment, or placement in a "staff secure" (but not locked) community corrections facility. In addition, counseling, social services, education and, in some cases, mental health support should be provided to address the root causes of a youth's involvement with the juvenile justice system.

And we must address drug addiction as a critical health issue and take it out of the criminal justice system.  We don't penalize people because they are addicted to tobacco or alcohol, substances that kill far more people than drugs. More drug courts are needed with the capacity for early identification of substance abusing offenders and the ability to place them under court monitoring or community supervision for long-term treatment services, job skills training and family counseling.

It's time for justice to become a reality for all in America.  Those administering our juvenile justice system must be given what they need to extend a real helping hand rather than an angry fist to young people in trouble.

For more information on the Children's Defense Fund's America's Cradle to Prison PipelineSM report, go to www.childrensdefense.org/cradletoprison.