Earlier this school year, 6-year-old Kaia was struggling with a sleep disorder and had a tantrum during her first grade class. Rather than being supported, she was handcuffed, arrested, and taken to a juvenile detention center where she was charged with battery. How Kaia was treated is appalling, and yet the criminalization of our children is all too common: A child is arrested every 39 seconds in America and about 76,000 children are placed in the adult criminal justice system annually.
Too many children are being criminalized at increasingly younger ages. This is particularly true for children of color; children who are poor; children with disabilities; and children who identify as LGBTQ. These children are disproportionately pushed out of schools and pulled into unjust systems through arrests and incarceration, which exacerbates harm and increases the risk of abuse.
In fact, we spend more to imprison children than to educate them. On average, states spend three times as much for each prisoner in the criminal justice system as they do for each public school student (see table below for state details). And far too many of these prisoners are children—disproportionately children of color—who are being funneled into the criminal justice system at young ages.
Investing in our nation’s future means prioritizing our children. The Children’s Defense Fund’s vision is for all children to grow up at home in safe, stable families; receive a quality education in safe, supportive schools; and participate in peaceful, thriving communities. But right now, America funnels money into a broken criminal justice system while programs that provide children with stable homes, nutritious food, affordable health care, and quality education sit on the chopping block. In order to work to end the criminalization of children and ensure justice for youth, we must shift our policies and practices from punishment and incarceration to early intervention and prevention like high quality education as well as early childhood programs and community supports.