Weekend Reader: ‘Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison’

Weekend Reader: ‘Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison’

Today The Weekend Reader brings you Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prisonby Nell Bernstein. A former Soros Justice Media Fellow and also the author of All Alone in the World, Bernstein is well known for advocating on behalf of children who have been let down by the juvenile prison system. Burning Down the House is an eye-opener for those unfamiliar to the abuse of these children. Using anecdotes, the author demonstrates the emotional and physical scars that stay with incarcerated teens long after they have been released. We are able to see just how difficult it is for them to assimilate into the real world after spending so much time behind bars. Bernstein is overtly critical of the federal government for its sluggish response to shutting down some of the worst of these prisons; particularly in cases where there was substantial evidence of abuse. In the excerpt below, Bernstein examines the inequalities in incarceration rates that exist between African-American/Latino youths and their white counterparts. 

You can purchase the book here.

No, white lady, I don’t want your purse.

Jared had emblazoned this slogan on a custom-printed t-shirt. He wore it often on the days he came to work at the youth newspaper office in order to ease his transit through San Francisco’s financial District, where sidewalk crowds parted at his approach.

To my surprise, the shirt did not evoke a hostile, affronted, or even discomfited reaction in its target demographic. Instead, passersby appeared to take it literally. Some did a quick double take as their eyes traveled from his shirt to his face and back again, but few appeared embarrassed to be confronted so baldly with the prospect of their own prejudices. Instead, many visibly relaxed, as if they were taking his t-shirt at its word. The grip on purses loosened and the wake around Jared narrowed.

“How does this make you feel?” I once asked Jared after witnessing this phenomenon.

He gave me that particular half smile that young people reserve for well-meaning adults to whom they are willing to give the benefit of the doubt despite their glaring naïveté.

“It’s not about how I feel,” he answered patiently. “I feel like maybe I won’t get arrested trying to get to work today.”

Remember adolescence? The keen eye for hypocrisy that has not yet acquired the veneer of self-righteousness; the seeking, probing, and endless philosophizing; the persistent questioning of a status quo that— because they have yet to make the slow bargain with the world that constitutes social adulthood—teenagers see more clearly than their elders can afford to? It didn’t take the findings of a blue ribbon commission to let Jared and other black and brown youths know how the world saw them. For that, they had the “purse clutchers” (their term for the adults who crossed the street when they approached or shrunk into elevator walls to avoid getting too close), who are ubiquitous whenever young people of color have the temerity to step outside their turf.

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Race and class, more than anything else, including behavior, determine who gets locked up in this country. As many as 90 percent of all teenagers, according to research based on confidential interviews, acknowledge having committed illegal acts serious enough to warrant incarceration. Most are never arrested, much less incarcerated. They simply go on with their lives, growing up and, as they do, growing out of the impulsivity that leads so many teens to break the law. Young people of color face a different reality. They comprise 38 percent of the youth population, but 72 percent of incarcerated juveniles. Multiple studies reveal that this gap is a result not of differences in behavior but of differences in how we respond to that behavior—differences grounded in race.

Racism does not merely inform or infuse our juvenile justice system; it drives that system at every level, from legislation to policing to sentencing to conditions of confinement and enforcement of parole. harsher treatment of poor youth of color at every point on the juvenile justice spectrum ensures that they will be grossly overrepresented in the so-called deep end: long-term locked facilities. “Your skin is your sin,” one young man I met recalled young wards saying inside one such facility.

In almost every state, youth of color are held in secure facilities at rates as high as four and a half times their percentage of the population. Black youths are five times more likely than their white peers to be incarcerated, and Hispanic youths twice as likely.

Reams of research have left little doubt that so-called racial disparities result from disparate treatment rather than different rates of criminality. Across the board, the justice system treats youth of color far more harshly than it does whites, after controlling for offending history and myriad other factors. For instance:

• African-American youth are 4.5 times more likely (and Latino youth 2.3 times more likely) than white youth to be detained for identical offenses.

• African-American youth with no prior offenses are far more likely than white youth with similar histories to be incarcerated on the same charges. Specifically, they are nine times as likely to be incarcerated for crimes against persons; four times as likely for property crimes; seven times as likely for public order offenses; and forty-eight times as likely for drug offenses.

• About half of white teenagers arrested on a drug charge go home without being formally charged. Only a quarter of black teens catch a similar break.

• Despite the fact that white youth are more than a third more likely to sell drugs than are African-American youth, black youth are twice as likely to be arrested on charges of drug sales. Nearly half (48 percent) of all juveniles incarcerated on drug charges are black, while blacks make up 17 percent of the juvenile population.

• When charges are filed, white teenagers are more likely to be placed on probation, while black youth are more likely to be placed behind bars. According to research from the national Council on Crime and Delinquency, when white and black youths with similar histories were charged with the same offenses, black youths were six times more likely to be incarcerated in public institutions. Latino youths were three times more likely than white youths to be incarcerated under similar circumstances.

• Unequal treatment determines how deeply a young person will penetrate into the system. African-American children comprise 17 percent of the overall youth population, 30 percent of those arrested, and 62 percent of those prosecuted in the adult criminal system. Latino youth are 43 percent more likely than white youth to wind up in the adult system.

These gross inequalities persist despite decades of advocacy and reform efforts aimed at creating a more equitable system. the result has been not a resolution of the racism that drives the current system, nor even a mitigation of the crushing odds young people of color face before the law, but instead the growth of what the W. Haywood Burns institute calls a “multi-million-dollar cottage industry whose primary activity is to restate the problem of disparities, in essence, endlessly adoring the question of what to do about [disproportionate minority confinement], but never reaching an answer.”

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Copyright © 2014 by Nell Bernstein.  This excerpt originally appeared in Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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