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

Memo Pad Weekend Reader

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 Prison by 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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  1. Dominick Vila July 27, 2014

    African American and Latino men become a target the moment they leave their houses. It doesn’t matter if they are playing, eating, talking to friends, going to work, going to church, or doing things they should not do. Their stigma – and physiognomy – are far more relevant to some than the reality of their acts.

    1. Canistercook July 27, 2014

      Not true – why do you think OJ got away with murder? Depends on how one behaves but at times racism raises its ugly head for all of us.

      1. Dominick Vila July 27, 2014

        Fame, money, and a good legal team helped in that case, but it did not prevent the law to eventually catch him. I am not suggesting ethnic minorities do not commit crimes, my point is that being a black or Latino male, and the stigma that comes with that unavoidable fact, make them a suspect the moment they step out of their houses regardless of what they are doing. Trayvon Martin comes to mind…

  2. FAMULLAR July 27, 2014

    Want access to the US government’s secrets? Talk to the robot.

    Some 5.1 million Americans hold federal security clearance of one level or another, entitling them access to classified information. Putting each person eligible for clearance through the detailed screening process is a huge bureaucratic headache.

    Dean Pollina of the US National Center for Credibility Assessment in Fort Jackson, South Carolina – which assesses security technologies such as polygraph lie detectors for the government – wondered whether a computer-generated interviewer could streamline the process.

    Pollina and colleague Allison Baretta built a system in which an on-screen avatar equipped with speech-recognition capability asks a series of screening questions. They then used it to do recorded interviews with 120 members of the US Army.

    What they found was surprising. Writing in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers say that candidates were much more likely to admit to having had mental health issues, using illicit drugs or drinking alcohol in a session with the ‘chatbot’ than in a written security screening questionnaire. They also revealed criminal acts from their past to the chatbot but not in the questionnaire.

  3. FAMULLAR July 27, 2014

    To this day, the international community has not done enough to stop Israeli settlements. European countries have profoundly criticised them while continuing to co-operate fully with Israel, economically, politically and militarily. As a result, Israel does not pay any price for seriously violating international law. On the contrary, Europe also pays for much of the humanitarian damage of the occupation, making it even easier for Israel to maintain.

    A year ago, the EU made a small step in the right direction: guidelines were issued prohibiting EU institutions to fund or to finance research organisations and activities in the settlements. Twenty European countries have published formal warnings to their citizens and companies regarding trade and financial relations with the settlements.

  4. FAMULLAR July 27, 2014

    A large part of the decision that people make in September has to do with whether Scotland has the ability to run its own affairs. A potential effect of the games on the don’t-knows is that if there’s a general sense that the event has been successful, and that Glasgow might even have helped preserve the games’ future – which is very much in doubt – it might to some extent offset the “Project Fear” negative economic warnings about independence.

    One of the things you noticed in the run-up to the opening ceremony was the visibility of Glasgow on national television. You’re getting reports that are not just about deep-fried Mars Bars for once. We have also heard a lot from Westminster about the viability of the regions outside London economically. They’re talking about Glasgow making satellites, being a player in life sciences, things like that. This is already a different message to what people in Scotland have been used to hearing.

  5. charles king July 27, 2014

    The Black American males has been target from the very first day of their life. I was lucky to be born and raise in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I wrote a book about my early life(1930-1948) called “Thank, You Jesus For Johnstown,Pennsylvania” and I meant every word I wrote. I grew up believing I was an ALL-American Kid wanting to be the best in everything, today its a different story for the young children of all shades and I say to the ruling crowds they better do some Critical Thinking about the youth situations. Over twenty years ago I taught public schools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania When? the system had a budget of(

  6. Manny Bartow July 28, 2014

    Although some believe that scientific knowledge growth shrinks ignorance, most people realize that ignorance grows faster than knowledge.

  7. disqus_Cc20uRF6eN July 28, 2014

    MONEY T A L K S, bull shit WALKS….directly to jail.

  8. atc333 July 28, 2014

    Our justice system is more than racist. It begins with a flawed concept, that prosecutors are statutorily immune from suit for wrongful prosecution of an innocent person of a crime.

    Because of that “immunity” you will repeatedly see some Prosecutors at all levels seeking to preserve their “wins and losses” record by not adhering to the complete terms of their oaths of office, which is simply “prosecute and convict the guilt”, and ignoring the other aspect, which is to “protect the innocent”.

    This is where the immunity fails.and becomes counterproductive. Time and time again certain prosecutors will determine that a defendant is innocent of the charges. Rather than do the right thing, and take a dismissal, some prosecutors will chose to play hardball with those defendants, more so if they are poor, and unrepresented, younger and unaccompanied by a support system. In order to preserve their track record, knowing full well that the charges are not valid, certain prosecutors will insist those defendants enter a plea to a lesser charge, promising only probation, and a withheld adjudication on the charge. Most of these defendants, not knowing once they are in the system it will stay with them,, affecting their future life and reputation. The alternative, for that defendant, faced with a prosecutor seeking to keep their winning average by forcing the defendant to take probation or be forced to go to trial on what the prosecutor knows was a meritless charge.

    This can be seen in practically any criminal court system. Time and time again, some prosecutors will force a meritless case to a jury trial, simply because they can, even when the defendant is represented by counsel, attempting to coerce a no contest plea to a lesser offense, or hoping that the jury will buy into the idea that the defendant must be “guilty or they would not be in court”.

    Sometimes it works, but with a educated jury, and competent counsel, those cases can end up with the jury electing a foreman, and spending two minutes in the jury room to come back with a “not guilty” verdict.
    Invariably, when questioned as to why they took it to trial, rather than take a dismissal of an obviously bad charge, the prosecutor will ignore the question, and walk away.

    The solution is to make a prosecutor individually and personally liable for any willful knowing prosecution of a innocent defendant.or worse, the withholding of evidence. In other words, make the second part of the Prosecutor’s oath of office mean what it says, “to protect the innocent,” and have financial consequences for any prosecutors who intentionally abuse their prosecutorial power. Too many lives are harmed and/or destroyed by such abuses.

  9. 1standlastword July 28, 2014

    Nothing takes the place of an accessible and responsible father–so, as long as the Black family remains a mostly leaderless institution this refrain will continue echo out across the land!

    The rate of Black on Black homicide and gang violence is evidence of something profoundly wrong in the family.


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