“We are either going to spend the money now and provide the services that our children require or we are going to pay a big price at a later date when these children are part of the adult criminal justice system.”
That’s how Judge Edwina Richardson Mendelson, a New York family court judge, put it to NBC New York, commenting on a story about the need to help kids mired in the juvenile justice system.
Certainly other experts would agree. The lack of damage control for harm already done to these children along with the damage the juvenile justice system inflicts on them can only make things worse for our society as time goes on.
But as sound as that reasoning is both from an economic point of view as well as a humane one, treatment and care for troubled young people doesn’t happen much in this country. We spend more money locking kids up, punishing them– in many cases for the failures of their fathers and their mothers, their neighborhoods and their communities, their churches and their schools–than getting them the help they need to pull themselves up out of the sinkhole of the streets.
A report just released by New York Governor Paterson’s administration (reported on in the New York Times) on that state’s juvenile justice system notes that New York spends roughly $210,000 a year on each child locked up in institutions, institutions that this investigative report claims should be shut down, while at the same time three-quarters of those released from detention are arrested again within three years.
Obviously, something’s not working.
But there is even worse news.
This chilling document confirms what so many of us who work with at-risk youth knew on some level: Kids, sent to juvenile detention centers sometimes for actions as minor as truancy, theft or trespass, and many of whom have drug or alcohol addictions, mental illness, or developmental disabilities, receive no services for their many problems.
Likewise, they are routinely exposed to harsh discipline and treated with excessive force. Sometimes that force results in injuries “as severe as broken bones and shattered teeth” for infractions as negligible as sneaking an extra cookie. (Food is everything for locked away kids. In my years teaching high school in an adult county jail I’ve seen them barter, beg, steal, improvise, improve whatever morsel of jailhouse grub they can get. Food is pretty much all they have left in a life stripped of warmth, nurturing and understanding. It even trumps contraband girlie magazines. So I can easily understand that smuggled cookie.)
But the report confirms something else, something that many young people already felt, that many of the jailed kids I worked with talked about openly and with startling insight: that the war on street crime is really a war against youth, minority youth at that.
And they’re not far off the mark. The report pointed out that 80% of the kids locked up in New York State juvenile facilities were African American or Latino, although those groups make up less than half the state’s total youth population, a fact I saw reflected in my own jail experience.
Living on the street, hanging out, surviving, if they can; in and out of the very institutions that supposedly are there to take care of them, they don’t need 100+ pages to tell them where this ill treatment leads. They know all too well the lifelong bitterness and rage that such harsh, miserable and miserly treatment inflicts. They see it in themselves, their friends, their families, their neighborhoods.
We Americans are caught in compulsive hand-wringing over the economy. Everything costs too much. Someone’s always got more than I have. Someone’s always getting more than I’m getting. These anxieties are real. The complaints, heartfelt. However, the long term investments we need to make in people, not institutions, are essential, yet terribly neglected.
The thirteen year old boy hanging out at the bodega, taking swigs out of a bottle of Old English malt liquor because somebody noticed that he was there and offered it to him, will eventually turn around and bite society in the ass just as much as a failed auto industry might do. The more alarming difference, though, is that a failed industry is not a threat to the basic security and safety of our homes, our families, our streets, and ultimately our integrity as a country. If we don’t help that young boy now we’ll be strapped, as Judge Richardson Mendelson pointed out, with taking care of his kids, and his kids’ kids while we pay for his food and shelter and ever costly health care for decades to come as he sits behind bars, the bruised and battered offspring of a very broken juvenile justice system.