The premise is simple but powerful: our country’s criminal justice system, particularly as applied to our youngest citizens, is irreparably broken. Don’t try to reform it; dismantle it. This bold approach might seem extreme, but a serious consideration of the overwhelming evidence for such a proposition stops in its tracks our halting and limping toward some kind of middle ground for justice. Veteran journalist Nell Bernstein’s stunning book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison” lays bare the incomprehensible racism, brutality, and turbulence that undergird and motivate our juvenile justice system. The numbers tell the story[i]:
*As reported in February 2013, 66,332 American kids were housed in juvenile facilities.
* A 2010 federal survey indicated that more than a third of juveniles in secure facilities reported that staff used excessive force; about 50% had experienced some kind of ‘group punishment’.
* A 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation report authored by Richard Mendel reports pervasive abuse of juveniles in the system, including “systemic violence, abuse, and/or excessive use of isolation or restraints” in 39 states.
* Youth of color make up 38% of the youth population but 72% of locked up juveniles.
And the stories back up the numbers[ii]:
* In Mississippi, guards stripped girls who demonstrated suicidal behavior, tied them up and threw them into solitary confinement; they also forced girls to run in hot weather carrying logs, and when they got sick from heat exhaustion, forced them to eat their own vomit.
* In Georgia, guards punched a young boy so hard in the ear that it punctured his eardrum.
* A teen girl in a juvenile facility recounts being sexually abused by the man who was assigned as her counselor.
Nell and I had a very personal, transparent conversation about her book wherein we each learned from the other as we considered the state of the juvenile justice system and what it means for us and our communities. Below is an excerpt from our talk, edited for clarity.
CWC: This book was hard for me to get through. There were times when I literally stopped and put it down anywhere from a couple minutes to a few days because there were some parts that were hitting home in a personal way or were just so devastating for me to read and be up close and personal with that I had to step away. So I’m thinking if I’m reacting that way reading it, what was it like for you writing it?
NB: That’s funny when you ask that question; I was thinking that I had the same kinds of feelings when I was reporting it. I’ve known kids and worked with kids who’ve been locked up for a couple decades and so in a way for me I think that was the harder part when they were kids I loved. I think there’s a little bit of numbing that you have to engage in as a reporter; but I remember Gladys Carrion who was the head of the juvenile system in New York, she talked about visiting her facilities when she first took that job and then sitting in the parking lot and crying and I do remember doing that sometimes.
CWC: The average reader, someone who [is not an advocate or familiar with the issues]—do you want them to have a certain kind of reaction, i.e. a ‘shock-the-conscious’ sort of thing?
NB: Absolutely, yes. I think there’s a lot of work out there that’s really good work that offers a more distanced analysis of why this is a failed system. But I did feel like there was a need for something that included that analysis but also went for the gut. It’s almost become in my mind not ok not to be upset about what we’re doing to kids. It’s funny in terms of the pushback that I expected versus the response I’ve gotten. First of all, I’ve gotten very little pushback from conservative radio and more mainstream venues for a position that I would’ve thought would be seen as pretty extreme. The only pushback I’m getting is, ‘This can’t be true. This is not a credible writer. She has to be making this up.’ When I reported the book [and] heard a story like [the one about a young man incarcerated who was made to kneel for two weeks], I always did my best to check it out. What I found when I looked at court papers and investigations in that particular facility was not only official reports that kids were being forced to kneel for long periods of time but that in some cases they were forced to kneel upon sharp objects. So it was even worse than this kid had told me. I think the way that we protect ourselves seems to have gone from, ‘These are bad kids. If they didn’t want to have this happen they shouldn’t have done these things’, to a certain level of disbelief.
As I read the book, I waited to see whether Nell would explicitly name racism as a factor in the functional collapse of the juvenile justice system. She did not disappoint.
CWC: One of my favorite chapters in the book was Chapter 3: Other People’s Children. In that chapter, you say, “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.” I get weary of people talking around it, trying to come up with different ways to say it. Or they try to attribute racism to other things and it gets under my skin. Given the truth of a statement like that, can changing how we confine and treat juveniles really change why we do it? Does it matter why we do it, or just how?
NB: That’s a really profound question. I guess the first thing I’d say is that changing how we confine [kids] to me is a different question from changing whether we confine them. I’ve visited therapeutic prisons and what I call ‘better mousetraps’ but they’re still based on this premise that the best way to deal with either certain actions or certain groups of kids is to isolate them. I have a personal problem with that premise, [and] all the research indicates that confinement doesn’t rehabilitate, [but] in fact exacerbates whatever problems led to the original act. But are you saying that even if we changed our response so that it was something other than confinement, if we didn’t change how we thought about the kids, would that really make a difference? Is that your question?
CWC: Yes because to your point, racism is at the very bottom of it.
NB: I think unless we can change the way that we look at kids and get rid of this notion that there is such a thing as ‘someone else’s kid’, or ‘a different kind of kid’, we’re not going to make lasting progress. And I say that for two reasons.
One is my fear that the main driver has been financial. Until state budgets really began to crumble, [reform] just didn’t happen. I used to call incarceration the last standing entitlement because I think we reached a point where states couldn’t balance their budget unless they did something about [mass incarceration of juveniles]. My fear is that if the economy shifts, if our thinking doesn’t shift along with it then we’ll just fill those beds right back up again. You can tinker with the facility but when you don’t change the fundamental relationship between the ‘keeper’ and the ‘kept’ there’s resentment that the kids have built up and it’s built up over years and years. It’s not going to just go away because you unlock a door but don’t change the fundamental premise that [kids] need to be confined and isolated.
Whose responsibility is it to address these issues? Is it up to the families only?
CWC: With the kind of bias that we’ve just been talking about being so entrenched, people have started having town halls where they’re talking about this is what you do if you get stopped; these are your rights; this is what you need to know if you’re out with friends, etc. And I’m beginning to wonder are those kinds of [conversations] ultimately helpful? In other words, trying to build a structure around our children that is supposed to keep them [safe]—does that matter?
NB: You’ve gone right to the heart of where I’m most uncomfortable. I feel like it is made the responsibility of black people to address this, but I think if we don’t talk about [it as] a white issue and then an everybody issue too, then it’s the thing that [black people] know, but nobody [else] speaks.
CWC: As the mother of two African-American young men, I’m concerned that in our effort to try to stem the tide or wrap another layer of protection around our kids, we’re buying into the erroneous thought that says, ‘There’s something else out there [something that parents aren’t doing] that will help this situation‘ [of young black people being targeted by law enforcement and the justice system]. It seems we’re saying that the racial disparities or racism is really about [parents] telling kids to be respectful; telling them not to wear their hoodies after six; tell[ing] them don’t put their hands in their pockets; make your hands visible at all times; and make sure if you get stopped you put your hands on the steering wheel. I’m afraid [this approach] gives our kids a false sense of security. As if there really is something they can do if they run up against Jim Bob in North Carolina or Albany or Orlando that is going to stop him from proceeding in the way [he determined] to proceed from the moment he saw that child.
NB: I honestly don’t know what to say to that. I’m a hyper-vigilant mother anyway so because of the work I do, I have had that conversation with my kids and understand that they are much safer. I remember my son asking me when he was about 10: ‘When’s it going to hit? When are they going to start looking at me with suspicion?’ I think [the issue is] racialized, but there’s also a hatred of youth generally, and youth in groups, and youth in mixed groups; it’s really complicated. I don’t know the answer on an individual level. Definitely it shouldn’t be an individual parent’s responsibility.
These are our children—all of ours. They know the system is broken, and they want out.
“The many thousands of young people locked away today cannot afford to wait for incremental reform. … As the decades-long debate over juvenile justice drags on, these are the young people whose lives hang in the balance. They are living in a state of emergency, and they want someone—everyone—to take notice.” Burning Down the House, p. 318
It can’t be fixed, so it’s time to burn the whole thing down.
[i] As reported in Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison