RSS
The tragic, maddening failure of America's juvenile justice system
We need reform. Now.
 
A male juvenile stands in a room at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi. The image was part of a 2009 exhibit by Richard Ross.
A male juvenile stands in a room at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi. The image was part of a 2009 exhibit by Richard Ross. (AP Photo/Richard Ross, Juvenile-in-Justice.com)

When you start reading Nell Bernstein's haunting book about juvenile justice in America, you'll surely become heartbroken at the ways in which our nation systematically abuses, neglects, tortures, and otherwise ruins the lives of generations of children. No parent in America could read this wrenching work and not be touched to tears by its depictions of what our laws and our public officials do to our kids.

But later in your reading of Bernstein's Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, you'll move from heartbroken to furious. The mindlessness of the policies and practices that turn troubled youths into failed adults — and thus entrench into countless lives cycles of violence, poverty, and despair — are beyond maddening. Our nation's judges, cops, prosecutors, and politicians surely know by now the harm this causes all of us. The evidence of the damage is overwhelming. We imprison our children at seven times the rate Great Britain does and 18 times the rate of France. We spend far more money housing our kids in prison — $88,000 a year — than we do educating them in school. And yet, despite this crushing statistic, our nation does not move quickly enough to prevent the mistreatment, the rapes, the violence, and the degradation that occurs every day in modern American juvenile jails and prisons.

At last count there were approximately 66,000 youths confined in juvenile facilities, the majority (two thirds) in long-term placements such as state-run training schools. "Juvenile detention facilities throughout the United States are plagued by sexual violence," Just Detention International’s Lovissa Stannow, a leading advocate in this area, told me Tuesday. "The federal government's own studies show that — on average — about 10 percent of detained kids are sexually abused every year. Shockingly, more than 80 percent of the abuse is perpetrated by staff — government officials whose very job it is to help these young people turn their lives around.... Sexual abuse in detention is absolutely preventable. We know that, because there are some facilities where one in three kids is assaulted every year and others where nobody is abused."

Over and over again, Bernstein makes her point clear from statistics, interviews, and other legwork within her field: If we were to sit down and earnestly try to conceive of a juvenile justice system most likely to fail, to guarantee to turn troubled kids into dangerous adults, and to do so in a manner most horrific to those kids, we would end up with what we have now. From the book:

Curtis was a kid I met several years ago — one of the kids who helped inspire me to write this book in fact. When I met him, he was just a few weeks out of juvenile hall. Researchers talk about million dollar blocks — blighted areas where that is the cost of incarcerating residents for a single year. I didn't know it yet but Curtis was a million dollar kid. He'd been locked up at ten years old, for a robbery capping off a criminal career that started at seven when he was arrested for stabbing a teacher with a pencil. He was sent, at ten, to the CA Youth Authority, a then-notorious institution that held young men up to 24 years old. "Terrified and petrified" is how Curtis described his feeling when he learned that he was headed there at ten.

Sentenced initially to two years, he wound up staying six, "because of my repetitive negative behavior," he said, slipping into institutional jargon. What he meant was fighting — something he felt was necessary as the youngest and smallest kid in the building. The response was solitary confinement, sometimes weeks or even months, where his only human contact was the nurse pushing the meds cart down the hall. "They treated me like an animal," he said, "when I really was just a little child that was misguided, that needed some help and some direction." [Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison]

Bernstein is not the first writer to tackle the problem. But she adds vital context to the tragic story. What children need most to break out of these cycles of destruction are stable relationships with adults they can trust and respect. What these young offenders need, in other words, are adults in the juvenile justice system who have the patience and the compassion and the wisdom and the incentive and the training to draw them out from their cycles of crime. But, Bernstein tells us, "virtually every aspect of our juvenile justice system" is "designed to disrupt and deny relationships."

Instead of talking to young offenders, our guards too often quickly punish and isolate them, even for behavior reasonable people would consider "juvenile" more than "criminal." Instead of treating young victims of physical or sexual abuse with care and treatment, our juvenile systems tolerate conditions in which those same children, and other young offenders, are subject to abuse behind bars. It is axiomatic today that thousands of our children are being raped inside our juvenile facilities. We all know about it. And yet we continue to refuse to stop it.

Or at least stop it quickly enough. As Bernstein notes toward the end of the book, there has been significant reform in the area of juvenile justice in the past 10 years. Indeed, the landscape today, as perilous as it is for too many children, would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. As Bernstein writes:

Over the course of a single decade, the number of juveniles confined in local and state facilities in the United States dropped 39 percent, from a high of 108,802 in 2000 to 66,332 in 2010 — a low not seen since 1985. [Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison]

But this is not enough to spare the child who gets raped today in a prison in Texas or the one who gets beaten by a guard or another inmate in a facility in New York or Florida. It is not enough to ensure adequate mental-health or medical care for children who need it. It is not enough to demand that prison officials who abuse and neglect their charges are themselves held accountable. It is not enough to ensure that lawmakers adequately fund these juvenile prisons. This is an emergency, Bernstein's book tells us, and it demands a more immediate response.

What Bernstein fears, what any reasonable person might fear, is that the reforms of the past decade won't be permanent, that these "justice" systems will regress. Bernstein fears this because she believes that too many politicians, and prison officials, and judges, and prosecutors, still don't understand the difference between incarcerating adults and incarcerating children. She believes it because she knows that many officials just don't get it — or cannot get beyond the notion of retribution and punishment instead of rehabilitation.

In this she is right. The children she chronicles are not lifers — by law they cannot be, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision. They are instead young people who eventually will return to the outside world. And that means they are young people for whom prison can be either an opportunity or a trap. Whether it is one or the other depends entirely upon the adults working in juvenile justice. Perhaps the most inspiring components of Bernstein's book are those passages that tell us what does work. Every juvenile justice official, from the lowliest guard to the heads of the departments of corrections in every state, ought to read this book and learn.

The last words go to Bernstein — in questions she asks near the end of the book:

How does sitting in a locked building help build accountability, foster rehabilitation, reduce re-offending, or assist with any other goal of the juvenile court? More to the point, given the mountain of evidence that it does none of these things and often achieves just the opposite, why do we remain wedded to this particular intervention? [Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison]

And:

If confining juveniles in large state-run facilities fails to meet its ostensible goals, if it fails to reduce crime or enhance public safety, fails, in fact, by every measure we've come up with, what, then does it offer for the billions of dollars and millions of lives it winds up costing? [Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison]

There are no words that can answer these questions. The only answer to these questions is action. Read this book. If you are a parent, especially, it may change your life. The kids in this book could be my kid. They could be your kid. And if they were, you would rage against a machine designed not to make things better for these troubled children, and for our society, but to make things measurably, relentlessly worse.


The above image is courtesy Richard Ross and is part of a larger project called "Juvenile in Justice." Click here to view more of Ross' work.

 
Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News. He has covered the law and justice beat since 1997 and was the 2012 winner of the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award for commentary.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week