Activists push for juvenile justice system reforms

Critics argue detention centers wrongly focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation for young people

Inmates at the Caddo Juvenile Detention Center in Shreveport, La., in 2010.
Val Horvath/The Times/AP

When Marvin Bing Jr. was 12 years old, he was living in a foster home in central Pennsylvania.

One day he decided to take a kitchen knife to school in his book bag. He didn’t have any intention to use it, but he thought it would seem cool to classmates. When the teacher noticed kids gathered around Bing’s desk, oohing and ahhing, he was sent to the principal’s office.

But that was just the beginning. Bing was arrested, taken away in a police car and sent to a juvenile holding facility to await a court date. “It was lockup,” he said. “I had a cell. It was all blue. I had a little bed and a steel locked door. The whole thing, at 12 years old.”

In a single moment, something that happened in school changed Bing’s life, yanking him into the justice system — all before even becoming a teenager. But he is far from alone.

On any given day in the United States, about 70,000 children are held in residential juvenile centers like the one Bing was sent to, and at least two thirds of them are charged with nonviolent offenses. Another 10,000 are detained in adult prisons and jails. Each year, as many as 250,000 youths under 18 are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults.

In both the juvenile and adult systems, some critics say, young people are at a high risk of physical and sexual abuse, educational disruption and psychological trauma as they deal with institutions that might be unsuited to dealing with their problems and are focused more on punishment than on rehabilitation. “The more you treat people as criminals at younger and younger ages, the more damage you’re likely to do to their psyche,” said Niaz Kasravi, director of the criminal-justice program at the NAACP.

As a result, 23 states since 2005 have enacted some type of legislation to reduce youth exposure to the adult criminal system. But some states are behind the curve. New York and North Carolina are the only two remaining states where the age of criminal responsibility is still 16 — meaning that 16- and 17-year-olds are charged as adults. New York prosecutes children as young as 7 as juvenile delinquents.

At Bing’s first juvenile placement, the children did limited reading and writing exercises, but he said there was no real semblance of school. After he was released, he had a hard time re-entering the community; he was not sent back to his foster family and was instead placed in a group home near Philadelphia. “I felt, like, ‘I was locked up. I was tougher. I’m bigger than the other guy. I was actually behind bars,’” he explained. “But on the flip side of that, I was afraid.”

He was getting into trouble around his neighborhood, and ultimately he was rearrested and sent to a long-term juvenile facility. Bing’s re-encounter with the system is typical for many young people. In New York state, almost 90 percent of boys released from juvenile incarceration are arrested again. The figure for girls is 80 percent.

Bing, however, turned his life around. After he was released from his second long-term placement, he committed himself to doing social-justice work. He is currently an organizer with the Raise the Age campaign in New York, lobbying to change the ways that young people are treated in the juvenile and adult systems. That means not only seeking to change the age of criminal responsibility in the state but also addressing how they end up in trouble to begin with.

The more you treat people as criminals at younger and younger ages, the more damage you’re likely to do to their psyche.

Niaz Kasravi

Director, NAACP criminal-justice program

Often, criminal treatment begins long before a child is arrested, and it disproportionately targets minorities. There have been numerous headline-grabbing cases in recent years — from 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot dead by a neighborhood-watch guard after going to a store to three black teenagers arrested while waiting for a bus to take them to their high school basketball game in Rochester, N.Y.

Hard figures back up those well-known stories. African-Americans comprise almost 40 percent of youths arrested and 60 percent of youths prosecuted as adults, but the youth population age 11 to 18 is only about 16 percent black. They are nine times more likely to be sentenced as adults than their white peers, according to the NAACP. “The deeper you go into the system, the larger the disparity gets,” said Angelo Pinto, campaign manager for the Correctional Association of New York’s juvenile-justice project.

Once a child is arrested, access to education may be limited or nonexistent, depending on the detention center. Wendy Greene, director of North Carolina Prison and Legal Services’ incarcerated-youth advocacy project, represents young people and is familiar with confinement conditions in the state. One of her clients — whom she declined to name — is a special-education student awaiting a court date in a North Carolina county jail. Though he has not been convicted of a crime, he has been there for months.

According to Greene, law-enforcement officials have refused to allow the local public school to send in a teacher to work one on one with the child, claiming there’s no space for such an arrangement. As a result, he has been receiving assignment packets from school but no instruction. She says his work comes back with scores of zero. Regardless of whether he is found guilty, she pointed out, his experience with detention has significantly set back his education.

Many campaigners argue that increased police presence in schools pushes younger and younger people into the criminal-justice system. The use of police officers by school districts in Florida, California, New York, Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania has led to a massive increase in school-based arrests, drawing thousands of students into the penal system.

‘Mostly black and brown’

In Chicago in 2012, for example, black youths made up about 40 percent of the Chicago public-school population but three-quarters of the students arrested at school. According to the student group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, there were 2,546 school-based arrests from September 2011 to February 2012.

Ethan Viets-VanLear is an 18-year-old from West Rogers Park in Chicago. Officers from the city’s police department patrolled his high school, and for him, their presence meant harassment. “I’ve twice been taken from my classroom in handcuffs and brought to a police station to be questioned,” he said. “I’ve never been convicted of a crime, but I was taken away from my school.”

After his second experience with the police, he ended up leaving school and getting his diploma via an online charter school. When he looks back at his former classmates’ graduating class, he sees that many young men — mostly from minority communities — left before graduating. “All the kids that were missing were mostly black and brown,” he said. “They’ve either been suspended, expelled or arrested at school and had to leave.”

Marvin Bing began speaking about his experience in the juvenile justice system only in the last few years. The Raise the Age campaign, recently backed by new Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, emphasizes rehabilitation over criminalization. “Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility will reduce recidivism rates among juveniles and reduce the long-term costs of incarceration,” Thompson said in November. The group has won support from a number of other district attorneys throughout the state as well as from legal organizations, children’s advocacy groups and labor unions. Bing is optimistic that the law in New York can be changed.

Activists say that keeping younger people out of the criminal justice system would actually make communities safer and not lead to an increase in crime or give youths a free hand to behave badly. “Young people have a lot more potential for change,” said the NAACP’s Kasravi.

Bing agrees. “That’s what this campaign is aimed to do,” he said. “End a severe injustice and give hope and new life to a young person who may have made a mistake, like I did.”

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