America’s War on Youth

By M.A Bortner Sep 10, 1998

Locking up kids is no longer a last resort, it is routine. The widespread characterization of imprisoned youth as predatory monsters beyond hope serves symbolic and political ends. Young people are being locked up to reassure a fearful public that the cause of social unrest has been identified and that politicians and government have taken action to restore order and provide safety.

Our society incarcerates children and youth at a greater rate than any other industrialized country on earth. More than 400,000 people under the age of eighteen are confined each year. In addition, youth are increasingly tried and punished as adults. Over 14,400 youth are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. Imprisoned children figure prominently in the rise of the prison industrial complex.

Who’s in Jail, and Why?
Media images and political rhetoric depict incarcerated youth as violent and irredeemable, yet the vast majority have not committed violent crimes. Less than 20 percent of those detained in the juvenile system prior to trial have been accused of violent offenses, and only one-fourth of those imprisoned after trial have been found guilty of violent offenses. The majority of youth are incarcerated for property and drug offenses.

Incarcerated youth are disproportionately poor, male, and people of color. Although minorities comprise about 32 percent of the youth population, they are the majority, about 68 percent, in prison. Half of imprisoned youths’ families are headed by single mothers and have annual incomes below the poverty level.

One imprisoned Chicano youth, Richard, expresses a widespread resentment among youth of color: “When the cops see a group of Mexican kids together, they think we’re a gang. You don’t need to be causin’ trouble or anything. They’ll stop you….They automatically assume you’re guilty of something by the way you look.”

Where is the YMCA?
Extensive cuts in funding for social programs within the community contribute to increased crime and intensify the legal system’s involvement in children’s lives. One high school student says: “Have you been to my neighborhood? There are no Big Brothers-Big Sisters in my neighborhood. There are no YMCAs. There are none of those things in my neighborhood. We need more alternatives for youth, more positive alternatives! If they really want to change something, come down to my neighborhood, see what’s not there, okay?”

Undoubtedly, all youth need extensive services, but very few “need” to be incarcerated. They need the nurturing and guidance once deemed essential for all children, and these must be provided in far less costly and less potentially damaging settings than jails and prisons.

Barbara Cerepanya, children’s advocate and attorney, has led the fight against the construction of incarceration beds for youth in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona. She promotes the search for innovative and creative alternatives to incarceration, as well as full funding for current programs. Ms. Cerepanya compares the endless construction of jails and prisons to being in “a very deep hole.” As she puts it, “The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, quit digging.”

Fighting for Change
Concerned people throughout the United States are engaged in a wide range of activities to support incarcerated youth and to protest increased incarceration of young people. Pilot programs provide school-to-work programs for youths leaving prison, and others team youth with adults in community service projects. Children’s advocates mount legal and educational campaigns coupled with active involvement in policy debates, especially testifying before those who control funding for jails and prisons.

Community coalitions, such as the Restorative Justice Project, bring together grassroots organizations, professional associations, and communities of faith to promote alternative visions of justice. The families of incarcerated youths and public interest law firms, such as the National Center for Youth Law and the Youth Law Center, play an important role in disclosing abuses and creating legal mandates for change.

“Youth in prison” is a shameful banner for a society. It signals a great collective loss as well as individual destruction. The failure to provide meaningful alternatives constitutes wholesale abandonment of large numbers of youth. Current imprisonment policies must be supplanted with an imaginative, profound commitment to youth and society. We need to have the courage to envision a society without prisons and to protest the war on youth currently being waged through the incarceration of our very futures. 

M.A. Bortner teaches in the School of Justice Studies at Arizona State University where she focuses on youth and prisons.