Juvenile justice report

By Michelle Chen Feb 12, 2009

Some interesting recent twists at the intersection of youth and the prison system. A dozen young people in the custody of Massachusetts Department of Youth Services could soon be liberated, thanks to a Supreme Judicial Court decision striking down a law that enabled the Youth Services to preemptively keep juvenile offenders imprisoned–on the grounds that they might be "physically dangerous to the public." The law allowed as much as three extra years of detention after the child turned 18, while skirting the basics of due process. The Boston Globe reports:

"The law is flawed, according to the court, because it fails to set a standard for dangerousness. The court also noted that the law leaves a determination of dangerousness to the "unbridled discretion” of the Department of Youth Services, which isn’t required to hold a hearing before concluding that a juvenile offender — who ordinarily is released on his 18th birthday — should be civilly committed for three more years. A judge then presides over a trial to determine whether the juvenile should remain in custody…. "Barbara Kaban, who is deputy director of the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts and represented one of the juveniles, said, ‘The statute is too vague. You can’t deprive people of liberty based on some undefined term of dangerousness.’"

On the opposite coast, Ventura County is mulling over the fate of an underutilized youth prison, which columnist Timm Herndt warns could be converted to a new facility to accommodate the state’s burgeoning incarcerated population. In Oakland, meanwhile, resistance has exploded in response to a City Council proposal* for a youth curfew, floated in the wake of the clashes and arrests stemming from the Oscar Grant demonstrations. To activists, the move is not only ineffective as a public safety measure, but fundamentally destructive for a community already besieged by police violence. State restrictions on people’s freedom of movement have a historical precedent, notes Critical Resistance organizer Ritika Aggarwal:

“After what happened to Oscar Grant and many other youth killed by the police, how could we consider giving police yet another opportunity for racial profiling. Who will Oakland police stop at 10 p.m.? What neighborhoods will see a lockdown from 10 p.m. to 5 a. m.?… The 1865 Black Codes permitted the imprisonment of ex-slaves traveling after 10 p.m. without a note from their employer.”

Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, which runs the "Cradle to Prison" campaign, further contextualizes the criminalization of youth in country’s past, present and future. Calling the youth-prison connection "America’s new apartheid," she writes:

"It is time to sound a loud alarm about this threat to American unity and community, act to stop the growing criminalization of children at younger and younger ages, and tackle the unjust treatment of minority youths and adults in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems with urgency and persistence. The failure to act now will reverse the hard-earned racial and social progress for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others died and sacrificed. We must all call for investment in all children from birth through their successful transition to adulthood, remembering Frederick Douglass’s correct observation that ‘it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’"

How many generations must be broken before we lose our ability to build?

*Update: the curfew proposal has been derailed by vocal opposition. The meeting can be viewed here.