Marian Wright Edelman has written on a theme dear to our hearts. Her analysis and prescriptions overlap our approach to supplementary education. She writes...
"The increasing criminalization of children has become a major crisis. Children are being suspended and expelled from school and incarcerated in the juvenile and adult justice systems at alarming rates and at younger and younger ages. This increased incarceration is not due to an increase in serious delinquent or violent criminal behavior by young people. Juvenile arrests for violent crimes grew rapidly in the late 1980s and peaked in 1994, but then began falling. Between 1994 and 2003, the juvenile arrest rate for Violent Crime Index offenses__-murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault_-fell 48 percent to its lowest level since 1980. So if actual crime is not the cause for the rise in incarceration rates, what is?
"One piece of the puzzle is the rise of "zero tolerance" policies in schools. Schools began adopting these policies in the late 1980s, taking the term from the war on drugs. Amidst debate in Congress over "super predators" and predictions of a coming and dramatic surge in juvenile crime which never materialized, these policies hit the national level when President Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, requiring a one-calendar year expulsion for possession of a firearm and referral of law-violating students to the juvenile or criminal justice systems. Most states and local school districts responded to the new law by broadening the mandate of zero tolerance beyond the federal mandate of weapons to include drugs, alcohol, fighting, threats, or swearing.
"Many school boards continue to toughen their policies, experimenting with permanent expulsion for certain offenses. Others have begun to apply school suspensions and expulsions to behavior that occurs outside of school. While zero tolerance once applied to serious offenses involving safety, it is now an overarching and catch-all disciplinary approach for real, perceived, and imaginary weapons and "misbehavior" that is defined by highly subjective terms like "disruption" and "disrespect." Aspirin, Certs, and Midol are considered drugs. Paper clips, nail files, scissors, and spitballs are considered weapons. Punishment through exclusion is the overwhelming response. From 1974 to 2000, the number of students suspended out of school increased from 1.7 to 3.1 million. While zero tolerance has a place as a response to truly dangerous behavior, it has become a danger to children and a potential way to exclude any student who may need individualized help. Children should not be put out of school for any reason other than posing a real threat to themselves or others. Child behaviors that used to be handled at school are now being handled by police. Five, eight, and nine-year-olds are being arrested with stains on their records that blot their future.
"Another disturbing piece of the increased criminalization of children is the growing numbers of children sent into the adult criminal justice system. Approximately 250,000 teens under 18 enter the adult criminal justice system every year. More than half have been charged with nonviolent drug or property offenses. The idea of youth serving "adult time for adult crime" grew in popularity in response to a sharp increase in drug and firearms violations. But the vast majority of teens tried and sentenced in adult court are not the serious, violent, chronic offenders who might have been subject to the juvenile death penalty, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down in the Simmons case involving a juvenile from Missouri.
"In many states, laws now require prosecutors to file certain cases in adult court--even if it is against their better judgment--simply because of the nature of the offense or the age of the youth. Nearly 90 percent of youth who are transferred to the adult system fall under a lowered age of adulthood in 13 states. In these states any youth accused of an offense who is 17 years old (or 16 years old in three of the 13 states) will be sent into the adult criminal justice system for any offense, whether serious or not.
"Another huge factor in the increased criminalization of children stems from untreated mental health problems among children. Seventy-five percent of children in the juvenile justice system have mental health problems. Children as young as seven are incarcerated in juvenile facilities around the country not because of pending charges for a crime but because of untreated mental health needs for which no treatment is available in their communities.
"Finally, a key piece of the increase stems from the disparate treatment of Black and Brown children in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Minority youths make up 34 percent of the adolescent population and 62 percent of juveniles confined to public facilities. In 1999, Blacks outnumbered Whites nearly two to one in the number of youth under 18 admitted to adult state prisons. For drug charges, the ratio was more than 8 to 1. A Black youth is 48 times more likely than a White youth to be incarcerated for comparable drug offenses. Data from 18 of the largest court jurisdictions showed that 82% of juvenile cases filed in adult court involved youth of color. School suspensions are similarly imbalanced: in 2000, Black students were suspended at a rate almost three times higher than White students.
"The road that has been taking more and more of our children to prison and away from their homes and schools and communities and off the path to college and productive futures is long and twisted. But we don't have to keep allowing our children to be led astray. It's time for caring adults to stand up and demand we change course.
Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities."