The Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution as a roadmap to, as the Preamble says, "establish justice," "promote the general welfare" and "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
Somehow over the last 220 years, our nation lost its way and developed a system that has established America as the prison capital of the world. There are more than two million people incarcerated in America, including 837,000 African American men — our fathers, brothers, children and grandchildren. A growing number of our sisters and mothers are also behind bars.
On Sept. 25 and 26, the Children's Defense Fund convened a national Summit on America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Crisis at Howard University to focus on the looming national catastrophe for all Americans but especially for the African American and Latino communities.
A Black boy who is 6 years old today has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Black 6-year-old girl has a 1 in 17 chance. A Latino 6-year-old boy has a 1 in 6 chance and a Latina girl has a 1 in 45 chance. Tens of thousands of children and teens are being sucked into the Pipeline each year as they struggle to grow up at the dangerous intersection of poverty and race.
It's time to name and change the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and stop the feeder systems that are sentencing our children to social and economic death and eroding the gains of the Civil Rights Movement built on such great toil and sacrifice.
At the Howard Summit, CDF released a report on America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline Crisis that everyone should read, share, and discuss—in your homes, congregations, communities and organizations. Decide how you are going to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. It's time for all adults to hear and respond to the cries of our children for help.
It is time for the adults of every race and income group to break our silence about the pervasive breakdown of moral, family, community and national values, to place our children first in our lives, and to struggle to model the behavior we want our children to learn. We do not have a 'child and youth problem,' we have a profound adult problem.
CDF's report documents the convergence and accumulation of multiple social and economic risks and a national ethos that too frequently chooses incarceration over healthy child and youth development. The Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis can be reduced to the simple facts that: the United States of America does not provide a level playing field for all children and our nation does not value and protect all children's lives equally.
Jena, La., is just the latest glaring example of how poverty and race converge to pull poor males of color into the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. A Black youth is 48 times more likely than a White youth to be incarcerated for the same or similar drug offense. CDF's report describes the conditions that force many poor infants in rich America into the Prison Pipeline from birth because they enter the world with multiple strikes against them. These are the children of poor single mothers without prenatal care, children who have no access to health and mental health care; whose family and community supports are inadequate to prevent abuse and neglect. They have poor or no early childhood education opportunities to prepare them for school, and they attend schools that expect and teach little and that exclude and criminalize them at younger and younger ages. These are the children with too few positive role models and no alternatives to the streets.
Over the next weeks, this column will discuss the various factors and systems that are feeding children into the Pipeline including dysfunctional families and failing schools that are not preparing our children to read and compete and that are criminalizing our young children of color. We will also look at the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. But the biggest problem is you and me and the lack of focused attention and outreach and the lack of a visible, organized voice from parents, the faith community and political leaders to protect children.
This Pipeline is not an act of God, it's the result of human choices, actions and inaction, a result that we can and must change now and together. The report is available on CDF's website at: www.childrensdefense.org/cradletoprison
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.