This is one of a series of Child Watch® Columns on America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Crisis.
If you were asked where the United States ranks among industrialized countries on low birthweight, infant mortality or child poverty, a guess much higher than the bottom on any of these social indicators would be wrong. But if you were asked where America stands on imprisoning its citizens, you would be correct to answer that we surpass everyone else. Our nation incarcerates more people — over 2.3 million in 2006 — than any other country. Because justice is not equally administered in the United States, Black males are disproportionately represented among America's imprisoned population, currently numbering 837,000 in state and federal prisons. Our ranking as the world's number one jailer represents a monumental national failure.
More and more of those who enter the Prison Pipeline start with arrest records as young children. Earlier this year, a police officer arrested 7-year-old Gerard Mungo, Jr., in East Baltimore, Md., claiming that the child was riding a dirt bike on the sidewalk. Gerard was handcuffed and taken to a police station where officers took his fingerprints and mug shot.
Incarceration is extremely costly. In California, state detention centers for young people cost $216,000 a year per child; county facilities cost about $117,000. States spend on average nearly three times as much per prisoner as they do per public school pupil. In some states, the growth in prison costs also exceeds the growth in higher education spending. When it costs more to detain a child than to provide him a Head Start, we need to seriously reassess our nation's values and priorities. While there seems to be no cap on prison spending; Head Start funding serves only half of those eligible.
We need to refocus what we do with the children we detain. Too much cruelty permeates our youth detention culture where the focus is often on control and punishment instead of rehabilitation.
A 2003 U.S. Department of Justice investigation into conditions at Oakley and Columbia Juvenile Training Schools in Mississippi found that juveniles there were being hog-tied with chains, physically assaulted by guards, sprayed with chemicals during military exercises, forced to eat their own vomit and put in dark, solitary confinement cells after being stripped naked. Mississippi's juvenile justice system is now under a federal judicial decree because of these and other violations found by the Department of Justice.
For some young people, being sent to a youth detention facility can be a death sentence. In January 2006, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died of suffocation at a state-run boot camp in Florida after seven guards beat and restrained him. His death occurred the day after he arrived at the camp after violating parole for taking his grandmother's car for a joy ride.
One state that has gotten it right on juvenile justice is Missouri. Under the caring youth-focused leadership of Mark Steward, its former Youth Services Director, in 1983 Missouri closed all of its youth prisons and divided the state into five regions so that confined youths would be within driving distance of their homes. Each region has two facilities housing no more than 40 young people.
This Department of Youth Services focuses on intensive individual counseling, academic and vocational education, and positive behavior modification. Key features of the Missouri model are its integration of mental health into all of its rehabilitation components and its comprehensive approach to treatment, which includes family therapy and counseling.
Each confined youth is brought together with nine other teens who eat, study and live together as a team. Each team of 10 is under the supervision of two trained youth specialists. When a young person has a problem, s/he can call a meeting of the team to work out a solution. Academic success is emphasized. Missouri has dramatically reduced youth recidivism to 7 percent, at a cost of nearly one-third less per youth than the cost of systems in Louisiana and Florida, which have much higher recidivism rates.
Sadly, Missouri is an exception to the bumper-sticker thinking of too many state leaders who pursue "Tough on crime," "Zero tolerance," "Lock 'em up" approaches to punishment, rather than to address the problems of troubled youth. Increasing investments in health care, quality early childhood education, better schools and positive youth development in out-of-school time would not only increase the number of children reaching successful adulthood but increase public safety. The last thing a young person needs is lessons in how to become a hardened criminal by exposure to adult criminal mentors in adult prisons or callous adults in juvenile "justice" systems. It's time for a change for our children and our nation's sake.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.