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Jail Instead of Rehab: Not Just for Grownups Anymore

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Mary Shaw     Permalink
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opednews.com Headlined to H3 12/29/08

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The United States is a nation of prisoners. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the National Institute of Corrections, some 0.7 percent of Americans are incarcerated. In fact, almost 50% of the world's prisoners are held in American prisons, even though the U.S. comprises only 5% of the world's population. Prison overcrowding is the status quo. Why? I doubt that the average American is more innately predisposed to criminal behavior than our counterparts in Russia, China, Iran, or anywhere else in the world. No, we're just victims of a broken system that favors incarceration over rehabilitation. Our prisons are chock-full of nonviolent offenders -- drug addicts, crack whores, etc. And, due to the closures of so many mental health facilities across the country in recent years, the mentally ill often find their way into our prisons due to a lack of more appropriate options. They serve their time in prison, are released but not rehabilitated, and so they often return to the lifestyles that got them into trouble in the first place. And so the cycle continues. Our warped system treats these unfortunate individuals as criminal statistics, not as human beings worthy of help and compassion. And now the problem is not just for grownups anymore. The Associated Press explains:
State budget cuts are forcing some of the nation's youngest criminals out of counseling programs and group homes and into juvenile prisons in what critics contend is a shortsighted move that will eventually lead to more crime and higher costs. Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia are among states that have slashed juvenile justice spending -- in some cases more than 20 percent -- because of slumping tax collections. Youth advocates say they expect the recession will bring more cuts next year in other states, hitting programs that try to rehabilitate children rather than simply locking them up. "If you raise a child in prison, you're going to raise a convict," said South Carolina Juvenile Justice Director Bill Byars, credited with turning around a system once better known for warehousing children than counseling them and teaching them life skills. Now, he's been asked to draw up plans to trim an additional 15 percent from a juvenile justice budget already cut $23 million, or 20 percent, since June as part of the state's effort to pare $1 billion from its $7 billion budget.
This is shameful. In my opinion, it constitutes child abuse. As Lex Wilbanks, an 18-year-old delinquent, put it:
"When you did something wrong or you fight or you disrespect staff, they just throw you into lockdown. They just throw you in and make them fight to survive. You're just making them a hardened criminal."
It is illegal in all 50 states to engage in dogfighting, which involves the breeding and training of dogs in a way that will bring out and exploit their violent tendencies. Still, we routinely treat our misguided youth like fighting dogs -- throwing them into prisons where they can hone their criminal instincts, instead of rehabilitating them and giving them a fair chance at becoming productive, law-abiding, tax-paying adults. We justify it because it seems cheaper this way, even as we piddle away $341.4 million per day to continue our occupation of Iraq. This is where our priorities lie. They say that a society is ultimately judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. So what does this ultimately say about us?

 

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
 

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