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The United States' War on Youth: From Schools to Debtors' Prisons

By       Message Henry Giroux     Permalink
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If one important measure of a democracy is how a society treats its children, especially poor youth of color, there can be little doubt that American society is failing. As the United States increasingly models its schools after prisons and subjects children to a criminal legal system marked by severe class and racial inequities, it becomes clear that such children are no longer viewed as a social investment but as suspects. Under a neoliberal regime in which some children are treated as criminals and increasingly deprived of decent health care, education, food and housing, it has become clear that the United States has both failed its children and democracy itself.

Not only is the United States the only nation in the world that sentences children to life in prison without parole, the criminal legal system often functions so as to make it more difficult for young people to escape the reach of a punishing and racist legal system. For instance, according to a recent report published by the Juvenile Law Center, there are close to a million children who appear in juvenile court each year subject to a legal system rife with racial disparities and injustices. This is made clear by Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center in her report "Debtors' Prison for Kids? The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System." In an interview with the Arkansas Times, Feierman said:

"Racial disparities pervade our juvenile justice system. Our research suggests that we can reduce those disparities through legislative action aimed at costs, fines, fees, and restitution ... In every state, youth and families can be required to pay juvenile court costs, fees, fines, or restitution. The costs for court related services, including probation, a "free appointed attorney," mental health evaluations, the costs of incarceration, treatment, or restitution payments, can push poor children deeper into the system and families deeper into debt. Youth who can't afford to pay for their freedom often face serious consequences, including incarceration, extended probation, or denial of treatment -- they are unfairly penalized for being poor. Many families either go into debt trying to pay these costs or forego basic necessities like groceries to keep up with payments."

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According to the report, sometimes when a family can't pay court fees and fines, the child is put in a juvenile detention facility. Such punitive measures are invoked without a degree of conscience or informed judgment as when children are fined for being truant from school. In her article in Common Dreams, Nika Knight pointed to one case in which a child was fined $500 for being truant and because he could not pay the fine, "spent three months in a locked facility at age 13." In many states, the parents are incarcerated if they cannot pay for their child's court fees. For many parents, such fines represent a crushing financial burden, which they cannot meet, and consequently their children are subjected to the harsh confines of juvenile detention centers. Erik Eckholm has written in The New York Times about the story of Dequan Jackson, which merges the horrid violence suffered by the poor in a Dickens novel with the mindless brutality and authoritarianism at the heart of one of Kafka's tales. Eckholm is worth quoting at length:

"When Dequan Jackson had his only brush with the law, at 13, he tried to do everything right. Charged with battery for banging into a teacher while horsing around in a hallway, he pleaded guilty with the promise that after one year of successful probation, the conviction would be reduced to a misdemeanor. He worked 40 hours in a food bank. He met with an anger management counselor. He kept to an 8 p.m. curfew except when returning from football practice or church. And he kept out of trouble. But Dequan and his mother, who is struggling to raise two sons here on wisps of income, were unable to meet one final condition: payment of $200 in court and public defender fees. For that reason alone, his probation was extended for what turned out to be 14 more months, until they pulled together the money at a time when they had trouble finding quarters for the laundromat."

Not only do such fines create a two-tier system of justice that serves the wealthy and punishes the poor, they also subject young people to a prison system fraught with incidents of violent assault, rape and suicide. Moreover, many young people have health needs and mental health problems that are not met in these detention centers, and incarceration also fuels mental health problems.

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Suicide rates behind bars "are more than four times higher than for adolescents overall," according to the Child Trends Data Bank. Moreover, "between 50 and 75 percent of adolescents who have spent time in juvenile detention centers are incarcerated later in life." Finally, as the "Debtors' Prison for Kids Report" makes clear, kids are being sent to jail at increasing rates while youth crime is decreasing. The criminal legal system is mired in a form of casino capitalism that not only produces wide inequalities in wealth, income and power, but it also corrupts municipal court systems that are underfunded and turn to unethical and corrupt practices in order to raise money, while creating new paths to prison, especially for children.

Debtors' prisons for young people exemplify how a warfare culture can affect the most vulnerable populations in a society, exhibiting a degree of punitiveness and cruelty that indicts the most fundamental political, economic and social structures of a society. Debtors' prisons for young people have become the dumping grounds for those youth considered disposable, and they are also a shameful source of profit for municipalities across the United States. They operate as legalized extortion rackets, underscoring how our society has come to place profits above the welfare of children. They also indicate how a society has turned its back on young people, the most vulnerable group of people in our society.

There is nothing new about the severity of the American government's attack on poor people, especially those on welfare, and both political parties have shared in this ignoble attack. What is often overlooked, however, is the degree to which children are impacted by scorched-earth policies that extend from cutting social provisions to the ongoing criminalization of a vast range of behaviors. It appears that particularly when it comes to young people, especially poor youth and youth of color, society's obligations to justice and social responsibility disappear.

Modeling Schools After Prisons

We live at a time in which institutions that were meant to limit human suffering and misfortune and protect young people from the excesses of the police state and the market have been either weakened or abolished. The consequences can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on public education, poor students and students of color. Schools have become, in many cases, punishment factories that increasingly subject students to pedagogies of control, discipline and surveillance. Pedagogy has been emptied of critical content and now imposes on students mind-numbing teaching practices organized around teaching for the test. The latter constitutes both a war on the imagination and a disciplinary practice meant to criminalize the behavior of children who do not accept a pedagogy of conformity and overbearing control.

No longer considered democratic public spheres intended to create critically informed and engaged citizens, many schools now function as punishing factories, work stations that mediate between warehousing poor students of color and creating a path that will lead them into the hands of the criminal legal system and eventually, prison. Under such circumstances, it becomes more difficult to reclaim a notion of public schooling in which the culture of punishment and militarization is not the culture of education. Hope in this instance has to begin with a critical discourse among teachers, students, parents and administrators unwilling to model the schools after a prison culture.

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Many schools are now modeled after prisons and organized around the enactment of zero tolerance policies which, as John W. Whitehead has pointed out, put "youth in the bullseye of police violence." Whitehead argues rightfully that:

"The nation's public schools -- extensions of the world beyond the schoolhouse gates, a world that is increasingly hostile to freedom -- have become microcosms of the American police state, containing almost every aspect of the militarized, intolerant, senseless, over-criminalized, legalistic, surveillance-riddled, totalitarian landscape that plagues those of us on the 'outside.'"

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http://henrygiroux.com

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)
 

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