Julia Steiny: Juvenile Prison Stats Reveal American Attitudes Towards Kids

by Julia Steiny

There is no alternative universe where bad kids go and get better.  Period.  Such a place does not exist.

Mind you, it’s insane to tolerate classroom or school disruptions, never mind criminal activity among children and youth.  A kid wasting a class’s time by flipping over a desk and swearing at a public-school teacher is effectively stealing taxpayers’ money.  A thief is a thief, no matter how old.  Whether kids behave disruptively or criminally, we need to act quickly or they’ll get the idea that what they’re doing is okay.  It’s not.

But why is the most frequent solution kicking kids out?  Alternatives can be found.  But overwhelmingly, American schools and its judicial system remove little rotters from their classrooms, or from the families and communities that raised them, and warehouse them in behavior-disordered classrooms, boot camps, alternative schools or juvenile prisons.  There, they get worse.  Researchers call it “congregate contagion,” meaning they catch bad ideas from other bad kids, like catching measles.  Then they return to the families and communities that didn’t know what to do with them in the first place, having gotten zero help with receiving them back successfully.  How’s that going to make the kid better?

Very smart people, whom I respect, seem to wear blinders to ignore what happens after the kick-out.  Today I’ll pick on one such smart person, Philip Howard, founder of Common Good, precisely because otherwise I admire him tons.  He pleads passionately for simplifying the rules, laws, and regulations that muck up government’s ability to get anything done.  His book The Death of Common Sense permanently transformed how I thought about rules and regs.  His recent work, The Rule of Nobody, argues that legalistic micro-managements absolve actual humans from making judgments and taking accountability for them.  I’m with him.

But is it common sense to include in Howard’s lists of regulatory idiocies rules that limit kids being summarily removed from class?  For him it’s a no-brainer; kick ‘em out.  But where and how will bad kids ever learn community-appropriate rules if not in a healthy community?  For example, wouldn’t it be cheaper and far more effective than prisons or other warehouses to pair a non-violent kid with a trained person, working one on one to reintegrate him or her into the home, school and community in healthy ways?

If presented with the evidence, I bet even Howard would agree prisons offer no hope of making bad kids better.  And yet they are an over-flowing landfills of unwanted children.

Consider the Cross-national Comparison of Youth Justice.

America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.  A fascinating study by researcher Neal Hazel looks at incarcerated youth and children, under 18, across juvenile-justice systems in 20-plus nations.  The differences are stunning.  (You’ll find his chart comparing countries on page 59.)

The lowest juvenile rates are:

Japan           0.1 (youth per 100,00 under 18)

Finland         3.6

Sweden        4.1

As a British researcher, Hazel bolds the U.K. data, horrified to find that the highest rates include:

England and Wales   46.8

South Africa               69.0

But the showstopper is U.S. rate at:  336.0.  It’s the only rate in triple digits.  Nearly 5 times that of the next highest, South Africa.  That’s an enormous garbage heap of kids.  If Americans aren’t genetically prone to produce bad kids, what is the data saying?

Yes, it’s a no-brainer to protect the kids who are cooperating from the disruptive ones.  But our solution creates a different problem.  Howard is both a famous author and a lawyer.  So I’m assuming that whether or not he has kids of his own, he runs with the private-school set.  When kids do the naughty in private schools, they’re out.  End of discussion.  They probably go to public schools.  Some kids, mainly poor and minority, go to urban schools of last resort, the very schools that have been mandated by the President to reduce suspensions and expulsions.  When you’re at the cushy end of segregation, removing disruptive kids is simple and just common sense.  As long as you don’t think about where they end up.

Every night we sit in front of the TV and watch cops shows with plots that follow some version of trail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail ‘em.  Right and wrong are so obvious.  Wrong is wrong.  No excuses.  No mercy.  Bad guys need to be punished and put away.  Anything else is Officer Krupke liberal excuse-making.

Loving and caring for all kids is not simple and often requires more than common sense.  American attitudes towards troubled young people are writ large in our willingness to throw them away.  We do so our own peril.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny