This piece was originally posted at thenation.com.
Anyone who has ever spent time in a high school knows that students and teachers are no strangers to crime and rule-breaking. At my large public high school, expensive items like iPhones routinely vanished from backpacks and lunch tables. Many days, I saw huddling bands of sophomores in the bathroom, checking their backs, exchanging drugs for money. Occasionally, two drug dealers would emerge from a stall with eyes slightly glassy and movements just exaggerated enough to provoke suspicion. Sometimes, groups of eight or more kids would fight in the bathrooms.
Rule-breakers came in all shades and grades. Although suspected delinquents were a mixture of working-class and rich kids, only the non-rich regularly had the cops called on them for drug possession at school. The punished, rejected, and humiliated students often transferred or dropped out.
My school was less forgiving of “delinquents” than was my younger sister’s private high school. For example, my school administration regularly deployed police officers on drug dealers; her administrators dealt with drug-related matters internally and often informally with families. My public school peers caught possessing marijuana thus have fewer options applying to college and looking for jobs than do private school kids guilty of a “youthful indiscretion” with drugs. I have some classmates who have already spent time in juvenile hall for theft, an offense that, at many private schools, would have spawned a reprimand or suspension.
I don’t like the inequity of these arrangements, but I don’t advocate “cracking down” on pot-smoking rich kids just as ferociously as we antagonize the poor. That would simply spread the misery more thickly, and I have a hunch it wouldn’t really happen anyway. It might make us feel better in regards to equality, but expanding intensive “police oversight” to rich communities and private schools would not actually create a system of equal justice. In the real world, Al Gore III, and Jenna and Barbara Bush, and Todd Cunningham, and Danny Burton (and all the other children of politicians who oppose drug legalization but pull strings to get their kids off the hook) are never going to endure the sort of harsh treatment leveled towards poor students.
Real fairness would have us stop locking up non-violent juvenile offenders altogether and reform the juvenile justice system to maximize prisoners’ capacity for learning and self-improvement. Let’s not pretend to treat the rich like the poor; let’s treat the poor like the rich.
We should not put young people in cages for non-violent offenses, and certainly not before we have tried to reform them through less severe means. A cursory examination of contemporary juvenile detention centers should alone stop us from locking up even the most obnoxious non-violent offenders. When people say, “Tommy, if it were your house that were robbed by high school thugs, you would want them put away,” I respond that, first, I have already many-a-times had expensive objects stolen from my property, presumably by juveniles, and that, although my anger was fierce, my more enlightened pursuit of security still turns me against incarcerating thieves who steal bikes. Think about it: If the gang of, say, ten kids who stole my bicycle last year entered juvenile hall, at least one of them would be sexually abused, and would thus increase his odds of further abuse to 81 percent.
Bike-stealing, although maddening and reprehensible, should not put a teenager in the slammer with the 34 percent of juvenile offenders who are there for rape, armed robbery, and other violent offenses. Our failure to meaningfully distinguish among child criminals rounds them all down to the lowest common denominator, making petty offenders far more likely to continue and accelerate a life of crime. Fully 80 percent of incarcerated juvenile offenders again end up behind bars, suggesting that juvy’s deterrent effect against child crime is nothing compared to its effects in deepening alienation from society and teaching the skills of full-blown criminals.
Two-thirds of incarcerated kids have mental illnesses that are only exacerbated by their residence in over-crowded, violent facilities. A shortage of therapists, coupled with draconian cuts in funding for juvenile mental health facilities, endangers children offenders—and the rest of us—even further. If it is hard to keep children focused in a school where most students have mental disorders, it is nearly impossible to keep them focused on learning in a population of juvenile delinquents.
We cannot reform kids by intensifying the rage that may have contributed to their misbehavior in the first place. Let’s take young first-time offenders of all backgrounds out of intellectually and physically restrictive detention centers and put their variety of talents to good use. Engage them in community work projects that require them to use their bodies (through, say, construction on dilapidated parks and homeless shelters). Engage their minds through the arts and music, and discussion and therapy-like sessions in which the value of community-oriented thinking is inculcated. Crime is an affront to the very foundations of community, so its response must reinforce communal bonds by affirmatively reversing young, petty criminals in their tracks.