Category: juvenile justice

Bryan Stevenson on our “Stunning Silence” about Injustice

By Lisa D’Souza

If you care about justice in America, please take 24 minutes to listen to Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk

In less than half an hour, Mr. Stevenson eloquently and compellingly discusses the problem of mass incarceration, its impact on poor communities of color, and our nation’s resistance to honestly examining our history and our present. 

He offers painful data and asks hard questions.  Why are we comfortable with a justice system in which “wealth not culpability shapes outcomes.” 

Why are we the only country in the world in which children as young as 13 can be sentenced to live their natural lives and die in prison?  How have we allowed the disenfranchisement of vast numbers of men of color?

We allow it because we don’t think this is “our problem.”  Mr. Stevenson reminds us that none of us is free until all of us are free and that our society will be judged by our treatment of the marginalized.  He asks us to start talking about these justice issues and to commit ourselves to truth and reconciliation.

There is no time like the present.  Will you commit to thinking and talking about injustice today?  I will.

Locking Children Up and Throwing Away the Key

By Lisa D’Souza

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty may not be used against someone for a crime committed before the age of 18.  Scientific studies affirm the experience of parents and teachers the world over:  adolescent brains are not fully developed.  It makes sense that we would not mete out the ultimate punishment to a child whose decision-making capabilities are not that of an adult.

There is another punishment just one step shy of the death penalty: life without the possibility of parole.  A life without parole sentence means that a person will spend the entirety of their natural life in prison and die there.  Sadly, there are members of our society for whom this sentence is appropriate.  But can it ever be appropriate for a child?  For someone whose brain is not yet fully developed?  For someone who still has the capacity to learn and to change?

The Equal Justice Initiative has identified 73 children under the age of 15 who have been sentenced to spend their entire life in prison.  Nearly two-thirds of these are children of color.  Many were involved in crimes where older teens or adults were the primary actors.  Some were convicted for crimes in which no one was killed or injured.  Why are these children sentenced to die in prison?

Soon, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider this very issue.  On March 20, 2012 Equal Justice Initiative director Bryan Stevenson will argue two cases before the Supreme Court in which children were sentenced to live and die in prison.  Human Rights Watch has filed an amicus brief and has published a harrowing 47-page report on the prison conditions that face young offenders who have been sentenced to spend their entire natural life in prison.

Juvenile justice courts operate on the rehabilitative principal that children can be shaped and educated.  Scientific studies confirm that children’s brains are still developing well into their teens.  To sentence a child to life without parole is to say that society is willing to consider that child useless and unfit for our society.  Surely such a sentence meted out to a child is cruel and unusual.

Victory for Walnut Grove

According to a federal consent decree, the state of Mississippi will no longer house juveniles at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. The juvenile facility, located in Walnut Grove, MS, is run by GEO Group, the second largest private prison corporation in the U.S.

In November 201o, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against GEO Group when reports emerged of sexual abuse, improper medical care, extended prisoner isolation, and violence among inmates at Walnut Grove. According to the ACLU press release, youth at the facility were “forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and [were] subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff.”

The consent decree requires the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) to remove all youth under the age of 17 from the privately-run Walnut Grove facility and house them in a publicly-operated facility instead. The state is required to provide rehabilitative services for the youth and implement measures to protect them from sexual and physical abuse. Under this decree, the state of Mississippi is also prohibited from placing any youth in solitary confinement. MWN

Ground-Breaking Federal Consent Decree Will Prohibit Solitary Confinement of Youth Convicted as Adults, and Bar Their Incarceration in Violence-Ridden, For-Profit Prison Run by GEO Group


Children under the supervision of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) will no longer be housed in a privately run prison or subjected to brutal solitary confinement under the terms of a groundbreaking settlement of a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The lawsuit charged that conditions at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which houses youth convicted as adults, are unconstitutional. The facility is operated by GEO Group Inc., the nation’s second largest private prison corporation.

“This represents a sea change in the way the MDOC will treat children in its custody,” said Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “As a result of this litigation, Mississippi’s children will no longer languish in an abusive, privately operated prison that profits each time a young man is tried as an adult and ends up behind bars.” (more…)

A Life Not Lived

By Olivia Lennox

A Life Not Lived

On January 3rd the campaigning organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report entitled ‘Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States’.  It is based on research conducted over a six year period, and it makes interesting and sometimes shocking reading.

The report deals with the plight of children incarcerated in adult prisons who due to the sentence they have received have no or at least very little prospect of ever seeing the outside world again.  They estimate there to be 2570 such young offenders in this position at the present time. HRW does not question the fact that the people their report deals with are offenders and that they should be punished for their crimes, but they do question the imposition of a life without parole sentence on such young people, and they also highlight the treatment and experiences those young people face.

Physical Violence

Building on previous studies it is established that under-eighteens in adult prison are, “twice as likely to be beaten by staff and fifty percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than minors in juvenile facilities.”  Numerous examples are given of evidence provided by inmates that puts such statistics into a personal context.  Amongst them is that of Michael S., who was seventeen when he entered prison.  He wrote that:  ‘On several occasions I have been physically assaulted. I reported the first assault, but from that point forward I deduced that it was best to remain silent as I cannot afford to be labeled [an informant] in my current circumstances.’    (more…)

Pastor W.G. Daniels waged peace in Fort Worth, Texas

PASTOR 4By Alan Bean

No one can account for the dramatic drop in violent crime.  According to the Washington Post, in 2011 the DC homicide rate reached its lowest point since 1963.  But just across the county line, the homicide rate is experiencing an upswing.  When violent crime drops there is always a reason.  When gang-related violence plunged in Fort Worth, TX, a big part of the reason was the Rev. W.G. Daniels. 

Daniels died this week.  Marty Sabota’s obituary shows that Daniels grasped many of the principles criminologist  David Kennedy outlines in his excellent book Don’t Shoot:

America has four inextricably linked problems that converge in its most troubled communities.   There’s the violence that terrorizes many of its, especially, black and minority communities. There’s the chaos that comes with, especially, public drug markets.  There’s the devastation being wrought on, especially, troubled black and minority communities by our criminal justice in response to the first two problems.  And there’ the worsening racial divide that’s causing.

In Fort Worth, Pastor W.G. Daniels stopped the violence by forging a creative dialogue between law enforcement and the communities most affected by violent crime.  A former police officer who understood the law enforcement mindset, Daniels made the perfect peacemaker.  He knew why his neighbors didn’t want to talk to the police, but he also understood why law enforcement will always concentrate on high crime communities.  Daniels didn’t want the police to ignore the hot neighborhoods; he just wanted them to show more respect and professionalism.  

Getting gang members, community members and the police on the same page isn’t easy, but it can be done.  As Daniels once told the Star-Telegram:

You had gangs like the Crips and the Bloods fighting against each other, but after we conducted a survey, we found that there just needed to be somebody to bring a truce to stop the madness and no better people to do it than pastors who meet every Sunday. We needed to send a message that it would not be tolerated, and by the help of God and Christ we were able to bring about peace.

When people are talking to one another behavior changes.  Open air drug markets move underground, police officers feel more appreciated and behave with a higher level of professionalism, residents of high crime neighborhoods gain a new sense of confidence and self-respect.  Criminologist David Kennedy and pastor W.G. Daniels heal communities because they understand the spiritual nature of the war they are fighting.  (more…)

End the Pipeline to Prison in Dallas ISD

Friends of Justice is a member of the Coalition for Education Not Incarceration. The coalition’s efforts focus on ending the school-to-prison pipeline in Dallas ISD. Please see the message below from the coalition and consider signing the pledge in support of a Dallas ISD Resolution in Support of Fair and Equitable School Discipline Practices. MW

End the Pipeline to Prison in Dallas ISD
CONTACT: Allison Brim (214) 455-9115

Dear Friends:

When such a high percentage of children end up incarcerated instead of educated, it is time to challenge ourselves to find real solutions. Every child deserves the right to learn in a nurturing environment, but instead, DISD disciplinary measures set our kids up to fail.

The Coalition for Education Not Incarceration is fighting for positive solutions instead of our schools using juvenile and criminal justice systems to correct student behavior.

SIGN THE PETITION to End the Pipeline to Prison in Dallas ISD.

Take for example the story of Mr. Stephen King: His son is a senior in High School and a special needs student who cannot read. During a class assignment his teacher asked him to read aloud, and sadly he could not. After feeling ashamed and embarrassed his son left for home. He was written a ticket for leaving school grounds, an infraction that led to expulsion and time in a juvenile justice center.

“When a kid feels like he cannot learn, and he is kicked out of school, what options are you leaving him?” asks Mr. King.

Concerned parents like Mr. King have been organizing and collecting signatures in support of a Dallas ISD Resolution in Support of Fair and Equitable School Discipline Practices. At the next DISD Board Meeting on December 15th, we plan to deliver the signed petitions to Trustees and demand that they take steps to finding a solution.

In addition to appearing at the board meeting on December 15th, we will continue to draw public attention to the gravity of student criminalization. This Thursday, December 8th, concerned parents, clergy, and community members will form a “Human Chain” interlocking arms to symbolically block our children from being thrust through the pipeline to prison.

DISD can no longer ignore the necessity for real change. With your support of the resolution, and a strong community presence at the December 15th board meeting, we can end the pipeline to prison in Dallas schools.

Sign the petition and stand with us.

The Coalition for Education not Incarceration is made up of Texas Organizing Project, Dallas Peace Center, Friendship West Baptist Church, St Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, NAACP, LULAC, Friends of Justice, Center on Communities and Education, CitySquare, People’s Lunch Counter, and Malcolm X Grass Roots Dallas Chapter.

“Education under arrest: The case against police in schools”

By Melanie Wilmoth

A recent report published by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) reveals that punitive approaches to student discipline do little to curb violence and crime in schools.

JPI points out that the adoption of punitive discipline policies (such as “zero tolerance” policies) in the 1990s led to dramatic increases in the presence of law enforcement in schools:

 “In order to enforce zero tolerance policies, there was a concurrent increase in surveillance and security measures in schools that included metal detectors, locker checks, security cameras, and law enforcement or security personnel. For example the regular presence of security guards increased 27 percent between 1999 and 2007.”

Rather than letting school administrators handle discipline problems, schools are increasingly turning to school resource officers (SROs). Essentially, SROs are law enforcement officers who work in schools:

“SROs are typically accountable first to the police department and then to the school, which might pay part of an SRO’s salary or administrative costs. Nonetheless, a handbook for recruiting and retaining SROs, says that an SRO can overrule a school administrator who wants to prevent the arrest of a student.”

Although SROs are trained in law enforcement, there is no policy requiring SROs to be trained to work with students. (more…)

Racial gap in school suspensions widens

A report released by the National Education Policy Center, sheds light on the growing racial gap in school discipline. The report indicates that black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school for minor infractions. As research suggests, students who are removed from school are much more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system. In turn, kids who are locked up as juveniles are more likely to be incarcerated as adults. In essence, discipline policies and the disproportionality in school suspensions serve to effectively funnel kids of color through the school-to-prison pipeline. MW

Racial Gap in School Suspensions Widens

Black students are often removed from school for minor infractions, says a new report.

by Joshua R. Weaver

In Mississippi, Wanda Parker’s son was suspended from school after being caught with an iPod Touch, which, she says, administrators mistook for a cellphone. She unsuccessfully pleaded for weeks to get her son admitted back into school. But because of the school district’s zero-tolerance cellphone policy, Parker’s son, who is African American, missed seven weeks of normal instruction and spent 45 days at an alternative school.

School suspensions for nonwhite students in kindergarten through 12th grade have increased by more than 100 percent since 1970, according to a new report. Suspension rates for blacks outgrew those for whites during the same time period, increasing by more than 10 percentage points by 2006, a year in which about a quarter of black students were suspended at least once.

Parker was among a group of parents, administrators, policymakers, judges and academics who convened last week at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to discuss the report’s findings, its implications and the ongoing problem of school-discipline disparity.

“These zero-tolerance policies dehumanize schools and make them feel more like a prison than a second home,” Parker says. “My son was shamed and deprived of his education.” (more…)

Lock ’em up: Mass incarceration and the juvenile justice system

By Melanie Wilmoth

A report released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation explores the impact of juvenile corrections on American youth and brings to light many of the flaws in the U.S. juvenile justice system.

Mass incarceration is not just a problem faced by adults in the system. Juveniles face similar rates of over-incarceration with over 60,000 American youth being held in correctional facilities. In addition, mirroring the adult justice system, youth of color are significantly over-represented in the juvenile justice system.

Interestingly, the mass incarceration of youth is largely a U.S. problem. Although many other developed countries are similar to the US in their rates of youth arrests, they have substantially lower youth incarceration rates:

“A recently published international comparison found that America’s youth custody rate (including youth in both detention and correctional custody) was 336 of every 100,000 youth in 2002 —nearly five times the rate of the next highest  nation (69 per 100,000 in South Africa).”

There are many alternatives to incarceration that are more effective in rehabilitating youth and reducing overall crime rates, and the findings in this report suggest that other countries have found ways (other than mass incarceration) to address juvenile delinquency.

If this is so, why does the U.S. continue to lock up juveniles at such alarming rates? (more…)

Why did violent crime drop by 13% last year?

By Alan Bean

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the rate of violent victimization declined a jaw-dropping 13 percent in 2010.  Nobody seems to know why.  During the prison boom, drops in the crime rate were often associated with mass incarceration–they can’t commit crimes if they’re all locked up.  But we have been sending fewer American citizens to prison in recent years and the drop in crime has only accelerated.  And all of this during the worst recession in 80 years.  What’s going on?

There is little association between violent crime and unemployment statistics.  More often than not, violence is a rage response.  Cost-benefit calculation is only involved when criminals kill to eliminate potential witnesses, but few murders or assaults fit this scenario.  Drug and alcohol abuse can be contributing factors, but people rarely get violent because they are high and the use of some drugs (marijuana, for example) actually inhibit violent behavior. 

The best explanation for shifting rates of violent crime comes from Randolph Roth’s excellent American Homicide.  After analyzing statistics on violent crime from the earliest days of European settlement, Roth shows that America is a far more violent nation than other Western democracies.  For instance, “Th next most homicidal democracy, Canada, has had only a quarter of the homicides per capita that the United States has had since Worth War II.”

Here are a few of Roth’s big-picture observations: (more…)