The new face of poverty and the mass incarceration of America’s children
By Stacy M. Brown
Senior National Correspondent
The number of children arrested and incarcerated has declined over the past decade, primarily due to positive changes in policy and practice.
However, America’s children continue to be criminalized at alarming rates, and disparities have persisted, according to the Children’s Defense Fund’s The State of America’s Children 2021.
Many children—particularly children in poverty; children of color; children with disabilities; children with mental health and substance abuse challenges; children subjected to neglect, abuse, and other violence; children in foster care; and LGBTQ children – are pushed out of their schools and homes into the juvenile justice or adult criminal justice systems.
The comprehensive State of America’s Children 2021 also found:
- In 2019, 530,581 children were arrested in the U.S.
- A child or teen was arrested every 59 seconds despite a 67 percent reduction in child arrests between 2009 and 2019.
- During the 2015-2016 school year alone, over 61,000 school arrests and 230,000 referrals to law enforcement were largely overrepresented by students with disabilities, Black students, and Indigenous students.
“Throughout the tumult of 2020, two of my most valued thought partners were the late writer and activist James Baldwin with whom I share a deep intellectual resonance and a birthday and Princeton professor Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr,” said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, the president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund.
“Dr. Glaude reflected powerfully on ‘Jimmy’s’ life in his 2020 book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for our Own. A revelation of critical import to me is Dr. Glaude’s highlighting Baldwin’s insight that times of reckoning and crisis call us to ‘do our first works over.” Wilson stated.
“This is an invitation to re-examine our foundational commitments, values, and stories to faithfully craft a future. The Children’s Defense Fund is walking this path of examination. The board and staff entered the year in discernment about the first leadership transition in our history.
“After having made the decision, we initiated a process of organizational, programmatic, and operational planning holding our ‘first works’ and children’s needs in conversation. As a result, even in what President Biden has called a ‘dark winter’ considering the pandemic, the Children’s Defense Fund envisions a nation where marginalized children flourish, leaders prioritize their well-being.
“Communities wield the power to ensure they thrive. From where we currently stand, this is a radical vision. Yet, we are committed to working – with you – to make it happen.”
The State of America’s Children 2021 report noted that the prioritization of police over mental health professionals in schools often leads to the criminalization of typical adolescent behavior and fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.
Today, 14 million students attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. However, the number of children in the juvenile justice system has been cut in half since 2007.
The report revealed that 43,580 children and youth were held in residential placement on a given night in 2017.
Nearly 2 in 3 were placed in the most restrictive facilities, while another 653 children were incarcerated in adult prisons on any given night in 2019 – down from 2,743 in 2009.
Despite research showing that young people’s brains continue to develop and mature through their late teens and into their mid-twenties, young adults do not often have access to the age- and developmentally- appropriate policies and resources they need, the report further revealed.
Adolescents and young adults often “age out” of offending; however, as of 2021, 46 states and the District of Columbia automatically prosecute 18-year-olds as adults.
Three states automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults – Vermont is the first and only state to expand juvenile court jurisdiction to 18.
All states also allow or require younger children charged with certain offenses prosecuted in adult court.
Even as child arrests and detentions have fallen, extreme racial disparities have persisted across the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.
Children of color, particularly Black children, continue to be over-criminalized and over-represented at every point – from school discipline and arrest to sentencing and post-adjudication placements.
Although 63 percent of children arrested in the U.S. were White, American Indian children were 1.5 times more likely to be arrested, and Black children were 2.4 times more likely to be arrested than white children.
In 2017, the residential placement rate for children of color was two times higher than that of White children nationwide.
Hispanic children were 1.4 times more likely, American Indian children were 2.8 times more likely, and Black children were 4.6 times more likely to be committed or detained than White children.
In 18 states and the District of Columbia, the residential placement rate for children of color was four times higher than that of white children.
Two-thirds (67 percent) of children in the juvenile justice system were children of color: 41 percent were Black, and 21 percent were Hispanic.
Children of color are also disproportionately transferred to the adult criminal justice system, where they are tried and prosecuted as adults.
In 2018, Black youth represented less than 15 percent of the total youth population, but 52 percent of youth prosecuted in adult criminal court.
Black youth are nine times more likely than White youth to receive an adult prison sentence, American Indian/Alaska Native youth are almost two times more likely, and Hispanic youth are 40 percent more likely.
According to the report, boys, youth with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth also come into disproportionate contact with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.
In 2017, the residential placement rate for boys was more than five times that for girls. Eighty-five percent of children in residential placement were male.
At least 1 in 3 youth in the juvenile justice system has a disability qualifying them for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – nearly four times the youth’s rate in public schools.
However, less than half receive special education services while in custody.
The report also highlights that incarceration does not support Black children’s growth and development; it places them at risk and limits their access to resources.
While incarcerated, children are often provided with inadequate education instruction, health care, and counseling services.
They are at greater risk of maltreatment, physical and psychological abuse, sexual assault, and suicide.
The use of solitary confinement further deprives them of social interaction, mental stimulation, and critical services during a critical time of adolescent brain development, the Children’s Defense Fund found. The report revealed that youth of color and LGBTQ youth are at heightened risk of being placed in solitary confinement.
Youth with disabilities are often placed in isolation due to lack of available services or accommodations – when no child should be placed in solitary confinement regardless of identity.
Risks are heightened for children in the adult criminal justice system, which is even more focused on punishment than rehabilitation and treatment.
Children in adult jails are more likely to suffer permanent trauma and are five times more likely to die by suicide than children in juvenile detention centers.
“As youth crime and arrest rates continue to decline, now is the time to re-imagine youth justice,” wrote the Rev. Starsky Wilson, the Children’s Defense Fund executive director.
“We have better choices than incarceration: diversion, treatment, after-school programs, and family support programs support children, keep communities safe, and save taxpayer dollars. It is time to end the criminalization of children and provide every child time and space for learning, mistakes, and restorative support from caring adults.”