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Tuesday, 12 August 2014 06:41

Taxpayers Pay About $88,000 a Year to Confine a Juvenile. It's Wasted Money That Wastes Lives

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(Book cover: The New Press)(Book cover: The New Press)It costs about $88,000 a year to incarcerate a young person in a state facility. Journalist and advocate Nell Bernstein reveals this and other shocking statistics and abuses of juveniles in her new book, Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, the Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week.

That bill for keeping young people in "detention" is far more than most US workers make in a year. ($51,000 was the median household income in 2013 according to the Census Bureau.)

It is indicative of the racism and classism inherent in the US treatment of juveniles of color and the poor that the tax dollars spent to allegedly punish and "rehabilitate" a young person far exceed the stagnant or falling wages of most US families.

What is all that money used for in a system that is euphemistically called "juvenile detention"? Piper Kerman, author of "Orange Is the New Black", writes: "Burning Down the House by Nell Bernstein reveals a shocking truth: what adults do to children behind the walls of America‚Äôs juvenile prisons is criminal." It certainly doesn't resemble anything remotely akin to rehabilitation.

We have created and perpetuated a perverse system, spending massive amounts of money to ruin young lives instead of helping them to be productive, skilled and fulfilled. The juvenile detention system is like a machine in which you drop young people filled with promise down a chute and destroy all hope.

The racially charged killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri exemplifies one aspect of the visceral toxic legacy of criminalizing people of color. Another aspect of this pernicious legacy takes place in juvenile facilities - and in an adult prison system that is so vast it has made the United States number one in the rate of incarcerated individuals.

In a review of Burning Down the House posted on Truthout today, Hannah K. Gold writes:

Black teenagers are arrested at five times the rate of white teenagers, Latino teenagers two to three times more often than white teenagers. Racism, writes Bernstein, "drives [the juvenile justice system] at every level, from legislation to policing to sentencing to conditions of confinement and enforcement to parole."

....Then there's this statistic Bernstein notes, which should outrage every single person in this country: African-American youth with no prior convictions are 48 times more likely than white youth with similar histories to be incarcerated for drug offenses. Given that doing time as a child is the best predictor of whether an individual will be incarcerated as an adult, such facilities are not only complicit in institutional racism, but they use the bodies of children to perpetuate it. You've got to break more than a few good eggs to keep the prison-industrial complex fed.

In short, the so-called juvenile detention system - which is rife with actual physical and psychological abuse - is an incubator for turning young people toward crime instead of away from it.

Gold comments on Burning Down the House: "What's so refreshing about Bernstein's prose is that she is no reformist, but a true believer in the abolition of juvenile facilities. The book is punctuated with passionate pleas to, 'Raze the buildings, free the children, and begin anew' - never once does she back down from this point." Instead of pouring funds into a system that invariably ensures negative outcomes and destroys lives, isn't it wiser to reverse the destructive incentives of the "juvenile justice" machine?

Think of what $88,000 a year could do to nurture promising lives for youth who are currently confined by the courts in cruel and often profiteering institutions.

Imagine how the future of young people could be positively changed by investing in them instead of brutalizing and stigmatizing them. To accomplish this goal, we need to end their incarceration in juvenile facilities.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.