The Price of Retribution

Bertha Lewis
October 21, 2013

On top of all the other economic hurdles and social barriers that stand in the way of success, young people of color also have to worry that a trivial mistake might send them to prison for the rest of their life. New York is the only state other than North Carolina to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Over 600 teens between the ages 13 and 15 are similarly tried as adults and children as young as 7-years-old can and are prosecuted as juveniles. What's more, 75 percent of arrests are for misdemeanors. Of those that are sentenced to adult prison, 80 percent are Black and Latino. These facts paint a picture of a persecutory and, yes, racist regime. For as long as these laws stand, New York State fits the bill.

Study after study indicates children under the age of 18 have underdeveloped brains and as a result are unable to truly grasp the consequences of their actions. Peer pressure, parental neglect and abuse are just some of the contributing factors that may lead a child to commit a crime. As a society, we should be doing our best to counteract and reverse this trend. Instead we take our most vulnerable and lock them in a place where even the most hardened men are left defenseless. Imagine what a 13-year-old boy looks like in a prison full of murderers and rapists? Imagine the sort of psychological trauma we are inflicting upon those kids? If they weren't dangerous menaces when they initially entered the criminal justice system, we make absolutely sure they are by the time they get out -- that's assuming they ever do.

One year in prison can quickly turn into decades or even a lifetime. The pervasive and near inescapable gang culture of adult prison forces fresh inmates into an ultimatum: join a gang or risk being fresh blood in an ocean full of sharks. Unsurprisingly, many choose to join a gang rather than subject themselves to an endless stream of assault and rape. As a member of a gang, they are then forced to commit unspeakable and abrupt acts of violence against rival gang members, adding years or even decades to their original sentence. Of course, there is a third option -- youths sentenced to do time in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youths held in juvenile detention facilities. The willingness and enthusiasm with which we throw children, regardless of their crime, into such an environment is suggestive of either sickening indifference or outright sadism.

For the fortunate ones that do get out, life outside doesn't offer them many options. Teenagers that are sent to prison are forced to forego the rest of their education and having "ex-con" indelibly plastered on your résumé doesn't exactly make you a top prospect for future employers. The result? According to Raise the Age NY, youths detained in adult prisons are 34 percent more likely to recidivate than youths held in juvenile detention centers. A staggering 80 percent of youths released from adult prison go on to commit more serious crimes. Never mind being humane; are we really promoting public safety when we enforce a system that produces these sorts of statistics? The answer is obvious.

No one is disputing that some youth as young as 13 commit heinous crimes and that they should be appropriately reprimanded. But we need to reevaluate who we are and who we want to be as a society. These laws disproportionately punish young people of color for predominantly minor offenses, virtually ending their life before it has even begun. Why are we so quick to justify them?

The alternative to maintaining this draconian status quo is not letting youth to do whatever they want with complete impunity. Rather, we need to provide troubled youth with the psychological and developmental help they desperately need to become productive members of society. Simply condemning them to a life spent in and out of prison is only a disservice to both them and society as a whole.

Detractors are often concerned that the cost of this alternative would be too much to bear. For one, the numbers simply do not support this claim. States like Connecticut and Illinois actually saved money after raising the age of adulthood to 18. More importantly, though, as one of the richest states in the richest country in the world, should we really be this willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of our children just to save money? Others claim that the juvenile detention system is simply not equipped to adequately dole out justice to the most heinous offenders. As the adults, we have the power to create a truly sustainable and equitable society. Should retribution really be our guiding force?

How we answer these questions will have a profound impact on our future and will cut to the very core of our values and our morals.

Bertha Lewis is the CEO and Chief Organizer of ACORN, the largest community organization in the country.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post and is reprinted here with permission.