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October / November 2009

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Future for Youth: Schools or Jails!

“The youth is responsible for Obama’s historic win,” posts a young blogger on Perhaps not solely responsible. Yet, responsible enough to turn out to vote. And thankfully, President- elect Obama has named education a national priority and promised a world-class education for our children and youth.

But I can’t help but reflect on the Black and Latino youth I work with City-wide, and how far-fetched these prospects are for youth who are locked up, have been locked up or very likely to soon be locked up. This is not because they are dumb or uninterested, but because they are caught in a system that numbs and disinterests their minds, hopes and realities—the criminal justice system.

Ten years ago, a teen popped a question that silenced an entire room full of legislative staff, teachers and advocates, myself included: “How come we can be tried as adults at 16, but we can’t vote at 16?” he asked. At the time, New York State was one of three states in the country where this question rang true. As of 2007, New York is now one of two, along with North Carolina. The question was brilliant, not because it left us all speechless, but because it incriminated – with penetrating insight – the illogic that guides so much of NY’s juvenile justice system.

Over the last decade, it has become easier and easier to prosecute younger children as adults. The rationale used to justify this trend is deterrence and reduction in crime. Neither has proven to happen. In fact, new scientific evidence shows that placing youth in the adult criminal justice system increases their likelihood of re-offending, and children who are prosecuted in adult court are more likely to be re-arrested more often and more quickly for serious offenses. Lest you think my source too liberal, try the long-named report released by Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Youth from the Juvenile to the Adult Justice System” (released in November 2007). The report claims that these transfer laws are “counterproductive to reducing juvenile violence and enhancing public safety.” Atop locking up the youngest kids, NYC spends $201,115 to lock up a “juvenile” (under 16) in one of three youth jails. The average annual cost per pupil in NYC public high school is $11,844. So just imagine, what if the price tags were reversed? In 2006, the Alliance for Excellent Education did some number crunching for us and found that a mere 5 percent increase in male high school graduation rates would produce an annual savings of almost $5 billion in crime-related expenses. Coupled with annual earnings of those who graduated, the U.S. would receive $7.7 billion in benefits, and New York State would receive over $457 million in benefits from these increasing graduation rates. America is number one jailer in the world. One of the ways we got there is by investing in prisons over education. Reversing that would be the world class investment that we are long overdue for.
And we might even dare lower the voting age to 16.

This article was first published in November 2008, in the print edition of the Brooklyn Free Press.
by Kyung Ji Kate Rhee
Director, Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives (IJJRA)
Project of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions
Medgar Evers College, a City University of NY
1534 Bedford Avenue, 2nd Floor
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11216
Tel: (718) 804-8875
Email: (Launch November 2009)

This article originally appeared in the October / November 2009 issue of Nodutdol eNews.
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Nodutdol eNews is the monthly e-mail newsletter of Nodutdol.Through grassroots organization and community development, Nodutdol seeks to bridge divisions created by war, nation, gender, sexual orientation, language, classes and generation among Koreans and to empower our community to address the injustice we and other people of color face here and abroad. Nodutdol works in collaboration with other progressive organizations locally, nationally and internationally as part of a larger movement for peace and social change.

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