Download audio (MP3)
Where's the Outrage?
By James Bell
A white chief probation officer in a city with a curfew joked to his teenage daughters as they headed out one evening: "I don't want to see my name in the paper if you stay out too late."
His daughter replied: "Dad, you know those laws aren't made for us."
She said out loud the unsaid -- there's a different set of rules for black and brown kids.
If a college freshman is caught drinking beer in their dorm, campus security won't turn them into the police. But if a black teenager has a cold one on his porch, he's a menace.
The result? Juvenile halls throughout California are full of black and brown kids.
They aren't there for murder, assault or break-ins. Eighty percent are in for things your kids do at home. They got into a scuffle. Or were caught with an open container. Today, we've criminalized what used to mean a trip to the principal's office.
When these kids get in trouble, we don't do what parents of means do -- get them some help. We lock them in a 6-foot-by-9-foot room.
Kids are worse off -- not better -- once they've spent time at juvenile hall. Two thirds who do time get in trouble again, and go right back.
And it's expensive -- about $350 per night. Airlines that crash get grounded. Restaurants that poison customers get closed. But when our youth justice system fails, there's no outrage.
Let's bring to the justice system what we bring to reconstructing the Bay Bridge or unlocking the secrets of stem cells: a focus on innovation, what the evidence tells us and results.
If we did, here are two simple reforms:
Call a kid with a court date the day before and remind him -- just like your hair dresser or doctor. Cities that do this dramatically cut their "failure-to-appear" rate. Kids stay out of juvenile hall, and we save millions.
Tie funding to success. Right now, bad systems get what good ones get. Measure how much they lowered recidivism rates, or how many youth went back to school or never got arrested again, and attach financial consequences. Money talks.
Just think about what you'd want for your kids when they screw up. That's what we want for all young people.
With a Perspective, I'm James Bell.
James Bell is executive director and founder of The Burns Institue, which recently won a MacArthur Award for creative and effective institutions.