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Too much unchecked power in the juvenile legal system, too little justice for children | Opinion

Treating all children with dignity, ensuring them meaningful opportunities, and freeing them of law enforcement surveillance and intrusion is the most powerful crime prevention strategy.

The Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima, Pa.
The Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima, Pa.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Recent headlines out of Tennessee once again tell a disturbing story of judicial authority run amok, with children in the crosshairs. As revealed by ProPublica, a juvenile court judge in Rutherford County, Tennessee, has been locking up almost exclusively Black children, as young as 7 years old, for behavior that is not even a crime. According to the report, Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport locks up substantially more children than any other juvenile court judge in Tennessee — 48% as compared to 5% elsewhere in the state. She justifies this practice by claiming “children need consequences,” and urges other Tennessee counties to pay to send their children to the Rutherford Juvenile Detention Facility.

The appalling behavior of Judge Davenport is eerily reminiscent of the Luzerne County, Pennsylvania “Kids for Cash” scandal, where two judges were convicted for various financial fraud crimes associated with their acceptance of nearly $3 million from the developer and former co-owner of private for-profit juvenile detention facilities to which the juvenile court judges sent children.

As in Tennessee, the Pennsylvania youth were routinely locked up for the childish things kids do — cursing at a school bus driver, making a parody of a school administrator on social media, getting in a fight with a parent at home. And although the crimes were trivial, the confinement was not, with many of the youth spiraling in and out of confinement not just for weeks or months, but years.

The kids in Pennsylvania were mostly white youth from struggling economic communities; the kids in Tennessee were mostly Black and Latino and poor, consistent with national data tracking youth referred to court. While wealthy white youth are allowed to enjoy the adventure, experimentation, and mistakes of adolescence, Black youth are criminalized and detained for just being kids. Poor children of color become expendable at the hands of judges seeking to make a profit, who consciously and unconsciously treat children as deviant and lacking moral fiber.

And judges are not alone in harming children. The Department of Justice has recently characterized the day-to-day conditions at five Texas juvenile detention centers as “relentlessly violent and oppressive, with guards often resorting to force.” According to the Justice Department, prison staff used force against incarcerated children almost 7,000 times in 2019 — equivalent to six times per child who was confined that year.

Continuing to shake our heads in disbelief is not enough. Kids for Cash led to important reforms in Pennsylvania, and also gave way to current litigation challenging years of physically and psychologically abusive practices at the Glen Mills School for Boys outside of Philadelphia. Judge Davenport’s conduct sparked lawsuits and she has lost professional affiliations, but remains in her position.

» READ MORE: At Glen Mills school, boys are beaten, then silenced

While the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings helps to insulate this behavior, there is something more sinister afoot here. The juvenile legal system was established over 120 years ago to protect children from prosecution and confinement with adults. These recurring scandals belie the idea that separating children from adults alone can reverse an entrenched punitive culture, rooted in a legacy of slavery, that persists in over-incarcerating Black and brown children.

The time for bold and transformative action is now. The current juvenile legal system has failed in its essential mission to treat children like children. Every school misconduct does not warrant a 911 call. We cannot police our way out of adolescence. These practices weaken communities, particularly communities of color, rip families apart, and disrupt normal adolescent development. Recent cries to “burn the house down” and start over are unsurprising — they reflect a realistic appraisal of a system that destroys more children than it helps.

Abolishing a system of custody and control in favor of investment in families and communities will not risk public safety. Treating all children and families with dignity, ensuring them meaningful employment, educational, and social opportunities, and freeing them of law enforcement surveillance and intrusion is the most powerful — and permanent — crime prevention strategy we have.

Marsha Levick is the chief legal officer at Juvenile Law Center, and served as cocounsel for the children victimized in the Kids for Cash scandal. Kristin Henning is the author of “The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth” and the director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law.