Profiting From Prisons – American Teens Jailed for Having Sex or Being Late to School

16th June 2012

By Sarah SeltzerAlterNet

The case of an honors student in Texas shines light on a national problem: teens going to jail for absurd reasons.

Last week, America was riveted by the story of young Diane Tran, a high school junior age 17, who was tossed in jail for a night because she was missing too much school.

The reason her case attracted so much attention? Tran missed those days of school–or arrived late–due to exhaustion. She worked two jobs to help support her siblings. Her parents had split and moved out of town. She became, in essence, a poster-girl for both the recession and for the criminalization of youth. Even those local newscasters expected to be dispassionate were moved to say their “hearts went out” to this girl.

One of Tran’s employers is a wedding planning business, which she assists and whose owners house her with her parents out of town. The other is a full-time job at a dry cleaning store. Her third job, then, is going to school, where she is enrolled in several AP and honors classes, but missed 18 days. After a previous warning, a judge decided that a night in jail would teach her a lesson. He didn’t see why people were kicking up such a fuss. “A little stay in the jail for one night is not a death sentence,” the judge told the same local news channel.

But then thousands of people around the world read the headline variations on “honors student goes to jail” and began expressing their support–with their voices and their wallets, signing a petition and contributing to a fund for Tran.

At last, the judge in the case agreed to dismiss the contempt charges he had leveled at Tran. News sources reported that with paperwork, she can have her record expunged.

But none of these reprieves happened until Tran had already spent the night in jail.

Tran is an “honors student” with an obviously compelling story. But the question lingers: is jail the answer for any kid under 18, even those who don’t have her excuse for offenses like truancy, or worse? Our incarceration system, after all, designed for adults, has deep, perhaps unfixable defects. Why send those we deem too young for a college campus into a cell?

The issue of youth incarceration and an overly punitive attitude toward teen offenses in general isn’t confined to cases like Tran’s. It affects everyone from young teens of color on the streets of New York targeted by stop and frisk to the Michigan teenager, a high school senior, arrested for sleeping with his underage girlfriend, a freshman.

The behavior that gets teens sent to jail ranges from merely illegal on paper to truly morally wrong, deserving of punishment, perhaps even dangerous. But exactly what kind of punishments we do issue to young people — and what kind of help we offer them–speaks volumes about our society.

A 2007 Campaign for Youth Justice report titled “Jailing Juveniles” points out the obvious flaws in using adult prisons and jails as repositories for youth. First of all, young people in these facilities are vulnerable either to assault by adult inmates, or if siphoned off, the brutal psychological toll of isolation. On a more basic level, jails do not have the capacity to provide the necessary education and other programs crucial for the healthy development of adolescents…without adequate education and other services jails take youth off course.

And even though legal requirements for education do exist, they are often unmet or poorly met, the report explains. So rather than rehabilitating kids, sending them to jail often exacerbates whatever problem sent them there.

Beyond the practice of jailing younger kids in adult facilities, youth detention centers have their own intrinsic problems. Just this April Wired published a riveting photo collection by Richard Ross, whose project, “Juvenile in Justice,” uses photography gathered from juvenile detention centers around the country. The pictures, and the piece, pointed out both our massive overuse of such facilities and their failures. Author Pete Brook, who interviewed the photographer, noted:

The U.S. locks up children at more than six times the rate of all other developed nations. The over 60,000 average daily juvenile lockups, a figure estimated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), are also disproportionately young people of color. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention.

On top of the cost, in its recent report No Place for Kids, the AECF presents evidence to show that youth incarceration does not reduce recidivism rates, does not benefit public safety and exposes those imprisoned to further abuse and violence.

In some studies cited by Brook, states with efforts to halt or reverse the incarceration of youth actually saw a drop in violent crimes committed by under-18s; in other words, the incarceration was increasing crime, not reducing it.

Young people, especially those without resources, will make mistakes and cause trouble, but there are better ways to hold young people accountable than tossing them in prison. One way to start reforming the criminal justice system would be to take a second look at the way it handles, categorizes and “rehabilitates” young people, and consider alternatives.

The logic that young people need a different kind of response for offenses occurs across the board. In January, the Daily Beast profiled moms whose sons, as older teenagers, were arrested and convicted for statutory rape after sleeping with their younger girlfriends (to be fair, some were re-arrested for violating the terms of probation):

Activist groups argue that teens who miss the parameters should go to a counseling or treatment center, not to jail. They also argue that teens shouldn’t be placed on the sex-offender registries.Alison Parker, the U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch, argues the laws should change. “Common sense says that kids are different from adults,” she says. “Kids can grow and change. They are extremely unlikely to reoffend.”

Whether it’s for these kinds of offenses, missing school, or small amounts of drug possession as is currently being debated in New York–or even more serious offenses–the evidence shows that locking kids up doesn’t help them.

So why are we still doing it? And if we keep criminalizing kids, how much better are we than those Victorians in Dickens novels who sent their kids to the workhouse?

As Ross, the photographer and force behind the Web site, “Juvenile in Justice,” told Wired,

Many of these children should be out in the community getting better services and treatment where they stand a chance of rehabilitating and being corrected. From lockdown facilities we’re not going to see a change in behavior. Maybe society needs this to gain retribution against kids that they think have gone wild?”

About the Author

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @fellowette and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.

 


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  • Yohan Dough

    “…she can have her record expunged.”
    As everything associated with the government has a price tag connected to it, I am wondering how much this “service” would cost her?

    Thanks for the good article. Perhaps this will shine some light on the insensitive government, remembering that we are supposed to be governed by the spirit of the law and not by the letter.

    • Ann B

      This is what we now have in lieu of wage slavery; it’s a lot cheaper and nobody complains…until now. We need to complan a great deal more.

  • As the ruling class loses itself inflicted hold over the rule of law, they believe the solution is stronger enforcement. The founder’s intent of no involuntary servitude has been breached in this action, especially against such a responsible individual despite her age by the Judge which is just one of many in a long line of usurpations of inalienable rights against Citizens. What many people don’t recognize is that justice or the lack thereof is causing most of the problems. The vast number of unconstitutional laws being rubber stamped by the Judiciary is so vast today that it has now handcuffed our society in every potential manner. The concept of property rights is basically dead, as the bureaucracy enforces some 115 different forms of taxation, the exact opposite of our intended structure of limited government. Our current rule of law should be thrown into the realm of mythology.

  • BlueFrog

    It’s a cottage industry for the judicial system. The more people in court means more money for the judge’s/bailiff/court clerk’s retirement program. Great article to expose this horrible way of destroying our youth.

    • linda

      thats it exactly. the judge should spend a night in jail, himself.

  • paul

    America is a cesspit, the ruling classes have no morals and see everything in terms of profit.
    Starting wars and murdering thousands of innocents for profit, now they are targeting their own youth…
    sick disgusting perverse psychotic race of evil scumbags.

  • Eric-Gunther:Oberhauser

    Bonds are formed when one goes to jail. The stock market profits hugely from these bonds and so does the city where the arrest was made. The bonds are A BID BOND AND A PERFORM ANCE BOND AND A PAYMENTBOND Unites States Code 11-1711 states “ALL CRIME IS COMMERCIAL.”

  • Mr. Correct all the time

    So the parents of this young girl split up, leave town and leave a 17 year old in charge of her siblings forcing her to get two jobs to support themselves, which causes her to be truant 18 times, and she goes to jail? Why not her parents for neglect and abondonment? Aren’t they the ones who commit the crime?

  • walt

    And we have corrupt politicians and government as prime examples for our kids to follow- if the kids want to go to prison.
    Hypocrites!

  • mik

    Well, at least we know their excuse for being tardy.