Youth Criminalization in the United States

Bianca Onwukwe is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a second-year MPP student.

            Youth criminalization occurs when children or young adults experience extreme penalization or are introduced to the criminal justice system for what should be categorized as mistakes or minor offenses. This lack of grace is a norm embedded in the U.S. criminal justice system that affects mostly young people of color.  It essentially punishes young people of color, especially Black children, at an alarming rate compared to their counterparts. A study by the Sentencing Project found that in 2019, the imprisonment rate for African American women (83 per 100,000) was over 1.7 times the rate of imprisonment for white women (48 per 100,000). These discriminatory practices spill over into the education system where these children and young adults are further mishandled and disproportionately targeted in schools.

The intersection of the criminal justice system and education system occurs when schools utilize zero-tolerance policies, police officers or school resource officers on school grounds and other exclusionary discipline practices. This merge of systems further compounds the adverse experiences of students of color and creates the school-to-prison pipeline.

Owens (2017) defined the school-to-prison pipeline as a “social phenomenon where students become formally involved with the criminal justice system as a result of school policies that use law enforcement, rather than school discipline, as a way to address behavioral problems.”  Starting within the classroom, the school-to-prison pipeline affects majorly students of color and students with disabilities – specifically, Black and Hispanic students, and is caused by punitive school policies that disproportionately push minority students and students with disabilities out of schools and into jails/prisons.

This is evident in false accusation cases such as the “Central Park Five”, the murder of Latasha Harlins, and studies that show racial disparities in youth incarceration. Most recently, a ProPublica investigation in Rutherford County, Tennessee, revealed that 11 black children ages 8 to 14 were arrested at Hobgood Elementary school for “criminal responsibility for conduct of another” – a baseless charge that led to some children being detained overnight and others for several days. These arrests were made due to a fight involving two younger boys (ages 5 and 6) and other students who watched the fight. A few weeks later, police officers arrested the 11 children who watched the fight and charged them with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another” – an invalid crime which ProPublica explains as a “basis upon which someone can be accused of a crime”.  The construction and maintenance of these norms can be attributed to Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge, Donna Scott Davenport, who implemented a policy that requires the arrests of children for minor violations, followed by screening at the juvenile detention center, and then charges. This policy led to the arrests of 48% of the children in cases in 2014, significantly higher than every other county in Tennessee, and went against Tennessee law. Subsequently, these policies create norms within the county that directly affect the education and socioemotional well-being of the county’s youth population.

The Effects of Youth Criminalization

A myriad of research on the effects of youth criminalization, especially youth of color, have found various negative impacts on one’s educational outcomes, labor outcomes, etc. These experiences mainly lead to the pushout of students from schools into the criminal justice system, one that is premature and largely unnecessary. Studies have found that the mere presence of federal grants for police officers in school leads to unfavorable student outcomes such as a decrease in graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment. Also, students who experience criminalization within their schools are more likely to be incarcerated as adults, more likely to have lower attendance rates and test scores, less likely to complete high school, more likely to drop out and have experience of the criminal justice system, and incarceration or contact with the criminal justice system leads to recidivism and poor labor outcomes.

Furthermore, these experiences often produce unintended consequences that affect students’ social and emotional well-being, even among students who are not arrested. For example, a study showed that students can be further traumatized if they are a member of the targeted group and witness other members of their racial group being targeted. These negative consequences could cause a cascading effect of poorer life outcomes in general.

There is some evidence these effects might be playing out in Rutherford County, which has poor high school completion rates. In 2019, only 30% of the county’s 18 to 24 years olds and only 27% of residents 25 years or older were high school graduates. These numbers suggest that the county’s punitive policies are not leading to successful student outcomes. To truly improve students’ academic success and well-being, Rutherford County needs a reallocation of resources towards services and practices that promote real learning and healing.

Policy Solutions

The most obvious and important solution is the state-level elimination of extreme punitive school policies, zero-tolerance policies, etc., in schools, and the replacement with school-specific policies. 

Subsequently, comprehensive, school-based mental health services and restorative justice practices are strong potential substitutes for extreme school disciplinary policies, as they will produce student-focused benefits such as lower suspension and/or expulsion rates, and other desirable student outcomes such as high graduation rates, socio-emotional wellness, etc. For example, shifting Rutherford County’s school culture away from a punitive model and towards a reparative one will require adequate capacity on the classroom, school, and school district levels. 

It is imperative that the state, local government, and/or school district provide adequate funding for the addition of school support services, and to maintain and support the development of their knowledge and skills through professional development, allow for flexibility in methods employed, and equally important school support staff’s contribution to the school disciplinary policy implementation process.

Lastly, the lack of scrutiny around the policy decisions of some judges, such as those made by Judge Davenport in Rutherford County, stems largely from the lack of data (i.e., number of arrests by race/ethnicity, time spent detained, etc.) and oversight. This lack of data also aids in the evasion of accountability on the school, school district, and state levels. Moreover, accountability should not be limited to the local level, it should be extended to the state, where increased oversight should be employed. It will require a financial investment in school psychologists, social workers, and restorative justice coordinators, but the benefits for students and the overall school environment are vital and worth the costs. 

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