I worked as a legal intern last semester in the District Attorney’s office in Orange County. As my concentration in law school is in the ambiguous field of “children’s rights”, I was more than happy to be assigned to the Juvenile Delinquency unit of the DA’s office. What I witnessed there however only solidified my contention that no matter how lame it is for people of my generation right now, the children of this country have it way worse.
Juvenile Delinquency is (in short) a quasi-criminal action against those who breach the social contract at a time where they are still minor’s in the eyes of the law. The Supreme Court has set minimum standards for the Due Process protection for children who find themselves involved in a delinquency action, but the states still retain a wide level of discretion in how these courts operate and how the children are “dealt with”. California is seen as one of the more progressive systems for children, but it is still largely flawed. Unfortunately one of these “flaws” manifest themselves in the imprisonment of children for bullshit reasons via a process that is no-so subtly tinged with the ugly reality of racism and classism.
When a child is “referred” to the Juvenile Court after they have been accused of committing a crime (one that is not serious enough to charge them as an adult), usually by the Police our a school. Once this referral happens the Probation Department does an “assessment” of the child’s domestic situation, a psychological profile, an investigation of their educational and social background, and a variety of other facts concerning the life of that child. All of this information is collected to determine if the best interests of the child require that they be “removed” from their home and placed within a secure facility until their delinquency petition has been processed by the court.
Sounds awesome and thorough right? Well perhaps in theory this is a great idea. Protecting kids from bad situations is obviously a duty of society, and preventing future criminality obviously requires that the state collect a ton of information on the kid before deciding what to do with them. But guess what- the government is actually performing this task in a manner that is only guaranteeing that we lock up more and more poor children of color.
In our societal haste in preventing an imaginary juvenile crime wave we have allowed social workers, the probation department, and overzealous school officials from all participating in a wholesale crackdown of juvenile civil rights and liberties. There are no constitutional privileges preventing the collection of this information, nor do the rules of evidence prevent the introduction of this data in the “placement” stage of juvenile adjudication.
What does this mean? Well imagine that you are a kid and your assistant vice principal, math teacher, neighbor, or stepparent happens to be an absolute dick. If this person hates you, and would lie or hyperbolize in order to screw you over, you are going to be taken away from your parents and placed in state custody BEFORE that crime you supposedly committed is adjudicated by the court. The veracity of this report created probation can be challenged by your lawyer, its methods can be demonstrated to be flawed, and opposing evidence can be presented- but none of it will work as the burden of proof for removal at this stage is VERY low.
Oh and it gets worse.
The DA’s acknowledge that once a kid is in state custody it is very likely that they will remain in “kiddie jail” if their delinquency petition is found to be true. So some children will commit an offense and never see the inside of a state institution, another child who did the exact same thing (but came from an “unstable” environment) is going to kiddie jail throughout the entire process based on some very questionable information. In other words the original assessment determines your punishment as a juvenile offender, and the assessment is inherently flawed and biased against poor children of color.
But this small instance of bullshit is just one block in the giant pile of crap that is the modern American childhood. We arrest something like 40% of our children at least once before they turn 23. We imprison children for life without the chance of parole. We merrily send children as young as 14 to adult prisons where they face rape or assault from older inmates. Our fear of children is wide, our reasoning is shallow, and our wrath is deep.
And it’s not just the criminal justice system where we are regularly choosing (and yes this is a conscious choice) to fuck over our future generation for no good goddam reason. The Ryan Budget, the much-ballyhooed and pundit-beloved sack of shit that it is, destroys social welfare spending on kids. Lazy good for nothing infants and children need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get their own nutritional food because WIC and SNAP would be obliterated if this budget were passed.
Our schools are of course the unfortunate constant reminder of just how much we as a society hate children. Public schools are mostly underfunded (and designed to reinforce the economic status quo by being liked to property taxes) but all you hear about are the “back breaking” salaries of our Hyundai-driving teachers and staff members. While we gimmick ourselves with the latest scam of Charter Schools or concern our policies with needlessly weakening teachers unions, we have effectively re-segregated our schools and destroyed their ability to raise revenue despite the growing need to educate. And lets not even talk about the food ,the constant racist threat of Zero-Tolerance policing, or the piss poor excuse for sex-ed.
In short, you will hear a constant theme coming from both parties this november describing a “commitment” to children. This is bullshit. In this country we have a firm policy of hating our children and subjugating them to the nastiest and most arbitrarily worthless policies that we have to offer. Our children are just the guinea pigs in our grand immoral experimentation of Social Darwinism or Fascism that we then inflict on everyone else (before TSA gropes their was the Columbine freak out in High Schools). The children of today are inheriting a steaming pile of awful from us, and we can only hope that they take over before we do even more damage.