All God's Children | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

All God's Children

One image won't leave my head since I finished my part of the cover story I wrote this issue with freelance writer Valerie Wells (starts here): A deputy with his foot against a door as a desperate mother tries to get through to be with her 
13-year-old son during a police interrogation that will elicit a murder confession that may or may not have any truth to it.

Stop for a minute and think about it: What is going on here, folks? How have we created a society where young people arguably get fewer rights than adults? A world where a judge blocks expert testimony that would allow jurors to consider that a child's confession might be false? A state where kids get thrown into juvenile facilities without decent educational, medical or mental resources, and are often abused worse inside the facility than outside?

Have we really become a society where adults don't care if another person's child is abused, or railroaded, or sent to a prison where he has to tie something around him because he fears being raped in the shower? Or are we so blinded by fear of "thugs" (or "predators" as they were called a decade ago) that we refuse to face that we are, in fact, creating them?

I could blame the media. I spent my graduate-school years and then a six-month fellowship researching the 1990s myths about kids that enabled and popularized horrendous policies against accused children, and the media and politicians that spawned them. Right here in Jackson, I have spent an inordinate amount of my time in recent years reporting stories that other media wouldn't touch about the young people who lived in the late Mayor Frank Melton's home with scant supervision that wasn't overly connected to liquor, showboating, playing with guns and Lord knows what else.

I'm still amazed at how hard it was to get people, especially those in charge of overseeing "foster" situations, interested in the children's welfare in that bizarre saga. It was as if people didn't give a damn what was going on at 2 Carter's Grove because the kids there were assumed to be throwaway thugs until a folk-hero businessman opened his home to them.

I also infuriate some people because I dare to challenge our "local" media's either-or propensity toward images of white people as the "VIPs" and black folks, especially kids, as the thugs (or blaming the parents who don't stop the thuggery), not to mention the media trick of flashing urban schools like Lanier on the screen when something bad happens anywhere near by.

No doubt: The media helped create this disastrous state for young people and are doing way too little to change it. (I heard one editor recently throw his hands up in front of a group of children's advocates and declare that it was "up to the parents," as if every person in the room didn't know that the parents play a vital role, as do the rest of us.)

In the 1990s, a group of drug warriors grabbed the media by the ear and dragged them right into a trap set to target black urban youth. As we discuss in our cover story, the "super-predator" myth swept the nation as outlets from the Boston Globe to Newsweek, and politicians from Bob Dole to Orrin Hatch, spread predictions that the largely black (their words) population of "super-predators" would explode by 270,000 young criminals by this year. (Based on population figures, this meant that as many "thugs" would have to be under age 6 as over 13, but the media outlets didn't bother with calculators or, apparently, factchecking before passing along the predictions as fact.)

This hysteria came, by the way, as the nation was enjoying a post-crack-era 68 percent drop in youth homicides, headed toward the lowest youth-crime rate in 25 years. But the meme caught on, spread by the media and politicians trying to get votes on the backs of kids. The only answer, according to the book "Body Count" (a racist polemic I have grown to loathe over the years) was to blame the parents while calling for some of the harshest juvenile-crime policies in the world. These politicians played the fear card hard when it convinced the public that the only way to guard us all from the "predators" was to pass tough laws requiring accused children to be treated (and often mistreated) like adults.

America fell for it and, as a result, we have policies across the nation that are abusing young people, as well as turning many of them into more hardened criminals. Here in Mississippi, we already had a miserable youth-detention system that allowed, and allows, simply unfathomable abuses of young people (mostly of color; white kids who get in trouble are more likely to avoid detention in our state, sometimes because their parents know the right district attorney) with politicians turning their heads.

Now, we have treat-em-like-adults scenarios like those we detail in this week's cover story.

There at least would be an argument for this scenario if it wasn't bona fide fact at this point that children in those situations are more likely to lie to please the adults trying to get them to confess to something bad (we teach them to obey grown-ups, you know). And when they're held in these über-stressful situations for hours, they will often lie just to get out of the room. Their attention spans are short, and science proves that their brains aren't developed enough to understand the consequences of a lie, even one that can land them in prison.

I'm not sugarcoating anything here: Young people commit crimes. They always have. Some of them are heinous.

What I am saying is that it doesn't make a lick of sense to keep up policies that are actually detrimental to children, families and the rest of society. It is downright stupid to support adult incarceration of youth when it actually makes our society less safe. And, I must add, there is a special cellblock in hell for a politician who trolls for votes on the back of a child.

If my research on the criminalization of youth taught me anything, it is this: These harsher policies came about because of fear of people of color, and they are hurting all kids, regardless of race. It is not one or the other; it is both.

The politicians and their media created this disaster; it is up to the rest of us to fix it. It is time to stand up for all of God's children.

This column is named for a remarkable book on the complexities of youth justice: Fox Butterfield's "The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence."

Previous Comments

ID
161150
Comment

Folks, someone just pointed out that this column went out in the Daily today before the cover story it referred to was posted tonight. My apologies: We should not have jumped the gun on sending this one out so soon. But the cover story is now linked: Rush to Judgement: The Dubious Trend of Trying Kids As Adults

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-12-01T18:53:53-06:00
ID
161157
Comment

I must add, there is a special cellblock in hell for a politician who trolls for votes on the back of a child. Indeed, and it is a bipartisan cellblock. A very crowded bipartisan cellblock.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2010-12-01T23:38:56-06:00
ID
161181
Comment

It always puzzled me how our society can tell 14-year olds that they're not old enough to drink, buy or possess alcohol, vote, gamble, have a driver's license, etc., but yet they're old enough to be tried as adults as soon as they commit a crime. If there isn't a bigger double standard in the legal system, I don't know what is.

Author
golden eagle
Date
2010-12-03T16:38:38-06:00
ID
161182
Comment

Let me also add that in regards to politicians who pushed the tough-on-crime stances in the 90s, I believe that the private prison industry is behind it. After all, a private prison can't make money if there are no live bodies to fill them up. The private prison industry supposedly help push theSB 1070 law in Arizona. Connect the dots: if you're going to incarcerate people who illegally cross the border daily, you gotta have space to hold them. It also amazes me, too, how people tend to fall for such rhetoric. You probably couldn't blame people as much then as you could now since people didn't have as much ready access to media as they do now, but the media has done a really poor job in fact-checking and have sensationalized their news coverage to gain ratings and readership.

Author
golden eagle
Date
2010-12-03T16:50:34-06:00
ID
161186
Comment

Great column. At least we know now who the real predators are. Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, their enablers, advisors, recompense, and local law enforcers too willing to believe and do anything in the theory of cleaning up crime for monetary incentives, no matter the lack of results or faulty logic or lack of neutral advise or facts.

Author
Walt
Date
2010-12-03T17:50:29-06:00
ID
161201
Comment

I observed youth facilities in Indiana. It's not just black kids. Most of the kids in that system were white, and they treated them worse than prison inmates. My friend worked at a youth facility close to Indianapolis with the highest rate of sex abuse in the country.

Author
DrumminD21311
Date
2010-12-06T20:54:13-06:00

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