Criminal justice reform isn’t a new topic, but what often isn’t discussed is the juvenile justice part of it. We often discuss the consequences adults face, but ignore the fact that they are likely to have already had contact with the criminal justice system as youth.
Jailing kids at the rate we do is absurd and is just asking for those kids to grow up as adult offenders. About 40 to 60 percent of juvenile delinquents transition into adulthood offenders, often with increasing severity of offenses. Prison is supposed to be a deterrent to crime, but looking at the high rates of recidivism, it’s not. Not to mention the privatization of prisons, which treats prisoners as the product of a company. It’s also just another way of saying no one cares about people in prison, and no, they aren’t really interested in making their lives better.
It would be one thing if the criminal justice system as a whole simply didn’t work, but it actually makes things worse, and in a lot of ways. What else do you expect to happen when someone is sent somewhere with horrible conditions and where the reason they’re there is ignored? Somewhere their support system is eliminated or filled by other juvie kids with the same charges, increasing rates of recidivism? Somewhere from which, once released, they are either sent back to their parents, who are rarely fit to take care of them, or become dependents of the court? But let’s focus on just one problem the system makes worse: homelessness.
A recent survey has found that youth incarceration, not the foster care system, is the largest contributor to youth homelessness. Let that sink in. The foster care system, which accounts for about 40 percent of the youth homeless population, is secondary to the juvenile justice system, which accounts for about 44 percent.
That’s messed up.
But that isn’t where it ends. The people most affected by the juvenile justice system are non-white youth.
“About 48 percent of the people we serve identify as white,” said Kristine Scott, executive director for ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, “which means, on the flip side, 52 percent of them identify as non-white.” ROOTS is a non-profit, low-barrier shelter that serves homeless youth. In the U-District, 59 percent of the population is white; in Seattle as a whole, about 70 percent of the population is white.
And there’s a reason for that disparity — Black kids are 4.5 times more likely, and Latinos 2.5 times more likely, than white kids to be detained for the same crime. When charges are filed, white youth are more likely to be placed on probation while Black youth are detained. Over 70 percent of in-school arrests referred to law enforcement officers involve Black or Latino students.
It isn’t a surprise, really. The school-to-prison pipeline not only exists, it is alive and well. It’s a topic with a lot of discussion, but we often don’t talk about how homelessness is another consequence.
And it isn’t just people of color that are disproportionately affected, it’s LGBT+ youth, too.
“About 35 percent of the people we serve identify as not cis-gendered or not straight,” Scott said.
Overall, about 40 percent of the youth homeless population identifies as LGBT+, which is astonishing when you realize that only about seven percent of the youth population identifies as LGBT+.
There are a multitude of reasons why so many LGBT+ kids are out on the streets, and one of the main reasons comes down to the fact that so many of them face rejection from home. If the initial reaction is really poor when someone comes out or is outed, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the parents start accepting their child after a few weeks.
“Two weeks is enough for a kid to end up on the streets,” Scott said.
Once a kid ends up on the streets, it’s hard to escape it, especially if they end up going to juvie.
LGBT+ youth make up about 12 percent of the population in correctional facilities and often face a lot of abuse: Gay and bisexual boys are almost 11 times more likely to face sexual victimization compared to their straight peers. Experiences like these stay with you wherever you go, and when a lot of these people get out of juvie, they don’t really have anywhere to go.
Schools also play a huge part. It’s true that many poor and homeless youth end up dropping out of school, which is why legislators introduced truancy laws and compulsory attendance like the Becca Bill. However, those truancy laws do more harm than good, at least from the perspective of homelessness.
The Becca Bill not only allows the school district to file truancy petitions with the juvenile court after seven unexcused absences in a month or ten in a year, it also forces anyone providing shelter to a runaway to notify the police or the child’s parents. This is problematic when the child has abusive parents.
“Becca was a law written with parents in mind,” Scott said. “It assumes that everyone has great parents. So, the kids who have crappy parents who use the law to track them down and discourage them from resources — it’s really bad for them.”
It comes down to this: the intention behind our juvenile justice system has been forgotten and it has become a tool used to satisfy people’s sense of “justice” — which often ignores the how, what, where, when of a crime and just focuses on “get them away from us” — and as a way to put away “unwanted” kids so no one has to think about them.
Legislators might have good intentions for many of these laws, but their good intentions are paving the way to homelessness and a life of crime for so many of the marginalized youth population."