Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude
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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

How to Stop Locking Up Kids

Illustration: Louisa Bertman
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two essays The Root is publishing in partnership with Caught, a new podcast from WNYC Studios about the juvenile-justice system. We hope to generate a conversation about how we can support rather than merely punish young people who are in crisis, and we want to hear from you too. Go to to record your own story.

The first time Z felt the pressure of tight metal handcuffs suffocating his wrists, he was a preteen; truant officers cuffed him when he skipped class. When it happened again while he was in middle school, it felt different, more permanent.

He’d been dabbling in entrepreneurship: He purchased candy in bulk and sold the treats to classmates during lunch break. He was earning $200 a week; business was booming. So he agreed to partner with a classmate. One day, his new partner decided that he would keep $1 profit for every candy bar he sold. Z (a pseudonym) had never taken Business 101, but he knew that wasn’t a fair split, since it was his candy. An argument between the boys turned into a fight. And a schoolyard scuffle that should have landed two students in the principal’s office instead left Z standing in front of a judge.

It was Z’s first serious run-in with the criminal-justice system. It would not be his last.

The U.S. continues to put more youths in juvenile detention than any other developed nation in the world. In 2015, over 48,000 young people were locked up on any given night. Sixty-nine percent of those incarcerated were youths of color. Like Z, 44 percent were black, despite the fact that they make up 16 percent of U.S. youths.

The Root is partnering with WNYC Studios to open a conversation about these young people—and how we are all accountable for their futures. Over nine episodes of a new podcast, Caught, WNYC tells the stories of kids like Z, one of roughly 1 million young people who pass through the system in a year.

Z’s mom held him close until she couldn’t. Children spend the majority of their time in schools and in their neighborhoods, places that should serve as supportive villages but often fall short. Many youths are left to fend for themselves; without the proper tools, institutions and support systems to help them thrive, they don’t always make it.

For many, the problem starts in school. The “zero tolerance” mantra that overtook the conversation about school discipline in the 1990s has shaped the lives of kids like Z. The examples are everywhere: A teenager at a Virginia middle school was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and petit larceny for allegedly stealing a 65-cent carton of milk, despite the fact that he was enrolled in the free lunch program. In Louisiana, an eighth-grader was arrested and charged with simple battery for allegedly throwing Skittles at another student on a school bus. A 10-year-old autistic girl was handcuffed and tossed to the ground after climbing on desks, knocking over chairs in her classroom and retreating to a tree outdoors.

In 51 percent of high schools with high concentrations of black and Latino students, cops freely stop, frisk, detain, question and arrest students on campus. School security officers dot the halls and campuses of 24 percent of elementary schools and 42 percent of high schools. Z’s own middle school, in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., shared a parking lot with the police precinct. He isn’t serving time now for his middle school fight, but that was his first real brush with the system—and it has a lot to do with where he is now. He is one of an uncounted number of teens who have desperately needed help of some sort but who have received punishment instead.

“I saw kids get in fights when I was an undergrad at Harvard,” says Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif. “They would get counseling, they would get support. Worst-case scenario, they would be asked to take a semester off and then resume their studies when they were ready. So they were surrounded with a circle of support that did minimal disruption to their lives. And I think we respond in ways that are heavy-handed and unhelpful [with kids like Z].”

That’s at least in part because we still subscribe to the 1990s narrative of “superpredator” juveniles who, as first lady Hillary Clinton put it at the time, have no conscience and no empathy. The idea infected everything from school discipline to neighborhood policing, and we have yet to reverse it. We must begin considering ways for dealing with conflict and harm that don’t include locking up children. We have to consider a mindset that allows us to pull struggling young people closer rather than puts them away, out of sight.

One answer is what’s been called “restorative justice,” an approach to justice that responds to harm without relying on punishment or incarceration. In this context, if crime hurts, then justice should heal, not seek retribution. Victims and offenders work together to come to a resolution that includes redress for victims, offender accountability, community safety and reintegration of both parties within the community.

At the grassroots level, that could mean the kid caught stealing from the neighborhood bodega wouldn’t get reported to the police but would instead sit down with the store owner, sweep up his store and put price tags on groceries for a month. Restorative-justice practices have been used in schools to address student conflict instead of alienating and forcing students out of school.

On a macro level, the restorative-justice model, coupled with addressing economic and structural inequalities, can serve as a bridge to ending incarceration.

Prisons are factories of abuse and violence in this country, says Norris, and we must fundamentally rethink how and why we use them. “Our hope is to bring in a whole new status quo—which means, not ‘alternative,’ which means a new main thing,” he says. “And I think that main thing should be centers of opportunity and restorative justice.”

Calling for the end of incarceration can sound like an unreasonably large idea, but there are real-world examples of this change. The Ella Baker Center’s “Books Not Bars” campaign resulted in the closure of five of eight California youth prisons. “I do think you need a clear and compelling vision in terms of what a state might look like without youth incarceration,” Norris says. The center’s newest initiative, Restore Oakland, which takes a public health approach, aims to do just that by creating a new vision of community safety.

The space will address community need and provide economic opportunity—it’ll house a restaurant run by formerly incarcerated people and others locked out of opportunity. It will provide worker training programs and business incubation, and a housing-rights clinic. There will be a physical space to practice restorative justice formally—for those referred by the justice system—and informally, for community members to come together to resolve conflict. The initiative will address the harm as well as the underlying need.

“Oftentimes, we’re putting folks in jail, but we’re just continuing a cycle of poverty and incarceration because people get out and they find themselves basically in the same situation that they were in prior to their incarceration,” Norris says. To make a real shift within our justice system, we need to address the systemic issues plaguing communities in need. We have to “allocate resources in the form of jobs, not jails; books, not bars; health care, not handcuffs,” he adds. Young people must be wrapped in support at every bend of their existence—their homes, schools, communities—to have a chance to thrive.

Be sure to follow the Caught podcast to hear more about Z and his journey.

We want to hear from you as well. WNYC and The Root are asking for your own stories about being young and finding help. Was there a time in your youth when you needed someone to step up and help? Did you find that support? If so, from whom? Go to to record your story. We’ll play some of the stories we get on the podcast.