Let them serve time, not on death row

According to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, approximately 88 percent of Minnesota’s youth population is white – 12 percent is classified as “minority.” Outside the Twin Cities, these figures are not shocking – Minnesota is a fairly white state – but inside Minnesota’s public facilities for juvenile crime, where 54 percent of committed youths are white and 46 percent are minority, the shock value is potent enough to make your hair stand on end. In all fairness, the clear disparity between white and minority incarceration rates in Minnesota is reflective of the rest of the nation, so breathe an uff-da of relief.

Of course, these statistics just confirm what was predicted about a decade ago when we prepared ourselves for the age of the “super predator” youth criminal. Remember super predators? In the early 1990s they were seen as the emerging class of juvenile offenders – a hybrid mix between “Dennis the Menace” and Nino Brown – a group of youths with the collective motivation of velociraptors and the whirling moral compass of Jeffrey Dahmer. We waited for them to start randomly gunning us down with sawed-off shotguns and blank stares, while preparing facilities to house them and legal avenues for putting the worst juvenile offenders (super-duper predators) into adult prison systems.

Both figuratively and literally, we dodged the bullet we feared. Don’t get me wrong; kids committed violent crimes – some of them horrendous – but not at a rate justifying our super-predator apprehension. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, of all juvenile arrests in 1999, less than 5 percent were for violent crimes (0.06 percent for murder or nonnegligent manslaughter). Youths were only responsible for 16 percent of all arrests for violent crime in the same year. These numbers raise two questions: What happened to the super predators, and why are we locking up so many of our minority youth if not for violent crimes?

Well, the super predators turned out to be super-hyped regular kids doing regular kid things. Outside of school shootings – perpetrated by and large by white kids – the media have had little with which to scare us, though they continue to play up those isolated tragedies. Between 1990 and 1999, the highest increases in arrests among juveniles were for drug abuse and curfew violations.

That makes sense. When somebody does something really bad, we won’t be able to lock them up in a juvenile facility, because those are already overcrowded with scared curfew-violators and oregano-smokers. The only option is adult prison, where juvenile offenders are eight times more likely to commit suicide and five times more likely to be sexually assaulted – often gang-raped or prostituted for prison contraband.

If all this sounds like too much downside to U.S. youth policy, remember the United States has no explicit youth policy program. As a nation, we are not devoting many dollars or resources to any comprehensive youth development plan, unless you count the juvenile justice system. Now, that makes sense. Why build a complex framework of “college for all” or “successes for the masses” when it is so much more palatable to the majority of Americans to lock up the minority Americans?

The prison population almost doubled during the Clinton administration, and now we have Tex Rex and his itchy switch fingers running the show. The next time you hear the president or one of his cronies talk about Iraqi atrocities and the need to put a plan in place for Iraq’s future growth as a democracy, consider that Texas put more juvenile offenders on death row during his watch than any nation on Earth during that time.

With or without the death penalty, we as a state and nation are strangling the life out of a growing number of youth for no other reason than we can’t think of anything better to do.

Aaron North welcomes comments at [email protected]