On Chain-link and Children

For many reasons (personal. political, spiritual) I'm am a staunch opponent of the death penalty. In fact, I believe in serious, radical prison reform. It is an issue near and dear to my heart. It is an issue made nearer and dearer by Susan Kuklin's No Choirboy.

I'm not about to pontificate on the death penalty here. I could spend pages explaining how it's more expensive than life without parole; how it does nothing to deter criminal behavior; how an admittedly biased judicial system should not hold peoples' lives in its syringes and cyanide crystals; how, since 1973, 135 people have been found innocent on death row; how the death penalty is administered arbitrarily. But I won't get into that here. Here, I want to talk about teens.

No Choirboy details the circumstances and experiences of six teens on, or formerly on, death row. Their crimes, their trials, and their various prison experiences are beautifully told in their own words. These teens' search for redemption within the cold walls of our brutal prison system is a testament to the will of the human spirit, and the strength of children everywhere.

It's also a pretty damning indictment of a society that, until 2005, deemed it completely moral and just to execute children.

Let's talk about what it means to be an adolescent, because, as close as the numbers may be, teens are not adults. End of story. Research on the adolescent brain has shown us that "areas involved in planning and decision-making, including the prefrontal cortex -- the cognitive or reasoning area of the brain important for controlling impulses and emotions -- appear not to have yet reached adult dimension during the early twenties" (italics mine). A study by the National Institute of Mental Health states, "When contemplating risky decisions, they show less activity in regions of the brain that regulate processes involved in decision-making, compared with adults. The areas are among the last to develop and are involved in control of “thinking” functions, including decision-making, and in processing reward-related input and behavior (the orbitofrontal/ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex)" (italics mine).

Not to beat a dead horse, or a dead anything as the case may be, but adolescents are not adults. They don't act like them, think like them, process input like them, feel like them, communicate like them . . . why on earth should they be punished like them? The preferred alternative to the death penalty, now that it is unconstitutional to execute children, is life without parole. But of all the members of society that our prison system should be seeking to rehabilitate and reform, shouldn't it be the youngest and most immature?

When we take into account the fact that the courts are far more likely to try nonwhite youth as adults and more likely to imprison nonwhite youth, it becomes clear that there is something funny about the way society views children of color. There is a tendency to "adultify" children of color. To assign motive and reasoning to their behavior and not to that of white children. This topic is given a wonderful treatment in Ann Ferguson's book Bad Boys: Public Schools and the Making of Black Masculinity. It's also something that I see and hear every day of my working life.

"They're no children"
"They're kids, but they're not kids."
"They're young, but not innocent."
"Children don't act like that."
"No child would say that."
"They're little (fill in the word of your choice: animals, monsters, thugs, pimps, savages, conmen, criminals)."

That last one may not be a statement of "adultification" (depending on which word you chose), but it's in the same line. Kids will be kids, except when they're obviously expressing deep-seated, adult, calculating, criminal intent.

Yes, a kid may have had a rough start in life, may be poor, may live in a tough neighborhood, may not have enough to eat, may have to work, may have been abused, may be very angry about all of that . . . it doesn't make him not a kid.

So we've gone from the death penalty, to adolescent neuroscience, to teen incarceration, to racism in our justice system, to racism and the "adultification" of children of color . . . these issues all intersect and overlap in so many ways, painting a picture of a system (systems, really - educational, judicial, correctional . . .) that is flawed and biased and incredibly powerful. As public servants I think it's important to remember the context in which we work, and to recognize our own biases and prejudices.

1 comment:

  1. You did it again...another great post. Again, I agree with you on all counts here...The psychological pieces of the puzzle are great fodder for discussion, though. And great evidence.