Malcolm Lloyd worked for five years as a staff and juvenile investigator at the Orleans Public Defenders office in New Orleans, Louisiana. All names and key facts have been modified to protect the identities of the children involved in the cases reported.
Michael was 16 years old and had been charged with first degree murder. Michael was Black, and his family had struggled to make ends meet. He faced a sentence of life without parole if the Jim Crow jury (referring to juries that make non-unanimous convictions) found him guilty. Prosecutors recommended Michael be incarcerated pretrial in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), not the juvenile jail known as the “Youth Study Center.” I first met Michael when I represented him as a staff investigator at the public defenders’ office in New Orleans. Citing Michael’s age and “mental health” issues (years of abuse and criminalization from family, teachers, and police), the sheriff transferred Michael upriver to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, the “mental health” prison. Thirty petrochemical plants surround this prison located along a strip of the Mississippi River labeled Cancer Alley for the high cancer rates shown to correlate with air pollution levels. Far from his family and legal team, Michael was confined to 24-hour lockdown; prison guards said this was necessary for “his own protection.” Again, they cited his vulnerable age and “mental health condition” as reasons for subjecting him to solitary confinement.
Unsurprisingly, solitary confinement neither helped Michael heal from his trauma nor kept him safe. One day, Michael jumped head first from his top bunk bed onto the concrete floor. A short time later, our legal team at the public defenders got the charges dismissed due to insufficient and misrepresented facts in the arrest warrant hastily secured by the New Orleans Police Department detective. Michael went home to survive and fight another day. What happened to Michael in the criminal punishment bureaucracy was neither unique nor inevitable. Rather, what happened to Michael was an example of everyday violence and is emblematic of how we treat poor children and children of color in our “justice” system.
Every day, an estimated 36,000 kids are incarcerated in jails, detention centers, and prisons. Black and Native American children are disproportionately locked up, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Even though Black children make up only 14 percent of all kids under 18 in our country, they make up 42 and 35 percent, respectively, of all incarcerated boys and girls. African American children are five times more likely, and Native American children three times more likely, to be incarcerated than white children. Native American girls are “extremely overrepresented relative to their share of the total youth population.”1
Prosecutors regularly charge poor children and children of color with adult felonies carrying mandatory minimums and enhanced decades-long sentences, as recently documented in Florida. Prosecutors and judges regularly ask for pretrial incarceration of children in juvenile and adult jails. Prosecutors regularly seek life without parole sentences against Black and brown children. Given that the U.N. Convention of the Rights of Children prohibits the death penalty and life without parole sentences for children, it should not be a surprise that the United States remains the only member state not to have ratified the convention. Even though the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for children in 2005, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, “The U.S. is the only country where children as young as 13 [have been] sentenced to die in prison,” and 70 percent of children under 14 who were serving life without parole sentences in 2008 were found to be children of color. While dozens of states have banned life without parole for juveniles, 19 states still allow it (for the crime of murder), and the Supreme Court in 2021 ruled against restrictions on life without parole sentences.
We are told we have a juvenile crime problem, just as we are told we have a crime problem more generally. Equal Justice Initiative founder and attorney Bryan Stevenson explains in his book Just Mercy how the U.S. came to develop such a harsh system of “justice” for youngsters and traces the system’s origin back to the law-and-order politics of the last few decades:
“By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the politics of fear and anger sweeping the country and fueling mass incarceration was turning its attention to children. Influential criminologists predicted a coming wave of ‘super predators’ with whom the juvenile justice system would be unable to cope. Sometimes expressly focusing on black and brown children, theorists suggested that America would soon be overcome by ‘elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches’ and who ‘have absolutely no respect for human life.’ Panic over the impending crime wave expected from these ‘radically impulsive, brutally remorseless’ children led nearly every state to enact legislation that increased the exposure of children to adult prosecution. Many states lowered or eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults, leaving children as young as eight vulnerable to adult prosecution and imprisonment.”
We are regularly told by local newscasters to lock our doors, pray for crime victims, and appeal to our local officials to keep citizens of our crumbling cities safe from petty thefts, car jackings, shootings, murders, and rapes by youngsters. Night in and out this is repeated. On some level, this might seem to make sense. The crimes listed do cause real and serious harm to people every day. Who among us doesn’t want to be safe?
But civil rights attorney and copaganda expert Alec Karakatsanis explains that pro-law enforcement news media promotes a very specific narrative of fear around crime which has little to do with overall public safety:
“[T]he greatest threats (in terms of the volume of news stories) are portrayed as the low-level crimes of the poor. … What the media treats as urgent helps to determine what the public thinks is urgent. It shapes what (and who) we are afraid of.”
In the U.S., we are made afraid, in particular, of Black youth, who are heavily surveilled and criminalized in schools and on the streets and killed by police at six times the rate of white children.2
And yet, according to the Department of Justice, juvenile arrests in 2019 were at their lowest levels since at least the 1980s. As the Sentencing Project points out, “inflammatory rhetoric” from leaders and politicians about a spike in violence of those under 18 (especially carjackings) since the start of the pandemic has been disproven by the data. However, none of this is newsworthy because it does not support our traditional narrative calling for more police and law enforcement.
Christopher was 15, did not look people in the eye, and was charged with armed robbery. If convicted, he faced a sentence of 10 to 99 years. As a general practice in New Orleans from 2011-2015, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro (who left office in 2021) used to charge over 80 percent of eligible 15 and 16 year olds with adult felony charges. I visited Chris when he was incarcerated in Orleans Parish Prison. Chris was 5 feet, 4 inches and weighed less than 100 pounds. He wore a musty and oversized orange jumpsuit. When we spoke together in the putrid-smelling visitation booth, his jumpsuit rubbed up against his ears because he couldn’t fill it out. Chris always said “yes sir,” “thank you,” and never raised his voice. Chris was also Black, and his family had no money to bail him out of jail. The state accused him of stealing a beat-up Nissan Altima from a rich white high school girl on the science team at the nearby private high school. She had a future worth protecting. No gun was reported seen or found as evidence. The New Orleans Police Department found the Altima a few blocks away from the scene.
During Chris’ prosecution, the state prosecutor successfully excluded traumatic and many other mitigating life experiences from being effectively considered in his sentence reduction proposal. At 9 years of age, Chris had been molested by a 14-year-old cousin. The state prosecuted and convicted his cousin at that time with second-degree rape and shipped him upstate. Could Chris simultaneously be a victim and perpetrator? The judge didn’t want to hear it. To the state and the judge, Chris was an adult—a criminal—and not a survivor. During Chris’ brief journey through the New Orleans charter school system, no educator or legal or medical professional ever recommended trauma therapy for him.
In the end, the judge gave Chris 10 years hard labor and shipped him upstate to prison. The white girl got a new BMW SUV.
An incarcerated child who is not a survivor of sexual, physical, or psychological abuse is an exception to the rule. As the Equal Justice Initiative has reported, young children subjected to the harshest criminal sentencing have often experienced abuse and abandonment; they come from families afflicted by the instability brought on by drug or alcohol addiction; and they have grown up in poor, violent, and resource-starved communities. The violence perpetrated on children by adults, often from their own immediate family or within their community, stays with them forever.
Even considering youth who are not incarcerated, we don’t like to talk about any of the various adverse childhood experiences impacting the nation’s children. We don’t like to talk about the uncomfortable, yet endemic, issue of child sexual abuse, a type of everyday violence that impacts the lives of children and families across racial, class, and gender lines. We are not told that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys are survivors of sexual abuse. Given the stigmatization and continued violence children face in reporting assaults, these numbers have always been significant underestimates. Girls of color and Native American girls suffer the highest rates of violence and sexual abuse. Children and adults live with the horrors of child sexual abuse for their entire lives.
Our child poverty problem is equally concerning: it is the highest in the industrialized world. More than 10 million children, nearly 1 in 7, live in desperate poverty in segregated neighborhoods across our country. Over 70 percent of children in poverty are children of color. Institutional racism has led to income and wealth inequality and disparate health outcomes for people of color compared to white people. And despite an oversupply of food produced in our country, 14 million children, 1 in 7, live with hunger.
Anyone concerned with juvenile crime, then, needs to consider all of these social problems. As Karakatsanis points out,
“Crime is a heavily politicized concept, but the root causes have to do with all of the ways in which our society destroys the bonds between human beings: things like access to housing, early childhood education, inequality, poverty, mental illness. These are the causes of crime, by and large.”
Stevenson points out that juvenile crime and culpability has to be thought about in light of modern scientific findings about the immaturity of the developing teenage brain and the vulnerability of young people to the effects of adverse childhood experiences:
“Contemporary neurological, psychological, and sociological evidence has established that children are impaired by immature judgment, an underdeveloped capacity for self-regulation and responsibility, vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, and a lack of control over their own impulses and their environment. … Young teens lack the maturity, independence, and future orientation that adults have acquired. … When these basic deficits that burden all children are combined with the environments that some poor children experience—environments marked by abuse, violence, dysfunction, … adolescence can leave kids vulnerable to the sort of extremely poor decision making that results in tragic violence.”
Thus, social inequalities and youth vulnerabilities help us to understand another important point which is made by law professor Allegra McLeod in “An Abolitionist Critique of Violence”: “Entrenched racialized inequality and poverty predict premature death caused by interpersonal violence.”
God forbid quality food, housing, employment, and education were recognized as human and community rights, as they are in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.
I once represented a 15-year-old boy named Kareem. Kareem was Black and grew up living in a dilapidated house with his younger brother. His parents had left a year before. Kareem stole to feed and provide for his brother, who had just started middle school. One day, Kareem was riding his bike and saw a woman pulling out of her driveway. He rode up to her, pointed a gun, and demanded her purse. Kareem neither got the purse nor made it far before the police picked him up. I met Kareem in Orleans Parish Prison before he was forced to plead out. He faced 99 years if found guilty by a Jim Crow jury. The judge sentenced Kareem to the mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years hard labor. The judge told him to be grateful.
While Kareem was in jail, he was evaluated for mental illness and intellectual disabilities. During this brief “mental health” evaluation, Kareem did not speak to the court appointed psychologist. As a result, these medical providers, the newest in a line of irresponsible and underpaid medical providers who conducted “testing” on him, labeled Kareem defiant and misdiagnosed him with schizoaffective disorder. In their good judgment, they prescribed him powerful antipsychotic medications whose side effects are myriad: obesity, changes in hormone levels, and involuntary movement disorders such as tardive dyskinesia, among others. The drugs did not heal Kareem from years of trauma. The drugs kept him incapacitated throughout the day, which was the intended effect.
Sometime after the judge handed out his sentence, I visited Kareem, then 17, upriver at Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana. Kareem was set to “graduate” from the “Youthful Offender Program.” Touted as a successful reform by retrograde conservatives and careerist liberals alike—the state corrections department notes that the program involves: “education, mental health therapy, religious programming, recreation, and discipline”—the program actually consisted of a prison dorm with no air conditioning and old moldy prison beds. A broken cabinet offered the kids a few donated and tattered books—the books were for elementary school-aged children. Keep in mind that many incarcerated men, denied the right to vote and access to books and legal documents, suffer incredibly high rates of illiteracy.
As a graduation present, prison administrators transferred Kareem from the Youthful Offender Program to adult state prison, where he was subjected to assaults, labor exploitation, and other degradations by guards and inmates twice his age. I will never forget the generosity of the prison guard who showed us around the facility.
The prison guard: “The boys get a toilet roll to last the month.”
Witnesses (Us): “What?”
The prison guard: “They ask for more, but they’re always trying to pull one on you.”
The consequences of incarceration on kids are often life shattering. Children serving time in adult local and state jails and prisons are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than children in juvenile detention centers. Solan Peterson, a 13-year-old boy from Shreveport, hung himself in 2019 after being incarcerated in Ware Youth Correctional in Coushatta, Louisiana. Just two days before Solan took his own life, another boy committed suicide in the same youth prison. The New York Times just reported on the “pervasive despair” among youth at Ware and a horrific story of decades-long sexual abuse of children and dozens of youth suicide attempts in recent years.
Adults formerly incarcerated as children also have worse long-term life outcomes than those who were never incarcerated.
Jalen was 15 and incarcerated inside Orleans Parish Prison. He was charged with first-degree murder carrying a life without parole sentence. If found guilty, he would die at Angola, the 18,000-acre maximum security prison that was once a slave plantation. The Supreme Court had already ruled that life without parole convictions for children amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and were functionally equivalent to our death penalty. Despite this fact, Louisiana district attorneys continued to make this Jim Crow sentencing regime a regular practice imposed on Black children. Jalen was one such child.
After our legal visits in a foul-smelling visitation room, I’d cracked a bad joke to lighten the mood. Jalen would smirk through the side of his mouth, make fun of me, and we’d laugh together. In his cell, Jalen drew cartoon characters, his favorite music artists, and exact replicas of Air Jordans on the damp loose leaf jail notebook sheriff deputies gave him for his “educational studies.” In a shy but proud way, he’d exhibit his drawings to me during our visits.
Back on the juvenile tier, Jalen’s friend Shawn tried to hang himself one night. Only feet away, Jalen listened helplessly to the incident. Shawn was quickly bussed away to a “mental health” facility in Northern Louisiana. Jalen was left alone.
Sometime later, I went to see Jalen at OPP. We talked through his case. During a pause, I looked down at Jalen’s left forearm. J-A-L. “What is that?” I asked him. After a long pause, he responded, “I’m tattooing my name.” The scar tissue was a quarter inch thick across his forearm.
“What are you doing that with?” I asked.
“My pencil eraser. I crushed the metal end.”
“Jalen, I don’t want you to do that to yourself anymore. Your family cares about you, we care about you, you have people who love you.”
A year later, Jalen pled guilty to 15 years hard labor. He never finished tattooing his name.
In the mid-1800s, the state of Louisiana used to auction children born to enslaved incarcerated Black mothers at Louisiana State Penitentiary. They sent the sale proceeds to the “free school fund” to finance the white public school system in Louisiana. We’re taught that racial apartheid ended with the Civil War, but slavery is still going on in this country. Plantation prisons across the South continue to run as commercial operations, as seen with the Louisiana Prison Enterprises, and enforce draconian prisoner labor regimes in an effort to sell the agricultural and commercial goods on the private market.
In 2014, the city of New Orleans decided to reform its decrepit juvenile justice system and built the Youth Study Center directly across from the oldest Black public high school (now a charter school) which is named after John McDonogh, a white supremacist slave trader and profiteer. The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) currently sends incarcerated Black children to Angola and trades incarcerated Black children with penal contracts, sending them across state lines to juvenile detention facilities in Alabama and Mississippi. Just this fall, Louisiana State Senator Patrick Connick praised the transfer of Black teenagers from a juvenile facility to the newly retrofitted death row unit at Louisiana State Penitentiary as an opportunity that gives “juveniles who want to change their lives a chance to do so.”
In New Orleans, some call for better crime data analytics, and the city council recently approved the use of facial recognition technology by police. These are just the latest costly and invasive efforts to control crime. From 2012-2018, the city of New Orleans worked with Palantir Technologies, a company that has worked with the CIA and U.S. military, “to analyze crime data as part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s murder reduction program.” The company uses “predictive technologies,” which have been called into question by the U.N. for their potential to “reproduce and reinforce already existing biases and lead to even more discriminatory practices.”
Others in local government and business want to address crime by giving police more money and having “private and philanthropic sectors” fund youth services. District Attorney Jason Williams continues to try children as adults despite having campaigned on a promise of “progressive reform.” Mayor Latoya Cantrell, who is currently facing a recall campaign, is responding to “growing political pressure amid increasing police response times to pandemic-era crime hikes” and announced an “$80 million plan to bolster a depleted New Orleans police,” the agents responsible for cycling Black children through the criminal justice system.
More police means more arrests and incarceration. More money spent on police ultimately redirects funds that could otherwise be spent on desperately needed infrastructure, resources, and community services.
We need to think differently about our approach to violence. To quote McLeod again:
“An abolitionist critique of violence begins from the premise that, in order to stop violence, we must expand our understanding of violence beyond individualized disorder and the immediate scene of interpersonal harm. Consequently, an abolitionist critique of violence focuses on the racialized political, economic, militarist, and environmental roots and manifestations of violence.”
Quoting a community organizer, McLeod notes:
“Safety does not mean more police in our communities. Safety means a community full of resources and opportunity. … Safety means having basic needs met like health security, food security, job security, universal healthcare. Remember issues like poverty and violence are created.”
Thus, it should come as no surprise that “tough on crime” policies, which do not get to the roots of violence, actually lead to more crime and more societal harm.
Poor children and children of color live in a kind of apartheid. Environmental racism exposes children to pollution and other hazards. It’s no coincidence that cities with large numbers of children of color have the largest share of students attending charter schools: public schools are being abolished for the most vulnerable, as they have been in New Orleans. Charter schools, which often enforce zero-tolerance discipline policies, hire school police (“resource officers”) over trauma therapists, and spend large portions of their budgets on data collection, more closely resemble prisons and warehouses than community-led spaces of safety, healing, or self-empowerment. Education itself will not solve systemic issues of racism, patriarchy, and wealth inequality—especially not when, increasingly, schools have adopted these carceral strategies of discipline leading to what is called the school-to-prison pipeline.
Listen to our community advocates. Advocacy groups such as No Kids in Prison demand the immediate closure and repurposing of juvenile jails and prisons, divestment in policing and carceral practices and institutions, investment in schools, community infrastructure and services, restorative justice and mentoring programs, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Pushing us on the issue of prison abolition and community justice, Angela Y. Davis challenges us to think expansively in her seminal work Are Prisons Obsolete?:
“Rather than try to imagine one single alternative to the existing system of incarceration, we might envision an array of alternatives that will require radical transformations of many aspects of our society. Alternatives that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the final analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition.”
On the ground, campaigns like “Let Kids be Kids,” by the Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), advocate for broad mental health, educational, and poverty alleviation programs to address the criminalization and impoverishment of low income Black children in Louisiana. Specific policy recommendations range from decriminalizing housing laws, to raising the minimum wage to $15 dollars, investing in trauma-informed schools and instruction, creating summer employment, and the hiring of trauma-informed social workers and teachers. Expanding this redistributive program further, broad coalitions are needed to end corporate tax welfare, such as Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, which subsidizes corporations to destroy our environment, shorten life, and steal public lands and critical funds for infrastructure and services for low income and working people.
The criminalization of the poor and Black and brown children, which has become part of our never-ending quest for law and order, gives the middle class a sense of security and holier-than-thou comfort. For those individuals like police, prosecutors, or social workers who are more closely engaged, the criminalization of children provides a stable, if modest, paycheck. Children, on the other hand, are left to suffer.
God forbid our cities have equitable services or honest appraisals of the past.
Pray for the least among us, for the children, for the hungry, homeless, incarcerated, and alone.
And what of the migrant children incarcerated in immigration prisons, forcibly separated from their parents, suffering in facilities in extreme temperatures? According to a 2022 POLITICO investigation, 1 in 3 migrant detainees from February 2017 to June 2021 have been under 18 years of age. More than 650,000 children and teenagers have been detained in this time. Government attorneys once argued that these children were undeserving of personal hygiene items like soap or toothbrushes. ↩
Children of color have also been assaulted in various ways by police. As reported on by civil rights attorney Mary Howell, in the 1990s, the New Orleans Police Department sexually assaulted teenagers by doing rectal exams during racist “broken window” style corner stick ups. More recently, in 2020, police stripped-searched a 16-year-old Black teen and his older brother during a traffic stop. The incident was caught on video. Additionally, the Louisiana State Police is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice for concerns over “excessive use of force” and “racially discriminatory policing.” ↩