Black Boys in Crisis: Fixing the Faulty Justice System

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

The story of Kalief Browder caught the attention of the nation. In January 2016, then President Obama used his story as an opener for an article in the Washington Post entitled “Why We Must Rethink Solitary Confinement,” in which he said, “The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society.”

Following Browder’s death, Obama commissioned a Justice Department review into the practice of solitary confinement, and adopted a number of their recommendations, including: “banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells.”

Obama’s directive should be lauded, but much more needs to be done to tackle the incarceration of black boys. First, financial incentives should be removed from the law enforcement and justice system. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it remains a deeply troubling aspect of the American way of doing justice. As an example, in 2009, two Pennsylvania judges, Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr., and Michael T. Conahan were indicted in the so-called “kids for cash” scandal. The judges had taken more than two and a half million dollars in kickbacks from a private Pennsylvanian juvenile care facility.

Because the facility was for-profit, they stood to gain financially if they received higher numbers of young defenders. Judge Conahan had initially secured the contracts for the private facilities, in tandem with shutting down the state-run facility. Judge Ciavarella was involved in actually sentencing the juveniles. He was known to deliver unusually harsh sentences, sending youth to detention for issues as trivial as trespassing in unused building and mocking a school employee on Myspace. He sent kids to detention at a vastly higher rate than other areas in the state.

Though judges Conahan and Ciavarella, as well as the operators of the detention centers, were indicted, the root of the problem is, of course, the privatization of the judicial system. Private, for-profit prisons make money based on the number of inmates they have. If inmates are a commodity, it is natural that the system will be abused.

A parallel issue is the for-profit nature of the law-enforcement system. For example, in New York City, police officers are given quotas of the number of arrests and summonses they must make per month. As they are often sent to solidly African-American neighborhoods, this amounts to racism. When some minority cops protested, they were “routinely denied overtime and vacation, demoted to menial posts and ultimately threatened with being fired for not making quotas.” Until this financial incentive to arrest black boys is removed, it will become tough to lower the rate at which they are incarcerated. These are issues that will have to be tackled at the highest political levels.

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