The U.S. is the only United Nations member-state except Somalia that has neglected to ratify the UN’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. In February 2001, George W. Bush explicitly objected to its “human rights-based approach”-which, among other things, prohibits prosecuting and incarcerating children as adults because their minds are too immature to form “criminal intent.”
Indeed, the U.S. stands alone in its rush to sentence children to a lifetime in prison without the possibility of parole, and is home to more than 99 percent of youths serving this sentence worldwide. According to a joint 2005 study by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the U.S. had 9,400 prisoners serving life prison terms for crimes committed before the age of 18, of which 2,225 were serving life without parole. Of those, 16 percent were between 13 and 15 years old at the time they committed the crimes for which they were convicted.
More than 100,000 children are currently incarcerated in local detention and state correctional institutions across the country. “Zero tolerance” advocates would have us believe that the number has skyrocketed because our nation is overrun with teenage predators committing an unprecedented number of heinous crimes. But statistics belie this explanation. The murder conviction rate for youths fell from 2,234 in 1990 to 1,006 in 2000, a drop of almost 55 percent. Yet during that same period, the percentage of children receiving sentences of life without parole more than tripled, from 2.9 to 9 percent.
Over the last decade, scores of young children have been handcuffed, arrested, shoved into patrol cars, fingerprinted, jailed and convicted of crimes stemming from incidents as trivial as temper tantrums in kindergarten, schoolyard fights or setting off a fire alarm-which once would have warranted a trip to the principal’s office at worst. Now a six-year-old’s temper tantrum can bring felony charges. Oftentimes, the children’s two wrists are small enough to fit into a single handcuff.
When kindergartner Desre’e Watson of Avon Park, Florida threw a temper tantrum in school last month, she was arrested and charged with battery on a school official (a felony), disruption of a school function and resisting a law enforcement officer (both misdemeanors).
Watson’s arrest is not at all unusual in Florida. Back in December 2000, the St. Petersburg Times reported, “Nowadays, children as young as 6 or 7 are carted off in handcuffs, locked up and saddled with permanent criminal records More than 4,500 kids 11 and under were charged with crimes in Florida during the fiscal year that ended in June.”
The Times continued, “Kids as young as 7 spend the night in detention centers. Kids as young as 10 are sent away for a year or more. And in a very few cases, children enter the justice system at even younger ages, such as a 5-year-old St. Petersburg boy charged this year with burglary; and incredibly, a preschool arson suspect who went through a pretrial diversion program in South Florida at age 3.”
In December 2001, after arresting a 10-year-old autistic fourth grader who disrupted a special education class, the Okaloosa, Florida Sheriff’s Department’s Rick Hord defended his actions, arguing, “[T]here’s no question but that we had all the elements of a felony crime present.”
Not all children are treated equally. Race and class loom large. As the Times noted, “there is a stark difference among arrests of children by race — one that gets sharper as the children get younger.” The young targets of “zero tolerance” arrests nationwide are overwhelmingly Black, Latino and Native American. In 2000, according to the Suffolk University Law School Juvenile Justice Center (JJC), African-American children-who made up just 15 percent of the U.S. juvenile population-were 46 percent of those incarcerated and 52 percent of those whose cases ended up in adult criminal court. Black children are imprisoned at five times the rate of whites, while Latino and Native American children are placed in correctional institutions at two and a half times that of whites.
Fifteen year-old Shaquanda Cotton was released from a Texas prison on March 31st after serving one year of a possible seven-year sentence for shoving a teacher’s aide at her school. Cotton claimed the aide shoved her first, after she attempted to enter the school before the official start time to receive a prescription drug to treat her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder from the school nurse. Three months before Cotton’s conviction for the shoving incident, the same judge sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation after burning down her family home.
These racial disparities are not limited to Southern states. The JJC reported in 2003, “As juvenile crime in Massachusetts has decreased eight years in a row, the rate at which judges are ordering detention of youth increased by 40 percent [T]he proportion of minority youth in total detention admissions has increased annually from 2001, for both boys (from 57 percent to 60 percent in 2003) and girls (from 49 percent to 54 percent).
In April 2005, 11-year-old Maribel Cuevas was involved in a neighborhood squabble and returned a rock that a group of boys threw at her outside her Fresno, California home-hitting 8-year-old Elijah Vang in the forehead. Although Vang’s parents pressed no charges, police arrested the 11-year old and took her to a juvenile detention center for felony assault–holding her for five days before she was released on the condition that she wear an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor her location.
“If this was a middle-class or upper-class neighborhood it would have been a very different outcome,” Rev. Floyd Harris Jr. told reporters after leading a 100- person vigil to support Maribel. “Police don’t have the same respect for people of color in this town.” Martin Cuevas, Maribel’s father, commented, “She will never have trust in the police after what they did to her.” And with good reason.
Parents who fight back against racial injustice often become targets for local police. Last month, 7-year-old Gerard Mungo, Jr. was arrested in East Baltimore for sitting on a motorized dirt bike in front of his home, with the engine off. Dirt bikes are illegal in Baltimore. But, As Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Kane commented, “there’s a Sun article from August, 2002 that says police were stopping commuters who were riding motorized scooters – banned along with dirt bikes in 2000 – and impounding the vehicles. That’s stopping and impounding, not arresting the riders. The arrest was reserved for the 7-year-old black kid from a poor East Baltimore neighborhood.”
Gerard was handcuffed to a bench at the police station for two hours while his bike-which his parents gave him just days earlier for his seventh birthday-was confiscated.
Less than two weeks later, Gerard’s mom, Lakisa Dinkins, was arrested under dubious circumstances. Gerard told reporters as he waited for her release, “They took my mama because I was on TV.” The boy is too young to understand that his mother was targeted for defending his rights. She had the audacity to ask for the arresting officer’s supervisor to approve of the arrest (he did). And just hours before her own arrest, 100 activists had staged a protest against the boy’s arrest outside her home. That same afternoon, police broke down the door of Dinkins’ sister’s home, allegedly searching for “a drug suspect.” No drugs were found, but police nevertheless gathered all 11 family members into the living room for further interrogation. Apparently, one of the officers recognized Gerard’s mother. She heard him tell his supervisor ‘I have the woman whose 7-year-old was arrested for sitting on the bike,'” she said. “Then they arrested me.”
Dinkins was not charged with a crime. Such tactics are designed to intimate activists, yet they seem to have had the opposite effect in this case. “If they want war, they’ll have war,” Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told reporters as he waited for Dinkins’ release from jail. “If this is our Rosa Parks incident, what it takes to wake people up, then so be it.”
SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org