The War on Kids:
How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way
In The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way, law professor Cara H. Drinan draws on both academic research and first-hand, personal accounts to expose the oppressive system that funnels our nation’s most vulnerable children and youth into prisons. More than one million kids are arrested every year across the country (4), and nearly 100,000 of them will be incarcerated alongside adults (73).
Although she writes as a legal scholar, Drinan manages to provide readers with a straightforward and accessible analysis of the complex matrix of legislation, case law, and legal procedures that make up the current landscape of American juvenile justice. She also draws upon the “personal experiences” of “individuals who were sent to prison as juveniles” in order to flesh out the human dimension of the crisis (xi).
The book begins by charting America’s trajectory from “pioneer” of juvenile courts to international juvenile justice “pariah” (12). The juvenile court system was invented in the United States in the late 1800s, “premised on the notion that childhood is a period of dependency and risk” and that the state thus has an obligation to assist children who come into conflict with the law “by providing social services” that would facilitate their rehabilitation (4). This approach shaped the development of similar systems around the world, and it is supported by modern psychological research demonstrating that “children are both less culpable for their crimes and more amenable to reform than adults” (7).
Yet in a fairly short amount of time, several factors coalesced to create a situation in which the United States became “the world’s largest jailer, sending more people to prison… for longer periods” than any other nation on earth (23), and imposing harsher sentences on children than anywhere else in the developed world (4). Until 2005, we were “the only developed country that subjected children to the death penalty, and today we are the only nation” sentencing minors to serve life in prison without parole (4).
The pendulum swing toward harsher sentencing practices for children during the late twentieth century parallels a shift in the American criminal justice system as a whole, toward a “posture of fear and containment” that manifests in “generally applicable tough-on-crime policies” (19). Specifically, Drinan notes a trend toward “determinate sentencing schemes” in which judges’ discretion to evaluate the specific crimes and circumstances of the defendants in front of them and to impose individualized sentences is often replaced by one-size-fits-all legislation that imposes mandatory minimum sentences and “three strike” rules. She explains that these predetermined sentences are legislated with adults in mind, but criminal offenders under the age of eighteen are often exposed to the same harsh sentences because of “juvenile transfer laws” that allow (or in certain cases, require) children as young as six to be tried as adults (20).
Against this political and legal backdrop, Drinan then delves into the tragic stories of individual children to demonstrate the ways that “race, poverty, exposure to violence in the home, and having an incarcerated parent” effectively place many children “on a trajectory toward crime” almost from birth (29). Growing up in an impoverished family increases the likelihood of delinquency, and in some cases, statistically guarantees it. Disturbingly, the current “needs-based delinquency” model also means that “children from low-income homes do not have to be as ‘guilty’ as those from families of means to enter and remain in the juvenile justice system” (33). Discrimination on the basis of race is evident as well: Drinan points out that “in some cities, black Americans are arrested at 10 times the rate of non-black citizens” (38).
Readers might easily be able to keep incarcerated children at arm’s length amid the rather academic policy analysis and the shocking but impersonal statistics Drinan offers throughout the first three chapters of her book. Yet her emotional fourth chapter on “life while down” grounds the book in gut-wrenching personal narratives of individuals who were incarcerated as juveniles (66). These inmates’ letters to Drinan expose the stark realities of day-to-day prison life for children who find themselves behind bars: a nightmare in which survival often means choosing between victimization or using violence themselves. It took a considerable effort to force myself to read the disturbing accounts of prison rape, a virtually unavoidable rite of passage for juvenile offenders entering adult prisons. Everything in me wanted to put the book down rather than sob my way through the story of a teenage inmate committing suicide in solitary confinement as fellow prisoners in nearby cells screamed for help that never came. So often, it is easier to look away from suffering than to do the hard work of bearing witness; entering in; facing the responsibilities that awareness brings with it. Yet these stories–these children–cry out for our attention, and our response.
Drinan spends the last three chapters of her book pointing to heartening signs of much-needed reform in the juvenile justice system, explaining the urgent work that remains to be done, and laying out a roadmap for how to restore the juvenile justice system to its original purpose of protecting vulnerable children and equipping them to live well in society.
Delving into an enlightening analysis of such issues as the school to prison pipeline and racial disparities in rates of incarceration, The War on Kids is a timely read for any American Christian who wants to engage with the most pressing social issues of our day. As a Christ follower longing to bring the justice of God’s kingdom into being, I was deeply compelled by Drinan’s call to actively wage “a war for kids” (133) in order to replace our current “punitive, counterproductive” system with one that does right by the most vulnerable members of our society: children who have grown up in an environment of poverty and abuse (154). As scripture makes clear, our response to these children constitutes our response to Jesus himself. And as Drinan argues, caring for them ultimately challenges us to move beyond “legal and policy questions” to the heart of the gospel, countering “the politics of fear” with “a vision of inclusion and redemption” (157).
Trudy Taylor Smith lives with her husband in Vancouver, BC, where she works as a legal assistant at Community Legal Assistance Society and the BC Human Rights Clinic. She is the author of God in Disguise, a memoir about living in a Muslim slum in India, and she blogs about faith, justice, and culture at trudydsmith.com.