Black youth are four times as likely as their white peers to be incarcerated

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America prefers to punish
rather than to provide care

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

22 March 2008: An African-America boy born in the US in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime.  A Latino boy has a 1 in 6 chance. These statistics are from a report America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline by the Children’s Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that encourages preventive investment in youth and families before problems occur.  The report blames America’s disproportionate investment in punishment rather than prevention for trapping many children in a trajectory that leads to marginalized lives and imprisonment.

Speaking of at-risk youth in the US, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund, says, “We choose to punish and lock them up rather than take the necessary more cost-effective steps to prevent and intervene early to ensure… they reach successful adulthood.”

The risks for youth
Every day in the US:
2,383 children are confirmed as abused or neglected
2,411 babies are born into poverty
2,494 babies are born to mothers who are not high school graduates
4,017 babies are born to unmarried mothers
4,302 children are arrested

American children born and raised in these conditions frequently face additional obstacles such as lack of access to medical and mental health care; failing schools; neighborhoods saturated with drugs and violence; zero-tolerance arrest and sentencing guidelines; too few positive alternatives to the violent street life; a national culture that glorifies excessive consumption, individualism, violence, and triviality; and rampant economic and racial disparities in child and youth serving systems. 

The cumulative effects are staggering.  Thirteen million children in the US live in poverty.  Nine million children have no health insurance.  Only 14 per cent of Black and 17 per cent of Latino fourth-graders are reading at grade level.  Three thousand children and teens are killed by firearms each year.  Nearly three million Americans (or about 1 in 99) are incarcerated.  

The Children’s Defense Fund’s report illustrates how risks and disadvantages can accumulate and converge in America.  This can make a successful transition from youth to adulthood less likely and involvement in the criminal justice system, or premature death, more likely. 

Poor children are 22 times more likely to be abused than middle-class children, and adults who were abused as children are more likely to be incarcerated.  Children who spend years in the foster care system are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.  A child with an incarcerated parent is six to nine times as likely as a child whose parent was not incarcerated to become incarcerated himself.

The risks of entering the cradle to prison pipeline fall disproportionately on African-American and Latino children.  As the report states, “The most dangerous place for a child to try to grow up in America is at the intersection of race and poverty.”

One in three Latino babies and two in four Black babies are born into poverty.  Black children are three times as likely as white children to be born into poverty and grow up poor.  Black youth are four times as likely as their white peers to be incarcerated, and five times as likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses. 

Moreover, most at-risk Black and Latino youth live in central cities and become the responsibility of mayors.

Mayoral responses
US mayors are among the most vocal advocates for children.  The 3,000 mayors and local elected officials who comprise the US Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities united in 2008 to call for more federal investment in affordable housing, public safety, job training, children’s health insurance, quality after-school programming, prisoner re-entry programs, and youth services. 

During the Bush administration, the number of poor Latino children increased by more than 500,000, and poor Black children increased 150,000. 

“High school dropout rates in some cities are as high as 50%,” said Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami, Florida, “and the youth unemployment rate is at its highest level in decades.”

Many US mayors and their partners are experimenting with innovative local programs to help at-risk youth.

Tulsa, Oklahoma Mayor Kathryn Taylor began a high school dropout intervention program called the “Youth Intervention Project”.  The program has lead to the creation of 18 new after-school programs and the hiring of 300 mentors for students.  Every student who graduates from high school in Tulsa with a passing grade receives free two-year college tuition and free books.  Every two-year college graduate with acceptable academic performance is eligible to receive free tuition to a four-year college.  

In the Bronx, a borough of New York City, an organization called “Sustainable South Bronx” provides environmental restoration job training to poor youth.  Students learn “green collar” skills such as managing the urban forest for energy conservation; crime prevention through environmental design; safely cleaning up contaminated land; and green roof installation.

Minneapolis, Minnesota Mayor R.T. Rybak has assembled a broad-based community group focusing on four key areas: adult mentoring of at-risk youth; early intervention when problems first arise; not abandoning but trying to rehabilitate youth with a history of violence; and a general campaign to “unlearn” violence throughout the community.  Mayor Rybak intends to create a portable model for other cities to follow.

Prevention before punishment
The Children’s Defense Fund’s report, America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline, calls for new federal investment in education, housing, preventive health care, and preventive family services. The report notes that the current emphasis on punishment is much more expensive than prevention.  For example, the US now spends on average three times as much per prisoner as per public school student. 

The Children’s Defense Fund estimates it would cost US $75 billion to lift every American child from poverty by 2015 and ensure a safe, secure, productive environment for every American child and family.  While $75 billion is a lot of money, the report notes that repealing the Bush administration’s tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans would provide $57 billion, and the war in Iraq has already cost the US $450 billion through 2007.

Marian Wright Edelman concludes, “We do not have a money problem in this country.  We have a profound values problem.” 

• Includes reporting from US Mayor, the official publication of the United States Conference of Mayors
• The America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline report is available at

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