Private facilities not the answer for juvenile justice

December 28, 2010

I was very excited to see the article "The failure of 'baby booking'" (Dec. 29), hoping it would address some of systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system in this state. Upon reading the article, however, I was disappointed. The systemic "failure" that is the primary concern for Michael Nakan is the failure of the system of operate in an economically efficient manner, not the more important failure of the system to properly care for, educate and protect the incarcerated youth of this city.

While no one would defend the inefficacy of the status quo in terms of processing time, the "solutions" Mr. Nakan offered, more private residential treatment facilities and electronic monitoring, are only solutions from the limited economic perspective that serves as his starting point. Commentators from the University of California Irvine's Dylan Rodriguez to filmmaker Michael Moore have noted the perverse incentives privatized corrections facilities have to provide the bare minimum for those incarcerated there, eschewing the comprehensive rehabilitation that is the only true solution to the recidivism problem that not only places (predominately black) youth in a cycle of poverty but also assures even more public expenditure on the criminal justice system.

Even Mr. Nakan's more "benign" option of putting more kids on "the box" fails from this perspective; what difference does it make if a kid plays X-Box in baby booking or locked in their room, or for that matter whether we build new $107 million dollar prisons or renovate old ones, kids are still are not getting the positive engagement needed to be sure they don't end up back in jail. Pieces like these serve as little more than intellectual slight of hand distracting the public from the systemic poverty, institutional racism and not-so-benign neglect that is the true answer to Mr. Nakan's question "why so much violence"?

His notion of bad apples corrupting the good is a massive oversimplification, and as someone raised on the West Side of Baltimore City, the question itself seems odd, because from my perspective the answer is all around me, found in the glimmer of blue lights and the chopping of police helicopters. I can't help but propose counter questions: When you treat someone like a criminal their whole lives, why are you surprised when they become one, and how can you expect anything other than physical violence from people whose lives are defined by the institutional violence done to them everyday?

These are only mysteries to those who have never faced or come to grips with the reality faced by the urban subalterns of this city, which brings me to my final complaint with this piece, that The Sun chose to privilege the voice of a Hopkins freshman (from London no less) over the myriad local commentators qualified to comment on the status of the local juvenile justice system, those who have actually engaged with and experienced these conditions and realities. I fear The Sun may be contributing the institutional limiting of discourse on the American prison system, accepting voices that operate within the dominant narrative as opposed to recognizing that Baltimore, of all cities, proves the systemic failure of that narrative, and accepting the limiting economic-based framing that views fundamental issues such as the mind, bodies and souls of children and communities as little more than "economic externalities," outliers to be explained away in an attempt to breathe life into a dying school of thought.

Lawrence Grandpre, Baltimore

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