More than a century and a half ago, Frederick Douglass famously argued that, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Douglass’s words echo today, with an eerie precision, in youth detention centers and prisons throughout our country. One million children are stuck in America’s juvenile justice system while 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system. These rates far outpace virtually every other country in the world.
To make the transition from punishment to understanding, policymakers will need to build a new skill not always found in our state capitols or halls of congress: Empathy.
On March 1, in states across the country, lawmakers received a dose of just that. People impacted by our broken criminal justice system, from all backgrounds and political affiliations, converged on their state capitols as part of #cut50’s national Day of Empathy.
Families who have lost loved ones to violent crime, formerly incarcerated people, law enforcement leaders, social workers, and advocates met with lawmakers, shared their stories and expressed support for policies that keep families together and communities safe.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of one of those kids locked up in a juvenile detention center. You are a Black boy or girl in a state like New Jersey, where Black youth make up almost a striking 75 percent of those committed to state juvenile facilities, according to a recent report released by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. You made the same mistake as one of your peers but end up behind bars while others are diverted into alternative, community-based programs. You might feel marginalized, forgotten, and lost. If society sees you as irredeemable and disposable, how would you see yourself?
Black and white youth commit similar offenses at about the same rate. But in New Jersey, Black kids are 24 times more likely to be to be committed to a secure juvenile facility than their white counterparts, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project. As a result, New Jersey has the third-highest black-white youth commitment disparity rate in the nation.
New Jersey’s racial disparities reflect a tragic national trend.
Answers exist. We can deal with delinquency without destroying a child’s chances. We should invest in community-based programming with wraparound services that have been proven to work. Instead of putting kids in jail, our default response should be to divert them into programming with intensive counseling, support, rehabilitation, and other alternatives to incarceration.
While the cost to incarcerate one young person per each year in New Jersey is up to an astounding $196,133, or $537.35 per day, investing in a community-based program with wrap-around services -- services proven more effective than incarceration at putting kids back on the right path -- has a daily average cost of $75.
This is where we should be making our investment. And the public agrees. According to a poll recently released by Youth First, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed believe that rehabilitation for youth is preferable to incarceration.
The time has come to offer Black and Brown children the same empathy and resources our courts and justice system have managed to summon for white children for decades.
Over the past three decades, America has become addicted to incarceration and pursued it as a solution to many of our social ills - from mental illness and drug addiction to juvenile misbehavior.
We now hold the shameful title of being the world’s leading incarcerator. If we have any hope of changing this reality, we should start with our children and summon the courage to forgive kids who have made mistakes and help foster the skills they will need to get back on track.
Empathy will allow us to identify the underlying factors that may lead a child to make a grave mistake. It will also be the key to build political will to give them the support they need to get better. Ultimately, we should aspire to build strong children so that there is no need to repair broken men and women.
Together, we can create a country where no child is imprisoned.
Van Jones is co-founder of #cut50 (an initiative that aims to reduce incarceration by 50 percent in 10 years), president of The Dream Corps and a CNN political contributor. He's previously published pieces in USA Today, CNN, among many other publications.
Ryan P. Haygood, one of the nation’s leading civil rights attorneys, is CEO and president of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, whose mission is to empower urban residents through economic justice, a reimagined criminal justice system, and an inclusive democracy. He lives in Newark.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.