Incarcerated youth, the forgotten millennial voters
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National Voter Registration Day falls on September 27 th , kicking off a frenzied push by campaigns all across the country to make sure as many Americans as possible are eligible and prepared to vote.

One voter demographic in particular has received the most attention: millennials. Whether it’s the technologies campaigns are using to reach them, determining which candidates they prefer, or concerns about whether they’ll make it to the polls at all, much energy is spent on this a sizeable and largely untapped voting bloc. But thousands of young people have gone completely unnoticed in this conversation, despite the fact that they often have more at stake in our elections than virtually anyone else: young people in juvenile detention facilities.

Each day, approximately 50,000 youth are incarcerated in our country’s juvenile justice system. Unlike those in adult prisons, these young people still in juvenile detention centers over the age of 18 actually have the right to vote, but most incarcerated youth who are legally eligible never get that opportunity because they are denied the chance to register or request an absentee ballot. And while juvenile detention facilities are supposed to provide educational support so that young people don’t re-enter society farther behind, they often fail to do so. Incarcerated youth end up further disenfranchised and disconnected.

The fact that thousands of citizens will be robbed of their voice on Election Day is not only a crisis for our democracy; it’s also a roadblock to meaningful rehabilitation. Participating in the political process offers young people a chance to reconnect with their communities and develop a sense of purpose and civic duty. Educating young people on the impact of their vote fosters engagement, allowing them to become productive members of society who understand that their choices do matters and can make a difference. And it leads to fairer outcomes, with a greater chance of electing officials who have a stake in improving our country’s ineffective juvenile justice system.

Encouraging voting by juveniles in detention would go a long way to improving a system that is ineffective at best and traumatizing and destructive at worst. It would also help stanch the systematic disenfranchisement of people of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated. Despite similar crime rates across demographic groups, youth of color are much more likely to be incarcerated. According to the Sentencing Project, in six states black youth are more than ten times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. In New Jersey and Connecticut, the incarceration rate for black youth is 24 times higher than for white youth. Native American and Latino youth also face significant disparities.

While the presidential race is front and center in the media, it is actually local and state elections that impact critical policy in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The people with extraordinary power over young people’s lives – the judges who sentence youth, the police and prosecutors who enforce laws, and the politicians who shape the future of juvenile justice facilities and treatment – are elected by local votes. Incarcerated young people face horrific abuse and neglect in youth prisons, and they deserve the chance to weigh in on the issues that profoundly affect their lives.

Youth prisons are an outdated approach to rehabilitation. Too often, this approach includes physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and isolation. Instead of facilitating connection and learning, these facilities tear young people away from the schools, families, and faith communities where they could find the support and services they need to succeed.

The costs of this system on affected young people and their families are clear, but we should all be concerned. Communities would see major benefits from replacing youth prisons with proven rehabilitation and prevention programs closer to home. And every taxpayer would see a major reduction in costs associated with the juvenile justice system if those prisons – which cost billions each year to maintain – were shuttered.

Voters from across the political spectrum can agree that when something is ineffective and expensive, it’s time for a change. We should all vote for change, especially the incarcerated youth most directly impacted. When we talk about engaging millennials in this election, let’s remember to broaden our thinking beyond 20-somethings on smartphones in coffee shops.

Then we’ll be on our way to true representative democracy and a fairer juvenile justice system.

Ryan is the president and CEO of Youth First, a national advocacy campaign to end youth incarceration. Follow Ryan on Twitter @LizRyanYJ. Follow Youth First on Twitter @NoKidsInPrison 


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