Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. She directs the Criminalization of Poverty Project there. She recently published “The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.”
I leave work early every day. I race to pick up my daughter from her high school promptly at 5 p.m. I’m never late — not even by a minute. I want to be at the door of the school before she emerges out into the U Street District. That D.C. neighborhood isn’t particularly dangerous, but my child and her classmates are presumed to be.
They are children of color and their innocence is not presumed. There is no room for childish mistakes for them. There is no carefree lingering with a group of peers on the street corner outside the school. There is no mischief-making running down the street after one another. The cops are there, watching. One slip-up could mean handcuffs or worse.
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If you are black, if you are Latino, or if you are poor, it is your guilt rather than your innocence that is presumed — not just in court but at school, on the street, in the stores and everywhere else you go. The Equal Justice Initiative argues that the presumption of guilt is so prevalent for poor children and children of color that their parents fear the schools as much as they do the criminal justice system.
My own fear as the parent of a mixed-race child is compounded by the stories and statistics. In my work, I talk to mothers of incarcerated youths and study the criminalization of poverty. The families I speak to are poor, and many come from communities of color. Their kids’ first experience with the criminal justice system may be for something as inconsequential as asking another student for lunch money or talking back to a teacher. These families are often without resources to navigate the system or to afford adequate legal help.
In 2014, the American Psychological Society conducted a study that showed police nationwide view black boys to be older and “less innocent” than their white peers. Suspension and expulsion rates for black children are three times higher than that of their white peers, and although white teens are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, black and Latino teens are between three and four times as likely to be arrested and incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.
The vast majority of youths in pretrial juvenile detention have been arrested for nonviolent offenses. Many of the minority children who are disproportionately detained have done nothing more than throw a temper tantrum, break a pencil or wear the wrong color socks. Yet the research shows that detention facility conditions are like that of jail and adult prison, exposing youths to violence and injury, often treating them as violent, adult offenders.
“Zero tolerance” policies, juvenile detention and incarceration are part of a highly punitive system that views these young people as guilty until proven innocent. Zero Tolerance policies followed in the wake of the myth of the “superpredator,” imagined by some social scientists like John Dilulio in the 1990s as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches.” The explicit and implicit bias against black youths went into overdrive. Police were sent to patrol the hallways of poor, minority-majority schools, and any presumption of innocence — if it had existed to begin with — was gone.
Poverty and race may also deny adults the presumption of innocence. Drug testing is mandated for receiving welfare assistance in 14 states and has been proposed in 19 more. In the wake of the Great Recession, some police departments have replaced public safety goals with goals of revenue generation. In high-poverty areas such as Ferguson, Mo., poor people are turned into targets for police and municipal courts looking to bolster budget deficits. For homeless people, routine behavior like eating, sitting, sleeping, offering and asking for food are increasingly treated as criminal acts.
Racial profiling, like police brutality, reflects a presumption of guilt — it’s assumed that just because someone is not white, they’re likely to be engaged in crime. And when black people come into contact with the police, they are four times more likely than white people to experience the use of force.
So I rush to get my teen from school, curtailing her freedom to hang out and be a kid. But in a society that presumes her guilt, it isn’t me who is robbing her of her innocence. Our criminal justice system is guilty of that.
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