Published on Monday, April 2, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
Why is America So Afraid of Its Children?
by Salim Muwakkil
Why is world's lone superpower so afraid of its own children?
The U.S. is one of the only two UN member nations (the other one is Somalia) that have failed to ratify the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child. Why would the U.S. oppose a measure that states "the child by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection?"
Well, one reason is that it argues against the new American vogue of trying kids as adults. In the last few years, 46 states have changed their laws to allow juveniles to be tried as adults.
Among the convention's other provisions is one that prohibits a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for anyone under 18. This, too, is a rebuke of America's new affection for locking up youth for life. The planet's richest country has shocked the world with its eagerness to dispose of its children.
Last month, one particularly lurid example of this attitude was on global display when a Florida judge sentenced 14-year-old Lionel Tate to life in prison without parole for killing a young playmate in 1999. He is the youngest person serving a life sentence in the U.S., although most pundits predict that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will lessen the punishment.
Two weeks later, a 15-year-old Florida boy, John Silva, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The previous poster child for America's kid phobia was Nathaniel Abraham, who in 1999 was convicted of second-degree murder for a shooting in Pontiac, Mich., when he was 11. Abraham was the youngest child in the nation to be tried as an adult for a premeditated killing. He faced life imprisonment but, unlike Florida where the legislature left the judge little discretion, Michigan's system provided another alternative. The judge sentenced Abraham to a juvenile detention facility until the age of 21.
All of these cases raise the ire of human-rights advocates. "As America exhorts other nations to uphold basic human-rights principles, we should begin with the ABCs of human rights and treat our own young offenders as children--not as adults," said Curt Goering, an official of Amnesty International USA. There appears to be no logical rationale for this new view on youthful offenders. Little has changed since the first juvenile court was established in 1899 on the principle that since children are not mature--physically, emotionally and intellectually--they should not bear the same statutory responsibility as adults. In fact, growing scientific knowledge on human development has solidly reaffirmed the distinction it makes between child and adult.
What's more, a study recently released by a National Academy of Sciences panel found that the juvenile-justice system is increasingly destructive, particularly because of the growing trend to imprison juvenile offenders with adults. "We find no evidence for a crime wave caused by `superpredator' young people," said panel co-chair Cathy Spatz Widom. "The evidence suggests that incarcerating youth, if anything, has a negative effect."
The superpredator thesis was spread primarily by John DiIulio, the former Princeton professor and current head of President Bush's White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. In a 1996 book he co-authored, DiIulio predicted that a rising wave of youthful sociopaths would prey on society "fearing neither the stigma of arrest, pains of imprisonment nor the pangs of conscience."
The alarmist tone of this call to arms echoed in Congress, where Florida Republican Rep. Bill McCollum introduced the "Violent Youth Predator Act," which called for confining children as young as 13 with adult offenders and denying federal funds to states that do not, among other things. Although DiIulio's prediction failed to pan out, it provided politicians with an opportunity to look tough on crime by punishing our young with adult severity. There also is a racial dimension to this issue; Silva, Tate and Abraham all are African-American. A study by the Leadership Council on Civil Rights found that the criminal-justice system sends black youth who have committed a violent crime to prison nine times more often that white youth who has committed a similar crime. Our criminal-justice system is devouring black children at an accelerating rate and either swallows them whole or regurgitates them back onto the streets as likely recidivists. There's no mystery why the U.S. is the world's leading jailer; we have created a criminal factory that produces its own raw materials. The mystery is why we continue to tolerate this global disgrace.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times.
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune