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Commentary: Let’s Treat Juveniles in Detention at Least as Well as Animals in Zoo

By Elizabeth Clarke
Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

The other night my grandson, who is 8 years old, came over for dinner. It was one of those perfect summer evenings, warm with a slight breeze, and we decided to walk the two blocks to the beach for an after-dinner swim. The water was warm with gentle waves, the sun was setting, the moon was rising, the sailboats were sailing — in short, it was magical. As we dove in and out of the waves, I tried hard to be completely present in the moment, savoring this time with my precious grandson.

But I am never completely present. My mind kept drifting to the children I know who are in detention/prison in Illinois. I’ve seen too many children locked up in the bleak concrete prison cells to be able to be free of the image.

Especially when I am outside on such a beautiful day, I think how shameful that we lock up children without giving them access to the natural wonders of the outdoors. Children need to be outside, need the opportunity to stretch their limbs and jump and run and play.

However, we as a society cling to the notion of punishment through imprisonment. Mostly, society clings to the notion of punishment for children who are black and brown and who live in neighborhoods with poor schools, little housing and few jobs. It is no accident that 99 percent of the children in pretrial detention in Cook County are black and brown.

What is the purpose of imprisoning children? The research reveals there is no good outcome from incarceration of children. In fact, for technical probation violations and low-level offenses, incarceration ends up increasing repeat offending.

Prisons, or concrete cages, are outdated concepts for animals. Our zoos have turned animal enclosures into humane reproductions of their natural home environment. Yet our detention centers/prisons remain cold, cruel and inhospitable for adults, let alone children. A civilized society would treat its children at least as well as it treats its animals in the zoo.

Prisons for children offer only punishment — not rehabilitation, not redemption and not restoration to a healthy and productive life. My home state of Illinois and some others have dramatically decreased reliance on confinement, shifting resources to community alternatives for most of our children.

It is time to ensure all our children benefit from community alternatives rather than confinement.

Elizabeth Clarke is president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group working to reform the juvenile justice system in Illinois.

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