As socially progressive and innovative the United States considers itself to be, it might come as a surprise that more people are incarcerated here than anywhere else in the world. That same statistic applies to our youth, who are locked up at five times the rate of the next highest nation.

On January 14th from 6-8 pm at Impact Hub Oakland, leaders in the juvenile justice reform movement will be hosting a panel discussion exploring how our youth become unwarrantedly institutionalized, and how we can shift our society away from mass incarceration and towards restoring those who carry our future.

Lateefah Simon, program director of the Rosenberg Foundation and moderator of the panel, advocates that, “We all have one goal: for healthy and safe communities. Public safety should be defined by folks in the community and police should serve and protect based on that definition.”

Though our youth may threaten whatever sense of safety our society has constructed (75 percent of the time through non-violent offenses), their sense of safety is often first shattered by our societal systems that fail them.

Simon adds that, “We know that there are young people who, in a (emotional) space, want to harm themselves or others, and typically that’s a mental health issue. No one addresses this trauma – it’s just getting worse by putting them in a cage.”

Having experienced trauma is overwhelmingly prevalent in our incarcerated youth, as seen in the graph below.

“We have this system that’s predicated on isolation, but how is isolation going to teach them to be part of the group? From time-out, to suspension, to expulsion, to incarceration, there’s this notion of pushing someone out of the community,” explains Nell Bernstein, long-time journalist and author of Burning Down the House: An End to Juvenile Prison. Bernstein is a key speaker in the upcoming panel discussion.

“People don’t have the basics and that’s why they have to hustle to make it, and the trauma that they’ve gone through brings them back to the streets. It’s about young people developing social structures to take care of themselves,” Simon elaborates.

In Oakland where there is nearly six times more law enforcement staff than counselors in our public school system, less than half of African-American and Latino males graduate from high school.

Not coincidentally, these two racial categories are also vastly overrepresented in the Alameda juvenile justice system: African-Americans are 24 times, and Latinos four times, more likely to be arrested and detained than their white peers.

Bernstein’s book highlights a self-reported study that between 80 and over 90 percent of American teens admit to breaking a law or laws that they could be incarcerated for.

What differentiates those who are locked up from those who are not, says Bernstein, is that individuals with access to resources are often dealt with informally while those from low-income neighborhoods are put on blast.

“It starts to look like there’s no such thing as juvenile delinquents, only that it’s a developmental phase; and what determines whether it’ll be a life-changing developmental phase is race and class.”

An investigative report by the Black Organizing Project found that in Oakland between 2006 and 2012, nearly half of the cases referred to Alameda County Probation Department were dropped, but young black men made up 80% of those dropped cases.

If the overrepresentation of incarcerated African-American youth isn’t enough to render racism within the American justice system, the impulse to arrest, and abstract juvenile African-Americans from our community detonates this criticism. The message we’re sending to young people of all backgrounds is that it’s not what you’ve done, but who you are, that is right or wrong.

Surely not just our policies, but our narrative behind those policies needs to change if we are to develop a deeper accountability for and confidence in public safety.

The panel discussion will also focus on less expensive, more effective alternatives to juvenile incarceration. On average, states spend $88,000 per year to lock up one person, all of which is funded directly by taxpayers.

Failing to invest in our youth by keeping them in the system results in adult incarceration, increased crime and public assistance, costing us a whopping $4.7 trillion annually.

juvenile incarceration rates vs other youth investments


We need more rehabilitative, community-based programs to address deeper emotional and psychological causes behind juvenile crime, rather than just penalizing the crime itself.

“When we talk about rehabilitation, that means learning from your mistakes. Incarceration is the opposite of restorative justice because you’re barred from righting the wrong or restoring the tear in the social fabric you may have made,” says Bernstein.

Joining Bernstein and Simon on the January 14th conversation will be Ella Baker Center’s Zach Norris and Silicon Valley DeBug‘s Raj Jayadev.

This event is free, but an RSVP is required. Click here to reserve your spot in the movement towards justice for our kids.

About The Author

Simone writes about the currents circulating beneath mainstream, with a focus on non-profit developments and at-risk youth enrichment. Outside of freelancing for Oakland Local, she works in the foster care system of Contra Costa County and nerds out on literary magazines. Simone also spearheads the Community Voices section of OL. Contact her at

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