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Young, Black, and Locked Up: Florida Edition

As a Black male, my life prospects don’t look too bright- statistically speaking. My life span is 7.1 years shorter than any other cohort group; I’m 5 times more likely to die of HIV/AIDS. That’s just health related. When it comes to education there is a 40% chance that I will drop out of high school. If I’m lucky enough to make it out of high school, the chance of me going to jail is much higher than me going to college. Can my future get any bleaker? Well in the state of Florida it can.

An article published in my hometown newspaper, Sarasota Herald Tribune, exposed the stark disparities in sentencing for Black youth. 84% of juveniles sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses in Florida were African-American. When I read this startling statistic my eyes almost jumped out of my head. It’s not that I didn’t believe it. The criminal justice system has historically been as fair to Blacks as Fox News is to reporting. What bothered me the most was that when I sat back and thought about it, I had not heard any policymakers in my home state address this issue directly.

We all know that Blacks make up a disproportionate number of inmates in prison, but why is this? Why is it that Black men are 12 times more likely than White men to be imprisoned on drug charges? Why is it that a Black male in Florida is facing a life sentence for a non-homicidal home invasion he committed when he was 17? The juvenile justice system was set up for rehabilitation and protection of children. Now legislatures and Americans treat the juvenile justice system as a way to “protect communities” from the very same juveniles that they are supposed to be helping, not punishing. The criminal justice system’s goal is to punish the guilty, but this is what we are doing to juveniles. While I understand that juveniles are just as capable of committing heinous crimes as adults; why is it that Florida sees no hope for rehabilitation? Last Spring, the Florida legislature struck down a bill that would allow juvenile sentenced to life in non-homicidal cases a chance for parole. Many of the young folks that this decision affects are Black.

Instead of throwing every Black juvenile delinquent in prison for the rest of their life for committing a crime, why not give them the rehabilitation they need in a juvenile facility? For all the “fiscally conservative” legislators who whine about the lack of solvency in the state budget, it would be a smart idea to reduce the population of our prisons. Although Governor Rick Scott has stated that he would like to slash that Department of Corrections spending down by a whopping $1 billion by cutting prison employee salaries, reducing health care costs and expanding inmate run organic gardens; there has been no mention about examining and addressing the glaring racial disparities among youth of color in the criminal justice system. Florida has the largest number of youth (over 70%) in the United States, serving life or many years of prison terms, all without parole, for crimes committed that did not include murder.  In fact, one report shows that no other prisoner in the United States is serving a life sentence without parole for a juvenile burglary conviction. Although Blacks only make up 16% of Florida’s population, they make more than three quarters of youth who are serving life without parole for non-violent crimes.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDP) of 1974 requires states to address the overrepresentation of minorities in juvenile detention facilities. Approximately 42 states have complied. Although Florida is one of the states that has technically complied, the conspicuous racial disparities still existent in the criminal justice system suggest that state policymakers are either dragging their feet or ignoring the problem all together. It costs more to keep a child incarcerated than it does to send them to college. Why not implement community oriented programs to deter kids from committing crime? Instead of adding more names to the exploding rolls in the criminal justice system, why not find innovative ways to destroy the school to prison pipeline, that far too often operates undisturbed in Black and Brown communities?

In order to truly achieve an equitable society in which all of our nation’s children have a fair shot at being productive citizens, our state legislatures need to stop acting delusional and use restorative justice as a means to treat and rehabilitate youth. Schooling, job training, mental health treatment, and follow up counseling are all non-punitive ways to both stem the tide of Black youth incarceration and save state dollars required to house, feed, and cloth inmates. Reallocating state government money from incarceration to programs that provide help and skills to enable youth to become mentally and socially stable citizens is the only we can begin to close the racial  disparities in the criminal  justice system.

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