Delinquent by Reason of Poverty — Take Two

Sad boy  Recently I was in juvenile court with a 10 year-old client.  The charge?  Assault.  The factual basis?  Hitting his sister.  The reason we were in court?  Probation violation.  The basis for the violation?  Failing to complete community service.

Yes, you heard right — 30 hours of community service were court-ordered for a 10 year-old.  I have a 10 year-old, and I can barely get her to complete her homework.  Amazingly, this child finished nearly half of the hours, but he was still formally violated for not completing all 30 hours.

But wait — there’s more.  There was also a new offense pending.  Larceny.  Of toys? No.  Candy?  No.  It was for trying to take food.  From a supermarket.  Where he was with his mother and siblings.  And he did it at his mother’s direction.

Forgive me while I catch my breath.

Why would these types of offenses be prosecuted in juvenile delinquency court, you might ask.  The response of the probation officer and prosecutor to this question was one I have grown very weary of hearing:  the family needs services.

This is a scenario we now confront in many jurisdictions across the U.S.  When low-income families have service needs — whether for counseling, medical/psychological treatment, or just basic assistance with parenting — juvenile courts approve delinquency petitions, and rapidly increasing numbers of children and their families are funnelled into the criminal justice system.

So, we now have a fifth grade boy who has not only been publicly labelled a delinquent but is beginning his second full year of juvenile court probation and must report regularly to his probation officer — all because his family is poor and apparently cannot access services through any other means but the court system (or so says the state).

Unfortunately, given the state of the economy, this situation is likely to worsen before it begins to improve.  According to a press release from the Children’s Defense Fund:

Washington, D.C. —New data released by the U.S. Census Bureau today reveals 46.2 million poor people in America, about the same as last year’s record high number. Although the number of children living in poverty decreased slightly in 2011, children remain the poorest age group in the country. Nearly 22 percent of America’s children—16.1 million—more than one in five children were poor in 2011. Children under five continued to suffer most—one in four infants, toddlers and preschoolers were poor in 2011 during the years of greatest brain development. Almost half of those children lived in extreme poverty.

“Children only have one childhood and it is right now. Our political leaders need to wake up and change course to protect our children and their families. Parents alone cannot protect children. We need to protect the already porous safety nets that are keeping children from falling deeper into poverty, and invest in the health and education of our children,” said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. “Congress needs to be careful what it cuts. Dangerous proposals, including the Ryan budget, that cut food stamps, healthcare, education and tax credits for low-income families while giving more tax cuts to the richest Americans and corporations are shameful and would send many more children into poverty. This is the time to get our values straight and protect and invest in our children first.”

Census Bureau data released today shows:

  • More than one in five children—16.1 million—were poor in 2011. Over 5 million of these children were under the age of 5.
  • Poverty is defined as an annual income below $23,021 for a family of four—$1,918 a month, $443 a week, or $63 a day. Extreme poverty, defined as an annual income of less than half of the poverty level, means $11,511 a year, $959 a month, $221 a week, or $32 a day for a family of four.
  • Children of color were disproportionately poor: 4.3 million Black children—more than one in three—and 6 million Hispanic children—more than one in three—were poor. Nearly 5 million White, non-Hispanic children—one in eight—were poor.
    • Almost 43 percent of Black children under age 5—1.3 million—were poor; nearly one in four were extremely poor.
  • Sixty-five percent of poor families with children under 18 have at least one worker.
  • More than 60 percent of all poor children—over 10 million—lived in single parent families.
  • Married couple families with children were not immune; almost 9 percent of all married couples with children under 18 years old were poor.

Who needs a social safety net when we have the juvenile justice system?

Photo via Roy Sanchez.  License details here.

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About Tamar Birckhead

This entry was posted in Juvenile Court, Juveniles, Race, Class, Ethnicity, Reports. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Delinquent by Reason of Poverty — Take Two

  1. I have heard some good presentations in juvenile justice reform circles about the need to distinguish between kids who are high-risk and those who are high needs in order to keep the high needs kids from getting sucked into the delinquency system. We must stop this net-widening and serve kids with high needs outside of the delinquency system!

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