Magazine article National Urban League. The State of Black America

Losing Our Children in America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline®

Magazine article National Urban League. The State of Black America

Losing Our Children in America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline®

Article excerpt

Gay cancer"-that's what they called AIDS, the mysterious killer of white homosexual men in the early 1980s before medical researchers isolated the virus that causes the disease. Some religious leaders claimed it was God's punishment for sinful behavior. The administration of President Ronald Reagan failed to adequately fund the research focused on identifying its cause. Some leaders in the black community looked the other way because they thought it was something that only white gay men could catch.

We now know in retrospect that as a result of widespread ignorance and negligence, precious years were lost in discovering effective treatments for AIDS that would have saved so many lives. As the disease spread beyond our means to contain it, millions died needlessly. Those most endangered by the disease are no longer gay white men. Currently, HTV-AIDS infection rates among black females exceed the rates for males of all races and ethnic groups except African Americans, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. For three-quarters of infected black females, the disease was transmitted through heterosexual contact.

I bring to mind our national experience with AIDS to shed light on another growing epidemic plaguing our communities and nation, about which many are blind or choose to remain conveniently ignorant. I'm referring to America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis that funnels tens of thousands of poor children every year down life paths that lead to arrest, conviction, incarceration and death. Currently, about 100,000 youths languish in detention centers across the country. Millions of children are at risk of entering the prison pipeline from the moment they come into the world as poor, low-birthweight babies born to parents unprepared to care for them and lacking sufficient supports. A large portion of these vulnerable children come under the care of an inadequate child welfare system that is often unable to make their lives better and sometimes makes them worse.

For the past two years, through our new Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Initiative, the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) has been researching the entry and exit points of the prison pipeline. Our study has involved the children and families who live their lives in and out of daily proximity to the prison pipeline as well as educators, health care professionals, judges, law enforcement and juvenile justice officials, and advocates for improved child welfare and early childhood development policies and practices.

The Cradle to Prison Pipeline is made up of a complex combination of social and economic factors and political choices that converge to reduce the odds that poor children, especially poor minority children, will grow up to become productive, responsible, and contributing members of their families, communities and nation. These factors include stressed, poor and often single-parent families; disparities in access to health and mental health care; lack of quality early childhood experiences; imderperforming schools with low expectations and zero tolerance discipline policies; broken child welfare and juvenile justice systems; a pervasive popular culture that glorifies violence, conspicuous consumption, promiscuity, narcissism, celebrity and misogyny, and far too few positive role models and alternatives to the streets.

Children who enter the prison pipeline represent all races and ethnic groups, but in a majority of cases, those caught at the intersection of poverty and race are most vulnerable because our society does not offer all children a level playing field on which to develop and grow. Although a black boy born in 2001 has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime, girls are the fastest growing group among imprisoned children and teens. What is most alarming is that poor children are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at younger and younger ages.

Regrettably, like the AIDS epidemic in its early stages, many of our political leaders, pastors and heads of community organizations are silent, ignorant or indifferent about the increasing damage the prison pipeline is visiting upon our communities. …

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