Safe Spaces: California Children Enter a Policy Debate

By Meucci, Sandra; Redmon, Jim | Social Justice, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Safe Spaces: California Children Enter a Policy Debate

Meucci, Sandra, Redmon, Jim, Social Justice


This stupid experiment of organizing work and failing to organize play has,

of course, brought about a fine revenge. The love of pleasure will not

be denied, and when it has turned into all sorts of malignant and vicious

appetites, then we, the middle aged, grow quite distracted and resort to

all sorts of restrictive measures.

-- Jane Addams (1910)

In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children

learn -- if they learn it at all -- the first fundamental of successful city

life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even

if they have no ties to each other.

-- Jane Jacobs (1961)

THE ISSUE OF SAFETY IS OFTEN CAST SOLELY AS A PROBLEM OF VIOLENCE AND CRIME. The focus of campaigns is riveted on urban violence, and youth violence in particular. Yet nationally only five percent of all juveniles were arrested in 1992, and of those five percent approximately nine percent were arrested for a violent crime. Despite the fears, fewer than one percent of juveniles are arrested for violent crimes (Shorter, Schaffner, and Schick, 1996). Though juvenile offenders currently account for a smaller percentage of violent offenders than their numbers in the U.S. population would predict (Lubow, 1995), the dramatic increase in homicide rates of young black men has been well publicized, even if not well understood. The response is a variety of "get tough" policies; for example, the intensification of policing crime and imposition of youth curfews are intended to address community safety issues. States have been revamping youth crime laws over the past two years, allowing more youths to be tried as adults and scrapping longtime protections like the confidentially of juvenile court proceedings. The thrust of these new laws is to get more juveniles into the adult criminal justice system, where they will presumably serve longer sentences under more punitive conditions (Butterfield, 1996).

Campaigns to address youth and "gang" violence typically aim to limit access to guns, restrict television viewing of violent shows, amplify community policing, and impose curfews to get children off the street. Yet regulating their access to weapons of destruction and to each other is merely a palliative measure; it isn't a solution to a social problem that has much deeper dimensions. Much of what is written about crime and violence avoids addressing economic and political systemic factors that contribute to it, such as special isolation of poor people in urban areas, which culminates in violence.

Instead of focusing on the systemic and structural opportunities within urban environments that are associated with violence, youth are demonized as more punitive responses to juvenile offenses prevail. Yet the negative images of urban youth are so widespread that the majority of funds and efforts go to building more youth prisons and stripping away the legal protections for all youth that were instituted in 1899 when the first juvenile court was established.

The need for a policy designed to address children's safety is clear, but it ought to be informed by an understanding of how children experience its lack. Many children, especially those in low-income urban environments, have come to see violence as an unavoidable part of their social reality (Noguera, 1995).(1) Rather than recognize poor urban children's lack of control over the exigencies of their lives and come to understand their bid to protect themselves, city councils and national policy initiatives characterize them as needing restraint. By doing so, they entirely overlook the children's experience of vulnerability in their own terms. Not being able to protect themselves from "bullies" combines with the loss of public facilities, open public spaces for play and recreation, safe swimming, fishing, and tree-climbing "green" places to produce an environment devoid of anything positive for children. …

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