January 28, 2008
First, she felt shock. When Oluwaseun Animashaun, of Providence, Rhode Island, learned that her state was planning to try 17-year-olds as adults, she couldn’t believe it.
She thought of her younger brother, struggling to get an education in a city where, according to The Washington Post, less than half of students ever graduate high school. She thought of people she knew at school, people growing up in neighborhoods where over a third of families live below the poverty line.
She felt incredulity–and then anger. And now they want to throw us in jail?
Though geographically, Rhode Island is a tiny fragment of a state tucked just under Massachusetts’ sleeve, the state–and particularly its capital, Providence–is a microcosm for many of the issues facing the rest of the United States. Rising levels of child poverty. Deepening inequalities. Manufacturing jobs that have disappeared, leaving a vacuum of opportunities for those with little education.
And, increasingly, the mounting challenge of supporting a prison population that continues to expand with alarming speed. Since 1976, with the rise of a “get-tough” stance on crime, Rhode Island’s prison population has ballooned by 457 percent.
This summer, with a $300-million budget deficit forcing Rhode Island to cut state spending, lawmakers trained their sights squarely on one group: arrested youth. It costs $98,000 per year to detain a youth at the state’s juvenile detention center, which provides counseling, education and rehabilitative services. By contrast, it costs $39,000 a year to lock someone up at Rhode Island’s adult prison. To lawmakers, sweeping 17-year-olds into state prison seemed an easy way to shave off dollars from the state budget.
They hadn’t reckoned, however, on youth like Animashaun. Or on how misguided the policy would ultimately prove to be.
Locking Up the Future
The nationwide movement to try youth as adults took off in the wake of the 1989 Central Park jogger case, a grisly incident in which five teens raped a 29-year-old woman and left her for dead. “People started fearing the onslaught of a new generation of ‘superpredators’,” says Liz Ryan, who directs the Campaign for Youth Justice. Particularly with the teen arrest rate for murder on the rise at the time, the case scattered panic: between 1992 and 1995 alone, 40 states passed laws making it easier to try juveniles as adults.