Inmates at the Department of Youth Services juvenile boot camp wait to go outside for physical training, December 22, 2005, in Prattville, Alabama. (AP Photo/Rob Carr.)
Anyone who has ever spent time in a high school knows that students and teachers are no strangers to crime and rule-breaking. At my large public high school, expensive items like iPhones routinely vanished from backpacks and lunch tables. Many days, I saw huddling bands of sophomores in the bathroom, checking their backs, exchanging drugs for money. Occasionally, two drug dealers would emerge from a stall with eyes slightly glassy and movements just exaggerated enough to provoke suspicion. Sometimes, groups of eight or more kids would fight in the bathrooms.
Rule-breakers came in all shades and grades. Although suspected delinquents were a mixture of working-class and rich kids, only the non-rich regularly had the cops called on them for drug possession at school. The punished, rejected and humiliated students often transferred or dropped out.
My school was less forgiving of “delinquents” than was my younger sister’s private high school. For example, my school administration regularly deployed police officers on drug dealers; her administrators dealt with drug-related matters internally and often informally with families. My public school peers caught possessing marijuana thus have fewer options applying to college and looking for jobs than do private school kids guilty of a “youthful indiscretion” with drugs. I have some classmates who have already spent time in juvenile hall for theft, an offense that, at many private schools, would have spawned a reprimand or suspension.
I don’t like the inequity of these arrangements, but I don’t advocate “cracking down” on pot-smoking rich kids just as ferociously as we antagonize the poor. That would simply spread the misery more thickly, and I have a hunch it wouldn’t really happen anyway. It might make us feel better in regards to equality, but expanding intensive “police oversight” to rich communities and private schools would not actually create a system of equal justice. In the real world, Al Gore III, and Jenna and Barbara Bush, and Todd Cunningham, and Danny Burton (and all the other children of politicians who oppose drug legalization but pull strings to get their kids off the hook) are never going to endure the sort of harsh treatment leveled towards poor students.
Real fairness would have us stop locking up nonviolent juvenile offenders altogether and reform the juvenile justice system to maximize prisoners’ capacity for learning and self-improvement. Let’s not pretend to treat the rich like the poor; let’s treat the poor like the rich.