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Our Eyes Are on Ferguson, Missouri

August 20, 2014

A few weeks ago, we heard of the outrageous and ongoing abuse of 16- to 18-year-olds incarcerated in Riker's Island in New York City, most of whom are young men of color. Now we mourn the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American teen fromFerguson, Missouri, by a police officer in his own community who was supposed to protect him. Our hearts and thoughts are with his family and with his community.

What makes this tragedy even sadder is that it is far from new: Brown's death and the outrageous overreaction of the police officer is far from unique. The killing of Mike Brown is just one more example of aggressive over-policing in communities of color, where police see young black and brown men as an enemy. And it typifies a much larger dynamic: young black males (and all kids of color) are profiled and singled out for unfair and inappropriate discipline in schools; for stop-and-frisk encounters with the police; and data shows that at every point in the juvenile justice system, they receive harsher responses and longer sentences than white youth for similar crimes. Just as Mike Brown's death was avoidable, this unfair and disparate treatment is avoidable too.

There is no question that law enforcement should behave more justly toward kids of color -- and so should the rest of us. Whenever a youth of color is shot by police, his or her prior behavior and purported character are consistently used (as in Mike Brown's case) to justify his or her death -- this is unacceptable. All youth have potential; none deserve to be shot to death and left in the street.

Furthermore, we as a society neglect kids and their families in all kinds of ways. We invest heavily in law enforcement, probation, and incarceration. Meanwhile, we cut funding for community-based programs that support parents who need a little help, or interventions that research has shown can change youth's lives and open up opportunities for them.

Yes, we need safeguards, and the police have a role to play in protecting communities. But by the time a community is in a ferment of protest as we see in Ferguson, the police have already failed it. Military equipment, tanks, tactical gear, rubber bullets, and tear gas don't help. What will help is to stop investing in weapons meant for terrorists and armies of the enemy and to start using our scarce resources more wisely by listening to the community, empowering it, and giving it the resources needed to support our young people and give them true opportunities to succeed.

That's why NJJN's member organizations fight year-round for youth in legislatures and communities across the country: because it turns out a fair and just juvenile justice system is inextricably linked to a fair and just society as a whole. We fervently hope that Mike Brown's death is the start of national change - a revolution in the relationship of police and the communities they are assigned to serve and protect ... better training for police officers on working with adolescents ... and a willingness to fix a deeply unfair and racist justice system so that it is fairer, more effective, and no longer lethal to young people of color.

Kim Dvorchak

Co-Chair, Executive Committee
National Juvenile Justice Network


Jody Owens



Co-Chair, Executive Committee
National Juvenile Justice Network


Image: Flickr user dignidadrebelde under Creative Commons license.

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