"Everyday Inequality" and the Criminal Justice System | New YA Books

New fiction and nonfiction books explore the intersection of African American youth, the police, and our prison industrial complex.
Inspired by recent headlines and the Black Lives Matter movement, teens are highly motivated to read about the intersection of African American youth and the police. Fictional titles such titles as Jason Reynolds and Brendon Kiely’s well-crafted All American Boys (S. & S., 2015), and Kekla Magoon’s sobering How It Went Down (Holt, 2015), continue to be passed from hand-to-hand and promoted by word of mouth in many schools and libraries.

Other nonfiction titles are generating interest as well, and are essential resources to have on hand when discussing social justice. Alison Marie Behnke's Racial Profiling: Everyday Inequality (Twenty-First Century, Jan. 2017), offers a straightforward examination of the inequalities and discrimination experienced by people of color and the emotional and mental scars they can leave, the social and economic opportunities they “hinder,” and the “mistrust and fear” they sow. Beginning with a look at the roots of racism (and white privilege) in the United States, the book delves into the impact racial profiling has on health care, housing, voting rights, laws, and other institutional practices and patterns. Recent conversations regarding justice and injustice and calls for reform are also included, as are case studies of arrests and the 2014 deaths of 14-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Michael Brown, and others at the hands of police. Religious profiling and Islamophobia are also addressed. Throughout the book, first-person eyewitness accounts, research findings, statistics, and photos add powerful evidence of the extent and pervasiveness of racial profiling.

And what happens when arrests culminate with teens entering the criminal justice system? Who are these kids who get in trouble? Are they misguided and shaped by circumstances? Are they “abnormals” to lock away? Can they be “fixed” by punishment, or education, or counseling? Should they be relocated or remain a part of their community? Depending on when or who you ask, the answers could be any of the above. Patrick Jones tackles the convoluted history of responses to juvenile offenders in Teen Incarceration, From Cell Bars to Ankle Bracelets (Twenty-First Century Books, 2016). Information-packed chapters explore shifting trends regarding what to do with kids who break the law; there's a clear-eyed focus on the intended and unintended consequences of each trend, including racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline. Photos and case studies help readers envision and identify with the experiences of incarcerated teens. Some evidence-based programs are spotlighted, providing hope that, "it is possible to treat children humanely without compromising public safety...".

Fiction fans can explore some of these same questions in two recently published novels. Lauren McLaughlin's The Free (Penguin/Soho Teen, Feb. 2017) will draw in picky readers and will give book groups plenty to talk about. Haverland Juvenile Detention could be a lot worse, but Isaac doesn't know that yet. His court appointed lawyer manages a 30-day placement for Isaac at Haverland and Isaac is sure he can lie low and keep telling the story of a car theft gone wrong that Flannery, his auto shop teacher turned car-theft ring leader has drilled into him. Taking the rap for his older partner in crime will earn him respect from the man and soon he'll be out to help his younger sister Janelle cope with their neglectful, abusive mother. When the car owner injured in Isaac's crime comes out of his coma and starts to tell his story, it's clear to the lawyers and the judge that Isaac is lying about what happened. Meanwhile, every juvenile at Haverland is placed in a small group with a therapist to work on their stories, a written account of the crime that landed them in juvie. In acting out their stories, they come clean about the details, call their victims by name, and remember how they felt during the crime, and develop the empathy and self-awareness needed to make steps toward change. Isaac's journey to honesty is vivid and compelling; the large cast of secondary characters are robust, complex, and believable.

In Allegedly (HarperCollins, 2017), Tiffany D. Jackson introduces Mary Beth Addison's life as a series of betrayals. At age nine, Mary, who is black, was sent to "baby jail" for the murder of Alyssa, a white three-month-old that Mary's mother was babysitting. The sensationalizing of Mary's trial sidesteps even the most cursory version of justice. Social workers, therapists, and parole officers are roadblocks instead of helpers. Now 16, Mary is in a group home and pregnant, though she is beginning to hope that she might have a future with Ted (her baby's father) if she can take the SATs and get into college. Flashbacks, interviews, court records, and Mary's own strong voice as she searches for the truth about her life are compelling and unforgettable. Mary's mother, SAT tutor, and lawyer as well as Ted, the girls in the group home, and many other characters weave their complicated experiences and complex motives into Mary's story.

These are books that readers won't be able to stop talking about, so harness that interest and passion by including them as choices for literature circles or book clubs. Perhaps they could be offered along with older fictional titles such as Steve Watkins's Juvie (Candlewick, 2013) and Walter Dean Myers’s Monster (HarperCollins, 1999), and nonfiction ones such as Thomas A. Jacobs’s They Broke the Law, You Be the Judge: True Cases of Teen Crime (Free Spirit, 2003) and Susan Kuklin’s No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row (Holt, 2008).

Suggest a research project about the juvenile incarceration experience in your community, with an assessment of the needs that might be met by teens "outside." If reading about Mary's hunger for something to read in her group home encourages book donations to group homes, it would be a tiny light in the darkness.

Chris Gustafson is the Library Media Specialist at Richmond Japanese Immersion Elementary School in Portland, Oregon.

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