We Need to Stop Arresting So Many Children
May 7 2013
Kiera Wilmot could go to prison for horsing around in a parking lot. That's not good.
Kids are dumb. We know this both from research that shows teenagers’ brains are suggestion-prone and vulnerable and from just watching how they act every day. “I’m going to eat a bunch of cinnamon because YouTube told me to, oh no, now I require medical attention because I’m an idiot!” is something teens say all the time. Do you remember what you did when you were a teen? The embarrassingly earnest manifestos you wrote on the bus? The furtive masturbations? The unchecked emotional swings? That night you were too high to drive home and called your mom and then forgot your overelaborate excuse so you just went, “Uhhhhhhmmmmmmmmm”?
Most ex-teens look back on that phase happy to have avoided receiving emotional or physical scars—or dealing with those scars however they can: through therapy, letting time and distance do their work, or wearing long-sleeved shirts pretty much all the time. But we should also be glad that we never got ground down by the gears of the legal system—the cops can be one of the most destructive forces in the lives of young people, coming down on mostly innocent kids just because they made a mistake, or sometimes for no reason at all.
A couple of high-profile examples from the last two weeks show just how brutal law enforcement can be when it comes into contact with teenagers. On Thursday, Cameron D’Ambrosio, an 18-year-old from Methuen, Massachusetts, was arrested for making felony bomb threats thanks to a lame video he posted to Facebook of himself rapping about having a bunch of money and killing people. “Cammy Dee” could get up to 20 years for his shitty, shitty rapping and posturing, and his bail has been set at $1 million. The absurdity of this is obvious from the details contained in this local news story:
[Cameron] had disturbing photos and posts on his Facebook page including “Fuck politics, Fuck Obama and Fuck the government!!”
He also had a “disturbing satanic photo posted as well as a photo of himself on a “Wanted Poster” that reads “Wanted Dead or Alive.” A quick perusal of his Facebook page shows D’Ambrosio’s unusual interest in gangs, violence and a criminal lifestyle.
In other words, he had the same mundane, straight-out-of-pop-culture fantasies that 80 percent of kids have. Yet in the context of law enforcement, these become “threats” and Cameron becomes a suspect.
Then there’s the case of Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old from Florida who was amusing herself before school on April 22 in the manner of nerdy kids everywhere, by fooling around with science. She mixed toilet-bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a water bottle, which resulted in a chemical reaction that produced “a firecracker-like ‘pop’ and some smoke,” according to USA Today. Since she did this on school grounds, she had to get disciplined, even though, as her principal said, she was a “good kid” and didn’t mean anyone any harm. But rather than receiving a slap on the wrist, Kiera is, absurdly, getting charged with “possession and discharge of a weapon on school ground and with discharging a destructive device” and being tried as an adult. Already, scientists and others have voiced their support for Kiera and over 180,000 people have signed a petition on her behalf addressed to Florida State Attorney Jerry Hill. Hopefully, so much publicity will persuade the people in power to realize what a horrific mistake the police and prosecutors made, and Kiera will be back in school, where she should have been all along.
But there are plenty of less famous instances of children being abused by law enforcement, and those cases are awfully easy to find. Here’s a sampling:
In March, a 16-year-old from New Jersey was charged with “making a terroristic threat” after slipping an envelope of harmless white powder under a school administrator’s door in what sounds like a slightly mean-spirited prank. A pair of 14-year-old Texans were arrested in April on a similar charge after harassing some other kid online and in person. Another 14-year-old, this one from Pennsylvania, got charged (again for a “terroristic threat”) after calling in a fake bomb threat to his school later that month—just days before a 13-year-old in California was arrested for making threats on Instagram. And in a case the conservative media latched onto, a high school senior in North Carolina got charged with a felony after accidentally bringing a shotgun to school in the back of his truck and calling his mother to come pick the gun up.
All of these acts were stupid or nasty to varying degrees, but it doesn’t seem like they rise to the level of getting the cops involved, because once that happens, it almost guarantees that very bad things will happen to very young people. Even when those involved in the system aren’t actually corrupt (like the judge who was caught taking bribes from private prisons to hand out maximum sentences to kids), the teenagers who are sent to juvenile jails endure horrific conditions, and those in adult prisons often end up in solitary confinement, which can only be described as a crime against humanity.
The good news is that the teen-arrest rate and number of kids in juvie, both of which peaked in the late 90s, are declining; “only” 70,000 teenagers nationwide are in the kiddie version of prison. The bad news is that more and more, public schools are welcoming cops into their hallways and classrooms, where they search kids for drugs and arrest them on a variety of petty, dumb-teenager stuff, ranging from doodling on a desk or talking back. This trend is especially pronounced in schools in poor and minority communities—because of course it is—and it results in everyday horror stories like that of Tieshka Aver, a diabetic high school kid in Birmingham, Alabama, who was arrested and treated roughly by the cops after falling asleep while reading in class. The ACLU and others have called this the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which conjures up a depressing, and depressingly accurate, image.
Abuse like that Tieshka received isn’t solely the fault of individual police officers, who likely didn’t sign up for the force because they loved kids and wanted to spend time overseeing them. The law-enforcement system isn’t designed for children—just about the only thing it can do is send people to jail, which in nearly every case is a horrific overreaction when it comes to kids being dumb. What’s needed is a response to teenaged stupidity that metes out punishment without resorting to handcuffs, trials, and detention centers. Parents and competent teachers and administrators can do that, but the police definitely can’t.
The upshot for all this for teens is simple: your lives suck a little more thanks to increased police presence and surveillance. If you’re in one of those poor schools dominated by cops, you could be prosecuted as a criminal just by acting out, so it’s probably safest not to engage with anything—just keep your head down and your mouth shut and try to get through it. If you use social media like an ordinary teen, you have to be hypervigilant (in a way you’re probably not capable of being) about what you post, lest you get charged with making threats. And pranks that to you might seem light-hearted or an honest expression of your anger could result in you being charged with felonies. So until the adults can figure out a way to get the prison-industrial complex in check, try not to do anything whatsoever, OK? And never film yourself rapping.
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