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  • On the path that American children travel to adulthood,

  • two institutions oversee the journey.

  • The first is the one we hear a lot about: college.

  • Some of you may remember the excitement that you felt

  • when you first set off for college.

  • Some of you may be in college right now

  • and you're feeling this excitement at this very moment.

  • College has some shortcomings.

  • It's expensive; it leaves young people in debt.

  • But all in all, it's a pretty good path.

  • Young people emerge from college with pride and with great friends

  • and with a lot of knowledge about the world.

  • And perhaps most importantly,

  • a better chance in the labor market than they had before they got there.

  • Today I want to talk about the second institution

  • overseeing the journey from childhood to adulthood in the United States.

  • And that institution is prison.

  • Young people on this journey are meeting with probation officers

  • instead of with teachers.

  • They're going to court dates instead of to class.

  • Their junior year abroad is instead a trip to a state correctional facility.

  • And they're emerging from their 20s

  • not with degrees in business and English,

  • but with criminal records.

  • This institution is also costing us a lot,

  • about 40,000 dollars a year

  • to send a young person to prison in New Jersey.

  • But here, taxpayers are footing the bill

  • and what kids are getting is a cold prison cell

  • and a permanent mark against them when they come home

  • and apply for work.

  • There are more and more kids on this journey to adulthood

  • than ever before in the United States and that's because in the past 40 years,

  • our incarceration rate has grown by 700 percent.

  • I have one slide for this talk.

  • Here it is.

  • Here's our incarceration rate,

  • about 716 people per 100,000 in the population.

  • Here's the OECD countries.

  • What's more, it's poor kids that we're sending to prison,

  • too many drawn from African-American and Latino communities

  • so that prison now stands firmly between the young people trying to make it

  • and the fulfillment of the American Dream.

  • The problem's actually a bit worse than this

  • 'cause we're not just sending poor kids to prison,

  • we're saddling poor kids with court fees,

  • with probation and parole restrictions,

  • with low-level warrants,

  • we're asking them to live in halfway houses and on house arrest,

  • and we're asking them to negotiate a police force

  • that is entering poor communities of color,

  • not for the purposes of promoting public safety,

  • but to make arrest counts, to line city coffers.

  • This is the hidden underside to our historic experiment in punishment:

  • young people worried that at any moment, they will be stopped, searched and seized.

  • Not just in the streets, but in their homes,

  • at school and at work.

  • I got interested in this other path to adulthood

  • when I was myself a college student

  • attending the University of Pennsylvania

  • in the early 2000s.

  • Penn sits within a historic African-American neighborhood.

  • So you've got these two parallel journeys going on simultaneously:

  • the kids attending this elite, private university,

  • and the kids from the adjacent neighborhood,

  • some of whom are making it to college,

  • and many of whom are being shipped to prison.

  • In my sophomore year, I started tutoring a young woman who was in high school

  • who lived about 10 minutes away from the university.

  • Soon, her cousin came home from a juvenile detention center.

  • He was 15, a freshman in high school.

  • I began to get to know him and his friends and family,

  • and I asked him what he thought about me writing about his life

  • for my senior thesis in college.

  • This senior thesis became a dissertation at Princeton

  • and now a book.

  • By the end of my sophomore year,

  • I moved into the neighborhood and I spent the next six years

  • trying to understand what young people were facing as they came of age.

  • The first week I spent in this neighborhood,

  • I saw two boys, five and seven years old,

  • play this game of chase,

  • where the older boy ran after the other boy.

  • He played the cop.

  • When the cop caught up to the younger boy,

  • he pushed him down,

  • handcuffed him with imaginary handcuffs,

  • took a quarter out of the other child's pocket,

  • saying, "I'm seizing that."

  • He asked the child if he was carrying any drugs

  • or if he had a warrant.

  • Many times, I saw this game repeated,

  • sometimes children would simply give up running,

  • and stick their bodies flat against the ground

  • with their hands above their heads, or flat up against a wall.

  • Children would yell at each other,

  • "I'm going to lock you up,

  • I'm going to lock you up and you're never coming home!"

  • Once I saw a six-year-old child pull another child's pants down

  • and try to do a cavity search.

  • In the first 18 months that I lived in this neighborhood,

  • I wrote down every time I saw any contact between police

  • and people that were my neighbors.

  • So in the first 18 months,

  • I watched the police stop pedestrians or people in cars,

  • search people, run people's names,

  • chase people through the streets,

  • pull people in for questioning,

  • or make an arrest every single day, with five exceptions.

  • Fifty-two times, I watched the police break down doors,

  • chase people through houses

  • or make an arrest of someone in their home.

  • Fourteen times in this first year and a half,

  • I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on or beat young men

  • after they had caught them.

  • Bit by bit, I got to know two brothers,

  • Chuck and Tim.

  • Chuck was 18 when we met, a senior in high school.

  • He was playing on the basketball team and making C's and B's.

  • His younger brother, Tim, was 10.

  • And Tim loved Chuck; he followed him around a lot,

  • looked to Chuck to be a mentor.

  • They lived with their mom and grandfather

  • in a two-story row home with a front lawn and a back porch.

  • Their mom was struggling with addiction all while the boys were growing up.

  • She never really was able to hold down a job for very long.

  • It was their grandfather's pension that supported the family,

  • not really enough to pay for food and clothes

  • and school supplies for growing boys.

  • The family was really struggling.

  • So when we met, Chuck was a senior in high school.

  • He had just turned 18.

  • That winter, a kid in the schoolyard

  • called Chuck's mom a crack whore.

  • Chuck pushed the kid's face into the snow

  • and the school cops charged him with aggravated assault.

  • The other kid was fine the next day,

  • I think it was his pride that was injured more than anything.

  • But anyway, since Chuck was 18,

  • this agg. assault case sent him to adult county jail

  • on State Road in northeast Philadelphia,

  • where he sat, unable to pay the bail -- he couldn't afford it --

  • while the trial dates dragged on and on and on

  • through almost his entire senior year.

  • Finally, near the end of this season,

  • the judge on this assault case threw out most of the charges

  • and Chuck came home

  • with only a few hundred dollars' worth of court fees hanging over his head.

  • Tim was pretty happy that day.

  • The next fall, Chuck tried to re-enroll as a senior,

  • but the school secretary told him that

  • he was then 19 and too old to be readmitted.

  • Then the judge on his assault case issued him a warrant for his arrest

  • because he couldn't pay the 225 dollars in court fees

  • that came due a few weeks after the case ended.

  • Then he was a high school dropout living on the run.

  • Tim's first arrest came later that year

  • after he turned 11.

  • Chuck had managed to get his warrant lifted

  • and he was on a payment plan for the court fees

  • and he was driving Tim to school in his girlfriend's car.

  • So a cop pulls them over, runs the car,

  • and the car comes up as stolen in California.

  • Chuck had no idea where in the history of this car it had been stolen.

  • His girlfriend's uncle bought it from a used car auction

  • in northeast Philly.

  • Chuck and Tim had never been outside of the tri-state,

  • let alone to California.

  • But anyway, the cops down at the precinct

  • charged Chuck with receiving stolen property.

  • And then a juvenile judge, a few days later,

  • charged Tim, age 11,

  • with accessory to receiving a stolen property

  • and then he was placed on three years of probation.

  • With this probation sentence hanging over his head,

  • Chuck sat his little brother down

  • and began teaching him how to run from the police.

  • They would sit side by side on their back porch

  • looking out into the shared alleyway

  • and Chuck would coach Tim how to spot undercover cars,

  • how to negotiate a late-night police raid, how and where to hide.

  • I want you to imagine for a second

  • what Chuck and Tim's lives would be like

  • if they were living in a neighborhood where kids were going to college,

  • not prison.

  • A neighborhood like the one I got to grow up in.

  • Okay, you might say.

  • But Chuck and Tim, kids like them, they're committing crimes!

  • Don't they deserve to be in prison?

  • Don't they deserve to be living in fear of arrest?

  • Well, my answer would be no.

  • They don't.

  • And certainly not for the same things that other young people

  • with more privilege are doing with impunity.

  • If Chuck had gone to my high school,

  • that schoolyard fight would have ended there,

  • as a schoolyard fight.

  • It never would have become an aggravated assault case.

  • Not a single kid that I went to college with

  • has a criminal record right now.

  • Not a single one.

  • But can you imagine how many might have if the police had stopped those kids

  • and searched their pockets for drugs as they walked to class?

  • Or had raided their frat parties in the middle of the night?

  • Okay, you might say.

  • But doesn't this high incarceration rate

  • partly account for our really low crime rate?

  • Crime is down. That's a good thing.

  • Totally, that is a good thing. Crime is down.

  • It dropped precipitously in the '90s and through the 2000s.

  • But according to a committee of academics

  • convened by the National Academy of Sciences last year,

  • the relationship between our historically high incarceration rates

  • and our low crime rate is pretty shaky.

  • It turns out that the crime rate goes up and down

  • irrespective of how many young people we send to prison.

  • We tend to think about justice in a pretty narrow way:

  • good and bad, innocent and guilty.

  • Injustice is about being wrongfully convicted.

  • So if you're convicted of something you did do,

  • you should be punished for it.

  • There are innocent and guilty people,

  • there are victims and there are perpetrators.

  • Maybe we could think a little bit more broadly than that.

  • Right now, we're asking kids who live in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods,

  • who have the least amount of family resources,

  • who are attending the country's worst schools,

  • who are facing the toughest time in the labor market,

  • who are living in neighborhoods where violence is an everyday problem,

  • we're asking these kids to walk the thinnest possible line --

  • to basically never do anything wrong.

  • Why are we not providing support to young kids facing these challenges?

  • Why are we offering only handcuffs, jail time and this fugitive existence?

  • Can we imagine something better?

  • Can we imagine a criminal justice system that prioritizes recovery,

  • prevention, civic inclusion,

  • rather than punishment?

  • (Applause)

  • A criminal justice system that acknowledges

  • the legacy of exclusion that poor people of color in the U.S. have faced

  • and that does not promote and perpetuate those exclusions.

  • (Applause)

  • And finally, a criminal justice system that believes in black young people,

  • rather than treating black young people as the enemy to be rounded up.

  • (Applause)

  • The good news is that we already are.

  • A few years ago, Michelle Alexander wrote "The New Jim Crow,"

  • which got Americans to