The World’s Children’s Prize (WCP) is awarded annually to a children’s rights hero. Phymean Noun, Kailash Satyarthi, and Javier Stauring are up for a $50,000 grant given to the winner. Stauring is based in the U.S. and advocates for imprisoned children.
Stauring’s work is primarily based in California, which has a “zero tolerance” policy against children committing crimes. As a result of this “zero tolerance” policy, children are imprisoned for small crimes or for being an assistant to the crime, even if they weren’t physically involved.
Half of children imprisoned for life were not physically involved in a crime and children receive longer sentences than an adult if the two committed a crime together.
Every night, ten thousand children spend the night in adult jail. Some children are kept in a special isolation unit made just for children; they receive three hours per week of time outside of the cell.
Others in maximum security jails spend their lives enclosed by bulletproof glass, heavy gates and barbed wire sensors. They are tried as adults and their imprisonment reflects that.
However, the imprisonment of children, as with adults, reflects a system of racism and inequality. 85 percent of imprisoned children are black or Latino. Black children are nine times more likely to be imprisoned than white children; Latino children are four times more likely to be imprisoned than white children. This is correlative with poverty rates in California; persons of color are more likely to be living in poverty.
250,000 children are tried annually as adults, including children as young as eight. This is countered with various arguments, including how children’s brains aren’t fully developed until age 25, and how costly it is to keep children in jail.
California spends $45,000 per year on an inmate and only around $8,000 per year on a student. However, with the implementation and enforcement of this “zero tolerance” policy, the state has invested significant funds into the construction and upkeep of prisons; the state also receives income from fines from people committing minor crimes.
Javier Stauring, who spent time growing up in the U.S. and Mexico, works as an advocate and mentor for imprisoned children. He spends much of his time visiting children in jail; he had been doing so since he was a young adult. From the start, Stauring has been shocked at the treatment of children in jail.
He advocates for their rights while in jail, such as being able to get an education, play sports, and call their families. He protests against life sentencing, the use of solitary confinement and inhumane treatment for children in jail. He also fights for children who are victims of violent crime in adult prisons.
Stauring works on the ground and also through partnerships. Stauring works for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles as the Co-Director of Restorative Justice; through this, he promotes dialogue, education, and community service as a form of justice rather than outright punishment through imprisonment. He works with religious leaders, politicians, educational institutions, and nonprofits to increase the impact of his work.
What is increasingly troubling is the lack of transparency for the juvenile justice system. At one point, Stauring was banned from prisons until he sued. Furthermore, it is difficult to find statistics on the exact number of children in jail.
Statistics on children are vaguely categorized in the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report on prison populations; they are grouped under “other offenses.” Little of this receives significant press.
In addition, in a state such as California whose population is 10 percent immigrants, it raises questions on how the U.S. handles children of immigrant families in the legal system.
Immigrants make up 19 percent of the prison population in California, double their rate in the general population; this incarceration rate does not match that of who is actually committing violent crimes. Therefore, Stauring’s work for restorative justice for all, regardless of citizenship or ethnicity, holds critical weight in the fight for children’s rights in jail.
Ultimately, as immigration, the movement for racial equality and how to handle illegal immigrants become increasingly politicized with the upcoming 2016 presidential election, it also becomes important to consider children’s rights, particularly those of children in jail.
The U.S. remains one of only two countries in the world to have not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which has powerful implications for how the U.S. approaches foreign policy and helps children in poverty around the world. As we continue to support legislation for foreign aid, it is important to think about the example we set and the rights we support at home, too.
– Priscilla McCelvey
Sources: Bureau of Justice Services, Center for Immigrant Studies, CNN, Equal Justice Initiative, Huffington Post, Public Policy Institute of California, World’s Children’s Prize
Photo: Human Rights Watch