The Experience Economy of CriminalizationPosted by James Bell on April 20th, 2010
Last Friday ended a long disturbing saga for those who believe that justice is the cornerstone of civil society and democracy. I was dismayed to read that the U.S. Justice Department does not plan to pursue civil rights violations or other charges against the boot camp employees who hit and kicked 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, causing his untimely and unfortunate death. Justice Department investigators, according to news reports, felt they did not have enough evidence to pursue criminal charges despite videotape of the beating.
I am not questioning their judgment because I believe they must have pored over every second of the videotape. However, I am frustrated and angered by the result. It is beyond coincidence that young people of color continue to be criminalized for behavior that their White counterparts are not. Something is terribly amiss - from Jaisha Aikens, a five-year-old African American girl, who was handcuffed by three police officers and forcibly removed for misbehaving in pre-school; to Mirabel Cuevas, an 11-year-old Latino girl who was arrested in a police operation that involved three police cars and a helicopters.
Cuevas had thrown a rock at boys who had pelted her with water balloons. She spent five days in detention and a month under house arrest.
The New York Times recently reported on a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court regarding a school fight with no weapons or serious injuries, which resulted in expulsions and the denial of attending alternative schools or studying at home. There is no doubt that if this same fight happened at a private school, this result would have never been contemplated. That is because parents who can afford private schools pay thousands of dollars for tolerance -- not the "zero tolerance" that is being meted out in public schools serving mostly youth of color. Similar behavior = different results.
Even the U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan, lamented "schools that seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys" while he vowed stronger efforts to ensure racial equality in schooling.
To be clear, my advocacy is not for preferential treatment, but for fairness and equity regarding similar behavior. Teenage behavior that is just that - adolescent behavior - knows no race, ethnicity, gender or neighborhood. My frustration is that teenagers of color who test adult limits or social boundaries are seen as criminal, while their White counterparts are "just kids" who may be in need of services.
Why such a different responses? We have deeply ingrained notions about race, youthful behavior and public safety. We are trapped by a system of beliefs and incentives that conspired to kill Martin Anderson without any individual or institutional responsibility.
This issue harkens the notion of the "Experience Economy" introduced by Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore. They posit that businesses should provide memorable "experiences" that substitute for the actual product. In this model, businesses charge for the feeling they invoke. Nike, Starbucks and Disney are a few that come to mind. They work very hard to sell you the experience rather than the product.
Our society has been sold the idea that the "experience" of criminalization is a viable product. We do not examine what is actually happening to jailed youth, or the long-term result of detaining them for adolescent behavior. Rather, we react. Paraphrasing journalist Maia Szalavitz, it is clear that when abusive power is the experience, it is impossible for the experience to be safe. Indeed, in Martin Lee Anderson's case, it was deadly. We must continue to work to change the institutional beliefs and incentives that continue to use incarceration as an experiential default for young people of color.
The special prosecutor that unsuccessfully brought charges against the nine boot camp guards, including the nurse who watched them without intervening, said, "Martin Lee Anderson did not die in vain," and his death would "bring needed attention and reform to our juvenile justice system."
I hope that despite the heartbreaking decision by the Justice Department not to pursue charges that young Martin's death prompts us to reexamine the "experience" being sold to us as justice.
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