The Institutionalization of Young People: 50 Years Later

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

By Patrick Lopez-Aguado, author of Stick Together and Come Back Home: Racial Sorting and the Spillover of Carceral Identity (forthcoming January 2018)

When the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice released its report in 1967, much of the group’s assessment was devoted to concerns about the juvenile justice system. In this report, the commission stressed avoiding the institutionalization of juvenile offenders, both through limiting the range of offenses that would require court intervention (especially for non-violent offenders), and by taking full advantage of any possible alternatives to incarceration.Their hopes in recommending these measures were to minimize the stigmas attached to criminalized young people, and to prevent law enforcement intervention from isolating these youth from their communities.

However, this is not what characterizes juvenile justice today. Instead, much of the policing of youth crime is carried out through a system known as a school to prison pipeline precisely because of how effectively it funnels children into criminal justice facilities. Within this institutional infrastructure,the formal labeling of youth, and particularly poor youth of color, as criminals is often mandated by zero tolerance policies that require schools to report disruptive or troublesome students to local juvenile probation agencies as criminal offenders. Once inside the juvenile justice system, youth are then frequently marked with gang labels that then subject them to ongoing surveillance, punishment, and exclusion from the public sphere.

But this institutionalization is not limited to the management of the juvenile justice system either, as some of its effects may be experienced even before young people are ever placed in a criminal justice facility. The concentration of imprisonment rates condenses many of its collateral consequences into high-incarceration communities, the consequences of prisonization among them. Here, the persistent gang labels used to categorize residents inside justice system institutions (Norteña/os and Sureña/os for example) also regularly appear in the neighborhood, and are similarly ascribed to young residents. The identities and conflicts that stem from these categories then represent an extended socialization of institutional life that now informs the criminalization of poor communities of color.

In the 50 years since the president’s commission, the criminal justice system has wandered far from its stated ideals of minimizing the institutionalization of young people. But it’s never too late to begin moving this system in the right direction. Dismantling the school to prison pipeline stands out as an obvious need, but we also need to interrogate how this status quo has shaped our understanding of youth crime, particularly the need to seek out and control “gang” youth. To this end, the Trump administration’s fixation on “gang members” as folk devils characterizing Latina/o criminality is certainly not encouraging. But we must remember that criminalization is a process that unfolds locally, within the social contexts that we do have the power, and obligation, to change.

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See Patrick at the #ASCPhilly conference during a session on Policing Blackness with his paper on  Constructing Masculine Identity and Performance in the Carceral Social Order on Thursday, November 16, 2:00 to 3:20pm, Marriott, Room 302, 3rd Floor.

And hear more about the book during Patrick’s interview this past July with KZSC Santa Cruz.

Patrick Lopez-Aguado is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Santa Clara University.