Ursula LeGuin’s classic “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” tells of an idyllic community where every need and every happiness is fulfilled. Living comfortably with cleanair and water, the residents of Omelas were satisfied with no cars, no laws, no weapons, no economy, no clergy and none of the complications of modern life.
Yet there was a price for Omelas’ perfect existence. Hidden deep within the shelter of their daily lives was a dark underground room, locked and windowless. In that gloomy room lived one lone child; naked, hungry, and frightened – a child wrenched from its parents with no explanation or understanding. When Omelas’ children were shown the trembling child, at first shocked and filled with guilt and compassion; after a time, they returned to their warm, pleasant homes. Omelas residents were assured of a life of privilege and abundance as long as this one child continued its miserable existence. At the end of LeGuin’s story, there are those who walked away, powerless to change existing conditions and yet refusing to live in a society
that traded personal comfort for the life of one abandoned child.
Prior to the 1900’s, there was no recognition in the United States that troublesome children as young as 7 years should not be punished with incarceration. It was not until the Progressive Era that ushered in a societal shift of consciousness with women suffrage, child labor laws and worker rights that recognized children were not adults and that society had a special obligation to protect and rehabilitate youthful offenders. Youth homes were established and the legal system adopted special proceedings and laws to assure that juveniles did not disappear in prison becoming hardened criminals, forever deprived of a useful role in
Today, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world with 2.3 million men, women and children in prison. Of those imprisoned, 92,854 are juvenile offenders, the most in the industrialized world. Over 2,500 are serving life without parole for homicide and 129 juveniles are serving life w/o parole for non-violent crimes. No other country in the world has a life sentence for its children.
It has been argued that such punitive penalties violate the Eighth Amendment which was part of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ In May, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to life for non-violent crimes and that the 129 sentences should be reconsidered. Of those 129 juveniles, 77 are in the state of Florida. Second to California, Florida has 8,208 juveniles in custody which includes girls and a disproportionate number of minorities.
Reflecting the loss of nurturing conditions in American society, easy access to guns and economic pressures on American families exacerbate soaring violent crimes especially among adolescents. It is no wonder that with 15 million American children living below the poverty line, the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, 25% of American children on food stamps and the highest school drop-out rate that neglected and abused children are the country’s number one mental health concern.
What the courts and juvenile justice system are slow to recognize is that advanced MRI’s confirm that a teenage brain is not a fully mature brain with the prefrontal cortex which governs reasoning, advanced thought and impulse control is the last area of the brain to be developed. It is a no-brainer that healthy brain development depends on a healthy environment.
States ban alcohol use until 21 years of age because adolescent brains have not developed mature judgment, problem solving skills and decision making capacities and yet 44 states treat14 year olds as adults and 15 states allow children as young as ten to be tried in court.
As the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 languishes awaiting Congressional reauthorization, like the child from Omelas, America’s incarcerated children are crying for justice – praying that American society will rediscover its compassionate roots and not turn its back on its children.