Poverty and Child Abuse- Not a simple equation

povertyA few weeks ago, CNN reporter John D. Sutter published a major article on the prevalence of poverty in one of the richest areas in the US, Silicon valley.  Poverty levels are linked to a variety of problems for children; lower educational levels, poor health, poor hygiene, hunger, and child abuse and neglect.  It is easy to see poverty not just as a connection but a direct cause for some of these problems.  Hunger, for example, seems obviously connected to money.  If you don’t have the money to buy food for your family, then your kids will go hungry.

Many people may assume child abuse has the same type of causality.  For these people, it is obvious poor people abuse their kids more in much the same way that poor people obviously commit more crimes or take more drugs.  At first glance, the data backs up this assumption.  The rates of reported child abuse cases are much more prevalent in lower income families.  If that is the case, then perhaps one of the suggestions by Mr. Sutter at the end of the article could help lessen the incidents of child abuse.  His suggestion, a “livable income,” while certainly not a novelty, is to simply give poor people money as a type of wage for simply being alive.  It is enticing in its simplicity; cash to the poor equals less poor people.  So if that works, is it also true that simply giving poor people money, thus making them not as poor, would drastically reduce the rate of child abuse and neglect?  If poverty is linked to child abuse and neglect, then getting rid of poverty would get rid of abuse.

To answer this question, a deeper dive into the statistics and the causes of child abuse is necessary.  In 2014, Angelo McClain, the Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers, testified before Congress that “[f]amilies that are grappling with unemployment, hunger and affordable housing are under tremendous stress, raising the odds children in these families will experience abuse or neglect.”  Poverty creates stress and higher stress levels lead to higher abuse and neglect levels.  One organization estimated in 2007 that families with an income less than $15k were 22 times more likely to experience abuse than families with an income over $30k.  One researcher from Cornell believes that if “income inequality were to drop by 10% we would see about a 15% drop in the number of mistreated children reported to child protective services.”

These articles all hint at a connection between poverty and child abuse but poverty is usually listed as a risk factor but not as a direct cause.  Being poor can inflict a great many challenges on a family from increased stress to hunger but there is a danger in linking poverty directly to abuse because it reduces the problem to a simple equation that poor equals abuse.  This is a dangerous assumption as it creates two groups; those with money and an “other” group without money and therefore without the means to control their actions.  Courts tend to agree with this sentiment as a 2014 American Bar Association article noted that many decisions agree with one judge who wrote that “poverty alone is not a basis for termination.”  Giving the poor money might reduce the risk of child abuse, especially neglect, but it will not end child abuse because the issue is much more complicated than simple dollars and cents.  If it was just about money, then this gives those with money and resources the excuse to take children away from any poor parents simply for being poor.  While Mr. Sutter should be applauded for raising this issue, interested parties should spend time researching the issue before assuming there is any one cause and any one solution.

 

 

 

 

Knowing right from wrong: Circular logic in juvenile punishments

Right-vs.-Wrong

I recently read a blog post on the Marshall Project discussing raising the age of criminal liability in several states, including Texas.  The post clearly and concisely laid out the arguments for and against raising the age and advocated strongly in favor of raising the age, and I recommend reading it if you have any interest in this subject.  However, it was not the arguments or the data used as evidence that grabbed my attention but instead it was a by a quote at the end by Texas State Senator John Whitmire.  Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, responded to a question about pending legislature in Texas that would raise the age by stating, “I think at 17 you should know right from wrong.”  To me, this was in the same vein as my friend’s comment to me a few weeks ago when commenting on the same legislature- “So Texas is going soft on crime?”  To figure out how deep this attitude exists in society, I decided to dig a little deeper into public sentiment in the most obvious and trustworthy of places- anonymous Internet comments.  Here are a few I found-

“i say, adult crimes, adult charges”

“Constantly pandering juvenile offenders only makes the problem worse.”

“The moral of this story is the same as it’s always been; don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

“Nobody made him skip the court hearing – he chose to.  Should he be given a pass because of his age – NO.  Should he be given a pass because of his race – NO.  Should he be given a pass because of his economic situation – NO. 

His age, race and economic situation didn’t make him break laws – he chose to.”

“I hope he gets his life together, but he needs to think before he acts. This particular issue isn’t about race, its about right and wrong”

“Be an adult, take your punishment and learn from it, young man”

“The kid broke the law! The kid tried to avoid taking responsibility for his actions! He needs to be held accountable.”

“Do big boy crime, do big boy time.”

“And the wussufication of America continues. Everyone gets a trophy, even young thugs.”

To be fair, I did cherry pick somewhat from a variety of news articles but I didn’t have to work very hard to do so.  Internet comments are not the best place to gauge public sentiment.  But they do have value in their sheer scale and oftentimes commentators exhibit a brutal honesty that can be a quick and dirty method of figuring out which way large segments of the public feel about a certain topic.   While there were some threads that contained thoughtful and well-reasoned arguments on both sides, it appeared to me that a majority of the comments are similar to those listed above.  What do these comments say about the efforts to #RaisetheAge in Texas and other states?

First, many adults appear to think that it is an action that determines your maturity level.  If a kid can commit a “big boy crime,” then that kid should “do big boy time.”  For me, that argument is circular because it allows an action of a minor that is by definition immature to somehow push the kid into maturity.  The actions of a minor do not determine his maturity level; age, experience, biology, and a myriad of other factors do.  If anything, the action proves the kid has not yet matured, not that his crime somehow gives him the maturity necessary to spend time in an adult prison.

Second, many commentators seem to believe that a punishment that does not involve spending time in an adult prison is not a punishment at all.  They equate spending time in a juvenile prison, or receiving probation, or providing community service, as avoiding responsibility.  Phrases like “pandering” or “wussification” underline a societal attitude that kids have it easy and are soft.

Finally, many comments focused on the choice a kid made in committing a crime.  If he can choose to commit a crime, then he must suffer the consequences.  However, this ignores data cited by the Supreme Court that indicates that 17-year old minors are simply not as capable as adults of making rational and mature “choices.”

#RaisetheAge campaigns might have made some progress in the past few years but if this small selection of comments is any indicator, a broad swath of society might not be on the same page.  Until norms and attitudes change, it could prove very difficult for any legal change to happen and even more difficult for those changes to have any effect.

 

 

 

 

Go to the principal’s office! Or the courtroom?

Jury box

Last week, I was called to jury duty for the first time.  I am pretty sure I was the most excited member of the jury pool as we waited in the security line last Tuesday morning in downtown Houston.  After a couple of hours of waiting, I was selected to be part of panel in a very serious assault charge that carried with it decades of possible prison time.  As we went through jury selection, or voir dare, I was at times proud to be part of this system and other times very sad to be part of this system.  Proud that many of my fellow panelists took the process seriously and seemed genuinely interested in being fair but sad that a few possible jurors seemed to lack any ability or willingness to be act impartially toward a fellow citizen.  As the judge and the attorneys focused their questions on our ability to act impartial, the alleged perpetrator sat in the courtroom and watched.  A middle-aged white male, his background was similar to many of the people in the room.  At the end of the day, the thirteen panelists seemed very much to be a jury of his peers (and no I didn’t get selected).  As I walked out, I couldn’t help but ask myself- what if the alleged criminal had been a 15-year old kid being tried as an adult?

In both Texas and the federal system, you must be eighteen to serve on a jury.[1]  From my, albeit limited, experience, the actual average age of a jury is much older.  I am thirty-three and it seemed to me that, by a wide margin, I was on the younger side of the panel.  Why does this matter?  Well, it seems the average age of a jury is an important influence on the verdict.  In a recent article in the Journal of Law and Economics, researchers looked at data from hundreds of verdicts in two Florida counties and concluded that older jurors convict significantly more often.[2]  For any alleged criminal, this bias could have a serious effect on the outcome of the trial and the subsequent punishment.  But for a child that is charged as an adult, the consequences could be even more severe.  As we discussed last time in this forum, Texas and many other states treat seventeen-year-old kids as adults in the criminal system.  However, those same kids cannot sit on a jury.  Instead, their jury will most likely look just like every other authoritative voice in his life; older, more conservative, and much less likely to understand his motives and actions than his peers.  For some kids, it must feel like going to the principal’s office except there are twelve people in the room and those twelve people have the power to send you to jail instead of detention.

Based on my jury duty experience, it seems difficult to think a kid would receive his right to a fair trial by a jury of his “peers,” no matter how well-intentioned they may be.  Perhaps this is another reason why courts should treat kids as kids and adults as adults.

[1] JUROR QUALIFICATIONS, EXEMPTIONS AND EXCUSES, http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/JuryService/JurorQualificaitons.aspx

[2] Shamena Anwar, Patrick Bayer and Randi Hjalmarsson, (2014) “The Role of Age in Jury Selection and Trial Outcomes,” May 2013, Journal of Law and Economics.