It's the time of year when politicians line up to praise mothers. Last year, President Barack Obama even issued a lighthearted public service announcement reminding his audience not to forget the holiday. But this year, thanks to some of those same politicians, more than a thousand migrant mothers and children in the United States will spend Mother’s Day behind bars.
When I first visited the Baltimore City Detention Center in 1999, I found an archaic, decaying facility that held people in grim cells with no direct natural light. The detention center held many children who were charged as adults, and they suffered some of the worst abuses — including extended periods of confinement in cells punctuated by brutal acts of violence, often encouraged by guards.
“They’ll stop them just for being black,” a 39-year-old African American woman named Holly told me last August, describing how police in and around her home town of Ferguson, Missouri, treated young black men. “I’ve actually stood there and watched cousins of mine get pulled over. [The police] would sit them down, pat them down, even after they knew they had the wrong person. I have so many of those stories.”
On South Dakota’s impoverished Lower Brule Sioux reservation, $1.2 million of US government funding dedicated to providing the tribe with drinking water has disappeared. Roughly $2.6 million in federal money earmarked for education and other social programs went missing – after which the reservation’s school system had to be overhauled due to poor performance.
More children work in agriculture than in any other industry in the world. But the scale and complexity of the problem is no excuse for tolerating a practice that traps children in multi-generational cycles of poverty, or, worse, leaves them injured, maimed, or dead.
When for-profit companies make money off the criminal justice system through privatization of prisons, it often triggers serious public debate. But there has been precious little scrutiny of local governments that use courts to make money for themselves. We should all be paying closer attention, because that kind of for-profit justice often means shifting public costs onto a community’s poorest members and creating perverse incentives for courts to ratchet up the pain.