Hank Coxe speaks, at TEDxJacksonville, about imprisoning children and the morality of a nation that thinks this is just course of action.
I'm gonna begin with two assumptions: number one that most everyone here was a teenager, and number two that you can remember being a teenager. so want you to close your eyes for a moment; no one is going to run up and baptize you while you do it and I want you to think back to one or two of those horrible experiences you cannot get out of your mind today where you did something so stupid, so idiotic that was so embarrassing or somebody may have been hurt, or could have been hurt
in your teenage years.
Now, on the left is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the time this picture was taken he was known as Lew Alcindor remarkable basketball player out of Power Memorial High School New York City. On your right is me, remarkable only to my mother but in a playground in northern New Jersey when he and I were 16 years old with four hundred kids hang around that playground every Friday and Saturday night, half of them girls, I decided that my two friends and I could whip him and his two buddies in a 3-on-3 game on the playground.I have searched the English language and I have searched every dictionary I could find and there is no word whose definition is humiliation times 10 and if you've never had the privilege of eating a leather basketball for 25 minutes I don't recommend it to but I'm not here to talk about three on three pickup basketball games.
There is a long line in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire the Vanities that I have always remembered before Tom Wolfe wrote it because he wasn't the author of it, the author of the line was Judge Sol Wachtler former chief judge the New York Court of Appeals in the state of New York, highest court in that state, and in an interview Judge Walker said a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if that’s what the prosecutor wanted. That has stuck with me and a lot of my friends, for a long time for the message it may send but I was a little skeptical that he pushed the envelope, what he said. So my staff and I scoured the prisons in every state in this country and we could not find a single ham sandwich serving time in this country but what we did find were thousands upon thousands of children just like the one you're looking at. A 14-year-old headed off to prison fo over 20 years.
Thousands upon thousands. This country leads the world incarcerating its own people this country now is determined to incarcerate its children at the same rate that it incarcerates its adults. Now, when I say as children am I talking about my children? my children aren’t in prison. Talking about your children? Your children probably aren't in prison. Who are these children? Where are they, and if we don't know them,
why do we care, what does it make us if we don't know these kids?
Every state in the country has been doing it since the early 1990’s. Dietrich Bonhoeffer familiar to probably a great many in this room. German theologian, executed in 1945 in a Nazi concentration camp where he was hanged. He said that “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children” he didn't say my children, he didn't say your children, he meant all children. That's the test morality.to Bahnhoeffer.
So move from 1945 to now. The 13-year-old boy walks into the living room and he says to his father reading the newspaper he said, “dad I need the keys to the car I got a date tonight” dad looks up from the paper and smiles and goes back to the paper and the boy says “I'm serious” and he is serious and he does know right from wrong, but he said dad I’ve ridden with you thousands of times. I know if I put the key in the ignition it'll start the car, I know the steering wheel makes it go left right or forward, I know if I put my foot on the brake I can slow it down or stop it I know how the turn signals work and I've got four dollars for mom to put gas in it. And the dad looks up and he says no and his government says no. Why? Why do they say no?
The 14-year-old girl walks into the kitchen Where mom's cooking and says “mom you know that boy in the eighth grade with me I’ve mentioned before”, she said. “I've heard you mention him several times you must like him a lot.” And she says, “we’re going to get married.” And mom looks up from the cooking smiles and goes back to cooking and she says “I'm serious we love each other and you know I reached puberty two years ago and we want to have a family and raise children and I watched you do it so we're gonna do the same thing and while we're at it I need some money to buy a house and mom says to the girl “no” and the government says to the girl “no.” But why? Why did they say no? Is it so obvious that we're sitting here, we kno why we’re saying no?
There is an adfor healthcare company that makes it simple.They want you to bring your children to them for health care and they say kids are not little adults ,so what is Hank Coxe doing up here tell us something we don't already know and the National Automobile Insurance Company comes out with a different ad “Why do most 16-year-olds drive like they're missing a part of their brain? Because they are.”
What does that mean, that's a little more esoteric than kids are not little adults.
In 1948, 65 years ago, the United States Supreme Court was confronted with the problem of a 15-year-old who was accused of something serious and was interrogated in the early morning hours for hours and hours by police had nobody helping him and the United States Supreme Court said no.The United States Supreme Court said we can't tolerate that and what did they say? “Age 15 is a tender in difficult age for baby boy of any race. He cannot be judged by the more exacting standard of maturity. This is the period of great instability which the crisis adolescence produces.
So on we go. In the 1980’s this country becomes obsessed with incarcerating its own people. The estimates now are between 2.3 to 2.5 million Americans in our prisons. No country in the world comes close to incarcerating people at the rate we do. and then in the 1990s we decided why not house the kids in prison just like we do the adults.
They did something bad, we know they knew right from wrong and on it came up to this day. So
you go back to the United States Supreme Court. They haven't said anything since 1948 about the situation and while we're incarcerating our children at the same rate we're incarcerating our adults happy to lead the world for some reason. There is another group of people who are trying to get the answer to the why and those people are doctors, researchers, scientists, pediatricians,child therapists, caseworkers all around the country why for these children different? Why is it the thirteen-year-old can drive the car?
He could, but when he looks out the window and sees his high school buddy or his junior high school buddy and he gets distracted he runs over the three-year-old in the street and kills him. Why does a 14-year-old girl, who is now fifty gets a call on the cell phone from her best friend talking about how nice the history teacher is and forgets that the bath tub is running and now the new infant drowns.
Why does that happen with children? The American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Society Asian child psychologist,- association of the researchers and scientists came up and studied and studied and this is what they studied the human brain, everybody recognizes that sketch the human brain, that’s simple. But what was it they found? What they found was the adult brain on the left as opposed to the adolescent he child or the juvenile brain on the right has a frontal lobe or a frontal cortex but the one with the child isn't near developed. It won't develop until the child is 20, 21, 22- until so when they're in their teens that frontal lobe and that frontal cortex hasn't developed.
What difference does that make? Because that is the CEO of the brain. That is the part of the brain that they then realized controls decision-making it controls mature jugement, it controls the ability to resist impulse and it controls the ability to resist the influences of people around you. And what they concluded was children do not appreciate the consequences of their acts the way adults do. Children do not engage into decision making the way adults do. Nobody else in the country would listen to all these experts and my friend uses an example where everybody surrounds home plate in little league and the doctors come to home plate and they bring the x-ray technicians and everybody agrees the kid’s leg is broken only the government would say who cares, run to first base kid despite the conclusive medical evidence.
They tell the United States Supreme Court because that's the only place they go and for those of you who aren't aware of it the United States Supreme Court could be very very concerned, but if there isn't something in the United States Constitution that they can't base a decision on they can do nothing. I don't know how many of you if I ask you to stand up and tell me what the eighth amendment to the bill of rights is because that's what they went to — in the eighth amendment to the bill rights United States Supreme Court turns to says this: Nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted, and the United States Supreme Court said to Jacksonville, Florida that 16-year-old you sent to life in prison with no parole when he didn't even hurt anybody that is cruel and unusual in the 21st century under our constitution
What the supreme court did over the next few years was continue to send a message to the governments of this country “their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult” (2005). In 2011 “a child's age is a fact that generates common sense conclusions about behavior and perception and they are self-evident to anyone who was once a child himself” That's exactly what they said in 1948
they just didn’t know why they were saying it in 1948.and then, developments in psychology in brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.
Did our governments listen? No, that steamroller keeps on movin’. Right to this day, first-hand experience. Twelve-years-old home alone with his 2-year-old brother. He hurts his brother. As soon as he realized he hurt his brother he calls his mother to come home, she does, she takes this 12-year-old to school and unfortunately for whatever reasons, legitimate or illegitimate, she doesn't seek medical care
for eight and a half hours and 36 hours after she does get the medical care the two-year-old dies from brain swelling never intended by this twelve-year-old. Never intended.
The government's solution to that problem was to indict that child for first-degree murder as an adult. And if he had been found guilty that when he was indicted he would serve every day of the rest of his life in an adult prison. Now, did that child end up going to adult prison? No. We'd like to say it was because of an army of legal talent. We'd like to say it was because the judge heard from experts around the country and read with the United States Supreme Court sentence that this kids not a ham sandwich but I'll get back to what I think was the major reason in a moment.
The child is interrogated in the early morning hours by an experienced homicide detective, six times he’s asked if he understands them and six times he says “uh huh”. He’s told he has a right to lawyers, he never heard what a lawyer does in his life, and nobody tells him. What he says could be used against him in court, he doesn’t know what a court is. But my favorite the next one says “if you can afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish, that means, if you don’t have any money for a lawyer which I know you’re 12, so that would be your mom you know, responsibility to get a lawyer for you if you don't have the money for one, we will give you one. You understand what that
The reason that's my favorite is because if you can't afford one, you’re 12, your mom's got the responsibility. Mom’s locked up down the hall and they won't let her see her son and they won’t let her son see his mom so why are you telling him this? Because he's 12 years old he won't understand, and if you think the insurance add missing a part of the brain of a 16-year-old was a case where do you think a 12 year old is? So we continue to lock these kids up throughout the country. That one spent 23 days at an adult jail in solitary confinement when it started. Now we live in a system justice, it has decision-makers who relate to relative affluence do not relate to poverty.
They relate to education, high school, college. They do not relate to illiteracy, and they relate to relatively safe neighborhoods they don't relate to a fifteen year old praying he makes that last four blocks when he gets off the school bus today and they don't take his money or his back pack because he didn't make it yesterday. But one thing that is a common denominator is rich poor, educated illiterate, safe or unsafe
is none of these kids’ brains have developed to be responsible like the United States Supreme Court says you can't punish him the way you do the rest of them.
In the last speech he gave before he died this is what was on former Vice President Hubert Humphrey's marked, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, to children” Go back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What are the three things in common, decades earlier he said? He said you protect children, number one. Number two,Bonhoeffer said society, Humphrey says
government. Do they mean the same thing? We'll never know ‘cause they’re not aroundto ask but the moral test — they agree that it is a moral test, they didn't say legal test. And so if you go back to your home and you look in the mirror whether you’re gonna brush your teeth or you’re gonna shave or you just like admiring yourself in in the mirror ask yourself do I subscribe to moral test in a suspect you'll say you do.
Do I teach my children moral test? I'm sure you think you do. But is it meaningful for all of us if you don't demand that same moral test of the people you elected to represent you and run this government. In closing I will say that I believe sometimes pictures can be worth a thousand words I mentioned earlier that he got lucky, People are asked at the end of talks, well what can I do? And if somebody says
write your legislator, your governor, your senator, whatever, I say that’s howash. They have people who are paid to write you back and thank you for that letter and tell you how much they're interested in your input and nothing changes.
The best thing that happened to that child is the media. And that's what I believe changes government is when the media champions a cause, and they champion his cause in this town in the state
in many parts the rest of the country. Welcome to your new roommate. And then the toughest of all,these two. Bonhoeffer and Humphrey were right. It's a moral test.
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