In 1996, Dwayne Betts, then 16 years old, walked out of a courtroom with a sentence for nine years in prison; he’d flashed a gun at someone in a suburban mall and stolen his car. Betts, now a lawyer who represents young people facing trial, still remembers what the judge said to him before sending him off: “I am under no illusion that sending you to prison will help.”
That was almost 20 years ago. Even if Betts’s judge knew the justice system was a flawed solution, there was no energy around seeking an alternative. But now, “outrage over the criminal justice system has become a defining civil rights issue,” host Kai Wright says in the first episode of Caught, a new nine-episode podcast from WNYC airing throughout March. “People are talking about the excesses of cops and courts with a new urgency.” But that conversation, Wright says, tends to focus on the end of that story–when someone receives a life-defining sentence for a low-level crime, or is killed by a police officer over mere suspicion, like the spate of murders that sparked the Movement for Black Lives.
The trajectory that leads to these events, though, is too little understood. So in Caught, Wright instead takes listeners back to the beginning: the moment young people first interact with the police and the justice system. America incarcerates more people than any other country on the planet, and that starts with youth. On any given night, Wright says, more than 53,000 young people are in lock-up; nearly 60% of those are black or Latino. And for a kid walking into a court for the first time, it’s unlikely it’ll be their last. Often, a single arrest as a youth spirals into multiple arrests, and eventually jail time.
Caught tells the story of the juvenile justice system through the voices and stories of young people who have experienced it. Over the course of the podcast, Wright interviews people who were locked up in the ’90s, like Dwayne, and those in the system now. He makes a point to focus on both young men’s and women’s stories. Young women are often excluded from the conversation around the justice system, but their stories often revolve around instances of sexual assault or abuse, and need to be told.
Z, for instance (whose name was omitted from the podcast to conceal his identity), speaks to Wright in the basement of a juvenile detention facility in Queens. He’s 16 years old, and a talented musician, but locked up for over a year for involvement in an armed robbery. He’d been arrested several times before, from the age of 12 onwards. He struggles to control his temper, Z tells Wright, and what complicates the matter is that flying into a rage–or “turning up” as Z calls it–is often the only way to attract attention from the people managing the facility. “That’s the tragedy here,” Wright says. “In order to get help as a young person, you first have to accept punishment and labeling.”
It’s clear that for Z, and the thousands like him, the justice system does not work. “There’s an increasing awareness, both inside and outside the system, that we have to do something different,” Wright says. Numerous reform measures are circulating through state and local legislatures to try to divert people from incarceration and into mental health services, for instance, or to reduce offenses for low-level crimes like truancy or drug possession. But for Wright, those reforms don’t go far enough. “They still are based on punishment, and trapped within the framework of the criminal justice system,” he says.
Wright, through this podcast, hopes to prepare people to imagine something different. “What if we started with abolition of the justice system? Could we start over and build something better?”
In his interviews with youth for Caught, Wright kept hearing the same thing: a desire for time and space for the kids to collect themselves, and work through why they did what they did. The justice system picks up kids and shuffles them so quickly through courts and jails and detention centers that they don’t get that time to reflect before facing punishment. Initiatives like restorative justice–an emerging concept that replaces incarceration and punishment with an opportunity for victims and perpetrators to come together and work through the crime in a community-centered space–might offer the time that the youth have expressed they need.
What the justice system should be, Betts says at one point during Caught, is “a moment to breathe.” It’s clear, though, listening to the youths’ stories, it’s still very far from that.