For most of our adult lives, we have seen up close the disastrous effects of the school-to-prison pipeline that exists in so many of America’s economically disadvantaged communities. Sia sees these affected young people as a lawyer who works in the often corrupted, racially charged legal systems in a number of southern states. John sees them as part of his work as a mentor in the Big Brother/Big Sisters of America program for the last quarter century. Over and over again, we encounter children who don’t have access to basic opportunities, advantages, and programs enjoyed by other kids who come from families with greater means. We see how poverty and segregation can play a major role in determining the life chances of so many young people.
These children have no voting constituency. What the presidential candidates do or don’t do for this population will have no impact on the election in November. But if you do believe that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, and you believe a society should be measured by how it treats its members who are in the weakest financial and educational positions, then it should matter what giving President Obama another term would do to improve the lives of these marginalized populations.
How these kids fare in the next four years is directly related to a fundamental philosophical difference between President Obama and Governor Romney. President Obama believes in, and is committed to, a government that has a central role in ensuring that all children have an opportunity to enjoy the American Dream, irrespective of the financial circumstances of their parents. As president, Obama therefore supports a slew of programs that have been constructed on the basis of experimentation and trial and error social programming since the beginnings of the Great Society initiatives of the 1960s. From all the rhetoric thus far, it appears a Romney administration would cut a number of critical programs that support at-risk youth and their families, whereas the Obama administration would work to maintain them and improve their effectiveness and efficiency. Many of these critical programs would become unfundable if Romney’s tax cuts for the wealthiest were enacted.
The legal system itself is a battleground for these different visions and ideologies, with profound implications for at-risk youth in America. As Governor Romney’s connection to conservative forces indicates, he would likely appoint ultra-right federal judges who will continue to expand maximum, inflexible prison terms as the main response to and deterrence for juvenile crime. These federal judges have historically looked for ways to restrict the rights of criminal defendants, and they have been dismissive of rehabilitation, even for people who committed crimes as young teenagers.
We’re voting for President Obama in November in part because he has displayed a governing philosophy that sees the necessity for a comprehensive approach to providing opportunities for at-risk youth that give them a real chance for a better life. Such an approach requires better schools in poorer neighborhoods, more youth services and after-school programs, better recreation opportunities, consistent support for rehabilitation, timely job programs for youth, and more progressive judges.
Doing this and doing it better in a second term probably won’t win him many votes, but the impact on young people all throughout these United States will be profound.
John Prendergast is the Co-Author of “Unlikely Brothers” and the Co-Founder of the Enough Project. Sia Sanneh is the Senior Liman Fellow at Yale Law School.
This essay originally ran as part of 90 Days, 90 Reasons. For more essays, written by people such as Khaled Hosseini, Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat and Majora Carter, go to 90days90reasons.com. Follow 90 Days, 90 Reasons on Twitter: https://twitter.com/90days90reasons Or like them on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/90days90reasons
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