That's My Issue: the Criminal Justice System

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Aidge Patterson of the LA Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant leads a protest rally outside a pretrial hearing for Johannes Mehserle at the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles on March 26, 2010. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty)

That’s My Issue is WNYC’s election-year project to gather stories of how your life experience has shaped your politics. Share your story and create your custom badge, read all the stories in the archive, record an audio story directly from your computer, and see much more about the project at the That’s My Issue homepage.

In my rearview mirror, I saw the flashing lights of the police car turn on, but no siren. I had gotten my driver’s license less than a year ago, and the lights made me nervous. I hadn’t done anything illegal, but I turned onto Davenport Street just a few blocks from home, and pulled the red Toyota MR2 over to be safe.

The cops didn’t get out of their car. Moments later, two cars full of teenagers pulled over a block past us. They were my friends. I had been navigating them through the streets of Washington DC, where I grew up, so they wouldn’t get lost getting home to Maryland. But then I got pulled over.

The moment that four of five more police cars screeched up, our criminal justice system became my issue.

In retrospect, that experience was like the awareness you get of bright sunlight when your eyes are closed. Perhaps you’re trying to get a few more minutes of sleep, but it’s pushing its way through your eyelids until you finally wake up.

At the time, I didn’t have language like "Superpredator" or "mass incarceration" to describe what was happening. I knew the cops saw my group of Black friends as a threat. Of course it didn’t occur to me that a Princeton Professor was at the time inventing a term that would be used to describe my friends in the public consciousness and media for decades to come. “Carloads of Superpredators roaming the normally safe, quiet residential streets of Northwest Washington.”

Almost a quarter of a century later, I analyze data and policy at the W. Haywood Burns Institute in San Francisco, an organization that fights to make the juvenile justice system equitable, and to get kids out of the system. We especially focus on reducing the overrepresentation of youth of color and poor youth in the juvenile justice system. I have a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I focused on criminal justice and education policy.

In the intervening decade, I have learned from friends and loved ones who have spent decades behind bars in federal and state prisons; professors; books; advocates who raised awareness by chalking “No More Prisons” on the sidewalks of Brooklyn; and the children of incarcerated parents who were in Project WHAT!, a youth leadership development and advocacy program I directed for five years.

Some of my friends joke that I’m always talking about prison. It may be true, but read some of these statistics and you’ll know why.

The United States incarcerates children at the highest rates in the world, a rate five times that of South Africa. On any given night in this country, more than 70,000 children are locked up, the majority youth of color and most for misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses. What the hell are we doing?


More in:

Comments [4]

michael from with a .38 waiting for the end.

What is the alternative punishment for the young person who breaks the old lady's hip when stealing her purse? Why is criminal behaviour tolerated and in some cases incouraged by the family? Wrong is right and right is for squares?

Aug. 17 2012 10:38 AM

Hi Jade,

Sorry for the confusion, but if you'd like to write your story rather than record it, we offer that option in a separate article, which you can find here:

Again we apologize and hope you'll share your story in whatever format is most comfortable for you.

Stephen Reader
It's a Free Country

Aug. 17 2012 10:19 AM

I just went to the TMI page, and it appears that comments can only be recorded, not written. I can't tell you how much that offends me. Are you going to start requiring that we sign in with Facebook now? (If you actually do that, I call the credit card company and stop my monthly donations immediately.)(Using my true identity, of course.)

Aug. 17 2012 08:36 AM
Macho Gringo from Alphabet City NYC NY

Why is the American Voting Public so apathetic about Government and its ability (or inability) to relate and help them in everyday life AND Where is the Middle Class going? Brazil?

Aug. 17 2012 07:42 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by