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Events in Ferguson Raise Debate on Justice System

For nearly two weeks, the country has had their eyes fixed on Ferguson, Missouri.

The tragic killing of teen-aged Michael Brown by police and the protests that have followed have rightly raised debate about the state of our system of justice in the United States.

The hardest thing to swallow in the wake of these events is that Brown’s death and the stupefying overreaction of the police officer (no matter whose version you believe of the events) is far from unique. Rather Brown’s death illustrates a number of troubling trends.

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Across our country, kids of color are profiled and singled out for unfair and inappropriate discipline in schools and for encounters with the police. Data shows that at every point in the juvenile justice system, they are more likely to receive harsher responses than White youth for similar crimes. Our data in Nebraska is no better.

Law enforcement in the United States and in Nebraska lacks the proper training and oversight, especially when it comes to our youth.  No one questions the important role police can play in protecting our communities and our children, but they don’t need military equipment to do it well.

 A 2013 report showed that Nebraska officers only spent 1% of their training on understanding the juvenile justice system, let alone adolescent development and effective strategies for dealing with youth.  A recent ACLU report highlighted an incident where a police used a taser against an unarmed Kearney, Nebraska high school freshman.  What could’ve been different if instead of relying on a taser, that officer had better training and techniques for dealing with a struggling adolescent instead of using extreme force? Wouldn’t our schools, youth, and police officers be better off?

There is no question law enforcement has to behave more justly to kids, especially kids of color, and so do the rest of us. We neglect kids in all kinds of ways. For example, by pushing youth out of school, investing in youth incarceration, and transferring kids to adult court, we disinvest in them. All youth have potential; none deserve to be shot to death and left in the street, none of them to deserve to be thrown away. It is well past time for our justice system to recognize this.

For the future of Nebraska and our country, we must urgently begin to ask hard questions and make important changes so that all of our kids and communities can be safe and prosperous.

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