Kristin Henning: The Cradle to Prison Pipeline and the Criminalization of Black Youth

On Thursday, January 26, the Clarke Forum, along with Dickinson Law, the Center for Civil Learning and Action and several academic departments, welcomed speaker Kristin Henning, the Blume Professor of Law and the Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law School. 

In her talk, “The Cradle to Prison Pipeline and the Criminalization of Black Youth,” Professor Henning discussed racial disparities and discrimination against Black children in the justice system and the trauma it causes. A key aspect of Henning’s talk was how normal adolescent behaviors are criminalized in Black teenagers and excused in those who are white. 

Black children are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, with the vast majority being prosecuted for non-violent offenses that arise from normal teenage tendencies: impulsivity, emotion, peer pressure and recklessness; all behavior that is tolerated in white children, though children of color are not more prone to delinquency than they are. When Black children do commit more serious crimes, they are more likely to be prosecuted as adults and receive harsher sentences.

Henning pointed out how Black children do not get the benefit of their childhood. They are dehumanized and perceived as both less innocent and older than they actually are. Police officers are more likely to stop Black teenagers when they are in groups, though they are not any more likely than their white counterparts to be carrying contraband on them. Adults are more likely to interpret their neutral facial expressions as negative, angry or dangerous. Specifically, she pointed out, Black male teens are perceived as taller, stronger and more threatening than white male teens with the same build. 

Henning also discussed interactions between Black children and the police in a school setting in the form of School Resource Officers (SROs). She noted that police officers first entered schools in Indianapolis in 1939, in response to desegregation initiatives, and the unjustified claim of white families that Black children would bring disorder to schools. SROs only became more prevalent as the civil rights era continued.

 Henning rebuked the common claim that police officers only became prevalent in schools after the 1999 Columbine school shooting, but even this is misleading: the use of School Resource Officers did not increase in the schools of white, middle-class suburbs such as where the Columbine shooting took place, but rather in urban schools that mostly served students of color. 

Additionally, there is no evidence that SROs actually increase safety in schools, but rather increase stress, fear, anxiety, substance abuse and trauma, particularly in Black children. 

As a solution, Henning championed the concept of a holistic public health approach to safety, centered around a just, restorative and trauma-informed response. Curriculums, she argued, must focus on empathy, positive interventions, youth advocacy and grace. Professor Henning published a book in 2021 titled “The Rage of Innocence” that discusses her lecture topic in more depth.