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Injustice, Inc.: How America’s Justice System Commodifies Children and the Poor

by Daniel L. Hatcher

As Daniel L. Hatcher explains in his new book, Injustice, Inc., the more beds filled in detention facilities, the more children taken from their parents, the more evictions carried out, the more money for juvenile, family, and criminal courts and their corporate partners. In short, greater misery means greater profit. In this week’s newsletter, we’re publishing an excerpt from Hatcher’s book, which reveals the profit motives behind the harms we routinely cover and that many readers have experienced firsthand. 

Juvenile courts in multiple states are entering into contracts to generate revenue when removing children from their homes or by pulling children into the juvenile justice system under constant threat of removal. Increasingly embracing a businesslike focus in their search for funds, some courts have carried out this practice for years, tucked away in little-known interagency contracts. Courts are trading away their impartiality and independence, and violating the Constitution and judicial ethics, to monetize harm to children.

The juvenile court revenue strategies target children from poor families and disproportionately impact Black children and other children of color. The children’s parents face endless barriers to economic stability and do not receive adequate services to help their families stay intact. After enduring the pain and confusion of being removed from their homes, children face further difficulties in the “system” from overworked social workers and probation officers, poorly monitored foster placements, unsafe group homes and juvenile facilities, and overcrowded juvenile courts. The children have struggled with the trauma of poverty and now face even greater trauma after being removed from their homes. And as they leave the foster care and juvenile justice systems, the statistics are even more daunting.

I should pause. As I write with concern for vulnerable youth and seek to shed light on funding mechanisms that threaten the foundations of equal and impartial justice, I should disclose more of my own background.

During my first day in court in my first legal aid job, I was assigned to represent several foster children in one afternoon. The processing of their cases started in the basement of a historic Baltimore courthouse, constructed in 1896. After walking with a fleeting feeling of grandeur through the imposing entrance of granite and marble, towering columns, and carved lions, I abruptly encountered a line of mostly Black children shackled in chains as they were shuffled to delinquency proceedings. And then I descended into a small, dank room with flickering fluorescent light encased in broken yellow plastic over stained flooring, crowded with worn metal tables and mismatched office chairs with torn vinyl—the “stip” room.

The court directed all the attorneys for the children, parents, and the foster care agency to this room, along with the social workers, to reach “stipulated agreements” that would be presented the same day to judicial masters to avoid the time needed for actual court hearings. If no agreement was reached, one of the attorneys had to request a “contest” before a judge, a step that was disfavored by the court system.

The room smelled of jaded apathy, packed with bodies sluggishly struggling over access to the chairs or a few inches of wall space on which to lean. A handful of outdated DOS-based computer terminals were surrounded by attorneys haggling over agreements while typing out sparse summaries of the lives of children with blinking cursors over green text. I learned that day that some of the foster care agency attorneys engaged in a sort of hazing practice of purposeful delay with new lawyers for the children. Then, one of the judicial masters sent a message demanding our immediate presence to quickly dispose of the cases because the Baltimore Orioles game was scheduled to start soon. Priorities.

The routine replayed itself, as I would also scramble to find times and locations to meet with my child clients, occasionally in my office when social workers would bring them, sometimes at their schools that felt more like prisons, or in their often dilapidated and constantly changing foster care or group homes, and sometimes left with no option but to meet with the children on benches in the chaotic courthouse halls. As I sat next to child-clients on oak benches worn by decades of the grasping fear of those who had sat there before us, I did not feel the presence of justice.

Much of that experience is now a blur of memories, mixed with specific moments and images seared into my mind. I was overwhelmed. I feel that I tried my best, but I simultaneously feel that I should have done more. I have even thought about trying to file an attorney-grievance complaint against myself, years later, for attempting to juggle more cases than ethically possible—to help draw attention to the failing system in which I worked. So, as my research has uncovered structural concerns that further undermine the possibility of equal and impartial justice for vulnerable children and adults, I feel driven to provide accurate and detailed facts paired with legal analysis to expose the structural failings so that the systems can hopefully improve. 

Excerpted from Injustice, Inc.: How America’s Justice System Commodifies Children and the Poor by Daniel Hatcher, published by the University of California Press. © 2023. 

Daniel Hatcher is Professor of Law in the University of Baltimore’s Civil Advocacy Clinic in which law students represent low-income clients.  He is author of Injustice, Inc.: How America’s Justice System Commodifies Children and the Poor (UC Press) and The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens. 


In the news


Piper French interviewed law professor Joanna Schwartz about her new book Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable. [Piper French / Bolts]

Already overworked and underfunded, public defenders are having to quickly learn about new surveillance technologies—like geofence warrants—in order to effectively defend their clients. [Johana Bhuiyan / The Guardian]

If re-elected, former President Donald Trump plans to expand methods of execution to hanging and guillotine. Rolling Stone reported that Trump also “mused about the possibility of creating a flashy, government-backed video-ad campaign that would accompany a federal revival of these execution methods.” [Asawin Suebsaeng and Patrick Reis / Rolling Stone]

Edwin Rubis is serving 40 years for a nonviolent marijuana crime. “And while President Joe Biden pardoned 6,500 people for simple possession, and pardoned six more before 2022 came to a close, he need not forget about us — the ones in confinement,” writes Rubis. [Edwin Rubis / Truthout]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

Despite the fact that politicians and the media often vilify “violent offenders,” Tana Ganeva reports that the label can often be misleading and prevent people from escaping their pasts or moving on. A “violent crime,” for example, could mean a murder—or something as simple as verbal threats or a package theft.

The Appeal workers stand in solidarity with the more than 1,200 New York Times contributors who signed a letter calling out the publication’s anti-trans coverage. We share their concern about Times pieces that have “treated gender diversity with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language, while publishing reporting on trans children that omits relevant information about its sources.”

We believe this coverage is deeply harmful and betrays the journalistic ethics the paper purports to uphold. A mea culpa is in order, but instead, the Times has doubled down. Management has rebuked the Times writers who signed the letter, and the day after the Times received the letter, they published a defense of billionaire J.K. Rowling, who has made numerous anti-trans statements.

As Jack Mirkinson wrote in The Nation, the Times has a long history of dehumanizing queer people, from banning the word “gay” from its pages to refusing to cover the early days of the AIDS crisis. And now, with lives once again on the line, they are repeating the mistakes of their not-so-distant past. It is never too late to do better.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, donate here.

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