SERIES: Debunking One of the Four Myths of Crime

Over the past year of “Re-Imagining Public Safety” conversations, we have noted four common but mistaken perceptions about violence and crime.

  1. People and media tend not to consider gender-based violence a problem with the same intensity they do gun violence, homicide, and personal property losses — even though it is more common. Culturally, our society is also more likely to forgive or ignore predatory or exploitative behavior because it tends to be normalized as “male” behavior. [Find a related story here.
  2. Trauma is considered a personal tribulation, until the unhealed mental and emotional strain leads behavior that simply leads to punishment. [Learn more here.
  3. Mass shootings and other violent crimes tend to be attributed to mental health issues; in actuality, mental health ranks 10th as a factor in a mass shooting. Financial instability, firearm use, significant environmental stresses, and being male are the variables most common to a mass shooter. [Learn more here.]
  4. Black people are particularly considered more dangerous and judged harsher than others.

Narrative #4: The Insights of Kristin Henning

In late November, the Legal Rights Center and University of Minnesota Law School co-hosted a conversation with Kristin Henning, a Georgetown Law professor and author of The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth (2023). For 26 years, she has represented youth who have been caught up in the legal system in Washington, D.C. In all that time, she said, only four of the youth she represented were white — even though teenagers of all races and classes were acting out the same impulsive behaviors.

Henning said she needed to ask the hard questions about the impact of such extreme racial disparities in the legal system on the psychological development of children of color. She said much of her research has involved African American youth and some Latine youth, but she encourages research on other ethnic groups. 

Her talk included anecdotes from her book, which includes the voices of kids she has worked with. One 17-year-old girl, for example, got into an argument with her boyfriend at school. She thought he was cheating on her, grabbed his phone, and walked away with it, scrolling through his text messages. A school resource officer arrested her. She was held in detention overnight and prosecuted for robbery. 

“Whenever I talk about the arrests, prosecution, and detention of children, most people assume that I must be talking about serious, violent, high-profile cases — robberies, sexual assault, gun cases, carjacking,” Henning said. “But the data shows that is far from true. Very few children of any race and class are engaged in that level of serious, violent offense that we hear so much about in the newspaper, which drives policy and decision making. The reality is, most children end up in court for behavior that arises out of what we understand to be normal.”

She asked the audience to shout out examples of teenage characteristics. People shared: impulsive, tests boundaries, hormonal, reactive, not thinking of long-term consequences, seeking immediate rewards. Henning added that “teenagers also are fairness fanatics.” The 17-year-old girl arrested in school was “standing up for herself, for what she saw was unfair.”

Recognizing Who Gets Punished

Henning said research shows that adolescent behavior is the same around the world — but the disparities about how that behavior is punished is seen in all 50 states. In Hennepin County, she said, Black youth in 2022 made up 25.6 percent of the population aged 10 to 17, yet accounted for 65 percent of the children who were arrested. Statewide, Black youth in 2019 were 11 percent of the population in that age range and accounted for 35 percent of youth arrests.

“We as a society are often annoyed at the recklessness and impulsivity of adolescence, but for the most part, we are tolerant,” Henning said. “We show grace, forgiveness, guidance, and redirection — for white teenagers or for teenagers in upper class or middle-class families. Yet we criminalize virtually every aspect of what it means to be a teenager for children of color. The clothes they wear, the music they listen to, the way Black girls style their hair, talking in class, talking back to adults, being out after curfew, experimenting with drugs, sex, and alcohol. All of these things, whether we want to admit it or not, are part of what it means to be a teenager.”

Research also shows, she said, that many people perceive Black children as older than they are, and dangerous. Henning shared the story of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was killed by a police officer in a Cleveland park, just seconds after police arrived and found him brandishing what was a toy gun from Walmart. The police officers were not charged for a crime. The officers indicated they thought he was older than he was.

“The research is similar for black girls,” Henning said. “Studies show that Black girls are perceived to be older and less in need of protection. That has a significant impact on the ways in which Black girls are disciplined in school and how my client ended up in court for something as silly as getting into an argument with her boyfriend.”

The Trauma of Being Under Surveillance

Henning talked about the pervasive nature of policing and surveillance that children of color grow up with, which leads to anxiety and disrupted sleep patterns. “Black and brown youth talk about living in neighborhoods where police cars are parked on the street corner, regularly asked by police where they are going,” she said. “There is a growing body of research documenting the extraordinary psychological impact on Black and Latine youth of being under surveillance. They report high rates of fear, anxiety, depression, hopelessness … which transfers to other adult authority figures. A teacher, counselor, somebody who wants to be an ally — it’s hard for that young person to engage. Ask yourself what it would be like to be a young, Black male who saw what happened to George Floyd in this community. What is that impact?”

Henning added, “Another important aspect is the impact it has on one’s sense of self, who they can become, and how they fit in with the rest of society. Early negative encounters with the police, either direct or vicarious … can cause folks to question whether it’s even worth it to participate in mainstream society. Hyper surveillance increases crime instead of reducing crime.”

To change the footprint of policing in the eyes of children requires a holistic public health approach to safety that enhances or cultivates meaningful relationships between children and adults, Henning said. We also need restorative practices that bridge relationships that have already been broken in society. “Black and brown kids know that they’re being treated differently. So we’ve got to have a racially adjusted framework for engaging around safety that is trauma responsive.”

Counselors, social workers, and even smaller class sizes have been shown to correlate with increased safety and social and emotional learning in the classroom, she said. “Actual restorative justice programs have been shown to improve safety in schools where there really is evidence of violence and concerns about safety. We need to rely on violence interrupters, who are incredible messengers. The bottom line is, we need to invest in children, youth, and communities, and not buildings and surveillance equipment and police officers. Most [police officers] have never been trained on de-escalation strategies with teenagers.”

She continued, “When we think about the intersection of rage, trauma — when kids are moving around too much in front of police, showing nervousness or [protective] body language, running away — how much of that is a trauma response? The law has to catch up with the realities of what it means to be a child of color experiencing trauma in this country.”

Henning concluded by saying that if youth are found guilty, we need to “treat kids like kids. That means policy reform around making sure kids are not tried and prosecuted as an adult. It means relying on evidence-based community-based strategies that work even with the most serious and repeat offenders.” 

Spaces for Social Action Agendas 

In the Q&A, a member of the audience asked how to create meaningful spaces of conversation for youth. Henning suggested the need to talk about issues that matter to them honestly, “even if they need to curse, to be angry, to yell about it.” 

Henning suggested bringing in high school or middle school kids to talk about their most pressing issues. Often for girls it is related to dress code, she said. It might be about police in schools, school discipline, lunch access, mental health — “they see their classmates suffering.” 

Begin to unpack with questions like: “How would you like to see it resolved? What are your best arguments? Where do you take this argument — the school board, principal? Who are your allies?”

It might be set up as a debate — internal space to practice it, think about it, articulate it. Brick by brick, Henning said, it is about creating a social action agenda, perhaps in an after school club or a social studies class.

Henning said the other need she sees is to create a continuum of mental health services for young people. “We talk about adverse childhood experiences. But the ACEs often forget to include the traumatic effects of contact with police and carceral systems that also is a source of trauma.” 

Editor’s Note

The goal of the “Re-Imagining Public Safety” series is to share stories that reveal false societal narratives to help people change mindsets and policies. More accurately informed conversations can result in smarter collective solutions.

We are beginning to conclude our public safety storytelling series. The April 13 event will offer a summary of a year of coverage as an entry point to what traditional media often stops short of: facilitating subsequent conversations about what those stories reveal.

We hope that you will be part of this experiment in “the next frontier” of purposeful journalism. Please share this story with others. Invite them to be part of creating new narratives as a member of the Badass community.

Related Stories