Activist-writer Nell Bernstein

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

The self-described writer-turned-activist shares startling backstories of her groundbreaking text, Burning Down the House, an indictment of the juvenile justice system.

In both her activist role and in her nonfiction writing, Nell Bernstein is passionate about her work. She often writes on family issues and the legal system, and her articles have appeared in Newsday and The Washington Post, among other publications. Her first book, All Alone in the World, has been adopted into the curricula of universities across the U.S., and her latest text, Burning Down the House, makes the argument that that there is no right way to lock up a child. Bernstein is also coordinator of the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. She's a Yale graduate and began her career in journalism by helping her freelancer mom edit stories.


Tavis: The statistic is horrific. One in three children will be arrested by the time they are 23 and many of them will spend time in detention centers, actually prisons, who do little to rehabilitate. In fact, each year some two million children are arrested in this country.

“Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison” is the groundbreaking work of award-winning journalist, Nell Bernstein, who spent more than 20 years now tracking what this reality is doing to the nation’s children. Nell, an honor to have you on this program.

Nell Bernstein: Very glad to be here.

Tavis: I love the subtitle, “The End of Juvenile Prison”, and yet the numbers are pointing in a direction where that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Bernstein: So it’s a goal. The numbers are dropping. The reason that I gave it that subtitle is the more I learned about what juvenile prison does to kids, the less of a reformer I became and the more convinced I became that these were institutions that couldn’t be reformed.

Tavis: How depressing is that as a researcher and writer to come to that reality in the midst of your work?

Bernstein: Tragic. And before I came to it as a reporter, I came to it as somebody who had friends who were teenagers who were getting locked up. So I came to it in the courtroom and in the visiting room watching brilliant, ambitious, young spirits get crushed in the system over and over.

Tavis: If they’re ambitious, brilliant, young spirits, then why are they caught in the system in the first place?

Bernstein: Well, that’s a really good question. I’m not going to share a lot of statistics. My book is grounded in stories, but there’s one that I just can’t get out of my head. Between 80% and 90% of all American teenagers in confidential interviews acknowledge having committed a delinquent act serious enough under the law to get them incarcerated.

So we’re not talking about two kinds of kids, delinquent kids and non-delinquent kids. And I think if we all look back at our own adolescence, look deeply, that’ll make sense.

Some kids just get a pass, don’t get arrested, are given some kind of community intervention. Those kids get over delinquency by growing out of it. It’s a developmental phase. Other kids – and this is a very race and class-based distinction – get arrested and from there it snowballs.

Tavis: I was about to ask. I think you just answered, but let me ask anyway just so that I’m clear. Who and how was that line of demarcation drawn, those who get a chance to grow out of it and those who get ended up being crushed in it?

Bernstein: There’s a lot of research out there and a lot of statistics. But it really does come down to poor kids of color. That really came home to me when I went into a prison in Oregon which is a very white state and did a double-take because I had never seen so many white people in prison.

In my neighborhood which is mostly white and Asian, there aren’t police cars cruising the street. If my son’s on the corner, nobody’s going to ask him why.

You hear a lot of talk about racial disparities. We have thousands of blue ribbon commissions aimed at studying them. I think that’s far too weak a word. We’re not looking at an active nature. We’re looking at conscious decisions made from arrests, through sentencing, through treatment behind bars, through parole and probation.

And the research is very clear that at every stop on that circuit, Black youth in particular are treated much more harshly than white youth who have committed identical acts.

Tavis: What’s the research tell you in “Burning Down the House” that’s led to this hype over-criminalization of our children?

Bernstein: You know, the funny thing is, it’s nothing new. There’s this idea that we once had a rehabilitative juvenile justice system that has become more impunitive over time.

The more I read about the history of that system going back to the very first houses of refuge in the 1800s, those were basically a way of rounding up Irish immigrant kids and getting them off the streets.

We see cycles, pendulum swings. The most recent was in the 90s with the notion of the super predator. This new kind of kid more savage than salvageable was one of the things that was said. And I think that was so deeply imprinted on the American imagination, that fear, that we were just never able to erase it.

Tavis: My read of the research, Nell – and, again, you’re the expert here, you’re the author – but my read of the research suggests that there is this moment that we’re coming into where we’re starting to have second thoughts about this notion of zero tolerance which in part has led to the reality that you talk about in the text.

If I’m right about that, tell me I’m right. I want to be right about that.

Bernstein: You’re tremendously right. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a 40% drop in the number of institutionalized youth. And, again, that’s great news. In California, a decade ago, we had 10,000 kids in California Youth Authority facilities. Now we have a few hundred.

There have been drops across the nation, although not quite that steep. Is that cause for celebration? Okay.

Another thing that we know about juvenile incarceration is that it is the greatest predictor of adult criminality and incarceration, more than gang involvement, family issues, more than criminality itself. If you get locked up as a kid, you’re twice as likely to be locked up as an adult.

So this is an intervention that’s hurting kids and hurting us. It’s sort of like, you know, a guy goes into Family Court and says to the judge, “Well, I’m beating my kids 40% less. Can I have them back?” It’s not good enough.

It’s a destructive and damaging intervention and, instead of congratulating ourselves, I think we need to seize the momentum of recent years, some of which is financial which is scary because if we have more money, it could go the other direction.

Seize that momentum and really ask is this a useful and necessary intervention or could we do without out?

Tavis: There are clearly societal costs to this way of doing business, and you talk about that, of course, in the text. But since you referenced it, what are the financial costs? It’s always sad to me – I want to just take the point you just made – it’s always sad to me that – how do I want to phrase this – sometimes as a society, we end up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

And so often, money ends up becoming the arbiter of whether we do a particular thing or not. It’s all about the money.

It’s not about the morality, it’s not about the social justice, it’s not about doing what’s right. It’s about money. Money either allows us to do something or prohibits us from doing certain things. And that argument always troubles me.

And yet, I’m not naïve about the fact that some of the things that are being considered now, some of these reconsiderations, have specifically to do with money, that it’s just costing society economically so much that there’s got to be another way to do it.

Bernstein: That’s right. I mean, on average, it costs $88,000 a year to lock a kid up. On average, we spend about $10,000 to educate a kid. In California…

Tavis: So a $78,000 difference per person.

Bernstein: That’s right.

Tavis: Wow.

Bernstein: I’m very interested in the notion of justice reinvestment, which means you don’t just lock up fewer kids, but leave them with all the challenges and problems that led to – I don’t want to say that led to their being incarcerated – but that they had to begin with.

You take the money that you would have spent to incarcerate them, give it to the counties and invest it in them at age eight, age nine, age ten. Because when I ask kids when did things veer off-track for you, those were the years that they named.

Tavis: And yet that notion, which I concur with, assumes that you live in a society that cares about its children, that cares about the contestation of the dignity and the humanity of its children.

And Americans are, by and large, I think still decent people. We’re still good people. And yet, I’m not convinced as a society that we really care as much as we say we care about all of these children.

Bernstein:  Well, that’s absolutely right. I think we have this notion, spoken or unspoken, that these are other peoples’ children, a different kind of kid. Even if we don’t use the very exaggerated, animalistic rhetoric of this super predator, and even though 80% to 90% of all kids are going to commit a crime, these are other kids.

Most people think that they’re ax murderers, I find, when I talk to them. They don’t understand that kids enter the system for loitering, for trespassing, for a drug charge…

Tavis: Truancy, yeah.

Bernstein: Or for a probation violation. You know, I think prison itself dehumanizes and simultaneously allows us to hide what we’re doing from ourselves.

Tavis: And yet I wonder what the answer is – and, again, you’re the author here – but I wonder what the answer is to the question of how a society deals with a particular group of people of which it is afraid. It used to be that kids were afraid of parents.

Now parents and all of society, we’re afraid of kids. So how do you manage a process where the adults, the folk who are supposed to be in charge, are afraid of the kids?

And my sense, again, you know, going through your text, is that part of what leads us to certain solutions, wrong though they may be, is because we’re actually scared of these kids. It’s easier to lock them up than to confront whatever it is about them that’s causing us to be afraid.

Bernstein: That’s right. And what do kids do? You think I’m a liar? I’m gonna lie. You think I’m scary? All right, I’m gonna scare you.

One of the young people that I knew for many years, I remember him saying, “I wish the older folks in my neighborhood, if they thought we were being too loud outside, would come out and tell us. Or if they were too scared to do that, would come to the window…”

Tavis: As opposed to just calling the cops.

Bernstein: But not call the cops. You know, back in the day, he imagined a time when there weren’t just police and cops and probation officers raising them up. Another young man I talk about in the book dealt with it very directly.

Our office, when I worked at this youth newspaper, was in the financial district and I would see when I was with them the purse-clutching, the street crossing, the crowds parting when they came through. He had a t-shirt made that said, “No, White Lady, I Don’t Want Your Purse”.

Tavis: [laugh].

Bernstein: See? People laugh. But the creative…

Tavis: Which I’m sure scared the white lady even more.

Bernstein: No. That was the amazing thing. Nobody laughed. They would look at the shirt, look at him, look at the shirt again, and then kind of go, “Okay, okay.” So the grip on the purse would relax a little.

And what that tells me is we need to know them and that’s what I try to do in the book. I’ve talked about stats today, but the book is mostly comprised of stories because it’s so much easier to be afraid of someone you don’t know.

Tavis: Stories are what make books best-sellers and Nell has written a wonderful text called “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison”. It is chock full of the kinds of stories that will move you. If these stories don’t move you and they don’t prick your conscience, then maybe something is wrong with you.

But we highly recommend “Burning Down the House”, the new book from Nell Bernstein. Nell, first of all, thanks for your work and thanks for this text as well.

Bernstein: Well, thank you very much.

Tavis: It’s good to have you on.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 28, 2014 at 5:01 pm