Sarah Seltzer: Jailing Teens for Being Late to School?

Last week, the country was riveted by the story of young Diane Tran, a high school junior age 17,who was tossed in jail for a night because she was missing too much school. The reason her case attracted so much attention. She worked two jobs to help support her siblings. Her parents had split and moved out of town. She became, in essence, a poster-girl for both the recession and for the criminalization of youth. Even those local newscasters expected to be dispassionate were moved to say their "hearts went out" to this girl. One of Tran's employers is a wedding planning business, which she assists and whose owners house her with her parents out of town. The other is a full-time job at a dry cleaning store. Her third job, then, is going to school, where she is enrolled in several AP and honors classes, but missed 18 days. After a previous warning, a judge decided that a night in jail would teach her a lesson. He didn't see why people were kicking up such a fuss. "A little stay in the jail for one night is not a death sentence," the judge told the same local news channel. But then thousands of people around the world read the headline variations on "honors student goes to jail" and began expressing their support , with their voices and their wallets, signing a petition and contributing to a fund for Tran. At last, the judge in the case agreed to dismiss the contempt charges he had leveled at Tran. News sources reported that with paperwork, she can have her record expunged. But none of these reprieves happened until Tran had already spent the night in jail. Tran is an "honors student" with an obviously compelling story. But the question lingers: Is jail the answer for a kid under 18, even those who don't have her excuse for offenses like truancy, or worse? Our incarceration system, after all, designed for adults, has deep, perhaps unfixable defects: Why send those we deem too young for a college campus into a cell? 

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