Our research and policy (RAP) team is currently hiring interns.
The Ideal candidate:
- Possesses a strong interest in juvenile justice equity
- Is a law or policy student
- Possesses strong research skills
- Is comfortable writing and understanding descriptive data
- Currently enrolled, at least half-time at an accredited learning institution
This is an unpaid position, and you must be able to receive course credit for time spent at the Burns Institute.
Past interns have gained coursework credit. The BI is a great place to gain insight into the field of juvenile justice reform, particularly through the lens of racial and ethnic disparities.
It may also be possible for the intern to attend/observe presentations, meetings, or staff trainings, depending on opportunity and interest.
Include information about your availability and whether you are seeking the internship for class credit or your own professional development.
Download the full job description below and apply with a cover letter expressing your interest and a resume to firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Summer Internship">Laura Ridolfi. Please also include information about your availability and whether you are seeking the internship for class credit or your own professional development.
The United States of America has been addicted to incarceration for quite some time. It is a costly addiction both in terms of its impact on people, families and the community; not to mention the financial costs which run into the billions. The damages inflicted on communities by the costliness of this addiction to prisons deprives necessary resources to other services: like education and healthcare. An addict’s behavior patterns allow him to continue using at all costs until literally there is nothing left. The State of California has reached that point. The most significant budget crisis in the State’s history has the addict looking in the mirror and doing some serious soul searching. Instead of continuing to hock off education infrastructure and other important functions to subsidize the addiction, Governor Jerry Brown is taking steps to close the Department of Juvenile Justice’s (DJJ) youth prisons and end at least one serious component of the addiction.
The budget crisis in California led Governor Jerry Brown to propose massive cuts to the California’s DJJ, effectively closing the State’s juvenile prisons. By any measure this is considered radical reform. Previously there had not been an appetite for such broad and sweeping change; even though these facilities historically have had horrendous recidivism rates hovering above 80 percent. For decades states like California have blindly invested enormous amounts of tax dollars—$226 million last year to be specific— to maintain and expand these failed youth prisons. Even doing so in the face of criticism from community leaders, advocates, policy shapers and former inmates who all decry it a massive failure. Even federal lawsuits were not enough to force the elected leaders to take the necessary steps to address this epic failure, so it is important to acknowledge the role of the financial crisis and the pressure it has put on states to address this destructive and costly addiction to incarceration.
The tightening of budgets is obviously a strong motivator for government agencies but it alone unfortunately does not lead to inventive reform efforts. The fact that Gov. Brown decided to close such a significant and dilapidated arm of the justice system should open the door to reform efforts that are more far reaching than we have seen heretofore. The entire justice system is in dire need of overhaul. Instead of reforming it piece by piece, we should seize the opportunity presented to take a step back, zoom out and aim at the big picture.
We need a new system for addressing our social issues, a system that is smart on crime. We need a system that actively seeks community participation and is rooted in restorative justice practices. These are not lofty solutions lacking practicality. On the contrary six counties in California have already taken steps to cut back on their addiction to incarceration. According to a policy brief on realignment from the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice Marin, Ventura, Placer, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco have all implemented innovative practices specific to their localities for rehabilitating serious offenders and are already seeing reductions in recidivism.
Millions of dollars are spent on a model of social control that is a proven utter failure. While youth, families and the people who work in the system share this sentiment the flow of money continues. Why then do we continue to tinker with policy and practice change when intelligence should point us in an entirely different direction? Those of us who have been pushing for reforms and system change should seize the moment aiming for the biggest ideas and most visionary changes we can imagine. We should be bold, brave and relentless. Now, as budgets continue to dry up and the political will for this antiquated justice system decays, we stand at the gates of opportunity to create a truly community-driven, restorative justice system.
The United States locks up more kids than any other nation in the world. And most of them are youth of color. Youth of color are 69 percent of the youth prison population, despite only being 41 percent of the entire U.S. population; a sad fact that cannot be explained by differential rates of delinquency. So while youth of color are doing the time-- contrary to popular myth-- they are not always doing the crime.
There are 3100 counties in the United States, of which only a very small percentage make efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in their youth justice system.
This is unfortunate because studies show experience in the juvenile justice system is:
- harmful to youth
- can actually prolong delinquency
- increase a child's likelihood of reoffending
- ineffective and results in wasteful spending.
Few people in this country actually believe the justice system is fair or just, especially for youth of color.
Booking Officer John Doleman from Ventura County
We at the Burns Institute(BI) are working to change this. We focus on racial and ethnic disparities because we know that adolescents entering correctional facilities are at higher risk than unincarcerated youth for: STD's, drug abuse, issues regarding pregnancy and parenting, HIV infection, mental health disorders, diminished educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and overall life outcomes.
Ending this country's addiction to incarceration is not easy, but it is our mission. And slowly but surely we are winning. In Ventura and 32 other sites. After determining that bench warrants for failing to appear in court were a target population, we introduced Ventura to strategies that have produced results in other BI sites. Ventura Probation is designing a call notification program to remind youth of their upcoming and missed court dates. The collaborative is also deliberating on how to expand the use of bench warrant holds. Ventura believes these strategies will reduce the number of children unnecessarily detained for failing to appear in court.
But it's important to note we can't do this work without you. Your support, gifts and encouragement give us the energy and financial backing necessary to get our ideas out there.
And your donations directly fund this work.
In these tough economic times we are all feeling the pinch financially and there are so many deserving organizations that need support.
However, we sincerely hope that you consider us a valuable resource for children, youth and families in communities of color. No one should be incarcerated because of the color of their skin, where they live or their economic status.
We are in a position to change the lives of many children in the country as we work in over 30 jurisdictions but we need your support. We need to raise $20,000 dollars this year so we can continue to host events like Community Justice Network for Youth's Training for Trainers; where we arm participants with the knowledge necessary to hold their local system accountable. We hope to soon make these trainings available online, but we can't do it without your support. We want to continue to empower communities and inform system stakeholders of how their work can create a fair justice system that truly is just for all. Will you help us reach our goals?
Please donate today.
When Steve Jobs passed away, I was admittedly surprised by the public outpour surrounding his death. Not only from people who knew him personally, but also from my friends, who told me how much his life influenced theirs. “My iPhone is the first thing I pick up in the morning and the last thing I touch before I go to bed,” they declared.
I decided to read his bio. 12 pages in, I read a passage that will likely be my take away from the 571 page tome. Turns out Steve was quite the rebel when he was young. Fortunately, he attended schools that accommodated his childish behavior and rebellion rather than criminalizing it.
"I had a good friend named Rick Ferrentino, and we'd get into all sorts of trouble," he recalled. "Like we made little posters announcing 'Bring Your Pet to School Day.' It was crazy, with dogs chasing cats all over, and the teachers were beside themselves." Another time they convinced some kids to tell them the combination numbers for their bike locks. "Then we went outside and switched all of the locks, and nobody could get their bikes. It took them until late that night to straighten things out." When he was in third grade, the pranks became a bit more dangerous. "One time we set off an explosive under the chair of our teacher, Mrs. Thurman. We gave her a nervous twitch."
Not surprisingly, he was sent home two or three times before he finished third grade. By then, however, his father had begun to treat him as special, and in his calm but firm manner he made it clear that he expected the school to do the same. "Look, it's not his fault," Paul Jobs told the teachers, his son recalled. "If you can't keep him interested, it's your fault."
I work at an organization called the W. Haywood Burns Institute. Our mission is to protect and improve the lives of youth of color, poor youth and the well-being of their communities by reducing the adverse impacts of public and private youth-serving systems to ensure fairness and equity throughout the juvenile justice system.
What does this work have to do with Steve Jobs and his story?
If Jobs were attending a typical urban public school today, chances are high that he would have been suspended, expelled, or at the very least, put on a track aimed at failure rather than success. In Oakland, California—where I live—the schools primarily serve poor youth of color. When students act in the manner that Jobs did, they are typically labeled with attention deficit disorder, medicated, or charged as delinquents. Even students who do not misbehave are rarely recognized as gifted or talented. This is not to say Jobs’ behavior didn’t merit some sort of response from the adults in his life. Here is what happened to little Steve.
“When it came time for him to go into fourth grade, the school decided it was best to put Jobs and Ferrentino into separate classes. The teacher for the advanced class was a spunky woman name Imogene Hill, known as "Teddy," and she became, Jobs said, "one of the saints of my life." After watching him for a couple of weeks, she figured that the best way to handle him was to bribe him. "After school one day, she gave me this workbook with math problems in it, and she said, 'I want you to take it home and do this.' And I thought, 'Are you nuts?' And then she pulled out one of these giant lollipops that seemed as big as the world. And she said, 'When you're done with it, if you get it mostly right, I will give you this and five dollars.' And I handed it back within two days." After a few months, he no longer required the bribes. "I just wanted to learn and to please her…”
Most people can relate to the idea that we all come to crossroads in our lives. We make decisions that take us in one direction or another, but when we are children, decisions are made for us. In the case of Jobs, he was given a sense that he was special. His father challenged the school to engage him to his full potential. His teacher, Teddy, became one of the saints of his life because she learned what it took to motivate him.
This approach should become the norm in our schools and in every child-serving system. Not just for the exceptional Steve Jobs of the world, but for all children. Even if their faces do not fit our biases about where potential lies. For too many students, today’s schools resemble prisons more than they do learning laboratories.
The vast majority of brown and black children who fill juvenile detention are driven to the juvenile justice system from other youth-serving systems, like foster care and schools, who neglect to provide appropriate support or services. Once in detention, we spend over $200 per night locking them in a place that, research shows, has a negative impact on their long-term life outcomes. Not only is this morally unacceptable, it is fiscally unsustainable. Instead, we should be working to ensure youth are learning, employable and connected to their families and communities. We should be rerouting resources to their schools and communities so that they are places of opportunity rather than places where some young people of color succeed “in spite of” their surroundings.
The 2010 census shows that 12 states and D.C. now have white populations below 50% among children under age five. At current growth rates, seven more states will flip to “majority minority” among small children in the next decade. As a society, we cannot afford child-serving systems that do not support every child to reach their full potential.
Every child should have the opportunities that Jobs had to become the person that he became. He says, “I learned more from [Teddy] than any other teacher, and if it hadn’t been for her I’m sure I would have gone to jail.”
Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday comes at a particularly interesting time this year, as recent events bring the administration of justice into sharp focus. Dr. King, in his legendary I Have A Dream Speech, stated that the nation's failure to provide civil rights to its Black citizens was a moral breach of contract. That breach established a promissory note for justice that needed to be tendered. In his brilliant use of words and metaphors, Dr. King said at the time that he refused to believe that the "bank of justice" was "bankrupt."
Dr. King's assessment made eminent sense four decades ago. However, during the later part of the turbulent sixties, the country was also willing to pay whatever price its citizens were told was necessary for "law and order." And pay we did. Between 1971 and 1990, the expenditures for incarceration increased a whopping 313%. Decade after decade, powerful interests chose to spend more and more on the justice system and its related cottage industries.
It is not surprising that the corrections hammer has fallen hardest on those Dr. King sought to protect. In the years since his speech, we have instituted a War on Drugs (brilliantly detailed in Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow), waged a similar war on children by criminalizing normal adolescent behavior, and become the world's largest jailer. All of these factors are the result of almost a half-century of "tough on crime" political slogans that touched emotions, but ultimately were not well informed. Ignorance in this case comes with a huge price tag.
In these times of fiscal austerity, we need to reexamine correction's "blank check" and what it means to us as a society. My voice and many others have been urging this point repeatedly: Justice as currently administered is unsustainable. Now it seems our unheard voices are being joined by some larger megaphones. We can only hope decision-makers listen.
Some powerful voices recently joined our call. Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and former Republican Leader of the California State Assembly and participant in the Prison Fellowship, Pat Nolan, recently stated in a Washington Post editorial that states can save "costs without compromising public safety by intelligently reducing their prison populations." Gingrich and Nolan go on to say that spending $68 billion dollars on corrections "should trouble every American."
Amen. However, we need to be more than troubled; we need to be active and affirmative. Enough is enough. We must expose - and refuse to be swayed - by the "tough on crime" snake-oil that is peddled every legislative session. We must demand a new way of thinking about the administration of justice.
In the wake of the tragic events in Tucson, AZ, there has been much discussion about the nexus of mental health and criminal justice. Sober analysis is often in short supply after such tragedies. But it's important to note that while legislative and budget priorities have lavished ridiculous amounts of money on prisons, mental health services and facilities have been gutted.
These facts were made clear in a recently released report by the National Sheriffs' Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center, which documented that there are more three times more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals. Likewise, the San Diego Chief of Police in Calif., William Lansdowne, has noted that cuts in community and preventive mental health services have resulted in "mental illness being one of the city's most growing public safety concerns." In short, we have opted for an expensive pound of illusory cure rather than the more intelligent ounce of prevention.
If our nation continues this ill-advised spending spree, the bank of
justice will indeed be bankrupt. Two recently elected governors in
California and New York have shown they understand their justice
systems are getting close to needing overdraft protection. New York
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in remarking on the expense and lack of positive
outcomes in the state's youth justice system, said the average yearly
cost of $350,000 annually per child with recidivism rates hovering
around 80% is unsustainable. Indeed - who but an incarceration addict
would want to spend untold millions of dollars for a paltry 20% success
Similarly, California Gov. Jerry Brown delivered anxiety to the beneficiaries of the existing youth justice system by submitting a budget that defunds the youth prison system. His plan would altogether eliminate the state's juvenile prison system, send offenders to their home counties and reduce costs that are more than $200,000 annually per youth inmate. His budget outlines plans for shifting youth offenders and parolees to county systems "where they are known to local law enforcement and where community support systems exist." While practitioners have legitimate gripes about doing this responsibly, there is no doubt it will be hard to put the traditional corrections genie back in the bottle.
Issues pertaining to the administration of justice are rarely determined by rational uses of best practices. However, there is a growing body of evidence that is getting harder to ignore. We can no longer afford the luxury of a justice system that cannot deliver on its societal promissory note. Scholars, policy advocates, foundations, professional associations and practitioners are seeing the coffers quickly emptying. As Dr. King also stated in his famous address - Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
The cupboard is almost bare. It is time to be smart, efficient and effective. Now is the time for us to implement legislative and funding priorities that are restorative and maximize public safety. We can do better, and now we must.
The Indiana Department of Corrections was recently awarded nearly $1 million in grants to improve transitional services to youth offenders. Their goal is lofty: To decrease the recidivism rate by 50 percent.
To achieve this, the department is partnering with Marion County and its juvenile justice task force, which includes nonprofits such as Aftercare for Indiana through Mentoring (AIM) and Youth as Resources. Its new efforts include a transition program that will track youth from disposition to discharge from programs, which may include job readiness, educational and/or vocational assistance. Youth will also be paired with mentors.
“We hope to be able to demonstrate successful programs that can be duplicated in other jurisdictions,” said Kellie Whitcomb, executive director of the Juvenile Services Department.
Though promising, the plan appears limited. While the mentoring aspect is a great idea, a big piece missing from the effort is the involvement of the communities the children come from. All children need role models, but the most powerful ones are often those who a child can identify with. In this plan, the mentors will come from the Peace Corps –in the form of volunteers and college students.
In my opinion, no matter how a college student tries to convince a youth from a particular background who has been locked up or detained that they are one and the same, it is unlikely that most of the youth will perceive the mentors that way.
This is a common problem faced when working on juvenile justice reform – the disenfranchisement of local community groups who are culturally relevant to the young people coming into the juvenile justice system. These groups are not often invited to system reform tables, and even sometimes are viewed as risky partners or adversarial, because many have pushed for years against the system in order to enact reform.
But the system should work with groups that cater to the populations landing in detention. In Indianapolis, FIRME, which stands for Film, Inquiry, Research, Media and Education, is a local nonprofit rooted in Latino cultural pride, which is inclusive of children of all backgrounds. Its focus is arming children with the skills necessary to tell their stories through multimedia tools. Executive director Felipe Vargas teaches children how to shoot and edit video as well as interview sources, enabling the kids to produce their own “varrio-mentaries,” youth-produced documentaries told from their perspective without an agenda, commercial slant and without the filter of someone’s editing eye.
“We were never been brought to the table on this conversation, though we’re very open to it,” Vargas said of the DOC’s plan. He also sits on the state’s Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) confinement board.
FIRME is just one example of a culturally relevant community-based group in Marion County, where in 2008 African American youth were securely detained at three times the rate of White youth, according to state and county data reported to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).
In order for recidivism to be reduced by 50 percent, I believe the system should look to more programs such as these for mentors and as alternatives to detention. Children involved in the system need programs in their own neighborhoods, run by people who not only understand the challenges they face, but who have also lived them. They are more likely to react positively to someone “from the hood,” than they are to take advice from a cop, probation officer or any other representative of the government.
Programs such as these would be the most effective way to reduce recidivism. Sociologist Edwin Schur talks about this issue in his book, Radical Non-Intervention: Rethinking the Delinquency Problem. Schur writes “As juvenile justice moves in new directions, a variety of new approaches will continue to be useful,” specifically, “prevention programs with a collective or community focus…that use indigenous personnel.”
There are very few studies that measure the effectiveness of cultural-based programs compared to culturally non-specific programs, but according to “What Works, Wisconsin,” a study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s school of human ecology, culturally tailored programs may be more effective than general programs.
Marion County’s DOC should look to successful, evidence-based nonprofits in the neighborhoods that contribute the most youth to detention when seeking programs and mentors for system-involved youth. A truly collaborative approach that involves community-based and culturally relevant groups based would be the most effective use of grant funding, time and energy on the part of the system.
This approach would expand their network of juvenile justice advocates and professionals, and their options for alternatives to detention, to keep first-time offenders from becoming further system involved.
Where in the justice system is there a place to rectify the disparity of this situation: Countless young girls, as young as 13, are sodomized and raped by an officer of the law. They report him. The juvenile counselor is arrested. The girls are prepared by counsel to testify against the officer. Before the case can reach trial, the officer pleads guilty and walks away with probation. He serves no jail time.
This situation is a reality in New York, where a girl received a 12-month sentence for "filing a false police report," upon telling police she did not know who had jumped and cut her on the way to school. The juvenile counselor who raped her in an elevator -- while escorting her from a holding area to the courtroom -- received probation.
Investigators believe these types of assaults by this juvenile counselor likely go back a decade to the rape of a 13-year-old in the holding area.
Which “department” should these victims and their families turn to in order to process their horror and grief? These girls were terrorized and their sense of safety within the justice system was compromised. For an indeterminate amount of time, they must harbor feelings of fear, humiliation and isolation inflicted upon them by this man’s act, as a consequence of them coming into contact with the juvenile justice system.
Clearly, the officer’s sentence doesn’t fit the severity of his crimes. What is also clear is that the abuse of a vulnerable child is no longer considered an atrocity by administers of the law in New York. Morality was compromised and this was legally accepted.
The officer’s quality of life has been protected at his victims’ expense. The victims and their families did not experience a justice system that values the quality of their lives because they were “inmates.” But inmates and detainees should never lose the value of their humanity as part of their case processing -- and when and if this does happen, balance should be restored through the judicial process.
The officer involved in this case is a criminal and he should receive the treatment of a sexual predator. He is a threat to public safety and should be registered as a sex offender. To dismiss this case as an afterthought means that the girls who agreed to testify against the officer remain at jeopardy of retaliation with no one to protect them.
Still, with this reality looming overhead, these girls made the admirable choice to face their attacker and publicize the ongoing sexual assaults. The victims sought justice and did not receive it. Though the judicial system failed them, their courage will prevent this same abuser from terrorizing other young girls in the same way they were terrorized.
That was a victory. May there be more in the name of justice.
State correctional officials have been holding public meetings on proposed renovations of two closed prisons near Stockton. The proposals come in response to federal judges threatening to take over California prisons if the state doesn't improve health care standards for inmates and high rates of recidivism.
As a law clerk at the W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI), I visited two state youth correctional facilities that have undergone transformation as required by a court agreement and the state legislature after widespread criticisms of their conditions. We toured the N.A. Chaderjian (Chad) and O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facilities in Stockton with the Youth Law Center, one of the first organizations to speak out against the deplorable conditions.
Thinking back to O.H. Close, I recall a sign taped to the wall that read, “Nothing is to be feared, only understood.” As I toured the facility, I thought about the use of that Marie Curie adage in that setting. What were the young people afraid of, and what did they need to understand? Or was it directed at corrections staff? Or at us? Perhaps the sign was just the kind of provocative-but-trifling statement found in greeting cards and cubicles. A “successory” for youth confinement, in other words. But in the time since the tour, this quote has taken on a greater meaning for me. The sign provoked in me reflections on the nature of being an advocate.
I spent much of my time at O.H. Close and Chad wondering whether the things I saw and heard were a fair representation. Some moments, like our drop-in visit to a group discussion session, felt spontaneous. But there was an overwhelmingly rehearsed feeling to the day. Our introduction at O.H. Close concluded with testimony from three boys regularly rewarded for good behavior. They provided well-crafted praise of the impact the facility made in their lives. The world moves so fast, they said, and only while removed from the instability of “the outs” were they able to reflect on errors of their past and chart a more productive future.
That may very well be true, and I hope it is. But watching the boys give speeches under watchful eyes, I thought, would they admit to inadequate facilities, poor treatment, and lack of self-transformation in front of this audience? Probably not. Other moments during our tour added to the feeling of a “company line.” The title of a video we watched on our tour of Chad made it clear in absurd fashion: “Treatment Is Working at Chad.” Set to the soundtrack of “We Are the World,” the video featured photos of young men accompanied by affirming slogans. “We can…” it said: “complete tasks;” “interact with staff;” “be musicians;” “have our own style.”
I couldn’t help feeling I was being sold a viewpoint. At the same time, I resisted the urge to be relentlessly skeptical. While we were being served a message, it was not one of unreserved institutional success. Instead, the staff asked us to trust their commitment to improve the institution, and stressed their doors were open. They seemed sincere. My colleagues who had been to Chad in previous years agreed that conditions had vastly improved.
My observations left me conflicted. To criticize officials for their spin and selective presentation underestimates the difficulty of their jobs and sincerity of their professional commitment. On the other hand, juvenile justice personnel should be held accountable for their actions. We should expect decency from those in charge of the kids on whom so many have given up.
My visit to Chad and O.H. Close brought me face-to-face with these people, and since my visit, I have found myself asking this question: How does one remain a trusting person in an advocacy role, when so much of his responsibilities involves scrutinizing the reasons and justifications offered by people who have to maintain the status quo?
Our closely supervised tour left me with the belief that the best way to effect change begins with a cautious-but-rigorous desire to understand. This is what the BI does. By analyzing data from every decision point, the BI begins with an informed understanding of the status quo. Local juvenile justice stakeholders are brought together with community members in meetings with the goal of reform. Because they agree to invest in the detention reform effort, the solutions the BI often helps administer are more amenable to all stakeholders.
The criminal justice system is permeated by an “us vs. them” mentality: “perpetrator vs. victim;” “good guys vs. bad guys;” “perpetuator vs. reformer.” Instead, I’ve learned at the BI in the effectiveness of grounding aspiration in understanding. That approach maintains the effectiveness of advocacy while not compromising the human need to fairly appraise one’s world. For me, then, Marie Curie’s quote is more than a “successory.” It is a reminder of the emotional and intellectual honesty that should guide my life as an advocate.
Ted Koehler was a summer intern at the Burns Institute.
As we acknowledge the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy from the March on Washington, it is hard to resist the metaphorical use of water in reference to the administration of justice in our nation. Katrina prompted a debate about the failure of the Bush administration to provide competent and just services to the poor and mostly Black flood victims of New Orleans. Decades earlier, when faced with the “interposition and nullification” of legalized segregation, Dr. King clamored for justice to roll like water in a mighty stream.
Unfortunately, in California today, the waters of justice are not a mighty stream of righteousness, but a toxic brew of budget shortfalls, institutional neglect and misguided priorities. Policies that govern schools, housing and employment are cascading young people and adults into the justice system in record numbers.
The criminal justice system has become the dumping ground for other public systems that are failing to serve their intended clients. In essence, the state of California would rather use prison as a social service agency. So while critical welfare-to-work, housing subsidy and mental health treatment programs experience devastating cuts, the State is eager to fund incarceration. This misguided approach reduces public safety, wastes scarce resources and decimates community strengths.
Moreover this approach is not “tough on crime.” Rather it reflects priorities that echo an old “lock ‘em up” paradigm that does not work and that we can no longer afford. Why do we as a State continue to be stuck on stupid when it comes to justice policies, rather than being smart and effective?
A new study that we at the W. Haywood Burns Institute have co-authored with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, "Balancing The Scales of Justice," offers some insight into this phenomenon by examining California’s priorities in three counties: Alameda, Fresno and Los Angeles. We were astonished to discover that agencies responsible for education, employment and housing did not collect the most basic data, which would enable them to fully understand the impact and efficacy of their policies.
This type of institutional neglect is intolerable and should be addressed immediately. We are spending billions of dollars on systems that do not gather or analyze the most rudimentary information about their outcomes. Predictably, our study reveals that these institutional failures fall most heavily on people of color and increasingly, on women.
Since quantitative data was unavailable, we conducted qualitative interviews. In Alameda County, we found that people on probation were less likely to have graduated high school, compared to the county average. For example, 82% of Black youth and 80% of Latino youth in the county graduated high school, yet only 62% of Black and no Latino probationers we interviewed had graduated. Similarly, whereas nearly 86% of men and 92% of women in the county graduated from high school, only 38% of men and 50% of women on probation who we interviewed had graduated.
In Fresno County we found that, with an unemployment rate of less than 10%, 29% of men interviewed and 59% of women who we interviewed were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest. Similarly, nearly 21% of the Black labor force in Fresno County is unemployed, but 64% of Black interviewees were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest.
As state and local budgets continue to eliminate necessary services, people of color without resources or opportunity are ending up in the criminal justice system. This report provides the spark to demand that housing, employment and education sectors provide appropriate interventions to halt the rapid rush of people of color and women into incarceration. Simply put, the status quo is ill-informed and unsustainable.
This report sets the predicate for a conversation about a new way of doing business that intervenes with intelligence and efficiency. Among our suggestions for forward movement are: Counties should institute a standardized collection method for data on education, employment, and housing to allow state and local officials to make data-driven decisions that could improve the effectiveness of policies and reduce racial, ethnic, and gender disparities; additional and more extensive research regarding the connection between access to quality education, employment, and housing and the increase in California’s prison population; and further study of the effects of police presence on public school campuses and an analysis of alternatives to school policing.
We simply cannot afford to continue a 21st century version of “interposition and nullification.” It’s time to untrouble these waters.
Where I’m from boys don’t become men, they become inmates — lifers whose development is stifled by institutionalization. Girls don’t mature to womanhood, they become baby-momma’s forced to hustle and prostitute their adult lives away, their growth strangled by the byproducts of institutionalization.
Mother’s don’t stick around to watch their children grow. They abandon them at birth and escape their responsibility to return to the call of the crack-rock. Fathers don’t exist. It’s on the promise of hope that our aging grandmothers attempt to raise children 50 years their younger in their “golden years.” Then, you have the institutions that feed off this prevalent despair.
I have witnessed this all.
My nephew was a recent victim of systemic racism at the hands of an unethical judicial system. From the point of his arrest, he was treated as if he were guilty of a crime he had not committed. Yes, he is Black. And yes, he was with two Black boys the night of a robbery that took place near my mother’s house. Yes, it was late into the night. But it was wrong for his White accuser – who was driven around in a San Francisco police car hours later for the sole purpose of identifying the assailants – to accuse them with the line, “Those must be them, the guys that robbed us, what other three Black guys are out this time?” For the last three months, my nephew has been locked up for a crime he did not commit.
When he thinks back to his 21st birthday, my nephew’s memories won’t be of family, friends, a night with his girlfriend, or even a hangover like most celebrating their first taste of adulthood. His memory will be of a cold cell, trapped night after night in the company of strangers, fighting for his freedom to be restored. This is all because a White man wanted so badly to accuse someone of robbing him and his girlfriend allegedly at gunpoint as they left a Haight Street bar.
You’re probably feeling conflicted, because human nature leads us to sympathize with the alleged victim. I’m sorry this man and his girlfriend were allegedly robbed of her purse containing medicinal marijuana, but the fact that there was no gun found, no purse found, and nothing at all that connected my nephew and his friends to the robbery should have been enough to force a further investigation of the alleged crime. But that’s not what happened. A White couple had been allegedly robbed by three Black boys and someone had to pay! Because my nephew “fit the description” – Black in the wrong place at the wrong time – he had his first experience fighting the labyrinth of the criminal justice system.
Over the past three months, the prosecuting attorney tried to coerce my nephew and his two friends to admit guilt. They refused. At each court date, the prosecutor tried to push a deal, and each time the deal got sweeter. Each time my nephew and his two friends refused to deal. “I’m innocent,” my nephew would say, over and over. He insisted he had an ATM receipt in his jean pocket the night of the arrest that would serve as his alibi. Finally, the prosecutor agreed to reduce the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. This offer came July 22; four days shy of three months from their arrest.
On the evening of this final offer, on the ride from San Francisco County Jail back to San Bruno County Jail, the youngest of the three boys, just 18-years-old, agreed he would accept the deal in exchange for all three to be released from prison — a place they should not have been in the first place. The system of bureaucracy had successfully broken his spirit. A warrior nonetheless, he was agreeing to sacrifice a bit of his future in order for his friends to be freed.
But every dog has their day. The next day, before the 18-year-old could accept the deal, the case was suddenly dismissed. There was no official explanation. Or, an apology for the hell my nephew, his friends and our families have had to live for three months.
It made me think about what the system sees in us. It’s obvious we’re “throw-aways” in their eyes. Adult boys dependent on government assistance and adult girls relying on welfare for income because their skills aren’t marketable in the workforce. Poverty only trained them to hustle for food, run errands to keep a roof over their head and pounce on opportunity when it comes their way. An essential skill they can’t market is staying alive. Dodging stray bullets, avoiding gangs and saying “no” to drugs aren’t prerequisites for working in retail. In fact, if you’re born poor in the hood, you don’t see a mall or a food court until you’re old enough to venture beyond your hood, which, to be safe, you most likely won’t.
I’m speaking to depravity many can’t fathom unless they’ve witnessed it, like I have. Most people never ask what’s going to happen to the “crack-baby” or the young boy or girl who ages-out of foster care. Many end up in jail or homeless. We live in a nation that believes if you are separated from poverty, then the symptoms of poverty won’t affect you. But violence perpetuates violence and the predatory design of this country perpetuates violence upon the vulnerable through its institutions. I’ve experienced incarceration as a crime against humanity. Homeless are arrested for sleeping on the streets. People of color are arrested for hanging on their block with friends. Children in poor communities are arrested for horse-playing at school while their counterparts in affluent communities get detention.
What rational being believes you can cage a human being – made of the same flesh and blood but merely cut from a different cloth – and expect to produce an individual capable of love, respect, loyalty and independence? Our criminal and juvenile justice systems are irrational. It is not a fair expectation to throw back into society someone you’ve treated worse than a stray animal, without education or love, and expect them to then stay out of the system. The punitive origin of the institution of incarceration cannot serve anything but pain and suffering. Especially when the foundation of the institution has been replaced by backdoor deals and under the table exchanges.
In my eight years working in the juvenile and criminal justice field, I’ve heard the stories, I’ve cried with the families. I’ve attended the rallies and I’ve marched in the streets to fight human rights abuses. But it was not until this incident did I realize, I cannot and I will NOT fight injustice alone. We must tell our stories and unite through our pain. A victory is in the near future. Even through my tears I can see it.
For the people who awake everyday to families torn apart by institutionalization, our journey is young but our fight is old. We must find our strength in the footprints of our creator.
Ophelia Williams is the Executive Assistant for the Burns Institute and our network of groups, the Community Justice Network for Youth.
Editor's note: This is the first blog in a four-part series written by our staff who visited N.A. Chaderjian (Chad) and O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facilities with the Youth Law Center last month. Each piece reflects their personal experiences at the youth facilities, which are undergoing reorganization as required by a court agreement and the California State Legislature after widespread criticisms of conditions at California youth prisons. Also read this reflection by a youth in the facility by our CJNY member group Beat Within.
When first presented with the opportunity to tour the N.A. Chaderjian (Chad) and O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facilities in Stockton, California I had my reservations. I’d heard the reports about the terrible conditions at facilities as well as seen the headlines of suicides and dog attacks that had taken place there over the past several years. But it was these same reservations that motivated me to seize the opportunity and see firsthand what is really happening at these facilities.
Upon driving up to the facilities, they looked well maintained. The driveway was nicely paved, the lawns manicured, and the buildings cleanly painted. If the guards and fences were removed, the facilities could have been mistaken for regular commercial buildings in any city. Maybe things weren’t as bad I had first thought – or were these looks meant to be deceiving?
The tour at O.H. Close began with a discussion session where the tour group met with three wards to hear about their experiences. My expectations had led me to believe that any youth we meet would be rough around the edges, as most people assume about youth in the system. But my assumptions soon faded as they spoke. The first young man was a 19-year-old African American who had become a father at the age of 15. He looked the group straight in the eyes as he spoke of his experiences at O.H. Close and the help he was receiving. The second young man was an 18-year-old Caucasian who was fidgety and a little shy who kept looking down at the ground. He seemed to be trying hard to make a good impression. The third young man was a 17-year-old Latino who did not say much but was eager and more than willing to speak his mind when asked.
All three of these young men reminded me of someone who could have been a student at my high school. How had these youth gotten to this point? I wondered. All three of them agreed – under the watchful eye of several staff members – that the services and treatment they were receiving while at O.H. Close was not something that had been available in their communities. They admitted that had it been available to them, at the time they were arrested, they probably would not have taken advantage of it. They attributed this to the influence their friends, who most are no longer in contact with, had over them when they were on the “outside.”
The three youth expressed concerns over the implications of getting out and avoiding negative influences. They had high hopes that the change they were undergoing at the facility would provide them the necessary tools to be productive members of society upon release. After their prepared presentation, I found myself wondering, maybe since the lawsuit brought against it, this facility has undergone the reforms needed to rehabilitate rather than just punish youth?
As the tour at O.H. Close continued, we viewed Humboldt Hall, one of the units. The boys were in a group counseling session. Again, the boys who spoke all seemed like they could have been my classmates. The living facilities in Humboldt Hall were almost camp-like, with one large room with dingy metal cots lining the walls. The mattresses and blankets were thin, worn and reminded me of something army-issued. The clothing is provided to the youth used, and they can do their own laundry down the hall.
Off to the side were several smaller, dark cell-like rooms that could be “earned” by boys who had the highest rankings based upon schoolwork and behavior. It was at this point that it became clear that the only boys chosen to speak to us were the Level A wards. These were the wards with the private rooms. They were not the ones forced to sleep on a thin cot, in the middle of an open room, with no space to store their personal items other than a locker. A locker that most turned backward so that the door could not be opened and their possessions could not be stolen.
These boys were incarcerated and with that came everything that condition entails in our current justice system. They have no rights, no privileges, and no sense of accountability other than an arbitrary level system that dictates the very few things they can and cannot do. Of course the boys with the Level A ranking are going to rave about the facility because they are being treated differently than their fellow wards. Being a Level A ward could be compared to being famous on the outside; those wards are treated like they’re special, like they’re better than other wards.
Next on the tour was the Chad facility. This tour began with a low-budget video depicting the different activities the wards participated in during their time at Chad. The video was made up of photographs of the youth set to the song “We Are the World.” It was difficult to watch. The wards were shown having a Super Bowl party, a Halloween party, sweeping their units, and making their beds – among other normal day-to-day tasks. It seemed a ridiculous attempt to demonstrate to us that the youth are leading a normal life while incarcerated. After the video, we toured the vocational programs and met several young men who were involved in the computer program.
The computer program was actually called “Merit Corporation.” Eight to nine wards work on breaking down computers and other electronics that are then sold on eBay. These wards, who were Merit Corporation employees, receive $8 an hour. It is an elite opportunity available only those youth who have obtained an A or B Level ranking. I inquired about how much the other vocational programs pay the youth and every other program pays between $1.50 to 25 cents an hour. Just as at O.H. Close, the youths who best conform to and accept the system are given the privileges.
As the tour continued, we visited the housing units. Unlike the units at O.H. Close, these units are two story buildings with private cells lining the walls. These units are prisons, and are eerily similar to what adult prisons look like. One of the staff offered to open one of the rooms so that we could see inside. As the staffer was doing this, I noticed a youth watching us very intently. I was not the only one who noticed. The staffer replied, “Oh don’t worry, it’s just his room.” Just as he endures on a daily basis, a group of strangers touring the facility violated his right to privacy. Because of whatever mistakes they made in life, these youth were viewed as inmates more than as youth.
From what I read in articles and reports about the way O.H. Close and Chad used to operate, it was clear that a lot has changed in recent years. I believed the staff – who were mostly new, hired in the past several years – we met genuinely care and are trying to improve these youth’s lives during the time they spend at the correctional facilities. However, one ward divulged that while most staff care, there are still some there only working “for a paycheck.”
While changes have been made and the facilities are improved, I would not go as far as to say they are of quality. Just because there is a sign of improvement is not a reason to step back and stop pushing for more change: Pressure for more changes inside the facilities and pressure for changes in communities to prevent youth from being incarcerated in the first place. I left believing even more strongly that youth incarceration is a multifaceted problem that needs to be approached from many different directions to effect real and genuine change.
We need to keep pushing for more changes.
Louisiana is notorious for housing some of the most brutal youth prisons in the country. In recent years, it’s made great strides toward reform, as leaders introduced more therapeutic, rehabilitative models.
Even still, youth who identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) experience physical, sexual and psychological abuse, excessive use of lockdown and isolation, confidentiality breaches and privacy violations in Louisiana’s juvenile justice system, according to the report “Locked Up & Out.”
The report, released by our member group Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), focuses on LGBT youth, who make up 15% of youth in detention nationwide. Author and JJPL youth advocate Wes Ware visits facilities regularly to investigate the conditions that youth face, and finds them resources once released.
“The stories I have heard from LGBT youth, both about the extreme challenges they have endured and about their courage and determination, inspired this report,” he said. “Once inside prison, LGBT youth often bear the worst the system has to offer.”
A recent national Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed 12% of youth on average reported they were sexually assaulted while incarcerated. At Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, the state’s largest juvenile justice prison (which was considered by some to be the worst juvenile facility in the country, 16% of youth reported they had been sexually abused.
In 2003, the state Legislature passed sweeping reforms that led in part to the closure of two youth prisons, Tallulah and Jena Correctional Center for Youth, and discontinued the use of privately-run prisons for youth. Conditions in the facilities are significantly improved today, but incarcerated youth continue to report mistreatment and abuse.
“I have been locked up for 3 years. I am gay. I have been my whole life. This is my second time in Jetson. The first time I was here, they sent me to Swanson. I stayed there for about 11 months before I got raped by some of the youths there. I did not report it on time so they did not do anything about it. But they did send me to a group home in Shreveport. There, I tried to kill myself because I could not take the boys hitting on me because I would not do sexual favors for them. After that, they sent me to a crazy home called Brentwood,” wrote one youth in the report.
Even more disturbing is the fact that youths’ complaints fall on deaf ears. In the report youth recall painful memories of being raped by staff and other youth, being told to tone down effeminate behavior, how to dress and act “straight,” being outed by staff, having confidential medical information treated as the days gossip, etc. The complaints detailed in the report are just a small sampling of what likely goes on considering the cases that go unreported.
Other problems include intrapersonal conflicts due to outside pressures including family rejection, ostracism by peers and the suppression of identity, which may lead to actions and behaviors that may lead youth to end up in a locked down facility. Once inside, they often experience even worse treatment, according to the report.
“Sometimes they would say stuff like ‘it doesn’t matter what you think because you’re about to die anyway,’” recalls an HIV-positive youth whose illness was leaked to other youth by a staff member.
Discrimination is nothing new to the LGBT community. Inside or outside of prison walls, discrimination is morally wrong. When practiced on teens who are just beginning to discover who they are, it’s doubly wrong. Just as children of different cultures need culturally appropriate methods of learning, these youth have individualized needs that are not being met. In order to truly call ourselves a country that celebrates diversity we have to give respect to all.
The report “Locked Up & Out” sheds light on a special population of troubled youth that are too often overlooked. No longer should these children be hidden.
Lauren Jones is a Communications Assistant at the W. Haywood Burns Institute. The Youth Justice Coalition is a group within our national network, the Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY).
When Tedi Snyder was 15-years-old, he was arrested in Los Angeles and charged with attempted murder in an incident where no one was killed. Now Tedi faces 80 years to life in prison. His first parole date would be at age 95.
Tedi’s case illustrates much of what is unfair about our nation’s juvenile and criminal “justice” systems. For one, a youth’s right to a “speedy” trial often means years of waiting. Snyder was 15 when he was arrested. He is now almost 20 and is scheduled to be sentenced this August.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled it unconstitutional to sentence a minor to life in prison without the possibility of parole in cases where no one is killed. But what about the youth who are facing exorbitant sentencing for the same types of offenses? To us, this is also "cruel and unusual” punishment. Youth like Tedi continue to face lengthy sentences that take most of their lives away, offer no hope of redemption, and equate to a life sentence.
In 2004, California had over 180 youth serving life without parole — a number that was the fifth highest in the country. The Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles estimates that today California has more than 200 youth serving such sentences. YJC points out that such sentences do not have a deterrent effect; California’s arrest rate for violent crimes by youth is higher than some states that do not sentence children to life without parole.
California also has the worst racial disparity rate in the nation: Black youth are sentenced to life without parole at 22 times the rate of White youth.
YJC, which is advocating fair sentencing for Tedi, has been calling for an overhaul of the juvenile justice system. Currently, rosecutors are allowed to stack the odds against youth. For example, when it comes to gang-related cases, one-sided testimonies come from law enforcement, not outside gang experts. Prosecutors play on the public’s fear of gangs to push for extreme sentences for youth. District attorneys have the power to file cases directly in criminal courts; a tactic that takes away a juvenile court judge’s ability to determine whether a youth would be more fairly judged in juvenile court.
During trials, the complexities of human relationships are replaced by black and white arguments. The truth is rarely revealed, and a child’s life is stolen.
The juvenile justice system was founded for the purpose of rehabilitation, not punishment. A poll conducted of Americans living on the West Coast found that 86 percent disagree with the idea that children and youth who are convicted of crimes are beyond redemption.
Just take a look at the stories below from youth involved in the system. They are much more complex than their case would allow you to see. They, and all other children, have the potential for rehabilitation.
I started getting in trouble in middle school. I was hanging out with people who were a bad influence or were going through things. I think it comes from my mom getting locked up when I was young and my dad was involved in gangs. I was trying to not follow in their steps but there was nothing better to do. I grew up in foster care until I ran away. I was staying with my aunt until I had to leave because I was doing things I wasn’t supposed to in her house. I went to live with my other aunt, then my cousin, and then my other aunt. When my mom got out I didn’t really know her, so communicating was hard.
I’ve gone to three different high schools and then I went to Camp Scott, an all-girl camp after we went on a joy ride. I got grand theft auto. Camp Scott was bad. It’s kind of like out here everyone has drama, but you can get away from it. There you’re just stuck. It’s lonely, they ’re really strict, it’s really bad. I don’t remember how long I was there; I just let time pass me. I keep in touch with one friend at Camp Scott but she is sentenced to 40 years and will be transferred to an adult facility when she turns 18.
Now I’m back in school and I’m graduating this June. I’m torn in deciding whether I should go to school or work. I’d like to go to school but my mom just lost her job, so I kind of feel like I should stay and help her. I’m still working on good communication with her. I’d like to study sociology and possibly become a lawyer. I’ve never been out of L.A. but I’d like to travel and I’m sure lawyers get to travel all the time. So, I’d like to do that. I think the Supreme Court decision was good because kids deserve a second chance. It’s one step at a time – this is a right step.
On the Supreme Court decision, I think it’s good. I would be a completely different person if I had to stay for life. I would’ve had to be my own one-man army. I really don’t know what I would be like, but I think I would’ve flipped out a long time ago if I were still there.
I started getting into trouble when my parents kicked me out. I started tagging on everything, that’s when everything changed. I just kept getting into more and more trouble. I was hanging with the wrong people. Their minds weren’t really on school. They just wanted to hang out, go to the beach, and being with them made me forget about what I need to do. I dropped out.
Most recently, in January, I was writing in the streets. This lady was following me, but I didn’t know it and she had a camera. She was taking pictures of everything I was doing. A couple hours later, I saw three cop cars and just kept going on about my business. But then I saw her go up to the cops and show them the pictures and then she pointed at me and I knew right away. I was like this is not happening. Then the lights from their guns, the little red lights, I saw them on my shirt and then I was like this can’t be happening. They took me to jail.
Right now I’m trying to get back in school to get my diploma. I want to show everyone that I’m not just some little punk. I want to be able to be a role model for my younger sister. I want to move out so I can show my parents that I can do this on my own. I want to discipline myself. I want to be involved in art and music, but I think I want to be a pilot. After I get my diploma I’ll either try to go to college or the Air Force. It would be nice to just fly away.
I think the court’s decision is good. There are some people getting 100 years for just a robbery case. Everyone deserves a second chance.
I grew up in the system. I was taken from my mother at four-months-old. She was on drugs and my dad was in jail so I went into foster care. At three, I went back to my mom, and when I was four she passed away. I went back in to the foster care system.
At age five or six I was kicked out of a foster care program because I guess I was just too bad. My childhood was filled with being bounced around. Never felt settled, never really formed any strong relationships with anyone. At age 12, I was out on my own and I was shot twice. At age 14, I had my first encounter with jail. I went to CYA for seven years, for attempting revenge on the person who shot me the year before. I got out at age 21. I call jail/prison a crutch. I’ve been in and out 15 times and I’m not even 30. I’ve gone for lots of things, robbery, gang affiliation, etc.
In juvie, the girls are separated from the boys. You go to school in the morning and then the rest of the day you’re just with your unit, which most likely means you’re in your room. Once a week they let us go outside for exercise. Sometimes they show us movies, sometimes we can write letters, but we have to ask for everything, showers, bathrooms, everything. Since being out I’m more calm. I don’t get agitated as easily. When I was there I was a Crip so I had to fight. There was a fight everyday. I was told when to eat, when to sleep. But now it’s like I’m free.
I’ve been out for a year now and I‘m doing good. I’ve got two little girls and it’s not just about me anymore. I’m living for them. I’ve checked back into school. I already have a college degree in history, I’m trying to get my high school diploma now. I want my girls to have a better living style. I want to put them through college. There was no one to put me through school, so I want them to have that. I would still like to be a history teacher, but I know that my record will most likely cause problems for me as far as employment. I just want to make my daughters happy and give us a better lifestyle. I’ll probably try to become a security guard or something like that.
Lauren Jones is a Communications Assistant at the W. Haywood Burns Institute. The Youth Justice Coalition is a group within our national network, the Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY).
Last Friday ended a long disturbing saga for those who believe that justice is the cornerstone of civil society and democracy. I was dismayed to read that the U.S. Justice Department does not plan to pursue civil rights violations or other charges against the boot camp employees who hit and kicked 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, causing his untimely and unfortunate death. Justice Department investigators, according to news reports, felt they did not have enough evidence to pursue criminal charges despite videotape of the beating.
I am not questioning their judgment because I believe they must have pored over every second of the videotape. However, I am frustrated and angered by the result. It is beyond coincidence that young people of color continue to be criminalized for behavior that their White counterparts are not. Something is terribly amiss - from Jaisha Aikens, a five-year-old African American girl, who was handcuffed by three police officers and forcibly removed for misbehaving in pre-school; to Mirabel Cuevas, an 11-year-old Latino girl who was arrested in a police operation that involved three police cars and a helicopters.
Cuevas had thrown a rock at boys who had pelted her with water balloons. She spent five days in detention and a month under house arrest.
The New York Times recently reported on a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court regarding a school fight with no weapons or serious injuries, which resulted in expulsions and the denial of attending alternative schools or studying at home. There is no doubt that if this same fight happened at a private school, this result would have never been contemplated. That is because parents who can afford private schools pay thousands of dollars for tolerance -- not the "zero tolerance" that is being meted out in public schools serving mostly youth of color. Similar behavior = different results.
Even the U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan, lamented "schools that seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys" while he vowed stronger efforts to ensure racial equality in schooling.
To be clear, my advocacy is not for preferential treatment, but for fairness and equity regarding similar behavior. Teenage behavior that is just that - adolescent behavior - knows no race, ethnicity, gender or neighborhood. My frustration is that teenagers of color who test adult limits or social boundaries are seen as criminal, while their White counterparts are "just kids" who may be in need of services.
Why such a different responses? We have deeply ingrained notions about race, youthful behavior and public safety. We are trapped by a system of beliefs and incentives that conspired to kill Martin Anderson without any individual or institutional responsibility.
This issue harkens the notion of the "Experience Economy" introduced by Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore. They posit that businesses should provide memorable "experiences" that substitute for the actual product. In this model, businesses charge for the feeling they invoke. Nike, Starbucks and Disney are a few that come to mind. They work very hard to sell you the experience rather than the product.
Our society has been sold the idea that the "experience" of criminalization is a viable product. We do not examine what is actually happening to jailed youth, or the long-term result of detaining them for adolescent behavior. Rather, we react. Paraphrasing journalist Maia Szalavitz, it is clear that when abusive power is the experience, it is impossible for the experience to be safe. Indeed, in Martin Lee Anderson's case, it was deadly. We must continue to work to change the institutional beliefs and incentives that continue to use incarceration as an experiential default for young people of color.
The special prosecutor that unsuccessfully brought charges against the nine boot camp guards, including the nurse who watched them without intervening, said, "Martin Lee Anderson did not die in vain," and his death would "bring needed attention and reform to our juvenile justice system."
I hope that despite the heartbreaking decision by the Justice Department not to pursue charges that young Martin's death prompts us to reexamine the "experience" being sold to us as justice.
Philadelphia’s “flash mobs” have been the subject of recent media frenzy. Teens organizing online or through text messages have been gathering on South Street and in shopping malls to hang out. A small number of them have violently acted out.
Most recently, a young man at work was attacked by a mob of teens trying to enter a pizzeria. Before that, 100 teens rampaged a Macy’s store. The incident was dubbed “Macy’s Mayhem” by news media.
Of the thousands of teens in any town there are bound to be a few a violent ones that exploit large gatherings – but in Philadelphia, one judge has been using his power to punish adolescents far beyond the extent of their actions. In an exchange with one 15-year-old boy, Judge Kevin Dougherty reportedly threatened a year in the juvenile justice system for every “lie” – what he characterized explanations by youth who said they had gone downtown to go shopping or meet girlfriends.
“By the time the boy was taken away in handcuffs, he had received three years,” a reporter observed. “Despite getting the information he wanted, Dougherty seemed determined to send a message about the flash mobs.”
It is not a juvenile court judge’s job to send a message about a citywide problem that points to the boredom or frustration of its teenagers. Some of Philadelphia’s teens behaved recklessly. But because mob acts are drawing negative attention to the city, the initial response has been to round up youth for harsh punishment. We know that punishment won’t prevent teens from getting into trouble. That is the very nature of adolescence. Few of us did not make any mistakes as teens.
Instead of contemplating such issues, Philadelphia police are on high alert and Mayor Michael Nutter is promising that he will “ruin” the lives of teens caught in flash mobs. His threats also include tighter curfews and limited access to downtown by minimizing the hours teens can use free transit passes. And the arrest of anyone caught in flash mob. All this in an effort to “get tough on young people.”
The more punitive that Philadelphia city officials get, the more they are negatively impacting these youth’s futures. They are catapulting them into a downward spiral.
People, even teens, have a right to peacefully assemble — Mayor Nutter, please see the first amendment — and flash mobs haven’t always been violent. To be clear, “flash mobs” have mostly consisted of spontaneous gatherings of people to hilariously dance in M.C. Hammer pants; mimic Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” choreography; protest; and make silent stands. The South Street incidents are an example of flash mobs gone wrong. We’d like to believe that they were not initially organized with a violent agenda, but rather that came about as a result of dozens upon dozens of teenagers converging with no agenda.
Nonetheless, at press time judge Kevin Dougherty found 28 teenagers guilty of felony rioting. Some face up to four-year sentences, despite claims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which were backed by their parents. It is apparent by the judge’s punitive sentencing, and his treatment of the youth and their guardians in court, that he is using his bully pulpit only to teach youth a lesson: Do not participate in flash mobs.
But years of jail time are too harsh a penalty for one afternoon of irresponsible teenage behavior – especially when it is difficult to prove who exactly committed violent acts. Besides, it’s not enough to get tough, the court should look into possible causes for this behavior so it can prevented.
MSNBC reports the mobs are made up of mostly grade-school youth, which supports speculation that these mobs are the result of cuts in youth programs. The mayor’s response is shocking – “It’s not our responsibility to entertain children.” Actually, it is your responsibility as the leader of a city to ensure that recreational programming is available to youth. Maybe the next mayor won’t be so callous.
Even more irresponsible is the media’s reporting. New York Times reporter Ian Urbina’s labeling of the mob as “mostly African-American” is irresponsible. How did race become a factor in this flash mob incident – but no one reported that of the Hammer flash mob, the Beyonce flash mob; the 30th Station Freeze mob; the Whole Foods mob; and most other flash mobs; have been mostly white.
This should not be viewed as a race problem, or a new problem. It is well documented through history what idle hands do when resources are scarce. Some bored people do this, while others do this. It just depends on the environment. The point is keep children busy.
Imagine if you were a teen at the mall when a mob of teenagers started running past. Your instinct would be either to run the opposite direction, or to join the melee. If things turn bad, would it be fair to pay such a high price? And how would it impact your future?
If city officials don’t want to deal with the boredom of the city’s teens, they should at least provide incentives for people to start or continue community-based organizations that will. It’s unfair to burden taxpayers with jails filled with low-level offending teens and even more unfair to ruin a young person’s life for a misdemeanor offense.
Violent riots are unacceptable, but so is the failure of a city to meet an obvious need for constructive activities. Placing blame and ducking responsibility is futile. It takes a village to raise a child. So make Philly a better village by engaging teens of all colors and teaching tolerance in a divided town; not applauding law enforcement for locking kids up.
Richmond’s City Council has postponed its vote on whether to impose a daytime curfew for minors – a proposal put forth by the city’s Police Department.
The curfew, which will be decided at a later date, would allow police officers to arrest school-aged minors who are not in school between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2:30 pm. The curfew only targets youth in the City of Richmond, where 80 percent of the population is people of color.
The Police Department’s proposal states that such “truants” will be taken to a police-run attendance center, where the youth will be held until their parents can pick them up, or until school hours are over. The penalties for truant youth include citations and fines up to $500. Youth caught being truant more than three times in one year face further penalties, like a misdemeanor charge and government intervention in their home.
Police Chief Fred Deltorchio was quoted saying that making truancy part of the municipal code, rather than relying solely on state educational code, adds teeth to the law. But why do we want to figuratively chew up our children?
When youth rebel, the adult impulse is to suppress the rebellion. Repressive tactics might work temporarily, but it’s only a matter of time before the problem once again rears its ugly head. This proposal is a response to a serious situation, and yes, truant children should be in school. But criminalizing them is not the answer.
In this situation, an increased number of juvenile delinquents will only perpetuate Richmond’s reputation as a crime-ridden city. If the curfew passes, juveniles would be delinquent based on their inability or refusal to pay a court fine or by ditching school again, perhaps to make a stand about what they perceive as an unfair punishment. Such actions may seem defiant and silly, but when you’re a teenager, adolescent actions are your way of making sense of a world in which you have little say.
Unfortunately, under this curfew such action taken against a targeted crack down would not be viewed in the spirit of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience – as people making a stand against an unjust government – but rather as criminal behavior.
While it is commendable that the Richmond Police Department cares about youth missing school, and has even included a community-based organization in its proposed solution, a curfew would be more a challenge than a solution.
It’s as though the police are saying, “We dare you. Go ahead ditch, watch what we’ll do.”
That kind of challenge is fruitless. Kids are bored and uninspired in school and that’s often why they don’t care. They need to be challenged intellectually and be provided caring adults willing to ask what is going on in their lives that is leading them to act out. The school district and city council should address what programs have been cut that had incentivized kids to stay in school – arts, sports, music, creative expression – and how they can obtain programmatic funding rather than sequestering city funds for more policing.
Ultimately, children unafraid of school authorities are not likely to be intimidated by any authority. The solution to this problem should be how to make them care about school, not scare them into it.
Two runaway teens from Rockville, Indiana were found safe on Tuesday, March 17 in Vigo County. The 15 and 16-year-old, who the reporter named but we will not here because of their ages, were last seen March 8. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to find the girls, police finally found them at a traffic stop on Highway 40, in a semi-trailer truck en route to Terre Haute.
After briefly visiting family in Parke County, where they are from, the girls are now in a juvenile detention facility “pending an investigation.”
“Kids this age don’t realize the dangers of being out on the street…they were really in danger,” said Officer John Van Hook, who is apparently working the case because of his rapport with teens in the area.
Were in "danger"? The danger of locking up non-violent children in jail must have slipped Hook’s mind when he made that statement. At press time there are no reports of vandalism, theft or assault by the girls. There are no reports of any charges. Why then are they being held in detention?
Studies show that even one day spent in juvenile jail creates a negative impact on a youth’s life outcomes, the local economy, and the community’s public safety. Youth with a history of detention are less likely to graduate from high school; are more likely to be unemployed as an adult; and are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned as an adult.
A majority of the youth held in detention do not pose threats to public safety – rather they are awaiting trial for non-violent offenses or minor violations resulting from contact with police for reasons including running away, graffiti or shoplifting. Youth can even be jailed for missing a court date months after their initial contact with the system.
Detention for a non-violent and/or low-risk offending youth negatively impacts his or her future life opportunities. Studies show that youth who are jailed – no matter the reason or the length of time behind bars – are more likely to reoffend. And let us not forget the other forms of abuse that youth experience in detention centers, and the costs associated with a system that actually does more damage than rehabilitation.
“I saw that the skills the inmates learned to survive inside prison made them more dangerous when they were released,” says Pat Nolan, a former inmate in Los Angeles County at a panel held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs last year.
Nolan’s experience comes from adult prison but his testimony could apply to offenders of all ages. The adult and juvenile systems both lack a rehabilitative focus. Placing a low-level offending youth behind bars with youth who may pose a public safety risk will only expose him or her to negative behavior.
In this recent case, Officer Hook may know something we do not. Perhaps these girls are running from abusive homes. Perhaps their parents wanted to teach them a lesson by keeping them in detention. We do not know. But not matter the reason, a juvenile detention center is no place for young runaways. Jail should be a last resort saved only for those who pose serious public safety risks. It should not be a dumping ground for status offender and youth who need services and/or counseling.
These girls need to be with relatives or in a community center where they can receive shelter, supervision and any other services they might need. Alternatives to detention, like a crisis center, could be that place.
Our society has become too complacent about the use of detention. Jail should not be a place to send our children in trouble and need. Placing young runaways in jail is a formula for disaster.
Nothing gets to me quite like spending a morning in the juvenile court. My hat is off to the people that work in there every day. Or not, I haven't decided for sure.
It is difficult to watch children being punished for their parent's failings. Because more often than not, when a child is being sent to DJJ, or sent to alternative placement, that is what is happening. I understand the dilemma that DJJ and prosecutors and judges face - what can be done? A child does not stay in school, how do you force him to go to school? At some point, apparently, the answer is you remove him from his family and send him to live at a boy's home. A child commits crimes and will not stop, how do you change his behavior? You don't, you lock him up at DJJ's prison for kids.
I think that the good people who work in that system quickly become desensitized to the real and immediate pain that families are experiencing right there in front of them. Like the cliche about children becoming desensitized to violence due to the violence on the television, our lawyers and other professionals in the juvenile court become desensitized to the devastating effects that juvenile "justice" has on already devastated families that make their way through the system.
I've seen family court judges talk to children or their parents like they are scum of the earth. I've seen defense lawyers who are representing children in the juvenile court argue for detention when everyone else in the courtroom is asking the judge to release them. I've seen prosecutors verbally attack children with no hint of forgiveness or compassion as they ask a judge to tear them from their family and lock them away. I've seen lawyers plead children to serious crimes, an hour after being handed a file and first meeting with the child. At times there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what happens, and at others it feels as if everyone in the room has thrown up their hands and said "so what?"
I was in juvenile court with an appointed client this morning. She was in court this morning to be sentenced, after being sent to the Coastal Evaluation Center for 45 days. The Coastal Evaluation Center, by the way, is a small compound of grey concrete buildings, surrounded by tall fences with razor wire, located next door to Lieber Correctional which houses the state's death row inmates. This morning she returned to court with a recommendation of probation, which the judge accepted and released her to her mother.
Before she went in front of the judge however, her brother was taken in front of the judge for a probation violation. He would not go to school. DJJ recommended 5 days incarceration, as a wake up call, and recommended continued probation. The prosecutor asked the judge to remove him from his home and send him to DJJ until an alternative placement could be found. His lawyer says "as his lawyer," she has to ask the judge to accept DJJ's recommendation, but then gratuitously adds, "if I were his guardian," she would tell the judge to put him in alternative placement. Wonderful lawyering, that was.
The judge orders that my client's brother be taken from his family and put into an alternative placement. After her brother is taken away through the back door of the courtroom into a cage, my client and I sit at the table. She is sobbing quietly. She was taken through that same door less than two months ago.
The machine keeps moving, with no emotion from anyone in the room except my client whose brother was just taken from her. Until we stop, as I am trying to tell the judge how wonderfully my client adjusted and how well behaved she was at the Coastal Evaluation Center, in mid sentence, I am stopped so that the court reporter can go to the next courtroom and help to fix their recording equipment. My client sits at the table for 20 minutes until the gears begin to grind again. I tell the court again how wonderful she was at the evaluation center.
I tell the court how I felt her pain as she sat next to me after her brother was just taken from her. And how I am not sure if anyone else in this courtroom felt it or saw it, but I want them to know it. I pause, and look around the courtroom, and not a single person is looking at me. She went home on probation. She has the same life that she had before she was brought into the juvenile "justice" system, except with more rules and with the threat of incarceration if she screws up again. Same parents. Will watching her brother get taken away from his family motivate her to go to school? Will she be taken from her family when she does not attend school in the weeks or months to come?
I feel my client's pain when I am standing next to her in that courtroom. If I ever become desensitized to what these very real people are going through as their families are torn apart (or not, as the case may be), I think that I will need to leave and find a job welding on steel beams and trusses, rather than people's lives.
Is anyone's life better because I was there in the juvenile court this morning?
A recent story broadcast on Omaha television highlighting the heartbreaking death of a system-involved 15-year-old illustrates the complexities of the reform needed within the juvenile justice system.
Everett Williams, a high-school freshman, was one of 3,000 active juvenile cases in Douglas County, NE, when he was shot at a bus stop while wearing an ankle bracelet. In its story, the Omaha television station, WOWT, featured two voices: Don Kleine, the chief law enforcement officer in Douglas County, and an adult who was incarcerated as a minor.
Kleine said the opportunity to turn someone in the right direction at an early age is key: "We have had some homicides recently that were committed by 14, 15, 16, 17 year-olds, that maybe had a history in juvenile court and obviously they didn't get what they needed."
The article continued with a personal success story from the adult, who as a minor was placed in secure confinement for nine months for stealing a car stereo. He is now “a father of two with a great job” the reporter touted. While intriguing, this success story is the exception rather than the rule. Highlighting secure detention as a way to successfully address juvenile delinquency is a misguided and dangerous notion. Instead, the policies and practices of justice must be driven by data that demonstrates what is effective.
The facts show that the use of secure detention for non-violent juvenile offenders is overwhelmingly harmful. Detention often hampers a youth’s developmental process and propels them in a negative life direction, as shown by recidivism rates of 50 percent to 80 percent for youth who have been incarcerated, according to a 2008 report published by the Annie E Casey Foundation.
A recent article in Youth Today cites a Canadian study that joins a host of research showing that both here and abroad juvenile justice systems are more likely to increase delinquency than cure it, especially when youth are incarcerated. The study showed that the more restrictive and intense intervention, the greater its negative impact. In fact, youth placed in a juvenile correctional institution were 38 times more likely to have adult criminal records.
Community-run diversion and alternative to detention programs garner the results our communities need. San Francisco’s Detention Diversion Advocacy Program has resulted in half the recidivism rate of juveniles referred to detention or funneled elsewhere through the juvenile justice system.
Programs like BronxConnect a faith-based, community-based alternative-to-incarceration program focuses around mentoring services for Bronx court-involved youth to prevent recidivism and address youth-initiated goals in areas such as education and employment. Since partnering with the courts in 2000, BronxConnect has achieved a better than 75 percent success in rate in keeping court-involved youth from returning to the system.
Outcomes like these provide tangible examples of what is possible and what young people from all backgrounds deserve. If the overall aim of the juvenile justice system is to effectively increase public safety and rehabilitate troubled youth, then the use of cost-effective community-based alternatives must begin to trump the use of secure detention.
Public education protests should send the message that students,
parents, teachers and other education staff are fed up with higher tuition for fewer services. Instead, news coverage has focused heavily on
the havoc created by those who broke from the larger protests yesterday across
The 150 people in the Bay Area who walked onto the 1-880 Freeway
were consequently arrested and taken to jail. Ten of the arrested protestors
were youth. This ploy to gain media attention was certainly successful. By now,
we have all seen the screenshots of protestors face down on 880, but what has
been lost in the coverage is the reason for it all. It is a huge statement when youth
decide that potentially being arrested or injured by a car is a small price to pay for
a better future. This statement is lost however, when reports of broken windows
and stopped traffic are deemed the news fit to print.
Here’s some news. In California it costs $604,552 per day to incarcerate the nearly 9,000 juveniles the state holds in residential placement. That is approximately $24,641 per year to incarcerate one youth. By contrast, it is a mere $4,026
to send one student to a CSU university to school for the year. The figures
speak for themselves about our priorities. But what price are Californians
paying for this practice?
“It just really sends a clear message that in 10 years they expect us to be in one of those correctional facilities that they keep pumping money into – the money taken from our school system,” says Rosa Baltodano, program coordinator at the Center for Young Women’s Development in San Francisco.
The correlation between the lack of educational opportunities and imprisonment is direct, according to a report by Northeastern University. The study found that 18-to-24-year-old male high school dropouts had an incarceration rate 31 times that of males who graduated from a four-year college." If you're a young black male with no high school diploma, you are 60 times more likely to end up behind bars than your classmates who earned a bachelor's degree.
Budget cuts are affecting us all – even staff at the California Department of Corrections. An email to Paul Verke, media liason at the Department of Corrections, sent by this blogger prompted an automated out-of-office reply, “I will be out of the office…due to the State-mandated furlough program.”
Those who work to prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system know
that alternative to detention programs could address concerns about public safety that arise when speaking of cuts in prison spending. We know that alternatives for youth who are
deemed low and medium-risk are more cost-effective than incarceration, reduce
recidivism, and encourage rehabilitation.
By contrast, cuts to education cost more in the long run. It
is clear where the funding for education should be shifted from in California: prison spending. Our kids
deserve to be in school, not in jail and not in the streets. It is shameful
that they even have to protest for the right to affordable and quality
We cannot control the media, but we can control our state representatives. Write letters and petition the state congress. It’s not enough to flood the streets and have the intended message lost in the media’s translation. Remind California’s government that we don’t work for them, they work for us.
Lauren Jones is a Communications Intern for the BI/CJNY and a senior at San Francisco State University, studying Journalism.
A recent incident in San Francisco, coupled with other cases across the country of students being arrested in schools, demonstrate a serious lapse in our juvenile justice system and the way that we overreact to youth misbehavior.
In this particular situation, a 13-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of punching a classmate and stealing 46 cents during an after-school program. For this act, the boy was charged with felony robbery, extortion and assault – and faces deportation plus a bench warrant that will be issued if he fails to attend a March 8 hearing in San Francisco that is 3 days after he and his mother are deported back to Australia.
The news coverage has highlighted the issues of immigration, deportation and the negative impacts that those policies can have on families. It has focused primarily on a politically charged aspect of the incident, the deportation of the undocumented boy and his mother to Australia as a result of his felony charge. At issue in most local coverage is San Francisco’s much debated sanctuary policy, and “whether officials should shield undocumented youths from deportation when they are suspected of a felony crime.”
However, what is missing is one of the most alarming aspects of this particular incident – the charges leveled against the boy. The charges reported are completely unjust given the alleged act, and illustrate the widespread issue in juvenile justice of ramped up charges against young people whose behavior is typical of adolescents their age. In New York recently, a 12-year-old Latino girl was arrested for doodling on her desk. In Florida, an 11-year-old girl was arrested at her school for a scuffle at a bus stop with a classmate three days prior.
According to media reports in San Francisco, the parents of the sixth grader who the 13-year-old boy had bullied had filed a police report. The 13-year-old was arrested after he and his parents spoke to the police officer.
“I think my son was in shock, as I was, “ his stepfather, Charles Washington said in a press conference. “What he actually did, and what the actual charges are, they are universes apart. Back when I was in school, at worst, a bully was sent home for the day, creating problems for them at home, when they explain to their parents why they’ve been sent home.”
It is shocking and puzzling that such charges would be leveled against a 13-year-old boy who allegedly took 46 cents from another boy after punching him - basically acting as a bully. Why would a rational adult level such serious charges at a boy who was in a schoolyard fight? What happened to conflict resolution?
The boy’s stepfather said his stepson was held for a week at Juvenile Hall. “We did not understand why this was happening,” Washington, who is a bus driver, said at the press conference. “Kids on my bus get on and do way worse things than he actually did, and the police usually make their presence known, but there is no worry about going to Juvenile Hall.”
Is anyone in the public protected by charging this youth with such felonies? To me this is yet another example of our broken justice system and of prosecutors abusing their power by targeting youth.
In this case and many others across the country, no one is held accountable for their pivotal role in changing the outcome of a youth’s childhood.
On a daily basis, youth call our hotline at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) to talk about the horrors they face in prisons across the state. In the past six months, we’ve received reports of youth who were jumped by other youth, resulting in broken jaws and knocked-out teeth, as well as of guards employing excessive use of force.
It isn’t often that we are heartened by the moves of our statewide justice system. But, last week the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) announced that a center for the developmentally disabled would be converted in 2011 to a moderate-security juvenile facility. It is the first time that the state of Louisiana is looking to design small therapeutic facilities that are home-like and lack razor wire and cells.
OJJ should get the credit that they deserve for moving toward the building of this first moderate-security facility and taking one critical step toward the expectations set forth in a 2003 law, Act 1225, which demanded Louisiana’s system be modeled after Missouri’s. That state’s successful juvenile justice system includes residential facilities and fully-funded community-based alternative programs that allow for treatment of delinquent youth in their homes.
We know that new facilities such as the one proposed by the state cannot come in addition to the large, correctional style facilities where youth are currently housed and often face inhumane conditions. They also cannot come at the expense of community-based alternatives to incarceration, which research demonstrates would more effectively serve a significant proportion of the youth currently in the state’s care.
We have successfully advocated for an end to privatization of youth prisons and the closure of two facilities, in particular, with histories of abusing children. Today, JJPL and our partners, including Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), continue to call for a juvenile justice system that includes small and home-like, therapeutic centers, where youth would be close to home.
And, we are also calling for a full continuum of community-based programs, including evidence-based alternatives to incarceration. Such evidence-based programs have been shown through research to improve public safety by reducing rates of re-arrest. Removing youth from their homes has been shown to be associated with higher risk of recidivism. In addition to being more effective, community-based alternatives are also significantly less expensive than residential programs. Treating youth successfully while still in their communities costs between $1,300 and $5,000 per year, compared to $50,000 to incarcerate one youth for a year.
In order to truly rehabilitate youth, meet the needs of at-risk families, and ensure public safety for everyone, we will need to see a continued commitment to and investment in increasing options for treatment, especially evidence-based community programming. We will also need to see the permanent shuttering of the large-scale correctional facilities of the past that continue to plague our state, such as the Swanson Center for Youth, which currently houses more than 200 youth.
It is once all of these goals are realized; the closure of adult-like penal institutions, the development of small, regional centers, and the full investment in community based alternatives, that Louisiana will finally realize the reform that its children so desperately deserve, which will ultimately mean real safety for all of our communities.
Sarah Covert is the Policy & Media Coordinator of JJPL, which was founded 12 years ago as a legal and advocacy organization dedicated to transforming the juvenile justice system in Louisiana into one that builds on the strengths of young people, families, and communities to ensure children are given the greatest opportunity to grow and thrive. JJPL is a member of the Community Justice Network for Youth, a program of the Haywood Burns Institute.
Last week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a
report that revealed about 12 percent of youths nationwide held in state-run,
privately run or local facilities reported some type of sexual victimization
including forced sexual activity with other youth and staff. Staff sexual
misconduct was higher in state-run facilities.
Last week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report that revealed about 12 percent of youths nationwide held in state-run, privately run or local facilities reported some type of sexual victimization including forced sexual activity with other youth and staff. Staff sexual misconduct was higher in state-run facilities.
It was the first report of its kind by the Justice
Department, and the prevalence of sexual abuse by staff, particularly female
workers, shocked even advocates. At our offices, we drew a deep breath and
acknowledged the report as an addition to a growing list of reminders that
incarcerating youth – the majority of whom are locked up for nonviolent
offenses – is expensive, unproductive and harmful.
Every day, youth across the country who are incarcerated
find themselves facing harms ranging from mental, emotional, physical and
sexual abuse, to a lack of nutritious food and basic necessities including
clean undergarments and adequate bathing supplies, and a lack of education and
future opportunities. The majority are denied their liberty for minor offenses,
and are placed in the mercy of a system that has been proven broken and in need
of a serious and immediate overhaul.
Groups across the country work daily to protect and defend the rights of youth already incarcerated. We work to ensure that they will not be unjustly detained in the first place. As we look to the public and the legislature to react to the urgency we feel to transform the system, I look to the reports of some of the most egregious harms inflicted upon the young people in the custody of the juvenile justice system.
Sadly, sometimes the most heinous incidents are the best
aid in reminding us of how much needs to be done. Any of these children could
have been yours, in some tragic twist of fate.
- In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report graphically documenting the persistent brutality and routine neglect of youth of color with mental health. The report summarized the results of a two-year investigation and highlighted abuse including a 300-pound guard forcing a girl to the ground so violently (she had threatened to urinate on the floor) that the girl suffered a concussion. Another girl with mental health issues was placed in isolation for three months without treatment. She apparently deteriorated in the process, never changed out of her pajamas, and was forcibly restrained at least 15 times.
- In 2008, The New York Times reported that the Louisiana state legislature voted to close the Jetson Center, a large prison-style facility near Baton Rouge plagued by fights and reports of sexual violence. A young man reported being locked in a cell for about seven weeks: “This is where the guards beat, kick, stomp and punch you. I was beaten so badly in there in there by a guard that he broke my eardrum. The sex in there is horrible. The female guards, and even some male guards, were having sex with the kids….And there were rapes, but they weren’t reported very often. If a kid was raped on a guard’s watch, the guard would get fired and the other guards were going to make sure the kid paid for telling.”
- In 2007, reporters in
Texas found that more than 750 juvenile detainees across the state had alleged
sexual abuse by staff over the previous six years. Officials in Austin ignored
what they heard, and in rare cases where staff were fired and their cases
referred to local prosecutors, the prosecutors typically refused to act. “Not
one employee of the Texas Youth Commission during that six-year period was sent
to prison for raping the children in his or her care,” according to the New
York Review of Books.
- In 2006, Martin Lee
Anderson didn’t make it past his first day at the Bay
County Juvenile Boot Camp before he was abused to death. After “drill
instructors” at this youth boot camp facility forced him do a fitness run with
a 20-minute confrontation, Martin collapsed and died as a result of
complications from a sickle cell trait.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Simon Johnson coined the phrase
“intellectual capture” in reference to the nation’s kneeling at the altar of the
gods of Wall Street. In essence, we are “intellectually captured” by the notion
that whatever is good for Wall Street is good for America. Johnson goes on to
posit that this intellectual capture is so powerful that it prevents the public
and powerful politicians from exercising common sense and challenging basic
This recent report, and this brief look at an ever-growing
list of abuses, demonstrates clearly that our notions of crime and punishment
for young people have us intellectually captured and clueless. Society at
large, as well as the opinion shapers, the elites and those who wield power
seem to be afraid to say what we all know to be true. Using cells to change the
behaviors of teenagers is ineffective, expensive and more likely to increase
Two-thirds of youth in detention are incarcerated for
nonviolent offenses. What about incarceration only for those who pose a proven
public safety risk? What about keeping nonviolent youth and those with minor
offenses in community-based programs that involves therapy and engages their
families? What about rehabilitation? Employing these methods has been shown to
reduce crime, and the likelihood of abuse, and save money.
These ideas should no longer be novel or untried. San
Francisco’s District Attorney Kamala Harris has it right. In her new book Smart on Crime she invites us to get a
clue about being, well, smart on crime. She observes that two thirds of inmates
return in two years. The numbers are similar for youth as well. By comparison,
two decades ago, Missouri replaced its guards with counselors and its cells
with bunk beds. The new model
focused on changing behavior through therapy rather than physical restraints.
Today, only one in four of the youths who have gone through the state's system
are re-incarcerated within three years of release.
How many more reports, tragedies and thrown away lives will we continue to endure? How long will we continue to waste precious dollars on this failed approach? How much longer will we, as a society, continue to be clueless and intellectually captured by the myth of “tough on crime”? It’s time to get a clue.
New York State spends $215,000 per year to expose each vulnerable child in its unsafe juvenile prisons to months spent far from home, with inadequate mental health care, and an increased likelihood of reoffending upon their release. The juvenile justice system neither rehabilitates youth nor keeps communities safe.
Worst of all, a staggering 53 percent of youth in the state’s juvenile justice system are locked up for misdemeanor offenses. A majority of these youth, 86 percent, are Black and Latino. They should not even be on the radar of the prison system. Closing ineffective, under-utilized juvenile prisons and reinvesting in communities can provide the necessary means for revamping this system in crisis. As New York faces a $3.2 billion deficit, we cannot afford to waste another penny on a costly system that harms our social fabric.
Last week’s critical report by the New York Governor’s Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice provides a roadmap towards tackling the system’s crisis. The Governor’s Task Force calls for decreased use of incarceration, reinvestment of funds into community-based programs, expansion of community-based alternatives to incarceration, more re-entry services, an increased focus on positive youth development and rehabilitation, establishment of an independent oversight body, reduction of racial disparities – including data collection on all points in the system, and regular progress reports on the status of implementation of their recommendations.
The Governor’s Task Force report comes at an opportune time, on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice report that found rampant child abuse by staff in New York’s juvenile prisons and threatened a full federal takeover of the system.
Commissioner Gladys Carrión, head of the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) — the state agency that oversees New York’s juvenile placement system — has shown remarkable leadership in closing facilities, improving restraint policies, instituting therapeutic programming, and moving the state towards a smaller, community-based model since her appointment to the post in January 2007.
Yet, efforts towards reform continue to face resistance from facility employees unions. Many of these staff members rely on a punitive correctional culture and fear a loss of upstate jobs if court-involved children remain closer to home. This opposition does not change the fact that rehabilitative, youth-development oriented approaches, and keeping youth near their families, are the most effective ways to keep children from committing future crimes.
Advocates, youth and communities have been calling for an overhaul of New York’s juvenile system for decades. For the past two years, The New York Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System, of which I am the coordinator, has made a concerted effort to turn the tide. We meet with system stakeholders; empower communities, youth and advocates; and engage the media, to eliminate the overuse of juvenile arrest, incarceration and racially biased policies and practices. We endorse the recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force; and also demand that all system agencies collect and publicly report data broken down by race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and offense type; that the state increase its upper juvenile court jurisdiction age from 16 to 18 years old; and support legislation called Re-Direct NY, which would provide fiscal incentives for local governments to invest in alternatives to detention and community-based programs.
We are also seeking to expedite the New York juvenile justice system’s transformation into a smaller, community-based, therapeutic, youth-development focused system like Missouri, where only eight percent of youth reoffend.
We have nothing to lose but mammoth costs to the state for current juvenile recidivism rates as high as 81 percent for girls and 89 percent for boys. We have our children’s success, public safety, and taxpayer savings to gain. Community based programs and alternatives to incarceration cost as little as $10,000 per youth, have recidivism rates as low as 15 percent, and can teach youth the skills they need to become productive, law-abiding citizens.
I have worked in juvenile justice for eight years, after seeing a heartbreaking film by the Rosalynn Carter Center about the severe mental health needs of youth in detention facilities. Seeing so many young people fighting to survive, immersed in emotional turmoil met with barbed wire and concrete walls, changed my life. I am still flabbergasted that in this great nation, children are locked up and shipped far away when they have social service needs and a lack of opportunities at home.
In addition to wholesale juvenile justice reform, New York desperately needs more enlightened citizens to care about what happens to at-risk youth. Court-involved children turn their lives around when surrounded by positive adults and peers, developmentally appropriate programming, and the chance to dream and find their way. If more of us challenge ourselves to see potential in every child, regardless of their skin color, economic situation, or brush with the law, New York State can lead the nation not only in juvenile justice, but in positive life outcomes for youth.
A recent incident in Omaha, Nebraska brings urgency to an issue soon to be debated in Congress regarding the handling of youth offenders by juvenile and criminal justice systems. In this case, police shot a 15-year-old boy in the chest following a traffic stop. Investigators said the boy shot at police first. The case has led one local senator to call for an overhaul of Nebraska's juvenile justice system that would identify "aggressive juvenile offenders."
This is a dangerous reaction to a singular incident. But it is not uncommon. Politicians often legislate by anecdote. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
When one examines this case further, it becomes clear that for Nebraska State Sen. Brad Ashford to use this particular incident as an example of why the city's "most aggressive juvenile offenders need to be more readily identified," is a slippery slope. Ashford told an Omaha television station that he is working on legislation that would do just that.
"The best way to unclog the juvenile court system, and the best way to prevent violence amongst juveniles, is to catch these young people early as they exhibit behaviors that indicate they will very likely shoot somebody someday," Ashford told KETV Omaha.
There is no evidence that any justice system can viably identify and "catch" potential violent offenders. Indeed, years of reactive legislation by politicians demonstrate that just because they have a bully pulpit and power does not make them informed, thoughtful or effective. In fact, Sen. Ashford's efforts could actually result in an increase in the use of incarceration for juveniles and adult lock-ups. This is an alarming reaction for those who use data to drive policy and practice. Research shows that youth confined in adult jails and lock-ups are more likely to re-offend upon release and while confined are at pronounced high risk of suffering assault and committing suicide.
Congress is expected to soon consider the reauthorization of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (JJDPA), which among many provisions that ensure protection for youth in juvenile and criminal justice systems, would help to keep youth awaiting trial in criminal court out of adult lock-up and ensure "sight and sound separation" in the limited circumstances
But sound legislation based on data and research is often threatened by political rhetoric and emotional reaction, as we have seen across the country in our work to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in local juvenile justice systems. In this particular case, Omaha's police union president, Aaron Hanson, responded to the incident by saying the case and others like it have "to do with the fact that many of these youthful violent offenders are sent through the juvenile justice system, as opposed to the adult criminal justice system."
This is a familiar line of thought that is woefully inaccurate. Such thinking was first popularized by in the late eighties by John Dilulio, a Princeton political scientist who coined the phrase "super-predators." Soon thereafter, politicians and the media adopted this phrase and ushered in an avalanche of draconian laws based on anecdote and worse-case scenarios rather than actual data or research. Those laws remain today and are responsible for the notion of "throw-away" youth. We do not increase public safety by using detention early and often for young people in trouble with the law.
This particular case should be handled individually, applying the facts and the law, and not as a launching pad for legislative short-term gain. Today, a majority of youth in detention are incarcerated for minor and nonviolent offenses. Two-thirds of youth in detention are youth of color, though they are only one-third of the total U.S. youth population. In other words, African American youth are 5.5 times more likely to be detained than White youth, while Latino youth and Native American youth are both 2.5 times more likely to be detained than White youth.
The JJDPA reflects a better approach. When passed, it would limit the amount of time that juveniles are detained for "nondelinquent status offenses," such as truancy, running away or violating curfew, alcohol and tobacco laws. Its other vital provisions include increasing financial incentives for States to improve diversion programs for youth with mental health and substance abuse needs; directing States to develop policies and procedures to eliminate the use of isolation and restraints, and to enhance alternatives to detention and transitional services.
Importantly, the JJDPA would also direct States and localities to actively work to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. Today, research demonstrates that youth of color are incarcerated more often than White youth even when charged with the same category of offense. Currently, the JJDPA requires States to "address" disparities within the juvenile justice system, but it does not require oversight of reduction efforts, accurate collection of relevant data, development of work plans with measurable objectives, or regular monitoring, evaluation, and reporting.
We hope that this bill will move through the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the floor of the Senate before the end of the year. And we trust that the Senate will do everything within its power to preserve the prevention focus of the JJDPA by guarding against any amendments that would link the JJDPA to provisions or other forms of federal legislation that introduce new federal categories of juvenile crime, new or enhanced federal penalties affecting juveniles, or incentives for States to advance new or enhanced penalties for juveniles.
How long are we as a nation going to allow justice policy to be determined by anecdote, storytelling and worst-case scenarios? When are we as a society going to pierce the veil of supposedly "tough on crime" legislation? If and when we do, we will find that we are a safer and more productive society by being "smart on crime." That means allowing the court system to do its job for violent crimes, while not over-reacting with blanket legislation to any dramatic incident that grabs media attention. We must act now to ensure the best outcomes for our future generations.
I continue to be amazed at how many people continue to behave as though race and involvement with the criminal justice system are synonymous. Has it become an accepted fact of life in the United States that the machinery of justice applies almost solely to people of color? I shuddered to realize this once again recently while reading editorials about the Supreme Court’s deliberations regarding juveniles receiving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in the U.S., the only country that engages in this barbaric practice.
While I was heartened by the arguments proffered regarding brain development and laws that restrict children from voting, serving on juries, buying alcohol and cigarettes – something was missing. In most of the editorials in mainstream media, it was rare to find any analysis of race and how justice systems operate in neighborhoods made up mostly of people of color in poverty. In the alternative press, an AlterNet article mentioned an important fact: Black prisoners account for 84 percent of those in prison for life without the possibility of parole in Florida, the state with the most people expected to perish this way in prison. Nationally, Black youths are serving life without parole at a rate of about 10 times that of White youths, according to Human Rights Watch. Amy Bach’s recent book, “Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court,” further recounts such justice by geography and race.
As someone who works everyday to prevent youth of color from being undeservedly trapped by the labyrinth that is today’s justice system, perplexed is an understatement to describe the feelings invoked as reporters and commentators continue to accept the disproportionate impact of justice on communities of color. We must combat the normalization of this phenomenon. Why isn’t it a story that most Black and Brown youth are detained for low-level administrative violations rather than crimes that endanger public safety? Why isn’t there more media attention around the fact that youth of color are securely confined in numbers that cannot be accounted for by crime alone? Why is there not more scrutiny regarding systemic decision-making that show the exact points in a juvenile justice system where when White youth are released, youth of color are detained for the same offenses?
These are tough questions to answer when one realizes that at the heart of such issues is yet another a conversation about race. The case of a five-year-old Black girl in Florida comes to mind, who in 2005 was handcuffed and arrested by three police officers after throwing a tantrum in class. The public response to the shocking tape of her arrest ranged from blame directed toward the police and the school principal – to blame directed at the child and her family. Many comments below the YouTube video of her arrest featured racist attacks. But other than legal action pursued by her family, the outcry was tempered. When another little Black girl, six-year-old Desre'e Watson was arrested in her kindergarten class in Florida two years later for a similar classroom tantrum, she was booked in the Highland County jail and charged with a felony and two misdemeanors without much public attention. On the other hand, when Zachary Christie, a White six-year-old, was suspended from first grade and faced 45 days in an alternative school for troublemakers for taking a combination knife/fork/spoon to school, the widespread public outrage that followed led the school board to change the penalty for all young students to a three-five day suspension.
Zachary’s punishment called into question harsh school "zero-tolerance" policies, and led to a change of policy in the local system. The cases of the two little Black girls who now have criminal histories for throwing tantrums in kindergarten did not impacted the local or wider discourse.
In order to deconstruct who is detained and why in a local juvenile justice system, those who make such decisions – including schools, the police, juvenile court judges, and prosecutors – must have the courage to examine how their juvenile justice apparatus operates, and what impacts their decisions. Are their reactions to youth of color driven by fear, politics, anecdote and beliefs – or by data and informed analysis? We have found in our work that examining how decision-making points impact youth of color is an unnatural task for a local juvenile justice system to undertake. It is a shock to the institution. For that reason, there is an overall lack of accountability when it comes to juvenile justice.
On any given day, more than 90,000 youth are in custody of the juvenile justice system. A majority of them are youth of color who are held for nonviolent offenses. For this, our society pays a high moral and financial price. A recently issued Justice Policy Institute report found that states spend approximately $5.7 billion each year imprisoning youth, although it has been shown that nonviolent youth can be supervised safely in the community with alternatives that cost substantially less than incarceration and that could lower recidivism by up to 22 percent. Studies show that incarcerated youth are less likely to graduate from high school, are more likely to be unemployed as adults, and are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned as adults.
While some youth involved in serious or violent crime should be detained for public safety, the more than two-thirds of detained youth are charged with property offenses, public order offenses, or status offenses (i.e. running away or breaking curfew). Why is this so? Simply put, as a society we do not demand nor expect excellence, fairness, rationality or accountability from our child-serving justice systems. This should no longer be acceptable. There is too much at stake for our democratic principles and our ability to compete in a global knowledge-based world.
I am no economist or futurist, but I know that as a country we are not well-served when we have so many uneducated youth of color lost in a juvenile justice apparatus that dictates when they can eat, shower and exercise – then released to the world without much hope for turning their lives around through higher education or work. We can do better. But in order to do so we must demand accountability from juvenile justice systems early and often.
Today, let us begin by eliminating life in prison without the possibility of parole for children who have not taken a life.
Bell is is the Founder and Executive Director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI) and is a national leader in racial and ethnic disparities reform.
I recently had the opportunity to tour two very different juvenile justice facilities with the Youth Law Center that personify ongoing divisions in the field about how we should deal with youth in trouble with the law. While both the California Department of Juvenile Justice’s Youth Correctional Facilities in Stockton and the Muriel Wright Residential Center in San Jose detain youth after sentencing, the differences are stark.
The temperatures outside of the DJJ facilities were hot, but the inside of its N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility held an emotional coldness that was hard to escape. The floors of the facility for young men over 18 were hard cement, punctuated by red boundary lines the “wards” could not cross. The doors had huge lock mechanisms almost as big as the small window just above them.
The cells were mostly bare boxes with few possessions signaling that someone was calling it home. The tour itself was coolly professional, with an entourage of a half dozen administrative officials trailing us and introducing supervisors of dorms in the facility. Some appeared to wear bullet-proof vests and all carried a utility belt that included pepper spray, a walkie-talkie and handcuffs. Inside each dorm, dozens of youth were joking around, playing ping-pong, or watching TV, but as our group walked through the facility, our guides seemed to treat the “wards” as an attraction.
“These wards are part of the substance abuse program,” said one supervisor as she grinned, sweeping her arm to encompass a few dozen young men in the building. As she continued to explain the program, it was hard to hear her constantly differentiate the “wards” – who at times were standing right next to her. We help them; they are our concern. It felt almost like the “wards” were viewed like animals in a zoo, to be paternalistically cared for by the supervisors who always knew better. The attitude of some of the supervisors was shocking to see, and the chasm between supervisor and “wards” was no where more apparent than when we toured the facility’s school.
In one classroom, it was painful to watch as several young men were described in the most blunt and insensitive manner by the director of the school as they sat listening. “Their literacy is poor . . .” “This one is at a sixth grade level . . .” “We want to improve their math skills.” What was strangest of all to me was that the classroom itself seemed like an every day high school classroom. Shelves were full of books, a blackboard had instructions on it and even a manual pencil sharpener was attached to the wall. If not for the director talking about the so-called woefully uneducated students in the room, this could have been my classroom.
This begs the question: Does this school prepare these young men for a future outside of the facility? It was difficult to say, really – activity in the classrooms came to a halt whenever we walked in. The vocational and trade classes were bustling with activity, with wards working on cars, computers and copy machines. The youth were obviously learning some skills, but it just didn’t seem to be enough. For example, one of the people on the tour asked a shop teacher if the youth would be licensed to work with machinery once they completed the class. The teacher said they would be “accredited,” but never gave a direct answer to further questions about whether that is enough for employment.
Security, order and discipline ruled all at Chad. At our orientation, buzzers kept going off but no one seemed to notice or care. We later learned this was a personal alarm attached to those who worked among the youth and would sound every time the person leaned back further than a certain angle. During our tour of the schools, a bell sounded, at which point all the youth left the classrooms and slowly meandered back to their dorms. Each youth went through a checkpoint on their way out of the school and each was shaken down before they entered the dorm. Even pencils weren’t allowed, a supervisor told us as she smiled . . . and patted down the next youth to enter the dorm.
Inside, the youth grimly got in line to get their lunch, and then waited quietly by their cell doors as the supervisor slowly unlocked each one individually and watched as the young man got the materials he needed for later in the day, like textbooks. As our tour ended and we began to leave, this emphasis on security was drilled into us as we exchanged our temporary passes for the driver’s licenses we had left behind at a checkpoint, and then were asked to show our ID’s again as we drove out of the parking lot. It was jarring to see that this facility had more security than a NASA laboratory I had toured previously.
Considering the fact that states spend about $5.7 billion each year imprisoning youth, even though the majority are held for nonviolent offenses and could be managed safely for cheaper in the community, this did not seem like a cost-effective policy.
By contrast, the Muriel Wright camp, which is based on the Missouri model of a humane and “least restrictive” environment had almost no security. An automated gate slowly opened for our car. A lone guard watched as a group of boys played volleyball in a fenced off court…and continued to watch as one boy sauntered to the gate, opened it, and ran outside to grab a ball that had gone over the fence. The back door led out to a hill with a set of stairs that led down into a series of hiking trails. The manager of the center, an energetic woman who wore a dress – sans utility belt – came out to greet us.
Here, the rehabilitation of 300 boys and girls rather than detention, was emphasized by the manager. In fact, our introduction at the beginning of the tour was interrupted by a yoga instructor who needed to set up for class in the large room. Inside the dorms, carpeting covered most of the floors and finished jigsaw puzzles, posters and goals written by the youth covered the walls. One thing the manager was most proud of was the fact that none of the rooms were locked. The cells were more brightly lit than the Chad facility and had unbarred windows that looked out toward the mountains of the nature preserve the camp was located within. We learned that the staff to “ward” ratio was a mere 1 to 6, and that the same staff members led the same children through the duration of each day, and though their six to eight month sentence in the program.
Perhaps the starkest contrast and most telling difference were the gardens. One of the first things we saw at Chad was a small garden surrounded by concrete pavement where youth could plant and grow vegetables. It was small, but seemed like a nice idea. At Muriel Wright, the gardens were in the backyards of dorms and were teeming with plants. All around Muriel Wright, flowers planted and cared for by the youth were blooming. The manager told us an anecdote about the youth playing football on the grass, essentially trampling and uprooting it. Some staff members were upset, but the manager said she reminded them the goal of this facility was to rehabilitate, not to maintain a pristine lawn. It was an odd thing to hear considering that officials at Chaderjian spent quite some time outlining their policy concerning the use of force and the director of the adjacent O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility (for youth under 18) made it clear that only youth who attained a certain “level” through good behavior could participate in such fun activities.
This is not to say that Muriel Wright is some idyllic resort where young boys and girls in trouble with the law take vacations. Like OH Close, Muriel Wright also has a level system where youth must earn higher levels – and therefore freedom or benefits – based on good behavior. Their days were planned out to the minute and they all wore the same clothing. Youth were grouped by the dozen by their dorm assignment and stayed in their groups through the day. But it was clear that the manager of Muriel Wright cared about the youth, not just as wards needing rehabilitation, but as children who are growing up.
“Most of our kids have experienced trauma at an early age – abuse, sexual abuse and violence, parents in jail or prison…everything you read is true.” she said. “They’re seen as throwaways. But they’re the kids we think we can make a difference with.”
The camp’s recidivism rate is low, only about 25 percent in the first six months after release. I also believe Muriel Wright’s model is a much more humane and effective one, based upon a model philosophy in which “it is the responsibility of the agency to provide a healthy, therapeutic, and nonjudgmental environment within which change may take place.” Young men and women should not be locked in a cold, emotionless facility in the desert. They should be placed in centers that address their personal needs on a daily basis, with caretakers that spend time with them and know them.
Yet, after touring both facilities, I came away with some nagging criticisms. The biggest concern to me was that officials at both facilities seemed to be isolated. They seemingly took care of their business the best they could, but a lot of their answers to questions or their descriptions of policy seemed to put the blame elsewhere: The Mental Health Department didn’t do this. The Probation Department did this so now we have to deal with it. We do what we can do within the system. It occurred to me while touring Muriel Wright that correctional facilities, for better or for worse, are the most direct connection between so-called delinquent youth and the legal system, and for officials at both institutions to regard themselves as isolated from the government was astounding.
How can these juvenile justice officials, who see and control the lives of these children in need of help every day, consider themselves so powerless?
But criticism and finger pointing can only take you so far. This post isn’t a critique of youth correctional facilities or the entire juvenile justice system – my colleagues who are far more educated and experienced than I can tell you all about that. And this isn’t a criticism of people who I’ve met on these tours, facility officials or otherwise. This is simply a plea, from an intern who is younger than some of the wards at Chaderjian, to the directors, officials, supervisors, managers, department heads, and politicians: Work together. Educate yourselves. End your cynical and outmoded beliefs about other departments and people and reach out to them.
It is appalling that there is not a single, unifying board or committee which brings together all of the department heads who are separately responsible for rehabilitating our children. The only such model is the stakeholder collaboratives that the Burns Institute sets up in the jurisdictions it work with, which is a highly effective process. It would be fascinating to see implemented across the country – with unified groups of representatives from each sectors of government related to the juvenile justice system, community representatives, parents and youth.
Only by uniting and working together can people truly understand each other, and these huge, invisible walls that separate agencies and departments block that from happening. No more is this felt than when an official realizes their facility can’t treat youths with mental and neurological disabilities, but can only complain from afar when the Mental Health Department closes the only facility in the county.
By bringing together varying stakeholders into the same room, perhaps we can begin to eliminate the problems and disconnects occurring throughout a system that regularly fails our youth. Youth correctional facilities should be the centerpiece and leader of reform, not the subject of it. I do believe that it is within the youth correctional system that significant and meaningful change can begin to happen.
Thomas Lee is a graduate of UC Berkeley and is currently attending Harvard Law School. He is a summer intern at the W. Haywood Burns Institute.
I recently toured two youth correctional facilities of the California Division of Juvenile Justice in Stockton, and I just don’t know what adjective to use to describe my experience. Intense? Eye-opening? Every one I think of seems applicable for some parts, and wildly inaccurate for others.
Intense: Seeing only the middle section of two young men’s faces in the N. A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility peering through their cell doors – and realizing that’s all they see 23 hours a day. How is our society enhanced by having youth view the world through a 4-inch slot?
Eye-opening: Listening to an OH Close Youth Correctional Facility warden, amid discussing how the young men benefit from their time inside the facility, let slip that soon, “They may have to interact with normal people.”
Needless to say, the experience had quite an impact on me.
Walking through the grounds of the “Chad” facility, I felt awkward thinking about what we must have looked like to the young men – as a group of mostly white professionals escorted by four or five correctional officials. Did anyone beside the administration know we were coming? Do the young people detained in these facilities know when strangers are going to get a glimpse into their current lives?
The answer became clear quickly as every young man we passed inquisitively looked in our direction, curious about who we were and why we were there. Unfortunately, all of them were just as much at the mercy of the invisible wall constructed between “us,” the visitors, and “them,” the incarcerated, as we were. I could feel this wall going up every time the tour guide of the moment referred to the youth as if they were an exhibit in a museum. There was rarely an attempt for eye contact by the tour guides, much less recognition that the individuals being discussed were in fact present in the cement boxes we were invading.
Soon, I realized it was fair game to stray from the group and talk to the young men. I no longer subjected myself to hearing language that suggested the facility was benefiting the young men by teaching them to reject what the tour guides seemed to view as some kind of pathological criminal tendency. The curiosity displayed on the faces of the young men we passed became a reality as the first question from every one I talked to was, “So what is this? Who are you guys?”
I was happy to explain that we were all from, as I chose to put it, down-for-the-cause organizations and law firms working to reform the mess we call the juvenile justice system. And from here on in my personal tour consisted of as many conversations with the youth as I could get. We talked about where we grew up, tattoos, piercings, plans after prison, the weather, the quality of the tour I was on… But one thing that remains with me is something a young man named Victor said, “This girl isn’t afraid to talk to us.” I mention this because I want to emphasize is the ubiquity of this apprehension in the first place. In my mind it comes from the binary our society has constructed that posits perpetrator and victim as not only opposites but also opponents. Both sides are restricted to either the bad guy or the good guy, a classification that, if you’ve ever seen a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, is nearly impossible to reconcile.
With no room for restorative justice, our retributive justice system relies on this dichotomy to rationalize our massive prison system and the heinous conditions therein. In order to keep this system legitimate, jails and prison facilities must prove that it is in the best interest of society to keep the “bad guys” locked up. How better to do this than to create a complex of fear relentlessly surrounding people who have been labeled “criminals?” At the Burns Institute it is well known that young people of color bear the unfair brunt of such labeling and scapegoating.
This fear begins with what is perceived as criminal nature and the so-called criminal’s ability to corrupt. However, because this is a constructed idea, what results is fear that these two things are not static to a personality or culture. Fear that if given any other resources beside being incarcerated the first two will prove untrue. Thus, fear of what would happen if this binary were to be uprooted. And lastly, fear of learning about the lives of the accused aside from their crime for fear of finding the person behind the crime is in fact a person, and that many of their missteps can be linked to other issues, from mental health and harsh school discipline, to police or probation officials who through subjective judgment calls perceive the risk they could pose for society, rather than the risk they actually pose.
For this reason I never asked anyone why they were there, understanding all the while that a majority of young people who are in juvenile facilities across the nation are there for nonviolent offenses or minor infractions such as violating probation or failing to appear in court. I don’t like the idea that their crimes automatically define their person, which is undoubtedly the idea that permeates the system that placed them there, a practice that results in mass incarceration numbers that are unconscionable and shameful for any civil society.
I found that by having a conversation with these young men about something other than their crimes, the reality of their humanity became inescapable. Maybe once we all recognize this, more of us will also recognize the dire state of our prisons and jails and realize that they are truly unfit for any human being, regardless of how their character is defined or labeled.
That said, what happens when we lose that fear? When we come to grips with the idea that no person is, or should be, defined by a single action or accusation? Perhaps we in the United States abandon the cages we use to house 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and instead embrace alternative tactics. Methods that promote a connection between victim and perpetrator in hopes of fostering an understanding and healing between the two parties.
In my opinion, it is only then that we can say our justice system contributes to the progress and prosperity of our society.
Sarah True just finished her sophomore year at Barnard
College (an affiliate of Columbia University) and is majoring in
Africana Studies. She is a summer intern at the Burns Institute and
among other things is assisting the BI in a joint project with the
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to develop a statewide assessment of
Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) and its leading drivers for
youth, adults, men and women in six California counties.
As we work to ensure the equitable treatment of youth of color by the juvenile justice system, our daily struggles can be informed by a look at the recent history that has brought us here. Based upon our research, we have found that several factors have helped contribute significantly to disproportionate minority confinement – namely the war on drugs, “broken windows” and “quality of life” policing, zero tolerance in school discipline, and the shift away from the rehabilitative function of the juvenile justice system.
These policies, though neutral on their face, overwhelmingly affected low-income youth of color. During the 1980s, new federal and state policies attempted to reduce drug use, improve the quality of the communities, and make schools safer for all children. Ironically, these policies purported to be race neutral. They removed discretion and established preset consequences for objectively defined offenses. In practice, they had a disproportionate affect on youth of color.
The War on Drugs
The first attempt by a state to impose mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenders was the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York. These laws overwhelmingly affected people of color. In fact, 94% of the drug offenders in New York state prisons today are black and Latino. Federally, the war on drugs changed its focus to poor African-Americans in the mid-1980's when crack became the drug of choice in low-income communities. Crack was attractively cheap and selling crack was lucrative to young low-income people. The crack epidemic hit the cities hard and with it, the level of gun violence in the cities grew. At the peak of the crack boom, homicide rates of African-American boys quintupled. The public associated crack with violence and, even though the victims were mostly youth of color, feared for their safety.
While Reagan encouraged people to “just say no,” Congress passed a wave of tough federal drug laws, including harsh minimum sentences through the 1986-1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, in response to the rising level of drug use and violence. Despite being race neutral on their face, these laws targeted African-Americans. The penalty for selling five grams of crack was the same as selling five-hundred grams of cocaine, however few white people were arrested, detained, or sentenced for using crack. There was also incentive for law enforcement to arrest people of color for drug violations because they were most likely to receive government benefits. Federal laws mandated eviction from public housing if drugs were found on the premises, bans on welfare benefits for those with a drug conviction, and bars to federal financial aid for students with a drug conviction. All of these federal benefits flowed mainly to those who needed it most, which were low-income people of color.
Not only do youth of color represent 60% to 75% of drug arrests today, but also are incarcerated at 25 times the rate of white youth. Latino youth are incarcerated at 13 times the rate of their white counterparts. Racial profiling increased during the war on drugs. People of color, especially youth, were more likely to be pulled over or even followed until they commit a traffic violation. More black boys were targeted, searched, arrested, sentenced and detained because of these drug laws. As a result of these policies, youth of color were disproportionately punished in an effort to make the city streets appear safe and drug free.
Broken Windows and Petty Crimes
A 1982 article in Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows” introduced the concept “that ignoring the little problems – graffiti, litter, shattered glass – creates a sense of irreversible decline that leads people to abandon the community or to stay away.” Violence and disorder, these authors believed, stem from the perception that the community is already abandoned. In order to save communities, police needed to patrol the streets and punish those who commit anti-social acts, such as jumping a turnstile, tagging a building, or breaking a window. These initiatives attempted to assuage public fears about youth crime and help make neighborhood cleaner and safer.
Public perception influenced what made an “unsafe” neighborhood, which was therefore in need of an increased police presence to maintain order. But the public perceived black neighborhoods or black people moving into white neighborhoods as a sign that the area was unsafe. One critique of the broken windows theory by Sampson and Raudenbush found that the physical deterioration of the neighborhood was not as important as race as a factor in determining disorder. Stabilizing the neighborhood was less about the reduced presence of graffiti, but about the perceptions of black neighborhoods. More young African-Americans were likely to be arrested for petty offenses in these communities. As a result, more young black boys were detained in the name of maintaining order.
New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, took broken windows measures to new heights and with “quality of life” policing. “Quality of life” policing is not limited to minor offenses, but also refers to a practice of heavily policing a number of normally non-criminal activities such as standing, congregating, sleeping, eating and/or drinking in public spaces. Mayor Giuliani attributed the sharp reduction in violent crime to this new strategy of community control. Following the lead of Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, these new policing strategies encouraged decentralized police control over neighborhoods, computerized crime statistics and data, and increased police presence on the streets. While violent crime decreased, arrests and incarceration rates increased.
African-Americans represented a disproportionate number of misdemeanor arrests for "quality of life" offenses and a majority of those arrested for subjective offenses, such as “suspicion." The decision to arrest a person for quality of life offenses also had a disproportionate affect on people of color.
Emerging in the late-1980s, “zero-tolerance” was a term from the drug enforcement lexicon that found its way into public education. In 1994, Congress backed state zero tolerance policies with the Gun Free Schools Act, which “made school discipline the focus of violence prevention.” The Act required schools to expel students who brought guns to school property and limited or denied federal funding to states that failed to adopt this rule. Schools took these policies further to include “tobacco-related offenses and school disruption.”
Often referred to as the “school to prison pipeline,” zero tolerance policies often criminalize otherwise trivial offenses that would have previously warranted a visit to the principal’s office or a call to the child’s parents. The initiatives increase the police presence in schools, locker searches and interrogation without the same rights afforded to adults. Children perceive school as a prison with teachers, administrators and law enforcement scrutinizing their every move. Zero tolerance policies criminalize behaviors that would not be a crime for an adult. Children are punished for their impulsive, “child-like” behavior. These policies also affect the child’s ability to graduate, go to college, and get a job because of their juvenile or criminal record.
Zero tolerance policies are widely used and unequally applied. Such a system is unnecessarily demoralizing and creates lasting social effects. Suspension and expulsion increase the risk that students, especially students of color, will eventually dropout. Those who are suspended or expelled because of zero tolerance policies fall behind in school and, after the age of 16, most will not return to school. The Advancement Project notes that “[t]hose who drop out are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than their peers who graduate.” Because school disciplinary policies “tend to mirror inequalities persistent in the larger society,” it is not surprising that zero tolerance policies and exclusionary discipline fall mostly on African-Americans. Youth of color are disproportionately targeted by zero tolerance policies and therefore are more likely to affect the composition of the juvenile justice system.
Unfortunately, the war on drugs, broken windows and zero tolerance do not reduce crime. They merely make the public feel safe. In the 1980's, the United States faced a recession. People were unemployed, the government took tax money away from supporting social services, and the disparities in wealth increased. With more people on the streets, especially unsupervised African-American boys, the public perceived cities and towns as unsafe. States changed their approaches to juvenile justice to make cities and towns appear safer. From 1985 to 1994, the juvenile population increased and so did instances of violent crime. Juvenile violence is certainly not new, but the media focused attention on juvenile drug use, gang related activities and school violence because “if it bleeds, it leads.” The public perceived African-American boys as the perpetrators of these violent crimes. The media reinforced the image of the “super-predator” or African-American boy, beyond salvation, who must be locked up. The public, influenced by the media, perceived African-American boys as inherently violent. Legislatures and law enforcement responded by adopting a “tough on crime” approach to juvenile violence that focused on violent youth of color, which do little to reduce crime, but instead merely increased the amount of youth of color in detention.
Check back next month for the second installment of this blog series.
The Burns Institute is proud to present our first blog from one of our Board members—Joseph Myers. Mr. Myers runs the National Indian Justice Center and brings to the BI the perspective of Indian Country. We are proud to share his thoughts on this blog. – James Bell, Executive Director
The Indian reservations of this country are studies in extremes; from perceived overconsumption from gaming to substandard housing, inferior educational and medical facilities, to inadequate justice systems. When it comes to the juvenile and criminal justice systems, Native communities face widespread disparities in charges, length of stay and average age of incarceration as compared to non-Indians. The median age of a non-Indian prisoner is 34, yet the median age of an American Indian prisoner is slightly under 20.
As someone who works to ensure the administration of justice in Indian country, I have seen the mediocrity of Indian jail facilities cause great harm to those incarcerated in them. Indian reservations are occupied by more than 500 Indian tribes and were established from their inception to be “separate and apart” from the emerging American society. The reservations signified imprisonment through isolation and served as an alternative to outright genocide. Today, when an Indian is convicted of a crime under tribal law, punishment amounts to serving time in a tribal jail if one exists. Many Indians, born and reared on isolated reservations, endure a life of psychological imprisonment that can even result in suicide when substandard facilities become too much to bear.
On the Yakama Reservation in eastern Washington, for example, a young Indian man committed suicide several years ago. The jail was shut down and remains closed today, so the tribe contracts with the county sheriff for beds in the county jail. While off-reservation bureaucracies get paid for Indian detainees, on-reservation alternatives to detention remain inadequate.
Although sending detainees off-reservation has problems, sadly, sometimes it is worse to keep tribal members in local tribal institutions because of the state of the facilities. For example, the Blackfeet jail in Browning, Montana has been condemned for the past 15 years; yet, it is still being used on a regular basis. The Blackfeet Reservation is situated on a vast windswept plateau just east of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. The grueling winters trap community members inside during winter storms. On the weekends, its jail is overcrowded with adults and juveniles. Bad things happen under these conditions! Sexual and physical assaults are not uncommon. The Ft. Hall Reservation in eastern Idaho also uses a jail that has been condemned for several years. Fortunately, the tribal council has just approved construction of a new facility.
It is not all bad news for detention in Indian country. Indeed, a state-of-the-art detention center has been constructed on the Gila River Reservation in Sacaton, Arizona, and a similar facility has been built on the Ute Reservation in Colorado. But such new facilities are few and far between. We need more federal and tribal funds and coinciding leadership that embraces alternatives to incarceration for Indian youth and adults. The feds are proposing more money for jails instead of ideas and funding for alternatives. We know that there are evidence-based practices off-reservation that are too often neglected in Indian country. The cycle of crime and dysfunction continues without the federal government being creative in bringing them to Indian country.
We need a new vision of community supervision while maintaining the safety of tribal members. Our need is significant since only Indians can be convicted of violating a tribal criminal statute and sentenced to serving time in an Indian jail. Moreover, because of federal sentencing guidelines, Indians get the least access to sentencing alternatives or leniency in length of incarceration. This issue was highlighted in the Civil Rights Commission Report released in 2000. But little has changed since then, and the leadership of Indian country must engage new ideas instead of total reliance on jails.
This is a complex problem that will only be addressed when Indian Country is no longer seen as a supplement to other justice reforms. We need investments in combining the best-proven justice innovations and our traditions as Indigenous people. There is no better time than now, when change is in the air.
Joseph A. Myers (Pomo) is the Executive Director of the National Indian Justice Center and sits on the Board of the W. Haywood Burns Institute (BI).
Related links: http://www.dlncoalition.org/dln_issues/incarcerated_indians.htm
The killing of four Oakland police officers and Lovelle Mixon, the 26-year-old who had a shoot out with Oakland police March 21, has been keeping me up at night. Not because I fear for my life or because I am concerned about “cop killing” becoming a trend. But, because as an advocate for youth in the criminal justice system, I am realizing what these youth are up against when it comes to receiving a second chance after being released from incarceration.
This point has become most apparent to me when seeing the widespread lack of understanding about the life of someone re-entering society after prison. Two things people should consider when understanding our criminal justice system:
1) The juvenile justice system is built upon the philosophy that youth don’t have the mental capacity to fully understand the impact of the decisions that result in their detainment. Therefore, they deserve a second chance. The system exists to rehabilitate those too young to be held fully accountable for their crimes.
2) The criminal justice system is built upon the philosophy that you are old enough to not only be held accountable for your decisions, but also to be punished for your actions. It is not rehabilitative. However, when you have completed your time, you should no longer receive scrutiny or punishment.
But many of our laws are contradictory to the basic philosophies of redemption. The Higher Education Act, for example, prohibits those who have been convicted of drug crimes from qualifying for financial aid to attend college; and the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act deems those who have been convicted of a drug or violent felony ineligible for subsidized housing programs. Yet, housing and higher education are two things necessary to achieving a crime free and successful future. With this said, it shouldn't be a surprise why life for many former prisoners so hard after incarceration, and why returning to a life of crime often becomes the destiny for so many leaving prison and re-entering society.
Two programs in Oakland that are member of our Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY) – One Fam and the Mentoring Center – work with young black and brown men and women re-entering society after incarceration. Both programs provide life skills training and help young men and women assess the decisions they make that lead to less than adequate life outcomes and jail time. The programs reduce recidivism and help create confident people who positively contribute to their communities through community service and other services.
Unfortunately for Lovelle, he was not touched by such programs.
It has been interesting and sad to see how the very fact that Lovelle was an ex-offender has led him to be deemed him a "devil" by the mainstream media and the general public and unworthy of an investigation into the factors that created a 26-year-old who apparently desperately did not want to return to the system that may have helped turn him into a “cop killer.” When I think back to the news coverage that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the young white Columbine killers, received in April 1999, I wonder how the news coverage might have been different if Lovelle was white. How would his life have been examined then?
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on a shooting massacre that resulted in the deaths of 12 students and a teacher, and the wounding of 23 others, before committing suicide at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Next month is the 10-year anniversary. It was the fourth-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
In the days following the Columbine Massacre, the media profiled Eric and Dillon. Major talk show host from Geraldo to Oprah aired profile specials and many people, particularly parents of white teenagers began asking the question, "How did this happen?" Primetime specials analyzed their upbringing and created a list of "signs to look for” if other parents might potentially be raising "Erics and Dillons." Every reason possible was explored for their behavior in an effort to avoid calling them “devils” and “cold-blooded killers.”
But not Lovelle. To discuss the contributing factors to his behavior – and explore the influences and incidents in his past that may have shaped him into the young man he became – would be "insensitive" to the police who lost their lives, many have said. It would only provide an excuse for a man many believe did not deserve to live after his actions March 21, and perhaps even before that. Investigators in the case allege he may have raped a 12-year-old girl in February.
After Columbine, a memorial commissioned by the community was erected on the hill across from the school where the massacre took place. Fifteen crosses were erected – 13 for the students who lost their lives and the teacher who died trying to save them. And two crosses for Eric and Dillon, their killers. As mad and outraged as many were, people actually felt sorry for the two young men. People knew something had to have been wrong with the young men and there was no public outcry or protest for the crosses put up for the killers.
Fast forward to a week ago in Oakland. The Uhuru House holds a memorial to pay tribute to Mixon’s life lost. They are scrutinized by not only the public but also by the media and are now in jeopardy of losing their furniture store, which funds programs for the youth and employs folks in the community.
Looking beyond the ongoing investigation into his past crimes, what remains as plain as day is the contributing factors to Mixon's recent lifestyle. He couldn't find a job because after serving time his life was under a microscope as a parolee and his skills were limited due to incarceration. Such things have led men to walk into previous places of employment and murder former coworkers before killing themselves. Mixon ended up killing police officers; men who take an oath to protect and serve, and willingly put their life on the line to keep the general public safe knowing all the while that they could be killed while on duty.
Why do people believe Mixon killed? According to the general public, because he was just evil. Why did Eric and Dillon kill? The list is endless and without the same certainty that many give to the Mixon rationale; they were depressed, on drugs, part of a “Trench Coat Mafia,” or victims of bullies. However psychologist have a different conclusion, one that is far more disturbing than Mixons despair. They were diagnosable psychopaths.
In my opinion, the Columbine boys were far more sadistic and deserve less sympathy. Their upbringing was impeccable. They came from homes with two loving parents, had more than adequate living conditions, and had friends – there were no contributing factors other than these two boys plotted a methodical massacre. Unlike Mixon, they planned to kill that day; they researched bomb making, staked out the school and accumulated a fair amount of ammunition prior to the killings to execute their plan. Everything was premeditated.
Life was not so sweet for Mixon, no matter how horrid his alleged crimes are. This discussion is simply about the way these two different crimes are viewed in the public sphere. In the end, Mixon had no job, no home to call his own, and no network of support adequate enough to help steer him in the right direction. There were no weeks of planning to kill four cops. In those seconds before he shot those cops he knew two things – his freedom after five years in prison was going to be taken away, and he had a gun. The rest is now history.
To find out about One Fam or The Mentoring Center or to make a contribution to these programs visit: www.onefam.org and www.thementoringcenter.org.
“Thank goodness for ‘The Wire.’" That’s what a friend of mine once said at a conference on justice and law enforcement, in reference to the HBO series. The television program’s central theme was there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in the nation’s “War on Drugs.” And the victims are clearly the children.
I was moved to tears during the finale as I watched my favorite characters succumb to the pressures of their surroundings. Although fiction, the series was an eye-opening glimpse into how bureaucracy, violence and corruption within the justice system can disproportionately affect youth of color. Such thoughts were foremost on my mind when I first heard that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder recently authorized $2 billion in federal funding for state and local law enforcement through Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, as part of the Recovery Act.
For the past two decades, the JAG Program has funded state and local law enforcement without strict requirements or oversight to limit abuse and racial disparities. The stated goal of the current Recovery Act and the JAG program is not only to increase jobs, but also to increase public safety. Indeed, the Recovery Act has in place accountability provisions and reporting requirements on how the money is allocated, how it is spent and who is spending it. But accountability is not enough to reform the prevalence of police brutality, racial profiling and abuse of power that still exists.
A decade ago, an undercover officer’s uncorroborated testimony put 46 alleged cocaine dealers in prison in Tulia, Texas. Almost all of those arrested were black and 35 were later pardoned by Gov. Rick Perry. Law enforcement in Los Angeles made their own rules in the war on drugs in poor immigrant neighborhoods, conspiring to frame and murder innocent people-– a method soon dubbed the “Rampart Way” and shown in the movie “Training Day.” Officers in Florida, Illinois and North Carolina have illegally used state and local resources for their own drug trafficking activities. These instances, among others, show that without regulations and oversight, federal funding of state and local law enforcement means potentially funding corruption.
Latino men being searched after being pulled over by officers from the Los
Angeles Police Department gang unit on August 4, 2006 in the Rampart
neighborhood in Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Since the Vietnam War, America has been consumed with the “War on Drugs.” This war meant to take on drug lords has resulted in attacks mostly on low-level, non-violent drug dealers who tend to be young males of color. The Recovery Act requires that recipients of funds comply with nondiscrimination provisions in both employment and the delivery of services, under the applicable programs including the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). Unfortunately, we already know that youth of color are more likely to be arrested, especially for drug offenses, even if they use drugs at the same or lower rates than White youth. Youth of color are also more likely to be detained for drug offenses and held longer than their white peers.
A state is allocated funds from the JAG program based on its share of the country’s population and violent crimes. Thus, the more crimes a state reports, the more funding it gets. So states actually have an incentive to inflate their statistics by making more arrests and detaining more low-level nonviolent offenders. We must ask ourselves whether this money will actually increase safety, or will it just increase the number of youth of color arrested? Perhaps a better way to determine a state or local government’s share would be to base it on their prevention efforts – not instances of violent crimes.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, believes that “the war on drugs is a new form of Jim Crow, systematically targeting communities of color and filling our prisons with nonviolent offenders at great tax payer expense.” Without federal funding through the JAG grant, Nadelmann says, “it is doubtful that states could afford their punitive criminal justice system.”
If we want to truly reduce the number of youth of color in detention centers and prisons, we need to ensure that the government allocates funds where they are needed most – in prevention and education programs, alternatives to detention, and data collection. Not in the further arrest and criminalization of our youth.
Over the last two months, technology and a growing movement of concerned citizens have exposed shocking incidents that speak to why we work so hard to assure that detention be used as a last resort for youth.
Our work specifically involves reducing the use of detention for youth of color because they are often confined for very minor offenses or administrative infractions. Above all, we believe that detention itself is harmful to youth – a point illustrated in a shocking video released in February.
In the video obtained by a Seattle television station through an official request four months prior, a male King County sheriff's deputy is captured physically assaulting a 15-year-old girl in a Seattle holding cell.
While it is our hope that the disturbing violence perpetrated in this video is rare, we know that it happens much more often than it should. We have posted this video on our website and are writing about it to highlight that this type of treatment should never happen to a young person in the states’ care and custody.
Since the first day of the New Year, we have seen high-profile incidents of police beatings and killings of youth of color made public through the use of video. In the case of Oscar Grant III, the 22-year-old Black father was filmed being shot by a White transit police officer in front of hundreds of Bay Area riders, some who were empowered to “cop watch” with camera phones.
In the Seattle video, the facility camera meant to monitor detainee behavior instead captured Seattle Deputy Paul Schene assaulting a 15-year-old girl, first by kicking her and slamming her head into the wall, throwing her down by her hair face down onto the floor, slugging her twice while she’s restrained and finally yanking her up by her hair and handcuffs. Appalling. All this because she kicked her shoes outside the door of her cell.
My reaction to her behavior? I’m not surprised; she is 15-years-old and her lack of maturity or understanding of the consequences of immature behavior is to be expected. My reaction to the deputy’s behavior? Completely unacceptable. Who is the adult here? What will be the consequences for his actions?
How can someone who is supposed to be a professional that is trained to protect and serve our youth be permitted to exhibit behavior that would have sent a parent to jail? What is clear is the offense the girl was allegedly arrested for, auto theft, and her behavior on the tape once again cannot possibly justify any use of excessive force.
Police officers have always played varying roles in the lives of children, from preventing crime and abuse and accessing social services to treating children and youths as potential criminals. With youth of color, the interaction tends to include more incidents of intimidation, arrest, detention, court referral and sometimes – as seen in the case of the 15-year-old girl in Seattle – the use of force.
Brian Stewart, the director of Milestone Adolescent Counseling Services in Seattle, told me that this recent case highlights ongoing problems between youth of color and police in Kings County. Seattle residents were “not surprised by the incident,” he said. “For every 15-year-old who is assaulted by the police, there are five other youth who were assaulted that we don’t even hear about because they are afraid to report the incident.”
The officer, Paul Schene, is reportedly the third sheriff's deputy since 2006 to face charges on allegations of excessive force. All three are from same precinct, Burien. Schene has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, which itself is a curious characterization of the excessive force shown on the tape.
This is not an isolated case, nor will it be the last. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there is no police department in the United States that is free of misconduct. However, that misconduct is usually perpetrated in the most marginalized communities and takes place outside the gaze of the power elites. Another video released in February from Fresno shows a homeless man being beaten by local police, as he lay helpless and partially restrained on the ground.
As videos continue to reveal disturbing police incidents, it’s incumbent upon all of us, as citizens of civil society, to take notice. There’s no doubt that police officers have very difficult jobs. And we respect the instruments of justice when they are administered fairly and equitably. But anyone vested with the power of the state to discharge weapons lethally and deprive citizens of their liberty must be trained and monitored.
Incidents like the one in Seattle represent a fundamental breach of the grand bargain that is struck between the governors and the governed. That is what must be addressed. We as citizens must always demand accountability. And never let up until it we receive it.
One month before the fatal shooting of the young Black father Oscar Grant III by a White transit police officer in Oakland, Calif., Northeastern University researchers published a report about the rising murder rate among black teens.
The report found, among other things, that from 2002 to 2007, the number of homicides involving black male youth as victims rose by 31 percent, and when they were the perpetrators, by 43 percent. When looking specifically at gun killings, the numbers rose further: 54% for young black male victims and 47% for young black male perpetrators. By contrast, homicides among White youth increased only slightly, or decreased.
For many Americans, this level of violence is shocking and reinforces the instinct to isolate certain communities even more than they already are. However, for those of us living in those communities and who call the people impacted by this violence our family, friends and neighbors, such statistics reflect something we have been experiencing for some time.
Here in California, Vallejo also reported its first homicide victim
soon after the New Year – a 19-year-old shot dead in a parking lot. Another Vallejo teen was arrested in suspicion of turning the gun on his friend amid a vehicle burglary. A few days later in neighboring Richmond, California a teen boy was
killed in an accidental shooting allegedly by his 16-year-old friend. A few days subsequently in San Francisco, California, an 18-year-old from Oakland was found shot to death in the Hunters Point public housing project in the Bayview district.
A trifecta of tragedy in less than a week’s time.
“It is not that the FBI figures tell an inaccurate story about crime trends in America. Rather, they obscure the divergent tale of two communities — one prosperous and safe, the other poor and crime-ridden. The truth behind the fears and concerns of the nation’s underclasses about crime and violence lies deep beneath the surface of the FBI statistical report,” the Northeastern authors wrote.
In too many communities across this country, violence among black youth is viewed as almost inevitable. But this inevitability is not driven by an unfeeling and emotionally disconnected generation of young people, as some have purported in the media. Instead, this violence is driven by intentional policies of neglect and abuse by the political and economic elites.
Youth of color, in this instance Black youth, are delivered sagging public school systems, overall neglect of youth programming and a reliance on an incarceration system that incubates, cultivates and even administers violence.
Is there any doubt that violence results in communities forced into deprivation? The gun becomes the great equalizer, and anyone who feels vulnerable can obtain a gun, strap up and take on anyone of any size and strength. Today, you see kids not even yet of high school age who regularly carry a gun on them as they walk the streets. The murders that often result may begin as a simple disagreement, but quickly escalate into gunfire. This situation is not just bleak; it will continue to get worse unless enormous changes occur.
Our program, the Community Justice Network for Youth (CJNY), is made up of organizations that are doing everything that they can to work toward not only addressing youth violence, but also holding youth-serving systems accountable for improving life outcomes for the most vulnerable among us. Some of our members in Chicago have formed a collective to organize around “common sense” gun laws. One of their targets for direct action was Chuck's Gun Shop & Pistol Range in Riverdale, which allows Chicago residents to circumvent a city ban on handguns by selling them just outside city limits. Activists allege that handguns purchased there are responsible for roughly 70 percent of Chicago gun murders.
But community-based organizations alone are not enough. This crisis requires leadership on all levels and should no longer be viewed as an isolated issue tackled only by those directly affected and those who choose to care. Efforts like the Black Men and Boys Initiative of the 21 First Century Foundation, the California Endowment, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others provide important recognition and resources by focusing attention specifically on young black men and boys with the intention of making substantial widespread improvements by the year 2025.
There is a saying that applies to this situation: “If you want to get what you’ve always gotten, do what you’ve always done. If you want something different, you must do something different.”
We must reexamine the way that we as a society view gun-related murder. When the police are involved in a fatal shooting, we are urged not to paint the officer with a wide brush, as seen in the case of Oscar Grant III’s killing. But when the murder is the result of youth-on-youth violence, the “black community” as a whole finds itself immediately under attack. Sometimes, such murders are even used as a justification: Because we kill each other the most, anyone who also kills us should do so without impunity. Even those we pay to serve and protect us.
It is time to refocus efforts and resources and create some real change. Let’s take the number of dollars spent on studying black on black violence and instead invest directly in young black men and women to create a different life trajectory for them – and reduce the reliance on guns as a solution to social problems.
Our work begins today.
When I was a baby, my parents came into my room to find my older brother trying to smother me with a pillow. He was three years older than me and upset that my dad had rocked me to sleep after telling my brother that he was "too big" to be rocked like a baby. In his childlike mind, I was the reason why his daddy wouldn’t rock him. His action could have proven deadly, and possibly be explained by the sentiment that he was only 4-years-old – and didn’t understand the consequences.
This incident came to mind when I read about the 9-year old boy charged with killing his father participating in a plea agreement in Arizona and the 11-year-old who is being accused of shooting his father’s pregnant girlfriend in Pennsylvania.
From press reports, the details of what actually happened are unknown. However, it is clear that these two boys had access to guns and are accused of using them with tragic consequences. And, in both cases, local officials defaulted to the use of incarceration for these boys as a first response.
Are we so bankrupt as a society that we cannot figure out a way to supervise and intervene with preteens without incarceration? Shame on us. These little boys need help, not jail. What should be taken into consideration is that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is responsible for “executive functions,” such as weighing the future consequences of current activities, and it is not fully developed by adolescence, let alone by age 11.
According to a 2007 study conducted by psychologist Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25. Countries like Australia understand this research and make it impossible for children under 11 to commit crimes. However, we live in a society that is hell bent on the idea that "punishment" equals "rehabilitation," which is why jail serves as the grounds for reconciliation. But what if you don’t understand "the crime" or "the time" because you are simply too young? In those cases, what purpose does locking up a child serve? One inescapable answer is to feed an addiction to incarceration.
In Arizona the juvenile justice system has forced a
9-year-old boy to agree to a plea deal he probably doesn't even
understand. Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, common sense policy has led the 11-year-old boy's defense attorney to request he be moved from county jail to a juvenile facility. According to reports, this boy can barely reach the top
bunk of his cell. His prison attire is three sizes too big for him. What do you think is going through his head?
As the facts emerge one thing remains clear. These boys are not mini-adults and should not be viewed through that lens. They are 9 and 11-years-old. Let’s hope and pray that the adults responsible for handling this situation act like grown-ups who understand children.
January has shaped up as a month in which the voices of Black men have grabbed headlines across the country. One could hear echoes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in classrooms and professional football promotions. The voice of our new president, Barack Obama, can be heard exhorting that “we are ready to lead once more.” However, there is a less famous Black voice also making headlines, one that haunts me mightily – the voice of Oscar Grant III.
He became known shortly after New Year’s Day, on grainy cell phone videos showing him plaintively requesting that Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers in Oakland, Calif., not taser him while he was laying subdued, facedown and weaponless on a subway platform. He said he had children that needed a father. Instead, he was punched by one officer, and shot in the back and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle.
What is to be made of these sounds of Blackness? The word vigilance comes to mind. Before the famous “I have a dream” speech, Dr. King sat in a jail in Birmingham and wrote a historic missive that noted “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King threw down a marker for vigilance that rings from an Oakland subway platform to the White House.
I join millions in their excitement about when the sounds of Blackness include the words “President and First Lady Obama.” Who could not be moved by looking at the faces standing in the cold during the inaugural festivities? What a pity that the young father, Oscar Grant, did not live long enough to see this potential shift in generational leadership.
Mr. Grant’s tragic death is a reminder for vigilance. In the days following the inauguration, gangs and drugs remain in some of our communities, public schools remain overcrowded and underserved, our neighborhoods remain distant from job centers and adequate public transportation, juvenile detention centers are filled with a disproportionate number of youth of color, and young Black men will continue to die at the hands of those entrusted to protect them.
In 1982, a study by the Chicago Law Enforcement Study Group found that 70 percent of the victims of police shootings were Black and that Black victims were less likely than White or Hispanics to be armed or threatening physical force. The study’s authors recommended “the nation’s police departments adopt a ‘defense of life’ shooting policy.”
And yet, what has changed in the 27 years since?
On New Year’s Eve, a police officer shot the son of baseball player Bobby Tolan, 23-year-old Robert, in front of his mother as he lay on the ground outside of his Houston home. The White police officer had apparently mistaken the young Black man’s SUV for a stolen car in the Bellaire neighborhood.
On New Year’s Day, 22-year-old Black young man Adolph Grimes III died in a 3 a.m. barrage of police gunfire outside his grandmother’s home in New Orleans. He was hit 14 times, with twelve of the bullets striking him from behind after nine plainclothes police officers surrounded him as he sat in his car.
The sounds of Blackness are polyrhythmic. Each voice has a significant call and response in this song that is the American chorus. We lift our voices on behalf of Oscar Grant, Robert Tolan, Adolph Grimes and other young Black victims of police violence that, in the words of our first Black president (who was quoting Dr. King) the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
As the community organizer in President Obama knows, he will do his job and we must do ours – working for justice for youth of color, their families and communities. Lift every voice and sing. Vigilance must be our sound.
I recently attended the Inaugural Australasian Human Rights and Policing Conference. Australia is reputed — along with New Zealand — to possess juvenile justice systems that truly believe the use of detention should be a last resort. Based on a week of personal observations and interviews, I believe that reputation is well deserved. It was uplifting to be exposed to a juvenile justice system that valued childhood and put the notions of rehabilitation into policy and practice.
Most impressive of all, Melbourne is a city of about four million people and has only about 40 youth total in pre-adjudication detention at any given time.
A closer look reveals that there are several legislative barriers in Australia to placing youth in detention, which has resulted in its significantly lower number of youth in detention. Indeed, almost 60 percent of Australian police contact with youth-in-trouble with the law are responded to informally. Additionally, supervision and service provision are conducted by social workers. Such workers are rewarded for keeping youth out of detention rather than issuing violations that result in the incarceration of youth. Rarely are youth placed in detention because a strong showing must be made to the judge regarding how incarceration is “beneficial” to the child.
Of course, the Australian system faces many of the same challenges that any system of interventions regarding youth-in-trouble with the law encounters. They do have overrepresentation of indigenous Aboriginal youth in their facilities, a small proportion of multiple offenders and insufficient numbers of mental health services. However, Australian stakeholders are pro-active in engaging these issues. Their system felt restorative and full of possibilities. I will be blogging further in the coming year on some of the specifics of the Australian system of youth intervention.
This has been a significant year for us. Today, we are celebrating five years of working to reduce disparities in the juvenile justice system with the release of our first publication and the launch of our redesigned website.
Our publication, Adoration of the Question: Reflections on the Failure to Reduce Racial & Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System, is an introduction to a series that will be released in 2009 examining the tools and methods that we have found work successfully to reduce disparities in juvenile justice systems across the country. Our newly redesigned website will feature frequent news updates, videos, a state-by-state data map to be published in January, a blog and photo gallery.
Like so many Americans, we are proud that we have elected our first African American president. However, we know that our work must continue because the culture of the juvenile justice system will not change with one election. It is within this spirit of change and hope that we would like to thank you for your support. Your contributions help us continue working to achieve fairness and equity for youth of color and their communities.
Enjoy a peaceful and healthy holiday, and may we continue this important work, together.