Shame on Baltimore for taking system failures out on the kids

What happened on Monday, April 27th in Baltimore is outrageous on many levels. Yes, there was chaos and confusion. Yes there was bedlam. Yes there was law breaking in the form of looting, disorderly conduct and even setting fires. But I do not believe that the teenagers were to blame for most of what went wrong and got out of control that day, and I hope that they will not be the scapegoats. Monday night 21 kids with no record of being in trouble with the law before were put into the juvenile detention center for their infractions, instead of being sent home. And therein lies the huge crack at the foundation of what is not working in this city. Objective decision-making and common sense seem lost, and it’s a problem that must be rectified.

What we know now is that students went to school as usual on Monday, and that at some point there was an emerging plan among a number of youth to congregate (seemingly in protest of unfair treatment by police and because of what happened to Freddie Gray). There have been so many rumors and so much misinformation that it’s not clear what the intent was from there. Somehow adults (whether police officers or other city officials) got wind of this plan and decided to shut down public transportation out of Mondawmin Mall (a major transportation hub for kids to get to and from school).

Public school teachers in the days that followed provided information about how youth were pulled off of buses and left in the street with no way to get home. http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2015/04/how-baltimore-riots-began-mondawmin-purge This decision – clearly a poor one – served to strand hundreds of kids in that area, against their will and regardless of their intent to be a part of the planned gathering. In the midst of all the chaos that ensued, I can imagine that some kids who were not breaking any laws, were caught up and unsure of where to go or what to do and in the confusion, some of them likely got arrested. Others we know were involved in rock throwing and looting.

In the end, 35 kids were arrested, but instead of charging them and calling their parents, they were held overnight. This was not supposed to happen. Whatever the kids were charged with was supposed to be dealt with on a future date – in a juvenile court. There was no reason for those kids to spend even one night in a locked facility.

Juvenile justice is different from adult justice in many ways. Primarily, because young people are known to be impulsive, yet malleable. The standard for holding an adolescent in a locked detention facility (i.e., a jail) is supposed to be to ensure that they will show up to court, or to prevent the commission of a new offense pending resolution of that case. Locking kids in a detention facility is more typically reserved for youth who have repeatedly committed a violent delinquent offense or who have a history of not showing up to court. Best practice in juvenile justice across the country utilizes a detention risk-assessment tool to help make objective decisions on who warrants confinement. When a youth does not score as a high risk to commit a new crime, they are supposed to be released and allowed to go home.

In Baltimore, on Monday, that doesn’t seem to be what happened. And we, the caring public, deserve some answers. 21 kids who previously had not been in trouble (according to the news), who got caught up in a chaotic situation, even if they had thrown rocks or stolen items from a store, should not have been locked up in a cell like a common criminal.  Being locked overnight in a concrete cell is a traumatic event, especially for a youth. It will stay with them for the rest of their life. The decision to do that should not be made frivolously and should never be done punitively. There is a lot of research on this point but somehow in Baltimore it was ignored.

If the police believed they had probable cause for an arrest, then they should have processed the youth, called their parents or guardians, and sent them home to return to court on another day to answer the charges and be held accountable. Once back in court, given the circumstances, these kids should be considered for diversion rather than formal processing. This unfortunate day should not follow them for months and years or subject them to ongoing juvenile court oversight or worse.  There are many ways to appropriately respond to whatever youthful infractions occurred on Monday, and in doing so, the adults should at least acknowledge their part.

It is clear from all that has happened in Baltimore over the past few weeks, that the law enforcement system and the justice system in general needs to be dissected and it needs a revamp. It needed that long before some high school kids decided in their own immature and adolescent way to take a stand. They should not be the scapegoats for this mess. They should not be called criminals and thugs. The adults in Baltimore need to take collective responsibility for sorting this out. If we let our kids take the fall for all that is broken in the system, then shame on all of us!

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

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