I see you behind the wall

I have spent several days over the past few months behind the wall of different correctional facilities from coast to coast interacting with men, women and adolescents who are serving time (some of them life sentences). It was hard on my heart seeing so many lives wasted. While I have no idea what offenses precipitated such a fate, the people I met touched me and left no doubt that they deserve a chance to make amends and return to the community and to their families. It left me even more determined to do what I can to make justice system changes so that fewer people end up behind walls and bars.

For the young people, men and women that I met, this is my open letter to you. I saw you and I see you! Those who work on justice reform often hear that “hurt people, hurt people” which means that people who have been hurt, abused and neglected by life, often grow up to make the kind of mistakes that cause harm to others. But within your being, at your core, there is an individual that with love and support can grow into their best self. I saw your humanity, the mothers and fathers you wanted to be to your children, the role models you still hope to be. I saw your disappointment in hurting your families and the community from which you came. I saw your hopes and dreams to let the world know that you are a better person – that you have changed. I saw people that I would be happy to be neighbors with, or co-workers. If only for a short time, I saw some of you clinging to moments of joy, song and dance. I cling to them with you. Brief opportunities to transcend bleak surroundings and connect as people.

To the young people I met, I saw hope for a future. For some I saw disappointment in your eyes that you still have to relive and continue to pay for that terrible mistake – a mistake that happened so long ago. I see the embarrassment of having to live day in and day out in prison garb – a constant reminder of the heavy price you are paying for your actions, or being with the wrong people at the wrong time. I know you are missing family events and normal teenager rites of passage like proms and graduations. I see you young ones (even those trying to be invisible in your cells), ready to make amends and restart your journey to adulthood.

I see all of you yearning for respect, and fighting the feelings that perhaps you don’t deserve it. I acknowledge your desire to repair the harm you caused, while you carry the burden of the action that cannot be undone. I feel you wanting to connect, needing reinforcement of your humanity, and your hope that one day you can make your family (and perhaps yourself) proud.

I met a mother and father on their way to visit their son who had already spent decades incarcerated. I saw your love for your son, and a hope that others could see some good in him. During our short conversation, when I and my colleagues expressed our regard for the man that we met – the son that you raised, your tears touched me. It was evident that this is a sentiment you don’t often get to hear.

I want to hug all of you and tell you that “this too shall pass” – something my grandmother and mother always reminded us whenever we were down. I want you to know that there are many out here fighting for you, trying to correct system and community issues so that you can have the bright future you deserve. If you only knew how many of us care. No one should have to be forever judged by the worst mistake they ever made. I see you. I saw you. I am praying for you!

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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Finding our footing in the wake of Election-acolypse

The past week has been rocky and unsettling for some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons and it is now time to figure out our path forward. The results of a typical election when there are major candidates who have a basic competency and understanding of the underpinnings of our democratic ideals are easier to digest no matter which candidate prevails. The idea that the United States of America is a dichotomy of interests and priorities is not new, and one that I think most can reconcile after each election. What is different about Election 2016 is that it does not feel that the President-elect is in any way concerned about our democratic values, or the well-being of all citizens. When a person in authority only acts for those in agreement, rather than the good of the country, we have a grave problem.

It is natural for human beings to express happiness when the side they are rooting for is the victor. What is not acceptable and especially unsettling is when harassment and even assaults occur as a part of that expression. Kids whose parents voted for the person who won telling other kids that they belong in the back of the bus, college students assaulting other students while using racial epithets, or threatening people with different religious beliefs to remove their head covering while claiming that right under the mantel of “Making America Great Again.” In the past week, the amount of hate and aggression reported in the name of the President-elect has me once again pondering “just what is this definition of GREAT that a big section of America rallied around,” “what exactly is it that they want to see,” and “how much harm against others are they willing to ignore in pursuit of this so-called greatness?”

The last question is the one that may be less obvious, and one that causes me the most disappointment. Ignoring or pretending not to see the impact the election results are having on the treatment of entire classes of citizens is troubling because it calls into question a basic set of decency and humaneness that should transcend political ideology. Personally, I could not look myself in the mirror or sit idly by while others lost their sense of safety in the name of “greatness.” I could not watch the person I voted for surround himself with people with a lengthy public record of trampling on the rights of my neighbors and justify it. I could not excuse the verbal and physical assault of other people because of the color of their skin, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or who and how they worship. In a democracy, our liberties are not for sale, and why the past week has felt like an apocalypse — Election-ocalypse. This simply is not how I was raised, nor something any true American should accept.

Finding our footing will require a re-acknowledgement and recommitment to principles of justice, fairness and equity. We will need to build coalitions with others who share these values. We will need to invest in strategies that support these beliefs, with a clarity of vision for the outcomes we seek. We must embrace an unyielding spirit of right versus wrong and refuse to accept a country where ALL are unable to pursue life, liberty and happiness. According to the Constitution of the United States, We the PEOPLE, in order to form a more perfect union, have a right to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” That is our foundation, our grounding, and the footing we need to steady ourselves and move forward. As a friend reminded me recently, it’s time we all take our rightful place under the flag, our symbol of freedom, and stop letting divisive people co-opt it for their own selfish benefit. Our children will inherit the country that we allow.

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

Collateral consequences of complacency on black and brown children

I have literally been trying for over a year to capture my concern about the impact these troubling times are having on our youth. The never ending shootings of unarmed black and brown people, the marginalization of communities of color, followed by the divisive platforms of the presidential election. Hoping for an opportunity to be inspired and solution oriented, I waited. No revelations. And then the moment would pass. And then another tragedy. Then protests. And that moment would pass. In the aftermath of the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Charles Kinsey, I reached some temporary clarity, but then realized that the images on repeat in my mind, could not be erased, and that I felt traumatized with each and every incident, each and every video, each and every hashtag, yet still unsure of a solution. And so again, I waited.

I recall a blog that I wrote a few years ago sharing some tips for our young people who encounter police on how to respond so that they would be safe. How naïve! My intentions were good, but I underestimated how far back our country was slipping in terms of justice and equity. I have watched with the world, the impact of policies on communities of color – underfunded schools and overfunded prison systems, resulting in mass incarceration and blighted opportunities. Now, with the election of a president who campaigned on hate with a platform of taking America backwards, I am crystal clear. And, I am resolved. Our focus should be on the well-being of our youth and in particular youth of color. We should harness our best thinking and our resources to enrich them and foster their well-being.

We have not protected our children, and they are bearing the brunt of our complacency. We have allowed schools to suspend our toddlers, interrupting their ability to learn to read. We have sat idly by while tens of thousands of our black and brown adolescents have been shackled and sent to juvenile court. All for the same kinds of normal adolescent misbehavior that kids have always engaged in, while other teens drive drunk and kill people (TX), or get drunk and rape people (CA) and get a pass. We pay no attention while juvenile prisons are filled with black and brown kids, assuming they must have done something violent to deserve it, and allowing them to silently suffer, when in reality the vast majority of them have not. We allow ourselves to get sucked into games of political gymnastics and intellectual bantering during an election in which bias and misogyny could not have been more prominent. We engage under the guise of challenging the absurd opinions of pundits, when our mere presence and involvement in the conversation may have unwittingly given it legitimacy and undermined an effort to focus on substantive issues. In this way, we failed ourselves, our families and our kids.

And now we sit with our thoughts, frustrated, sad, disappointed, and in shock. But what about our children? What is this doing to them now and what lingering impact will it have on how they view the world, their own self-worth, feeling safe, their opportunities? That should be our focus, and our rallying call for change.

After the shootings of Alton and Philando, I got a text message from my twenty-something, college educated and married niece. It was a screen shot of a social media posting by one of her friends (a 20-something young black male) who had randomly encountered an 8-year old younger black male who was crying. When asked why he was so upset, the 8-year old said that he didn’t want to be shot by the police! 8 years old and already traumatized and fearing the police! The day after the election, as my friends pondered how to talk about the results to their children, many shared heartbreaking questions and responses. Kids were concerned about their friends whose parents immigrated to America, wondering if they would have to leave the country. Some were met with bullying comments from classmates “Now that Trump is President, don’t you need to go to the back of the bus?” Others texted their parents from school anxious and needing reassurance, while others cried inconsolably as they wondered out loud about their future and looked for comfort and direction.

We would be foolish to think all of this random violence, and sanctioned discrimination will not have lasting impact. Scientifically, brains are not developed until the mid-twenties. Trauma (and please understand that this is what it is) on a developing brain is especially harmful. I wonder the collateral effect and the long-term consequences on our most cherished? Will they lose sleep – probably? Will they grow more anxious and distrustful – maybe? Will it impact their ability to focus in school, or prevent them from being high achievers? Will our adolescents, with their hormones raging and nothing making sense in their world, have increased anger or anxiety? Will this cause them to act out or be labeled? Will this push them into the juvenile justice system? All those things are likely, so what is the solution? It’s time to regroup, refocus, set some goals, harness our collective strengths, and focus on our kids so that we might right the wrongs in favor of fostering for them a bright future. Tweet your thoughts with #ourkids.

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

A Mother’s Day Tribute: I wish everyone had a Rose in their life

Recently, I was speaking about best practices in juvenile justice and visions of my mother kept coming to my mind. My work involves me encouraging the adoption of policies and practices that provide youth who make mistakes with a corrective influence to help them get on a better path. For me this means more than convincing courts to stop locking kids up, it involves helping communities figure out how to get kids on track to thrive, instead of just to survive. One difference between those who have found success in life and people who seem to be in a constant personal battle between right and wrong is often the involvement of a responsible and supportive parent figure. When I compare my life and that of my friends with many court involved young people I encounter today, it’s hard to ignore the impact of being raised by strong and loving parents. In my case, my mother in particular has been a huge influence that I have probably taken for granted more than I should. Of course I am aware and try to acknowledge how blessed I am, but when I think about what my mother did for me and compare that to so many young people who are experiencing the juvenile justice system, I have an elevated appreciation for how different my life could be had I been born to a different woman.

In recognition of Mother’s Day, I am reflecting on and appreciating the woman who is my rock and my guiding star, my mother, Rose Washington. The name Rose is quite fitting for my mother and describes how she raised me and my four siblings. Beautiful (inside and out), strong and sweet, but thorny if approached the wrong way. My mother gave us the best that she had to offer – she was a wonderful role model, a God-faring woman, she established high standards that she pushed us to not only reach but to exceed. But when we got out of line (as all kids do), she was there with her thorns to provide accountability and teaching. My mother also spent quality time with us, working and playing and engaging us in activities that would allow us to develop a variety of skills. Whether sports, or scouts, or dancing lessons, or simply chores at home, my siblings and I loved spending time with our parents who modeled for us how to work hard and how to enjoy life. And my mom always provided a welcoming space for our friends. When other parents in the neighborhood were looking for their children, often they could find them at the Washington’s.

The world today is a lot more complex. Advancements in technology and communication have influenced a fast-food, microwave world in which people seem to expect everything to happen with the snap of a finger. Smart phones and social media have replaced lengthy conversations. Communication has been reduced to expressing thoughts and opinions within a certain number of characters, punctuated by a number of well-placed emoji’s. Neighbors often do not know their neighbors (I must admit, I only know a few of mine). Everyone’s day is so packed, that we miss opportunities to spend quality time together – and that is a loss of valuable moments when wisdom and life lessons can be shared. Parents today seem to be stretched in ways that makes parenting harder. There are often long distances between home and school and work, and an expectation to work longer hours, and take fewer days off. A lack of jobs where people can earn a living wage that allows them to provide for their families. Fewer extracurricular activities offered by schools, and when they are available, they are costly.

I wish everyone had a Rose Washington in their life, so they could learn how to do their best, but not take themselves too seriously. So they could laugh and play and be nurtured, and learn by example how to love other people. A Rose to encourage them to reach for the stars, but to stop and smell the sweet things. A Rose that would guide them to empathize with those who may have walked a different and less fortunate path, remind them to count blessings, and first and foremost to give glory to God. And a Rose that would be there as an ever present safety net when life’s burdens caused pains.

My mother seemed to instinctively know what research now tells us about what kids need to succeed: a loving and responsible adult, pro-social activities, and positive peers. In my opinion what they really need is a Rose!

Happy Mother’s Day to all those women who (whether or not they gave birth to someone) try to be a loving influence in the life of another.

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

Elevating the Standard for Juvenile Justice Interventions 50 years after Gault

As a lawyer who practiced in the juvenile system early in my career, when I think about the approaching anniversary of In re Gault, I feel the need to stop and reflect. Where did we go wrong? And Why? For those less familiar, In re Gault was the seminal youth justice case that set the stage for due process for young people accused of delinquent acts. In the nearly 50 years since, although some progress has been made, as a whole, we are still failing to identify how best to intervene when young people violate the law, and we have not adopted the best mechanisms for providing developmentally appropriate course correction.

While it is generally acknowledged that young people should be treated differently from adults in the justice system (even the sole dissenting Supreme Court Justice in the Gault case agreed that the purpose of juvenile court is correction, and not punishment), what that looks like often defies logic when we consider the results. In many jurisdictions across the country, kids can be questioned without their parents or legal guardian, without a lawyer, and without constitutional rights being read. They can appear in front of a judge without legal representation, and someone else can waive their right to counsel. They can be confined for offenses that would not amount to crimes if they were adults, shackled, held in solitary confinement, and kept away from their homes and families for many years. Sadly, the outcomes for such treatment is usually poor – bad for the kids and bad for the community.

Kids who are treated as if they are criminals as opposed to young people who have acted impulsively or had a lapse in judgment, often get pushed further off track instead of being guided onto a better path. When they are detained for low-risk behavior and locked up (even if just for a night) they run the risk of being exposed to youth who are involved in much riskier behavior and are more likely to be a bad influence than a good one. When young people are placed in restraints, dressed in prison-like clothing, forced to sleep behind bars or in a cell, and denied appropriate education, the likelihood of them growing out of their normal adolescent misbehavior gets slimmer. Frequently, youth who are exposed to harsh punitive environments have the opposite result – they develop a propensity for risker and more anti-social activities than before, and often return home worse than when they were placed. It defies reason to continue this practice, and yet it is common in many juvenile systems across the country.

In Gault, fifteen year old Gerald Gault was charged with making a prank offensive telephone call along with his friend (a misdemeanor). When he showed up in court, he was not provided a lawyer, the accuser did not have to testify, and Gerald was placed in the state juvenile correctional institution until he turned 21! The Supreme Court found the matter to be an unconstitutional violation of his right to counsel. Unaddressed was the harshness of the disposition – 7 years for a prank call!

Today, advancements have reduced juvenile detention and improved due process, but as a whole, we still lack effective responses to address and deter escalating delinquent behavior. A number of studies on the adolescent brain point to the need for more creative responses based on what is happening physiologically in a young person’s brain, and yet we still lock up too many kids for teenage acting out. Recent reports by the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) indicate that 60% of the youth currently in juvenile institutions are there for non-violent acts. Science is telling us to do something different, but systems are slow to change.

The standard for juvenile interventions should be to focus on outcomes while holding a youth accountable. Incentivizing positive behavior is more impactful than negative sanctions for bad acts. Restorative practices instill empathy better than suspension or expulsion. Teaching coping skills and conflict resolution works better than handcuffs and locked cells. If we want safer communities, we must elevate the standard for juvenile systems to appropriately and effectively respond to youth risk and need. This means that all systems that work with young people should enhance ways to hold youth accountable by instructing, coaching and redirecting.

We know much more in the 50 years since In re Gault, which means we CAN and SHOULD do better!

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

What IF . . . we collectively met the needs of kids?

What if all adults felt compelled to help meet the needs of our kids. If we really treated them as OURS just because they were a part of the village, a part of our collective community. The footprint of the juvenile justice system would surely be smaller. Kids who experienced trauma, abuse or neglect would be responded to with compassion and understanding even when they expressed themselves by acting out. Educators would be equipped with tools to respond to misbehavior in ways that provided appropriate accountability without exposing impressionable adolescents to the negative influence of juvenile institutions. Youth who engaged in repetitive risky behavior would receive the kind of individual transformational attention that would expose them to pro-social impacts and redirect them towards a more productive path. Young people who warranted an out-of-home intervention because their mistakes put others at risk would receive a true rehabilitative experience in a setting that was designed to teach and correct rather than punish.

What if we as a progressive society said “NO MORE” to treating kids like criminals for normal adolescent misbehavior? Could we eliminate locked detention facilities in favor of community resource centers? Could we tear down razor-wired juvenile correctional institutions and replace them with places that provided instruction and therapy? Could we transform juvenile correctional officers into youth counselors who were skilled in building relationships as a way to exercise influence and authority, instead of wielding the kind of power that only comes with a uniform and a badge?

What if we made sure that all kids had their basic needs met — enough to eat, and a safe place to live, would that enable their ability to read and learn, and would that then result in less delinquent behavior? And when they made mistakes (as all human beings do), if together we provided opportunities to address youth transgressions while helping them learn empathy and the impact of their actions on others, would that produce more responsible adults? If we attended to kids’ minds and their hearts, would we have a more peaceful community?

All people need fellowship and fun and bonding. If we don’t provide healthy connections for kids, they may gravitate to destructive relationships that can lead them down a risky and unsafe path. If we really want a safer community, we need to work together to develop our young people to become their best selves. Individually, we may not have all that they need, but if we work together I believe that we can. If it takes a village to raise a child, then all caring and conscientious adults have a role to play. What IF we all played our part …?

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

Moving from talk to action to address issues of race

As more and more videos and news reports get shared about people who look like me (i.e., people with brown skin) being harmed – whether at the hands of police or their neighbors, under color of law or a blatant criminal act, I’m just left stunned. Not sure what to think, how to feel or what to do. Seems like each week I brace myself — who will get hurt or killed this week and at whose hands, and how will the public and the media respond? I’m underwhelmed by the inability of many news outlets to appreciate the important and sensitive aspects of so many violent incidents that seem predicated on race. The motivation to sensationalize and capture the story of moment appears to trump getting underneath the similarities in the issues to highlight the root causes in order to make a case for resolution.

So many random acts of senseless violence against people of color across the country are beginning to seem like a public health crisis. From impoverished neighborhoods to gated communities, as a result of drug-related, gang-related or other criminal activity, or via traffic-stop or other police-stop; from older people to young kids, walking down the street or shopping in Walmart; children in grade school playing in the park, high school kids celebrating the end of the school year, or honor students in college. Each situation seems random, each person unique, yet they share one common characteristic – skin color – which makes this scary and unsettling for me and I hope would ignite a collective call for action.

When incidents involve police malfeasance, we often hear unnecessary justifications to explain away the harm. Or the topic gets inexplicably changed to a conversation about Black-on-Black crime (as if that is at all relevant to a discussion about police misconduct). When police are harmed, all of a sudden we start hearing about escalating crime (even if it’s untrue) and blaming those people who desired to call attention to aggressive policing. When we hear of multiple murders in one city in a month’s time, some want to ignore that and focus on policing. None of this makes any sense!

Why can’t we judge and comment on the sadness of each situation on its own merit with objectivity and integrity and then work towards change? When a police officer is killed in the line of duty, it is unjustified – always — with no excuses! Good men and women put their lives on the line every day and we should acknowledge and appreciate the risks they are taking. But, when someone in uniform crosses the line and abuses their authority and harms someone, that is equally inexcusable and we all should be able to agree on that. When week after week, city after city, situation after situation involves black and brown people getting harmed, that is also something that requires collective acknowledgement. And when a city like Baltimore has multiple murders in a matter of weeks, we should all be able to call that what it is – simply a tragedy! When a city like Charleston has multiple incidents involving Black people being shot and killed in a matter of months, we should all stand up and call the question.

What I rarely hear in any discourse is a genuine expression of how we can move from talking about situations to actually understanding and hopefully resolving the issues. Why are black and brown people being harmed in such high numbers? Why do our children look “suspicious” when they are doing nothing wrong? Where are natural opportunities in our communities to talk about race, policing, crime, education, jobs? Who are the authentic leaders who can host such conversations? What data can be shared and monitored to establish target outcomes that we all can join together in pursuing?

Enough of the rhetoric. Enough of the 24-hour news cycle that plays more like reality television than sensible reporting. It’s time to move from talk to action if we want change the narrative. Who is going to stand up and DO instead of just TALK?

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

What happens to Baltimore’s youth when the smoke clears and the cameras leave?

This week in Baltimore was tumultuous – peaceful protests gone awry, young people taking to the streets to express their frustration with poor treatment and bleak opportunities, broken windows, burned vehicles and buildings, and many arrests. A ray of light beamed through the residue of smoky haze when the State’s Attorney announced that the officers that showed such indifference to the life of Freddie Gray would have to answer for those mistakes in court.

Soon things will settle, the cameras will be turned off, media personalities will head back to their offices or on to the next developing story. In Baltimore, the process of justice will begin. Not just for the officers who will make headlines any time a legal motion is filed or a court decision made, but also for those whose lives are primarily lived in homes and streets that until this week went unnoticed by the world. Those cited for civil infractions associated with peaceful (and unruly) assembly will answer for their violations, as will those charged with more serious offenses. People affected by the loss of their community drug stores will have to find new ways to fill their prescriptions or pick up those household necessities for months and likely years to come. Life will slowly get back to some semblance of normalcy and we all will move on.

But for those teens who found themselves intentionally or by circumstance stuck at Mondawmin Mall that fateful Monday, and who made the poor decision to pick up rocks and throw them, or steal/loot, life could get complicated.  Entering the world of juvenile court takes on a whole new magnitude. It will not simply be about taking responsibility for a poor decision on Monday, once in juvenile court, it will involve a complex diagnosis of what is considered to be “in the best interest of the child.”

The youth who slept in the concrete cells of the juvenile detention facility the night of their arrest, even though they had never before been in trouble will now appear in court for a hearing to answer those charges. They will likely face scrutiny about all aspects of their lives – home life, school attendance, who their friends are, whether they associate (i.e. “know”) any gang members, etc. And depending on how they are “assessed” they will likely end up on probation whether they really need the supervision or not. From there, it can be a fast and slippery slope – any minor infraction for any future normal adolescent mistake will be considered a violation for which they can then be sent away from home. They will have to miss school and their parents will have to miss work whenever called. Their family’s lives will be disrupted.

This doesn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t happen. There are alternatives that would allow the youth to take responsibility for their wrongdoings, but without subjecting them to formal court processing or long term court oversight. Alternatives that are less costly and more effective. Baltimore could consider a combination of diversion with restorative justice for the teens charged during the chaos that ensued as a result of the Freddie Gray protests. Recent research by the National Academies of Science on adolescent development highlights the lack of maturity and capacity of young people to make logical decisions. Because of this, rehabilitation is especially effective for our youth.

The days following the death of Freddie Gray was filled with confusion, anxiety, frustration and intense emotion. To expect that our young people would be able to sort through their feelings and make reasoned decisions when many of the adults could not, is unreasonable. Diversion would allow them to avoid formal processing and ongoing court oversight; restorative justice would provide an opportunity for them to hear from citizens whose lives were affected and to learn empathy for how our actions impact others. Kids need this to grow into responsible adults. Working together in this situation to develop a creative response rather than pushing the kids into the juvenile justice system could go a long way to right so many of the wrongs of the past few weeks, and is more likely to put those kids on a better path forward.

I am confident that there are defense attorneys that will advocate for dismissals or diversions, but there is also a role for community leaders. Our kids do not deserve a juvenile court experience. They may have made some mistakes, but together we can help them to learn from them.

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

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

Changing the discourse about law enforcement and the black community

Seems like every week lately I have to brace myself before turning on the news. Months ago it was Mike Brown, Eric Garner, then Tamir Rice, weeks ago Martese Johnson, then Walter Scott, and now it’s come to the city in which I live with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Young males, older males, teenagers – it doesn’t seem to matter – for one reason or another, black males are being responded to aggressively and ending up choked, tasered, slammed to the ground, bloodied, beat up or shot. In the worst scenarios (such as with Walter Scott and Freddie Gray), they end up losing their life, and often the officers seem to not be held accountable.

As tragic as the news of the events themselves has been, what hurts and perplexes me the most is that more often than not I don’t hear a response that helps me to make sense of this. The commonalities seem simple – law enforcement encounters a black male, the situation goes horribly wrong, the black male ends up harmed. The reality though is much more complex. There are usually several versions of how the encounter unfolded: Version 1: officer confronts black male, then “fears for his life”, attempts to apprehend black male, there is a “struggle” or the appearance of a “weapon” and then officer feels compelled to use excessive force; version 2: officer confronts black male, black male questions the legitimacy of the stop or otherwise appears to not comply, and then officer responds with force; version 3: often depends on whether there are witnesses or a video of the confrontation. We actually may never hear a third version, but when we do, as in the recent case of Walter Scott, it is evident that there is an important reality to police encounters that we must confront in a transparent and different way if we are to pursue much needed resolution. In the case of Walter Scott, because it was on video, we can and should have a different conversation. We first should ask about the legitimacy of the stop, then we should challenge the level of force utilized especially when it seems excessive. When it seems that the confrontation was without reasonable cause, or that the use of force is inappropriate, there should be an objective investigation and officers who act improperly should be held accountable.

To change this trend of harmful conflicts, it’s time that all caring citizens be willing to ask hard questions and then be prepared for honest dialogue. I can imagine that law enforcement is not only a hard job, but at times is also a scary one. More importantly, however, it’s a responsibility that requires individuals to use their authority with honesty, integrity and humility. This is not a job that can or should be entrusted to just anyone, and especially not to individuals who are easily agitated. So we as citizens should be willing to ask, “what are the character traits and skill sets necessary to be an effective police officer?” We also should be willing to challenge the idea of what it means for an officer to legitimately fear for their life, as well as the legitimacy of the initial confrontation.

When I see a video of several officers surrounding someone they are attempting to comprehend, but instead use that opportunity to beat them, punch them, kick them or choke them (such as with Eric Garner and Martese Johnson) what comes to my mind is that the behavior is unnecessarily excessive, not befitting of an individual in uniform, and in extreme situations it seems to cross the boundary of the law. And that is regardless of whether the person being apprehended has violated the law or not. When a young person is apprehended and it does not appear that the law has been violated (such as with Freddie Gray), and that person ends up dead – that is alarming at an entirely different level.

It is time to call the question about police confrontations and demand that we change the dialogue, the expectations, and the response. We need the system to work better – for the safety of the community as well as law enforcement.

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