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

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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

Failed juvenile justice systems: gateways to adult incarceration that must be addressed

Justice reform and the idea of de-incarceration are starting to become familiar considerations in many circles. The idea that long prison terms for non-violent offenses are expensive and unnecessary is a concept that is gaining bi-partisan steam. Several states have passed legislation that has reduced lengthy sentences for adults charged with non-violent crimes. A few have begun considering juvenile reforms, yet still do not fully recognize that improving juvenile justice systems is a critical strategy to achieve overarching criminal justice reform. Why? Because failed responses to juvenile offending is a gateway to adult incarceration.

According to a number of data sources a majority of youth currently behind bars have not committed a violent offense. More importantly, a large percentage of those youth are subject to incarceration as a result of minor infractions that occur at school or for engaging in activities that would not be a crime if they were adults (status offenses). Once in front of a judge, however, these young people are subjected to harsher responses than they would be in a criminal court and at a significantly higher cost (financially and in lost opportunities). After a stint in a juvenile facility, recidivism more often goes up, rather than down.

A recent publication by the Justice Policy Institute (Sticker Shock) http://www.justicepolicy.org/StickerShock outlined the financial implications of juvenile incarceration on states and communities. According to JPI research the average cost of incarcerating a young person in a secure facility is upwards of $400 a day (amounting to more than $70,000 for six months, and more than $140,000 for an entire year). Equally important as the significant financial impact, is the reality that a high proportion of young people who are incarcerated as juveniles go on to be locked up as adults, thereby costing even more money over their lifetime in actual costs to confine, in loss of productivity and an impaired ability to meet their own and their family’s financial needs.

Research indicates that when youth misbehavior is addressed therapeutically, a large percentage of kids can be diverted from deeper system placement and are able to get on a more positive path. Many adolescents who engage in impulsive or risky behavior, but who are otherwise positively connected ultimately grow out of this behavior and go on to lead a productive adult life – even without system intervention. Others who may be more exposed and vulnerable to anti-social environments have a better chance of getting on the right track if responded to with a supportive and nurturing structure. Interventions that provide youth with opportunities to stay or get on track educationally, while also learning pro-social skills is a better deterrent to recidivism, than if they are responded to harshly and confined in punitive settings.

It defies common sense that in every state across this country communities squander the opportunity to more appropriately respond to young people when the results of the alternatives are so dire. When we couple this failure with the data on the racial disparities (African American youth are nearly five times more likely to be confined than similar youth who are white), it’s hard to deny that this should be considered a civil rights issue that is worthy of attention.

If as Michelle Alexander states, we are beginning to appreciate that our failed criminal justice system is tantamount to a New Jim Crow, and if we acknowledge that overzealous police practices need improvements, then we must simultaneously recognize that incarcerating our youth must stop and that finding alternatives is a pragmatic transformation that is long overdue.

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

Resolving to make a difference in my own community

I recently read some statistics about the city where I reside that 4 out of 5 children in Baltimore City live in such impoverished circumstances that they quality for free or reduced cost meals. This means that a majority of kids in the city in which I live and pay taxes probably don’t have enough food to keep them feeling satisfied on a regular basis. This directly connects with their ability to focus and achieve academically, which also correlates with their likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system. This slippery slope is one that does not surprise me (except for the magnitude of the problem) but does move me to consider how I might use my time differently this year.

The beginning of every year is generally a time to refocus, set new goals and resolutions, and endeavor to be better. It’s the time to dream bigger, plan more intently and dare to make a difference – not just for ourselves, but to make the world around us a better place.

The last quarter of 2014 made it really clear that our world and our communities need healing. That we need a better resolution to law enforcement so that those sworn and paid to protect our neighborhoods can do their job appropriately, safely and in a manner that law-abiding people can respect. We also need enhanced strategies to help our youth find a path forward that will allow them an opportunity for a better life. And I believe all of this starts with everyone joining together to strengthen our families, our schools and our communities. And I mean “our” in the collective sense – as in all of us in this together. Mutual responsibility and accountability.

If we are to keep our kids unnecessarily out of harmful court systems, we need to start by building them a stronger community. So, I resolve in 2015 to be more involved in my community. To reach one and teach one and hopefully make a positive difference in the life of a youth. Too many of our kids are hungry – and not just for food. They are in need of responsible and caring adults to genuinely care about them and offer them a strong hand of support. I intend to be that for a young person in 2015 and I challenge all other adults who want to make a difference to do the same. I will continue to shine a spotlight on injustice that impacts our youth, but I also will lend a personal hand to someone who I hope to inspire to achieve great things. I have not yet identified this youth, but I have submitted an application to be a volunteer and am looking forward to being connected to someone in the near future. This is my mission – and it can be yours, if you choose to accept it.

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

Who’s fighting for the kids in Sayreville?

The arrest of seven teenagers who played on the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team is being mishandled on so many levels. The manner in which it is being publicized and the intensity of the prosecution is influencing a perception that these kids are criminals as opposed to young people who need accountability and redirection. More egregiously, it fails to highlight or hold responsible the adults who in my mind are culpable for creating and allowing a culture of hazing and for failing to properly supervise.

Of course I am not dismissing the seriousness of the allegations or the harm to the youth who were assaulted and bullied. It is a horrible situation and deserves to be addressed. I simply believe that there are more appropriate and rehabilitative ways to address the misconduct of the 7 football players rather than criminalizing them and locking them up. I also see this as an opportunity for a much needed conversation about youth justice – should the motivation be punishment or accountability and what does that mean?

I agree with some points that have been made in connection with this case, but there are many others that I vehemently take issue with. I agree that: (1) the behavior was egregious, (2) there is a negative hazing culture underlying Sayreville football that needs to be addressed and (3) the young people should be held accountable. What I disagree with is that the consequences require criminalization, or that the youth are solely at fault. I take serious issue with the idea that the youth could be prosecuted as adults – if the Middlesex County prosecutor goes that route, there should be a public outcry!

This situation begs the question: If we understand that young people make impulsive and thoughtless decisions, why should we entertain or authorize the idea of punishing them as if they were adults? When we factor in the brain science and adolescent development studies that demonstrate a significant difference in the brains and thinking patterns of kids at least until they reach the age of 25, shouldn’t we re-evaluate our response when youth violate the law? Policies should reflect the understanding that youth misbehavior warrants a different consideration than an offense committed by an adult (even when that behavior causes harm).

As a former criminal defense attorney, I want more information, and I believe that the Sayreville community should be asking for more as well. It will be important to know what type of hazing has existed at Sayreville in relation to football and other sports activities and for how long. Where were the adults (both that day and in creating the culture that allowed this roguishness)? Did the youth charged previously endure hazing themselves at the hands of other players that may have influenced their behavior?

The adults connected with the football program are responsible for the culture that encouraged the athletes to engage in such rambunctious conduct, and they are the ones who must be held to a higher standard. It’s unfair to allow the young people to be the scapegoats. And it’s wrong to destroy their future while subjecting them to consequences. It may not be a popular position to take, but who’s going to stand up for the kids and prevent their lives from being ruined over this terrible incident?

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