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

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50 years after Selma we have more bridges to cross

I was moved today by the memories of Selma shared through powerful words by those who went to Alabama to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. 50 years since men and women, young and old dared to march in hopes of realizing a just America. An America where we all could be judged by the content of our character, rather than the color of our skin, the differences in our religious beliefs, or who we choose to love.

Congressman John Lewis noted the progress as evidenced by the fact that 50 years after he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge beaten and with a concussion, he was now standing on the same ground introducing the first Black President of the United States to commemorate the occasion. That is progress we can all be proud of! But he also reminded us that there is work left to be done, and challenged us to stand up for what we believe. President Obama grounded us in the words of Scripture that we should “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” as he spoke of an America that is strong enough to be self-critical in our pursuit of a more perfect union.

This week’s report on Ferguson by the United States Department of Justice is a somber acknowledgement of our need to continue what our parents and grandparents started. We cannot be complacent in allowing disparities in how our laws are enforced. We can no longer stand silent when young Black men are shot dead in the street, or when they are locked in juvenile correctional institutions for non-violent offenses or youthful transgressions. We must exercise our right to vote so that men and women who believe in justice and fairness are elected to uphold our laws. Justice reform is the civil rights issue of today, and one that requires us to join together and cross the bridge for.

Much has changed in the last 50 years, but we must now carry the torch forward to improve our justice system so that it works for us all. This is our responsibility. It is what we must do to honor the lives lost during the struggle for equality; to continue to push for a better America. In the memory of those who sacrificed their lives so many years ago — Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb, Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney to name just a few; and as we remember those lost more recently who represent how far we have left to go – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. Today, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I was renewed and inspired to remember, reflect and find ways to march on.

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

ALWAYS ask for a lawyer when detained by the police

Anyone who has ever watched a television show or movie in which the police apprehend a suspect is familiar with what’s known as the Miranda warnings: “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say may be used against you; you have the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford one, one may be appointed for you.”

One of the biggest and most regrettable mistakes young people make when detained by a police officer is to not ask for a lawyer. Whether you believe you have done anything illegal or not, if the police are detaining you, it is likely because they have some reason to believe that you have violated the law, or that you know something about an incident they are investigating. In either one of those scenarios, you are better off with the assistance of an attorney. Legal counsel is also more protective of your rights in the event there is an offer of a more lenient consequence, or in any plea negotiations.

Although states differ in how they interpret the 6th Amendment constitutional right to counsel (varying in such things as whether they are required to provide counsel free of charge, or when the right to counsel actually is triggered) individuals best protect themselves if they make it their practice to ask for a lawyer before answering any questions (other than basic identifying information such as name or address). Of course to avoid unnecessary conflict when invoking your right to counsel, it is best to do so calmly and politely (see Justice Corner blog post “’Pearls of wisdom’ for young Black men and others who encounter the police”).

I have seen the 6th Amendment right to counsel most trampled on in juvenile courts with our most vulnerable population – our kids. Routinely youth or their parents are allowed to “waive” their right to counsel either by a judge from the bench, or as part of the intake process. Often people don’t even know what is happening as court procedures typically move quickly, and with little explanation.

This scenario recently was illustrated in the book and documentary “Kids for Cash” which shared the juvenile court scandal in Luzerne County Pennsylvania. One of the most egregious violations that prompted the investigation was the routine practice of allowing parents to sign waivers of counsel with little explanation of what was at stake. In Luzerne County, it was customary to inform parents and youth that things would “go easier” if they signed the waiver, but then kids were locked up even though it was clear that neither they nor their parents understood that their freedom was at stake.

In the end, it is a better option to have an attorney who is assigned to represent your best interests in criminal or juvenile court matters. After all, the United States Constitution guarantees this right, so why not use it?

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. Seek an attorney with knowledge of the laws in your state if you have the need for specific information.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

“Pearls of wisdom” for young Black men and others who encounter the police

This is not legal advice, but if you are a male of color between ages 10 and 30 (or know one) you may want to keep reading. The ongoing news reports of young Black men who are being targeted, harassed and killed is keeping me from sleeping and has prompted me to respond. I feel obligated to offer a few tips for managing such confrontations with hopes that they prevent someone from an unthinkable fate. I practiced law for 13 years, including juvenile and criminal defense, as well as civil rights. As a result of this experience I have heard more than my share of incidents, allegations, versions of events, and complaints. And although nothing I can share should be construed to be legal advice, I hope that the few “pearls of wisdom” (as my grandmother would have called them) can serve to prevent at least a few people from unnecessary harm.

I can imagine how exhausting it is to have to prove to the world every day that you are worthy of respect; to feel accused with every raised eyebrow and clutched purse just for walking down the street or getting into an elevator. I can understand how draining it is to be considered a suspect as a result of the generic “Male-Black” description (no height, no weight, no age, no specificity required). This description that seems to authorize every police officer within ear shot to target the nearest male of color and stop them for questioning (or something more). I can appreciate how scary it is not knowing whether the person approaching you, or stopping you in your car may have a nervous glitch or be trigger-happy and likely to cause you harm.

I consider these harsh realities facing young men of color . . . and my heart aches for you! But more than that, I want you to stay safe, to survive, and to thrive. And to do that you have to stay alive! So these “pearls of wisdom” as simple as they may seem are what I have to offer and I pray that they somehow will help.

If you believe you are facing a criminal charge (or a civil action) you should consult an attorney who knows the laws of the state in which you live. With that disclaimer, I want young people to wake up and realize (if they haven’t already) that currently while walking around doing average things that others do – you are in harm’s way! But, I have a few ideas (again, not legal advice) that you may want to consider as . . . well, let’s just call them “prevention techniques.”

Let’s be clear though – these guidelines are not kryptonite; if someone is set out to hurt you, there is little you can do. In the event, however, that a situation can benefit from various interpretations it may help for you to be pro-active and do what you can to avoid unnecessary escalation. I’m warning you in advance, these tactics may not be easy to do, especially when you feel that you are being unfairly singled out, but keep in mind that the result you are seeking is to walk away from the situation safely, and ideally without being handcuffed or arrested.

  1. Stay calm

No matter what type of tone or harsh words someone uses against you, do your best to remain calm. Do not raise your voice or appear agitated. It is important to give the impression that you have self-control, rather than seeming hot-headed and reactionary. Often when an officer responds with force, they assert that it was necessary to bring order to a chaotic situation. Remaining calm can help avoid such an escalation. Don’t give them an easy excuse.

  1. Show your hands

Although this didn’t seem to work for Michael Brown, making it clear to someone approaching you that your hands are free of weapons that may injure them usually is enough to at least get them to pause. It is considered to be a universal signal that you mean no harm. Even I, as a (let’s say mature) woman of color when stopped while I am driving make it a point to place my hands on the steering wheel in clear view. I also ask the officer for permission before attempting to reach for my purse to get my license or registration (“officer my license is in my purse on the seat, is it okay if I get it?”). It may sound silly, but if it puts them at ease, and helps me get through the traffic stop with less headache, to me it’s worth it.

  1. Be polite (even when you are offended)

Although it’s hard when an officer (or in Trayvon Martin’s case a civilian) approaches you with negative assumptions and accusations, I encourage you to remain level-headed. People like this are usually expecting a gruff response – so it can disarm them when instead you respond with the opposite. Since I was raised by Southern parents I was always taught to say “Sir and Ma’am” and have found that to serve me well in many situations. A well placed “sir” or “ma’am” signals to the recipient that you are disciplined and well-mannered and may prevent an ugly confrontation. If that sounds like a stretch, at least be polite in whatever way you can.

  1. Show ID when asked

I have heard so many misinterpretations of whether or not a person is required to show identification or answer simple questions when approached by law enforcement. My rule of thumb – in general, when asked, if you have one go ahead and show it. It’s just ID. I actually don’t feel the same when asked to consent to a higher level of intrusion such as a search. But, when asked for basic information such as your name, or where you live, it’s often less eventful to respond with basic information rather than challenge their right to inquire (especially if you are informed that there was a report of suspicious activity — whether you believe it or not). After all, who wants to be placed in handcuffs, or taken down to a police station unnecessarily when simply responding to a few questions could avoid it?

  1. Don’t run

Another sore subject is how fast or how slow to walk to avoid suspicion, and for that I have no bright ideas. But, if you believe an officer is trying to get your attention, running away is more likely to stimulate their anxiety than not. And you know if they have to chase you, when they apprehend you, it won’t be pretty.

When I practiced civil rights law, I had the opportunity to visit a police academy to learn how young recruits were being trained. We were investigating stop and frisk practices known to be prevalent in communities of color. One clear message that I left with was that police officers are trained to protect themselves – first and foremost! And it is with that in mind that I implore our young people to stay calm, show your hands, be polite, show identification if you have it, and don’t run. Don’t give them a reason to fear for their safety – or to claim it.

I in no way mean to condone improper actions by law enforcement or to disparage the good ones. Clearly I have not attempted to provide an exhaustive list of suggestions or presented the various sides of the issue, but rather just a few thoughts that I hope will come in handy, and may serve to keep everyone safe. I also know that many may disagree with me, preferring civil disobedience or other protest strategy when confronted without just cause. For those, I understand that point of view in the context of an informed action plan, but not for our youth to act upon alone.

In the end, if you believe that your constitutional or civil rights are being violated, or that you have been unfairly stopped, it’s better to get through the situation without being handcuffed, arrested or hurt and then consult an attorney, rather than trying to raise that argument in the moment.

Your bright future depends on you staying safe, staying healthy and staying strong!

Please share your thoughts and comments and let’s have a healthy dialogue.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com