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

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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