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

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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 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

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

The quest for justice reform should include the kids failed by the juvenile court system

As horrific as it is that so many lives have been lost to seemingly biased police practices and rushes to judgment, there are many more who are blessed to be alive but who are nonetheless in harm’s way that warrant our attention. At the top of this list are the kids who may not have been shot or choked to death, but who were handcuffed and shipped away to court and incarcerated with little due process. No one is telling their story, but they should not be ignored as they represent a growing number of statistics that fall under the radar.

Consider this: if Mike Brown had not been shot and killed, but instead lived would there still be the same level of discontent? If the Ohio police had man-handled 12-year-old Tamir Rice and mashed his face in the ground, handcuffed him and hauled him off to juvenile court, would we be similarly outraged? What if the bullet miraculously missed Trayvon Martin but when the police came they charged him with assault and then a judge placed him in a juvenile correctional institution? This happens to thousands of kids (and primarily kids of color) in every state across the country. There are literally tens of thousands of young people right now who are behind bars, many for behavior that most of us engaged in as kids (skipping school, underage drinking, missing curfew).

Why does it take a death, or several deaths to spark protest? The underlying police practice and failures in our justice system is the same, it just falls a bit below the surface and has a less final result.

The disparities in the juvenile justice system are staggering. The number of Black and Latino youth who are pushed into court systems from school, forced into lengthy archaic probation contracts, and then ultimately locked up far outweighs youth of other races and ethnicities – and yet where is the outrage on their behalf?

Does anyone lament the teenager brought into court in shackles for cursing at his teacher, or sent to a locked detention facility for arguing with his parent? What about a 12-year-old held in a locked facility for months for testing positive for marijuana? Or a 14-year-old sent to juvenile prison for 5 years for burglarizing a neighbor’s garage? These situations are common in most states across the country, and I have personally witnessed them. So many of our young people are in danger, and no one seems to notice. They are in danger of being traumatized, assaulted, disconnected from their families and under-educated. They miss out on normal adolescent experiences, are forced out of school and yet no one champions their cause.

Are we satisfied simply because they remained alive, even though they are locked away for years as their unjust penalty for noncompliance? Are youth of color not worthy of our outrage when their consequence is hand-cuffs and a cell instead of a loss of life? If we truly believe that #Blacklivesmatter and #Alllivesmatter perhaps we should broaden our thinking to address the injustices in our law enforcement and court systems in a full and meaningful way – not just in the most extreme situations?

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

Zero-tolerance for kids is a fast and slippery slope to lock-up

Many people assume that when kids get into trouble while they are in school that they are sent to the principal’s office, held after school, or maybe even suspended. Another assumption is that school “zero tolerance” policies refer to situations in which student or faculty safety is at issue. But “zero tolerance” is actually a much stricter standard than many realize. It provides no opportunity for explanation, offers no permission for extraordinary circumstances, and often allow consequences that defy common sense.

It is not my intention to undermine the serious concerns we should all have as a result of numerous school shootings across the country. But as scary as they are, that is not the primary reason there are an average of 70,000 youth behind bars on any given day in America. The reality is that juvenile justice systems across the country are full of youth who have been referred from their schools. And the referrals are not for what you might think based on the violent stories we hear on the news. Unbeknownst to many, most referrals to juvenile court are for typical youth misbehavior such as minor fighting, being verbally disrespectful to a teacher, being playfully disruptive or even for just missing school.

Take for example a simple school fight between two 13-year-olds. Not one involving weapons – just a simple disagreement between two young people where one or both lose their composure and end up hitting each other with their hands, or throwing an object that makes contact with the other. Even if neither is physically harmed, they likely will be charged with some version of “assault.” Instead of resolving such a matter at school, both individuals (the initiator and the responder) may end up being taken to juvenile court.

Kids who are brought to the attention of the juvenile justice system are typically handcuffed, processed and brought before a judge. If they are lucky, maybe their case gets diverted so that they avoid formal processing. But if they are charged with a crime, they then enter a complicated web of scheduled court appearances, probation supervision, reporting requirements and are forced to agree to strict compliance with an unrealistic set of expectations (so unrealistic that most kids violate within a matter of weeks or months). Parents who want to be involved have no choice but to miss work (sometimes jeopardizing their jobs) to accompany their child to court, often on numerous occasions while the matter is pending – but this is another matter which should be considered separately.

More often than not, the youth referred to court end up being put on probation or community supervision. Probation, while seemingly an appropriate alternative to incarceration, often serves as a slippery slope or a gateway to stiffer penalties. The typical probation contract is so extensive that it virtually can be impossible to comply with; especially for youth who are struggling with trauma, family issues, or other challenges. In addition to regular check-ins with the assigned probation officer, youth have to promise to attend school, not be late, comply with a curfew, obey all rules of the house, and not get into any additional trouble. Adults likely would agree that such requirements seem appropriate. The challenge, however, lies in the response to a youth who slips up — which given their young age is inevitable.

When a youth on probation makes a mistake, the consequence is often incarceration. Whether they are late for curfew, miss an appointment, talk back to their parent, disagree with a step-parent, smoke marijuana, miss or are late to school, they face being locked up. And the reality from the data is that many youth are in fact confined for such infractions – even if not for the first violation (although there are number of situations where this is the case) more often than not after a repeated error. Seventy-five percent of youth currently incarcerated are there for non-violent offenses, including technical violations of probation. This means that a different response by schools to youth misbehavior could literally mean the difference between a young person getting a diploma or ending up on a fast track to jail.

Does anyone know what happened to the days when kids could be kids, when a school fight was just a school fight and when accountability was appropriate? When did adults and school officials decide it was acceptable to overreact to the slightest infraction, disrespectful comment or rude behavior from a teenager? Why exactly do we need “zero tolerance” especially when it puts so many kids into harm’s way? Who else thinks that it’s time for us to adopt a more common sense approach?

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

Can we pause? How might the Ray Rice situation inform justice reform?

Like most of the country this week, I too was shocked and appalled upon seeing the footage of the domestic violence situation between Ray Rice and his now wife, Janay. After uttering a few choice expletives, followed by a bit of name calling, I then paused – and took a deep breath. After all, I am a former defense attorney, and a former civil rights advocate, it wouldn’t be right for me to so quickly join in the negative banter. Would it? But the video was so raw, it’s as if I could feel the pain myself!

My training, however, and especially my recent work in juvenile system reform cautions me to refrain from fast reactions and at least attempt to get a more complete understanding. But there’s a video!!!

But if I’m not willing to at least be interested in the rest of the story, what does this mean for my efforts to influence a more effective response to juvenile offending? Then I remembered one of my favorite books “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz that recommends that we not make assumptions. I have interpreted this to mean that I authentically should seek to understand rather than react.

Channeling this agreement that I have made with myself, I thought of some questions I might want to ask before jumping on the “lock him up and throw away the key” bandwagon. I would like to know more about Ray Rice’s background, as well as that of his wife. Did he grow up in a home where he witnessed or was a victim of domestic violence? Has he suffered a brain injury or other physical damage that could explain such an outburst of aggression? Was there a severe childhood emotional trauma that was somehow triggered? And for his wife – what has occurred in her life and her background such that she has made a decision to stay in such a difficult situation?

It is human nature I suppose to react, to judge and seek punishment. But as an advocate for justice reform, especially for youth, I have learned that the more appropriate response is to pause and take time to gather more comprehensive information, rathering than focusing solely on the offense. And then to seek effective resolution.

I am not recommending this lightly. Domestic violence is an issue of extreme personal nature to me. Just a few years ago a beloved family member was murdered by her husband who then killed himself. She had a PhD in business, was a college professor at a prominent university, and was a beautiful person inside and out. And yes, when I learned of her murder, I was baffled. I did not want to believe that someone so strong, independent and successful could have intentionally remained in a harmful situation. But I was wrong.

In trying to make sense of my relative’s death, I learned more information about her husband. He had been a child of trauma, and that emotional harm likely had not been appropriately addressed. He managed to get a college degree and a graduate degree, but scholastic achievement without emotional healing was not enough.

I am not excusing what happened to my loved one or to Janay, but I am seeking clarity so that I can process more effectively. I’m not a proponent of a free pass, especially for violent acts, but I am an advocate for problem resolution. Bad actions warrant consequences. But I believe that they should be appropriate and focused not only on accountability, but also promoting rehabilitation.

In Ray’s case, I might suggest that he undergo serious therapy, perhaps have a brain scan to discern whether there is a physiological injury that requires healing, and also that he volunteer to work in a crisis center for domestic violence and participate in a restorative justice process. He should engage in activities that could help him truly appreciate and hopefully learn from his mistake. I don’t see what jail would help, and I can’t appreciate why he should be suspended from his career forever? Perhaps that’s because I’m a believer in forgiveness. But also because I believe in what works. Justice in my opinion dictates a fair and just result, not necessarily a harmful one.

And if we truly want to engage in a conversation to better understand and try to resolve domestic violence, we will need to be honest about our value system as a country. We must confront the awful statistics, and we must acknowledge that it’s never just about one bad actor. Perhaps we should just pause and look for our lessons?

Share your comments here to engage in a healthy dialogue.

Tanya Washington is a social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq

All kids should have support like Kayden

I expect that by now many who follow Facebook and other forms of social media may have seen the video of the little 2-year old boy, Kayden Kinckle, posted in July 2014 as he learned to walk on his new prosthetic legs. Most of us smiled and laughed as we watched Kayden figure out how to balance behind his pint-sized walker with a woman behind him encouraging him and making sure that he didn’t fall. She asks “You got it?” and he quickly replies repeatedly with each step he takes in a high-pitched toddler voice “I got it . . . I got it . . . I GOT it!”

As much as that video warmed my heart, I simultaneously was struck with the sad recognition that the sympathy and support that Kayden has is needed by so many kids but unfortunately is not available to them. All kids need a caring adult standing behind them, coaching them, making sure they don’t fall, or when they do helping them to get back up. But many don’t have one. And this isn’t just for toddlers, it is critical for all young people at least until they reach full development and are able to successfully manage life on their own.

Kayden is lucky to have a caring, nurturing and responsible adult standing behind him to meet his needs and who is cheering him on. But the reality is that many kids, especially those who end up in court, are not this fortunate. When kids show up in family or juvenile court, whether due to abuse or neglect committed against them by a caretaker, or because they have misbehaved, they in many ways are similar to Kayden. You may not see the physical impact of their circumstances, but they are often recovering from non-visible emotional scars and similarly are in need of love, support and coaching.

It is easy to have compassion for little Kayden, and even root for him to succeed, but we need similar empathy for system-involved kids, even when they are acting out inappropriately in response to unknown and unseen trauma. Rather than judge and punish based solely on their negative behavior, we should view them as having a hurdle that needs to be better appreciated and then addressed. Our response to court-involved youth should be similar to our reaction to Kayden – we should try to understand their hurt and then help them to overcome any challenges so that they too can smile and rejoice “I got it!”

Tanya Washington is a social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq