#CrimingWhileWhite provides a unique opportunity for dialogue about racial disparities

The hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite has been trending on Twitter and was captured in an article on USA Today Network on Dec 3, 2014 #Crimingwhilewhite puts focus on police and race. I’ve read comments on both sides either in favor of the expressions or wondering if they somehow mock the differential treatment endured by African Americans by many law enforcement.

I am one who not only had a positive impression of the trend, but commend those individuals who happen to be white who shared in tweets their experiences committing common youthful transgressions that resulted in privileged disparate treatment. Several mentioned underage drinking and driving, mischievous theft and even blatant disregard for the specific directives of law enforcement. In response they were barely chastised, considered to be “good kids” and often simply allowed to go on their way without arrest, being mistreated or further escalation. Perhaps these young people were not aware at the time of the different experience of Black youth and Black people? But now they are, and I appreciate their acknowledging it.

As someone who works professionally to achieve reforms in juvenile justice systems across the country, I often struggle with the best way to lift up the racial disparities in the treatment of youth. Overwhelmingly when the data is analyzed, it is evident that Black youth are more frequently arrested, sent to juvenile court from school for minor or non-violent behavior, sent to locked detention facilities, and to juvenile correctional facilities. When confronted with such data on racial disparities, the responses are often mixed. Some are appalled and interested in correcting the practices, but others remain in denial, preferring to blame the differences on poverty, single-parent households, or bad neighborhoods. The reality is that there are studies that have accounted for such factors and still the disparities exist.

So it is encouraging to me to have the qualitative information in the form of tweets from conscious young people speaking honestly about white privilege. #CrimingWhileWhite is a powerful acknowledgement that I hope will be persuasive and spark dialogue among communities to stand up for what’s right.

Walking down the middle of the street, playing in the park with a toy gun, buying gas with the music turned up too loud, or walking in the neighborhood should not yield a death sentence, and yet they did for Michael, Tamir, Jordan and Trayvon, and likely for countless others. But there are many more youth who are fortunate to be alive, but are locked in juvenile facilities for similar behavior. We don’t have their names, and yet they deserve our attention because they are in harm’s way and we can still do something about it.

All youth should be afforded the opportunity to live their lives or even make mistakes without being killed or locked up and #CrimingWhileWhite may be just what is necessary to change the discourse by providing real life examples that give a different credibility to the notion of racial disparities. I am encouraged and hope that we can both start these conversations and identify strategies to address the issue because all lives matter which means we all need to be involved in the resolution.

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 can Sayreville teach us about Shared Accountability (Justice Corner guest blog by Dr. LeRoy Reese)

The Sayreville tragedy and I believe it a tragedy for all members of that community but especially their young people represents an important opportunity for growth and measured accountability by everyone. Seems we ‘all’ have to be careful about the assumptions we make about what happened in this matter as it appears to be a good deal of variance to the narrative depending on who you listen too and whether they are using legal terms or describing actual behavior. So it may be that we aren’t talking about criminal behavior but that we could certainly be talking about something that rises above a threshold that most consider youthful misconduct. Sometimes young folks engage in criminal behavior that also needs accountability and redirection I don’t have enough information about what happened in Sayreville to have an informed opinion, seems none of us do. My point and hope is that the finger pointing stops (its not helpful), that there is a full accounting (i.e. by everyone) in this matter and that intentional efforts are pursued to attend to the injury suffered by the alleged ‘actors’ here and those who were ‘victimized.’ I assert here that all the young people in this community have been or are being hurt by this and have and/or are now being let down by the adults charged with their well-being.

Charges have been leveled not only at the youth ‘actors’ but at the coaches of the football program, the school’s administration, as well as some of the parents. It seems the adults have an important opportunity I hope they don’t miss and that is to communicate a powerful message of personal and collective accountability and evidence some redirection. There seems to be little doubt something happened in that locker room and some of the questions might be: how did it happen, how long has this type of behavior been going on, are there youth we need to check in who may have been impacted by whatever was going on who haven’t been identified, who knew and who were they accountable too, how do the young people involved here understand the issues being raised, what type of psychological or psycho-educational intervention are needed here, and are we being intentional in helping our youth heal and move forward. The defending of our children regardless of their role, the schools, football program and careers etc shouldn’t trump doing what’s right and in my opinion that means make our children whole. There is a broader dialogue needed here as every year there is some disturbing and tragic incident(s) involving high school football players suggesting we need to examine what we are messaging to our boys and young men about what it means to be a football player, male and masculine in our society (and no I am not anti sport or football, played football in high school and college).

Ms. Washington is right – WE CANNOT SCAPEGOAT OUR KIDS, we can however have meaningful dialogue about privilege and the responsibility that accompanies privilege. Football is a privilege and it has benefits for those that play, those they play for and the community. So the responsibility and accountability has to be shared and it is here where the opportunity resides. Let’s show our kids what accountability looks like, let’s teach our kids how empathy and compassion manifest and let’s not scapegoat our kids, let’s be the adults they need us to be. Sayreville has an opportunity to teach the nation what putting the best interest of kids first look like.

Dr. LeRoy Reese is an associate professor at Morehouse School of Medicine where he contributes to the Prevention Research Center and the National Center for Primary Care.  Prior to joining MSM, Dr. Reese was a senior scientist and team leader at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Dr. Reese conducts community-based health research focused on the development on healthy lifestyles, the reduction of risk behavior among youth and their families, and the modification of community based social determinants of health. He served on the Task Force of the American Psychological Association that produced the report Resilience and Strength in African American Children and Adolescents.

Follow the discussion on http://www.justicecorner.com; @twashesq

Accountability versus punishment: Is there a role for restorative justice in juvenile cases such as Sayreville?

My recent post concerning the events in Sayreville, New Jersey in which seven high school football players are accused of hazing/abusing other players apparently hit a nerve. Although I am capable of seeing multiple sides of a situation and am open to, and even welcoming of, opposing point of views, I was surprised at how quickly some of the responses got personal. I do not live in New Jersey, nor do I have any personal attachments to the circumstances. I simply believe that in a civil and democratic society, community members should allow the judicial process an opportunity to operate before turning themselves into prosecutor, judge and jury based on what is reported in the news. I believe this all the more strongly when young people are involved. And yet simply by proposing that the accused youth should have their fate determined by a juvenile court, rather than an adult court, some people felt obliged to personally attack me.

Several individuals thought it appropriate to label the kids “criminals.” But is it fair to call someone a criminal simply because they are accused of wrongdoing? Does that strike anyone else as somewhat odd and out of place in a country that holds itself out to the world as the representative of democracy? And what ever happened to the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty?”

In fairness, in one recent Twitter encounter I did experience an interesting and appropriate exchange which underscored for me the value of social media. It concerned a question of what consequences might be appropriate if it turned out that the accusations were true. To the individual who interacted with me on this topic I say “thank you.” Although I have no idea if I swayed that person’s opinion, I appreciated the opportunity for an open and respectful discourse.

In addition to advocating that this matter remain in a juvenile court, if the youth are found responsible for the actions they are accused of, I offered the idea that restorative justice be considered. I have already gone on record acknowledging the harm that has likely been caused based on the allegations, as well as the need for corrective action. The question is, what should that correction action look like? Is there a way to hold those responsible accountable, teach them the errors of their behaviors and get them back on track? Do we as a society need a pound of their flesh as payback for their behavior? Do we need to see them suffer? Or as responsible adults can we look for a better solution?

In the event these young men are found culpable (although I choose to remain neutral on this point until more facts are revealed) if a correctional institution is the consequence, they will come out at the other end undereducated, with a felony record that will interfere with them being employed, and based on the allegations perhaps bearing the label of sex offender – for life. Again I wonder: is this the outcome we want for young people who arguably are great candidates for being positively changed? Or do we want them to understand the harm that was caused, to be held accountable and taught a better way, and perhaps grow up to become mature adults who can contribute to society? After all, as pointed out in an editorial appearing in the New Jersey paper the Star-Ledger “we created this separate [juvenile] system because while the young brain can be capable of monstrous violence, it’s a more flexible creature.”

A restorative justice option actually focuses on the needs of the victims and the involved community in addition to dealing with the conduct of the accused. It emphasizes addressing and repairing the harm as opposed to simply punishing the offender. For youth, it is especially worthwhile as it allows for them to accept responsibility for their actions and make amends rather than maintaining innocence — this in and of itself is an important component of rehabilitation and an important character trait to instill.

The harsher option (jail time) may be the stiffer punishment and make many onlookers feel more satisfied, but a restorative justice alternative is likely more effective and beneficial to society and all involved.

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

The eyes that haunt me

My recent visit to a juvenile facility left me with heartache. As a former defense attorney and juvenile reform consultant, I’ve been to my share of locked facilities, but this visit for some reason unnerved me. It was more than the dismal physical space I’ve observed so many times. I’ve certainly seen the typical correctional complex complete with razor-wire fences, a myriad of locks and bolts, and barren cells. I’ve seen the expensive over-equipped surveillance control rooms with hundreds of cameras that offer multiple views of the facility at various angles.

What struck me in a different way during this visit wasn’t the sterile building and rooms, it was the eyes of the youth that I encountered. Despondent, unfocused, almost lost eyes. Eyes that had clearly experienced trauma and despair, and now seemed to just go through the motions.

Teenagers are supposed to be spirited, inquisitive, engaging — even irreverent. They are not supposed to be robotic. When I’ve visited institutions in the past, the young people I met seemed at least interested in who and why “the strangers” were there. Most seemed to welcome a new face to at least break the monotony of their daily, weekly, and monthly routine. But on this tour, line after line of youth barely looked up or even seemed to notice the visitors among them. I saw a kind of disconnect that transcended sadness. It was almost like they had given up; having submitted to the cold regimen of their circumstances.

I didn’t get the sense that the caretakers were unnecessarily harsh, but rather that they were detached. From what I could see, the correctional officers were professional and courteous — perfunctory, but not engaged. Even during the eating times, most preferred to watch the youth eat, rather than sit down and eat with them. Less than 20 minutes was allotted for meals with no talking, just eating. I wondered to myself, how I might feel if someone I loved had made a mistake that caused them to be in such a place. Month after month (and year after year) of walking in line, being told when and where to sit, when and where to eat, being talked at, rather than talked to?

No matter what they did wrong, these kids deserve a second chance at life and a bright future. But how can such an atmosphere serve a rehabilitative purpose? What is meant to be “corrective” in reality is nothing more than a well-manned warehouse. There is a reason that a separate juvenile system was created. It was the result of the recognition that kids being young in both mind and experience can be reformed. At some point we as a society understood that the impulsiveness that could drive an adolescent to commit a criminal offense was something that development and the right amount of support and attention could easily overcome.

But somewhere we’ve gone off course and reverted to subjecting our youth to the same harsh prison environments that we send adults. What’s worse is that 75% of the kids that are sent away have done nothing violent, but are still placed behind bars. And these places are harmful. They not only strip our kids of their dignity and desire to achieve — they crush their very spirit. They say that the “eyes are the windows to the soul” — I suppose that’s why the eyes I saw are haunting me.

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

Should locking kids up be considered child abuse?

In June 2014, a Georgia couple was found to have locked up their 13-year-old son in the basement. When child protection workers investigated, they found the boy locked in a small room with a mattress, a box spring and a bucket for a toilet; it had no light, no books, no toys or television. The parents said they had placed him there for disciplinary reasons. He showed no signs of physical abuse or malnutrition, yet the parents were charged with child cruelty and false imprisonment.

During my twenty years as a lawyer, I have visited juvenile prisons in a number of states. The typical cell in a hardware secure correctional institution contains a stiff slab of metal or concrete topped with a thin plastic “mattress” for a bed, a metal toilet with attached sink, and limited lighting — all behind a locked hard metal door. In many instances personal items are not allowed. Kids can be held in such facilities for years (many average 30 months or 2.5 years). If it’s considered child cruelty when parents lock up their own children at home, why isn’t it similarly cruel when a state does it?

In the case of the Georgia couple, their son claimed that the infraction for which he was being punished was that he stole a DVD and then lied about it. He had been locked in a room for more than a year. In juvenile correctional facilities across the country, 75% of kids have done nothing violent. Many youth are locked up for status offenses – acts that would not be crimes if they were adults (such as underage drinking, or being absent from school).

So where should we draw the line? Where does appropriate consequence end and cruelty begin? Should the difference be the nature of the offense (whether a crime was committed), or should it depend on whether it was violent? Or should retribution be based on something else, and if so what?

Adrian Peterson was indicted for hitting his 4-year-old with a switch, but in juvenile facilities across the country teenagers are held in isolation for days at a time in the name of “punishment.” Both seem extreme, and yet one is considered a crime and the other is authorized. Is it fair that a state carry the child protection badge in one hand while passing judgment on how parents discipline, but then hold themselves to different criteria? Where’s the logic? It is clear that we are long overdue for a conversation about punishment – both for parents, and by the state.

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

The photos below are of a typical juvenile prison cell taken by photographer Richard Ross (“Juvenile in Justice”)

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Kids in the juvenile justice system should be given the opportunity to just be kids

As the summer days draw to a close in favor of cooler temperatures and falling leaves, I remember a moment from just a few months ago that both warms my heart, but also adds fuel to my fire to spark change. It’s a hot summer day in South Carolina. I sit with a bottle of water on a mostly empty college campus. What would otherwise be a virtually quiet day is interrupted by sounds of cheers and laughter from teenagers competing in Olympic-like events. Spelling bees, swimming competitions, track, volleyball and tug-of-war are on the itinerary. Chants and songs of encouragement fill the air. Canopy tents are set up for each team to block the heat from the sun. Beads of perspiration on everyone’s foreheads, adults and youth alike; cold water bottles are passed around to help with hydration. Everyone is smiling. This scenario is familiar to most who live in neighborhoods or cities where sporting events are the norm. But can you imagine where I might be and why on this day it seems out of the ordinary?

The activities I am observing in fact are not unusual, they happen regularly in communities across the country. Sadly the oddity of this situation is the youth involved in them. The youth I am watching have been arrested and brought in front of juvenile judges to face penalty for their actions. Whether charged with fighting in school, disrupting the family home, or for acting out in various ways in the community, these youth are more often than not disconnected from positive social interactions such as the activities I am witnessing. Juvenile justice systems across the nation are full of youth who have misbehaved (most for relatively minor infractions) but who face harsh penalties. Many youth are not as fortunate as the ones I am watching – most youth who have committed similar infractions are removed from their homes, schools and communities often for many years. Labeled as incorrigible and delinquent, youth in the juvenile justice system, and particularly those who have been placed away from their home as part of their punishment are on a downward spiral — that is if such a descent is not interrupted by positive interaction with caring adults.

While most seem to believe that tougher penalties, detention or a locked cell is the proper way to address youth who have been arrested, suspended, expelled or kicked out of their homes, the reality is that such a harsh response is usually counterproductive. Instead of learning a lesson or being “scared straight,” kids who are locked up in response to their misbehavior are subject to an environment that teaches tough street lessons of survival rather than positive coping skills. The event I attended happens to be a learning activity organized by a provider that specializes in working with kids who have become court involved. There are only a handful of programs that I have come across nationally that have found a way to help system involved youth reclaim their childhood while at the same time addressing those anti-social behaviors that landed them in trouble. Responding with love, encouragement and the instillation of hope soothes the harm caused by trauma and neglect and allows kids to look in the mirror and see “a kid” rather than a tough guy who has to prove something to the world.

Providing youth the opportunity to develop such pro-social skills as working towards a goal, supporting one another, team work, and good sportsmanship is not a cutting edge theory. Schools and communities invest in these types of activities across the world. And yet in lean economic times, budgets for such investments are drastically reduced. Large numbers of youth nationwide are left unsupervised and forced to navigate large chunks of unstructured time. And then when the obvious happens, when youth lead one another into impulsive activities that cross the boundaries of the law, society wants to respond with undue and unnecessary harshness.

No longer does adolescent misbehavior result in grounding, after school suspension, or parents working out an appropriate consequence. These days, juvenile court is the go-to punishment. And not just for a lecture or community service. More often than not, youth who are sent to court end up on probation or being locked up. When that happens unless connected with a responsible, caring adult with the aptitude to bond with the youth and teach while at the same time holding them accountable for their actions, the results are often dire. Dropping out of school, inability to hold a job, disconnection from family and positive reinforcements and ultimately a cycle of infractions, court-involvement and jail is the typical result to over-criminalizing juvenile behavior and punishing kids as if they were adults.

As I sit quietly in the hot South Carolina sun and observe teenagers that communities have labeled as “troubled” actively engaged in activities that most of us would find normal and even common, I am bewildered. Why can’t this model of support, encouragement and teaching be the go-to response for such youth? Why can’t we replace the correctional institutions with programs that provide a therapeutic approach? As Maya Angelou said “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” When kids are provided an opportunity to know better – they do better. We know that incarceration is expensive, harmful and doesn’t work. It’s beyond time that we take a hard look in the mirror and make a logical, more-informed decision.

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

Images we create for youth should match the positive outcomes we seek

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. What then does that mean for images that are created for people without their consent? Especially those that cause shame: Handcuffs? Shackles? Orange jumpsuits? Cells? Razor-wire fences? Escorts with badges? Escorts with guns? Crowded facilities? Clothing stamped “inmate!”

Impressions of one’s environment, as well as how people are treated, leave imprints that translate to the reflection kids see in the mirror. Visions leave a residue which settle on the heart as well as the mind. If adults can help young people to see their beauty, their intelligence, their goodness and the strengths they have inside, they will see themselves as strong, capable and smart. If, however, they are ignored, constantly criticized, or allowed to think they are unworthy or simply aren’t worth anyone’s time, that will convey a different feeling, and one that can be hard to overcome.

Young people are shaped by their families, their communities as well as the “child-serving” systems they encounter. For most that system is school where if lucky their value is reinforced by adults who teach them that life is a canvass and then provide them with a paintbrush and vibrant colors to paint with. Less fortunate youth are forced into the legal system, whether through their own actions or that of a caretaker and that provides a different lens – one that is significantly gray.

On any given day there are nearly 70,000 young people who are incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities; 75% are there for minor or nonviolent actions (truancy, under-age drinking, minor school infractions). Most of the institutions are prison-like in construction; complete with razor wire, small cells, concrete and bars. Not the type of environment that fosters a positive self-image.

Images are powerful, and they are directly connected to youth achievement and well-being. Everyone a young person encounters has the power to either reinforce their value or tear them down. When we as a society respond to youth misbehavior with arrest, shackles, prison jumpsuits and a prison-like environment, can we really then expect that they will be empowered to change for the positive? And when those correctional settings include adults who are trained in coercive instead of rehabilitative tactics, the feeling of despair is compounded.

Young people (even those who have made mistakes) need to see their inner strengths so that they can envision a good life for themselves. One full of hope, promise, and even fun! Staff who work with these youth have more success when equipped with therapeutic tools and listening skills, instead of being trained to use restraints and intimidation.

The juvenile prison complex across this country needs a makeover – inside and out. Kids need school-type environments where they can be taught pro-social skills, not prisons where abuse is rampant and negativity is reinforced. Adults charged with working with vulnerable youth have a responsibility to not only “do no harm,” but to do what they can to be a positive influence. This requires that we create environments that instill hope and reinforce images of self-worth so that kids can see a picture of themselves that includes a brighter future.

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