Troubled Youth…and an Old Typewriter

UnderwoodA century ago the Underwood typewriter was high technology. It was the latest, the best, the “must have” device for anyone in the business of communicating.  Talk to the average kid today and most have never even seen an actual typewriter—and they certainly haven’t used one. The typewriter for them is a relic of a long ago past.

Our methods of communications have advanced at break neck speeds; our social policies concerning troubled youth have not. By comparison, over the years we have crawled toward more effective and humane policies; and our slow pace has cost us lives that could’ve been saved. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the U.S. still leads “the industrialized world in the rate at which we lock up young people.”

“In every year for which data are available, the overwhelming majority of confined youth are held for nonviolent offenses. In 2010, only one of every four confined youth was locked up based on a Violent Crime Index offense (homicide, aggravated assault, robbery or sexual assault).”

“40% OF JUVENILE COMMITMENTS AND DETENTION ARE DUE TO technical violations of probation, drug possession, low-level property offenses, public order offenses and status offenses (activities that would not be considered crimes as adults, such as possession of alcohol and truancy). This means most youth are confined on the basis of offenses that are not clear threats to public safety.”

Since 1995 the overall picture has started to improve. From a peak in 1995, the rate of youth in confinement dropped by 41% in 2010.  But we still have a long way to go. Huge disparities exist between the confinement rates of youth of color in comparison to their white peers. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports:

“African-American youth are nearly five times as likely to be confined as their white peers. Latino and American Indian youth are between two and three times as likely to be confined. The disparities in youth confinement rates reflect a system that treats youth of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, more punitively than similar white youth.”

Imagine what would happen if we as a nation addressed the problems of youth with the same creativity, innovation, resources, interest and drive that took us from the Underwood typewriter to the iPhone. How would our policies look? What would our youth confinement rate be then?


America’s Juvenile Justice System: Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

justice2David Tyrone is 15-years-old. He’s an average student, who attends school regularly, and secretly dreams of becoming an artist. David knows gang members—it’s hard to live in his neighborhood and not know them—but he doesn’t belong. He’s not sure the gang life is for him. One day after school, David accepts an invitation to ride with his friends to the mall. That evening he and his friends are arrested for joy-riding. David is sentenced to time in a juvenile detention center. Inside he’s a target. When people ask him where he’s from, his answer, “nowhere,” is never good enough. In juvenile detention, you have to be from some gang. Inside you need protection—or else. David gravitates toward the gang members from his neighborhood. They protect him. They school him. By the time he’s released from juvenile detention, David is changed. Now he’s a bona fide gang member. Now he’s got “creds” (a reputation). It’s almost certain that he’ll return to juvenile detention for some crime or another.

David Tyrone is not a real kid, but this dilemma is very real. Scenarios like this play out every day in cities across America. It’s time to ask ourselves the question: do our juvenile justice detention centers deter the proliferation of juvenile gangs and the attendant gang violence or do they inadvertently serve as recruitment centers for gangs?
As our detention centers become more crowded and violent, many offenders who were incarcerated for non-gang related offenses are drawn into gangs for protection They quickly realize that inmates/youth who are not affiliated with any gang set are easy prey for gang members from any of the different warring sets. The basic tenet of our juvenile justice system is rehabilitation. With the overcrowding, staff shortages and the increasing tensions between warring gang factions, more time is being spent on safety issues and less on rehabilitative efforts. Part of the problem is this: some kids simply do not belong in juvenile detention.

To really appreciate this dilemma, an at least cursory examination of the gang infrastructure is needed. Think of the gang hierarchy as an inverted triangle. At the top and larger part of the triangle are the “wanna-bees” (hangers on who are flirting with the idea of becoming a gang member) and new gang members. The second tier and second largest group are the mid-level members. The last group, which is the smallest and most dangerous, is composed of “shot callers.” Very little of consequence occurs in a gang set without the knowledge or direction of the shot callers. Unfortunately, our juvenile justice system sometimes treats these categories of youth the same. Distinguishing between the groups can mean the difference between saving a kid from a life of violence and pushing him down a treacherous path.

We can be doing a lot more than institutionalizing youth, especially the wanna-bees and new gang members. To effectively impact the issue, more attention/efforts must be focused on prevention. “At risk” youth and wanna-bees must be identified and programs instituted to steer them to more productive lifestyles. We owe it to our future to focus on creative ways to save youth, rather than lock them up. I submit that the gang issue cannot be arrested away. More than 30 years of strenuous enforcement has proven that. It must be dried up by dealing with at-risk youth before they become caught up in the gang culture.

This week attorney general Eric Holder announced fundamental changes in federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. Holder made this comment during his speech:

“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”

Our juvenile justice system is exacerbating the problem. The big question is, do we have the resolve to devote the energy and resources to correct the problem? Or do we stand idly by and allow these misguided youth to develop into menaces to society?

A Better Place…A Better Country

My uncle Calvin

My uncle Calvin

In 1955 my uncle Calvin was shot and killed by a white man. He was unarmed and standing a few feet away from his assailant. The crime was witnessed by several black men, including my father and older brother Lawrence. A trial, of sorts, was held. The assailant alleged self-defense, despite testimony from several eyewitnesses who said Calvin was not aggressive toward the assailant and turned toward him only after being ordered to, and despite the sheer absurdity of the idea of Calvin menacing someone holding a gun on him.

Apparently the self-serving statements of a white man out-weighed logic and black eyewitnesses. Variations of this scenario have played out in black communities throughout the country. It is through this prism, shaped by life experiences, that many in the black community viewed the Zimmerman verdict. The nuances of self-defense and ill-advised laws like stand your ground are over powered by one powerful fact. An unarmed black youth en route home from a store was followed and subsequently encountered by an armed white adult and ended up dead. Older black adults, although usually more subdued, likely feel a deeper sense of futility and frustration. This is because their experiences were lived, not anecdotal. That feeling of though a black man occupies the highest office in the land, something they never dared to hope to witness, you are still valued differently than white America.

If my dad was still alive I wonder what he would make of all this. Would he see some striking similarities to Calvin’s death? Would he feel the deep hurt being evidenced in black communities throughout the country? Calvin’s death propelled our move to California to a better life and more opportunities. Maybe, just maybe, Trayvon’s death can propel all of us to a better place, a better country…maybe.

Let’s Talk

JUST RETURNED home from a family reunion in Jackson, MS. We finished the banquet just minutes before the Zimmerman verdict came in. The emcee at the banquet asked for comments prior to closing. I didn’t say anything, but I should have. I should have tried to prepare the family for a verdict that may be upsetting to them for several reasons. First, I felt we had been outlawyered, just as we were in an appalling number of high profile cases. Think back for a minute: Delorean, O.J., Robert Blake, Phil Spector, Casey Anthony and the cops in the Rodney King beating. There are reasons for this, but that’s another discussion. More to the point at hand, I should have urged them to have a serious discussion with their black children. Things like illuminating the interior of their vehicles if pulled over by the police at night. This gives the approaching police officer an advantage, thereby lowering anxiety and promoting a more positive outcome. They also have to realize that there are far too many “Zimmermans” out there. We have to develop strategies to ease tensions during encounters with them as well.

The difficult part about this discussion is that our young people feel that they should not have to. And, they are right! But in the short term, we need to think survival and use this incident to galvanize us into political activism and not just on the  national level. While we were busy posting on Facebook and Tweeting on mundane matters, a lot of dangerous and repressive laws were passed on the state and local levels. The “stand your ground” law leads the pack.  Until these laws are challenged and overturned and they must be, we should use every available stratagem available to protect our children.

I didn’t say anything Saturday night, but black parents must…but they should not have to!


(image: trayvon martin via eonline)