Our Brothers…or Aliens?

During my first days as a commander in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Assistant Chief Mike Graham gave me a special assignment. He asked me to organize and head a committee, assess our gang enforcement efforts and make recommendations.

That’s when I began to take a close look at a youth program called VIDA.

Kids between the ages of 11 and 17 entered VIDA engaged in the kind of behavior and thinking that would one day land them in prison. But after 16-weeks of intense intervention, they were different kids: better attitudes, better outlook, equipped to make better choices. VIDA was created by patrolmen Drew Britness and Vince Romero, who’d relied on their experiences in the streets to design a winning program.

After witnessing the success of VIDA, I recommended we expand it from East L.A., where it first operated, to other areas of Los Angeles County. The expansion would mean more kids would have an opportunity to change and become better.

The expansion suggestion was well received and VIDA now operates in eight locations—and helps a lot more kids. It’s staggering to think of what the county would look like without VIDA.

This is why I applaud President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which is designed to create opportunities for boys and young men of color. Too often we hear people talk of our youth as if they are aliens, here from another planet. They are different, hard to understand, beyond our ability to help.

The truth is that you can visit any city in the nation and find youth programs that work. These programs are saving youth from dropping out of school, joining a gang, using and selling drugs, and engaging in violence and other criminal activities. The programs are setting kids on a right path.

What you might find missing in Any City, U.S.A., is the political will, interest, and resources needed to expand the most effective programs. Faced with this lack, youth statistics worsen. And we hear more about the aliens: The real problem is those kids are just so different.

But these are our children. Like every other generation they deserve the opportunity to have the tools they need to reach their fullest potential. They deserve a healthy environment in which to learn and grow. They deserve our best. We must approach our youth, not with a sense of futility, but with a dogged determination to find solutions.

“My Brother’s Keeper” includes a task force that will determine which public and private efforts are working and how the government can encourage those efforts. This initiative is a real opportunity to save our brothers, sons, nephews, uncles, the neighbors’ boy. I look forward to seeing the outcome.

And while we’re at it, please let’s not forget our girls. Ask any elementary, middle school, high school teacher and he or she will tell you about the trouble with girls…But that’s a topic for another blog post.

(To read more about VIDA, which stands for Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives, click here: http://www.vida.la/aboutUs.php You can read more about my days as a commander in my book “Way, Way Up There: My Odyssey from Cotton Picker to Top Cop”)

Jail or Yale: The Cost is Nearly the Same

Photo courtesy of JYS

Photo courtesy of JYS

It costs nearly as much to house an inmate in a New York City jail as it does to educate a kid at an Ivy League School, according to a Washington Post article published yesterday.

New York spends $167,731 per inmate annually—about the amount parents will pay in tuition fees for four years of education in the Ivy League.  That breaks down to $460 a day.  However you slice it, the number is astounding.

Experts point the finger of blame at Rikers Island. This 400-acre island is home to 10 correctional facilities and thousands of employees. It’s expensive to run for a variety of reasons.  To read the entire Washington Post article, click here.

One alternative is to replace Rikers Island with neighborhood jails located next to courthouses. But that politically unpopular plan was foiled by opposition from residents who live near courthouses. In the meantime, the price tag for incarceration in New York jails continues to skyrocket. And the loud opposition one might expect is not there.

Martin F. Horn, a former city correction commissioner, told the Washington Post:  “My point is: Have you seen a whole lot of outcry on this? Why doesn’t anything happen?” Horn said of the $167,731 annual figure. “Because nobody cares.”

“That’s the reason we have Rikers Island,” he said. “We want these guys put away out of public view.”

Keep in mind that we’re not talking about prison.  This is city jail. The population includes people who are awaiting trial. That means New York City is spending Ivy League money not only on hardened, violent criminals, but on drug addicts and small time criminals. At least some of the inmates will be found not guilty and will be released, or the charges will be dropped.

We all should be concerned with public safety. But numbers like this beg obvious questions.  Isn’t there a better way? Why is the public OK with this kind of outlay of funds? Isn’t there a better way to spend this money?

Think about it: If New York City spent an average $167,731 a year to educate a high school student, or to re-train a laid-off laborer, or to feed, clothe and house a poor family, or to eliminate the digital divide, what would the public say?

Think of what organizations like Black Girls CODE, Girls Who Code, Hidden Genius Project, Year Up and others dedicated to STEM education could do with such abundance. How many disadvantaged youth would grow up to become computer programmers or engineers because of their experiences in groups like these? (Click on the name of the organization to go to their website and learn more about the great work that they do.)

But you can imagine the outcry—which is why the silence now is so loud.