Minority and Disenfranchised
Youth in Juvenile Justice: A Dominant Majority Problem—Reframing
and Renaming the Issues
walking the halls in juvenile prison each week, there is an eerie sensation
of bearing witness to childhoods set up in flames. Peering deeply into
the ashen masks worn by these young offenders, I look for
vital signs indicating it isn't too late for an infusion of hope.
seems to be a foreign concept as many of these young people have already
learned the risks of optimism. For Terrance, too much damage has already
been done to imagine anything different. Others like Michael were abused
and neglected by parents, guardians, or society in general and recount
unthinkable tales of violation in the flat cadence of someone reciting
a phone book. Tabitha, like Alicia and Jamar, just couldn't seem to get
enough solid ground under their feet to avoid running headlong into selling
drugs or stealing.
many cases these young people seem to be the wrong race, in the wrong
place at the wrong time and, without proper legal counsel and support,
end up spending their young lives imprisoned.
many of the dead-eyed children in prison, innocence has been burned out
of them. The one day a week I am there, my mission is to apply a soothing
balm of encouragement to their wounds in hopes they will envision another
self, another life—as someone worthy of respect. Often I leave feeling
a failure and swear not to return. But I do anyway.
is easy for me. I am not in law enforcement and I do not work day in and
day out in the juvenile justice system. As a writer/filmmaker/activist
all I have to offer them is an hour of reprieve where they learn the basics
of screenwriting and video and where I get to see all of their potential
brilliance and beauty.
of the youth I encounter in the juvenile justice world are poor Blacks
or Latinos hailing from neighborhoods that most folks I know have never
even driven through—and wouldn't even consider it.
negotiating the security check points in juvenile detention, I swim through
the sea of black and brown faces. I am unsurprised by the latest numbers
confirming that while Blacks and Latinos only comprise 25 percent of the
nation's population, they actually constitute 63 percent of the prison
population (Schlosser, 1998). We've
all heard the statistics in one form or another and perhaps even yawned
at the latest figures being cited on the evening news.
several years, I don't recall ever having met a young inmate from a part
of town in which wealthy middle-class folks reside. And therein lay a
significant clue to this injustice. Even more disturbing is that these
statistics seem commonplace to many—a matter of fact reality to be endured
rather than a symptom of a great social ill requiring deep national reflection—if
not a national visit to the psychologist's office.
Straight Line to Adult Prison
spending a few hours in juvenile prison I am reminded of a classic example
of juvenile injustice: Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, (formerly known as James
Jones) a 52-year- old death row inmate at Riverbend Prison in Nashville,
Tennessee. Abu-Ali was born to a black father and full-blooded Cherokee
mother and like many of the young offenders I meet, Abu-Ali's childhood
was snuffed out an early age. In addition to various physical and sexual
tortures, Abu-Ali's parents used his person as an ashtray (literally)
extinguishing cigarettes on his 4-year-old body and beating him until
he ceased to scream. His father enacted sexual tortures upon him by tethering
wet leather strips to his private parts and attaching them to a hook in
the closet and keeping him locked in as the leather dried and shrunk.
The abuses were countless and hideous and like many of the incarcerated
youth I encounter, his pleas to for help were ignored.
Abu-Ali's abuses were well documented from an early age, there were few
interventions and virtually no safety net to catch him before his downward
spiral. As a result, Abu-Ali developed severe emotional and psychological
disorders that were never treated over the years and he began running
away at age eight.
the time he was a teenager, Abu-Ali lived in a juvenile corrections institute
where he was subjected to repeated sexual abuse—adding to his mental instability.
Again he received no help from authorities and no treatment for the mounting
mental anguish he experienced inside the corrections system.
forward to 1986; Abu-Ali is involved in and held solely responsible for
a murder in which his mental illness played a major role. A plan was contrived
to steal from the drug dealers and run them out of business and out of
the community. Abu-Ali's mental illness made him a logical participant
in this well-intentioned but rather half-baked plan and during the robbery
gone awry, the intended victim—a man selling drugs in the community—was
stabbed to death.
was one of three persons involved in the robbery/murder and the only one
to receive a first-degree murder charge and ultimately a death sentence.
During the trial, Abu-Ali was subjected to a revolving door of court appointed
attorneys—two of whom later admitted that in the year they had to prepare
for his case, they hadn't started working on it until five days before
trial. Seeing him as a throw-away defendant, Abu-Ali's lawyers called
no witnesses and conducted no investigation. The jury never heard about
his lengthy history of mental illness or the documented abuses he suffered
in juvenile facilities throughout his teen years. There was no social
history conducted or mitigating evidence presented nor did the jury learn
that the blood evidence presented by the prosecution was misleading. Forensics
evidence proved there was no matching blood linking Abu-Ali directly to
the murder victim, but this critical piece of information was kept from
Abu-Ali's counsel did no investigation, the jury only saw a man who was
for the most part unlikable and who for the dearth of mitigating evidence
presented, appeared to be guilty. For this, Abu-Ali received a death sentence
and although he has once escaped death-watch he is currently awaiting
to hear the results of his latest appeal.
profile fits in with all the studies and statistics. There is little doubt
that being poor, Black and Cherokee and born to parents who both suffered
from mental illnesses themselves—affected Abu-Ali's chances of living
a productive and meaningful life outside the criminal justice system.
There can be little argument that if Abu-Ali were White and middle-class
that his experiences in the juvenile justice system would have been different.
That Abu-Ali received substandard legal assistance resulting in a first-degree
murder charge and ultimately a death sentence is not surprising.
no way is the suggestion being put forth that Abu-Ali is not somehow responsible
for his involvement in the murder. The situation is used to illustrate
that the path leading from Abu-Ali's early involvement with the juvenile
justice system was a straight line to death row.
Reframing the Issue
seems as a nation we are reflecting on the wrong questions, and often
times the way much of the research is
conducted and reported intimates that minority youth are the problem instead
of the recipients of unfair treatment.
It is unfortunate that the numbers
reflected in studies encourage
us to focus further on "them" as the problem
rather than factors responsible
for disproportionate numbers of youth filling our jails and prisons.
disproportionate number of minority youth involved in juvenile justice
is a symptom of larger and more disquieting issues. Rather than turning
inward to face the difficult inquiries, we place minorities under a microscope
to examine why "they" commit more crimes, why "they"
can't seem to overcome poverty, why "they" are arrested more
for drugs, theft and violent crimes.
it is the framing of the questions that points a finger outward rather
than reflecting internally, collectively, and locally to determine how
the system fails minority and disenfranchised youth and how we individually
and collectively contribute to that failure.
we continue to focus solely on the victims of inequity in juvenile justice,
we will never address the causes. And whether we are comfortable admitting
it or not, it is preferential treatment for Whites that lies squarely
in the center of the disproportionate minority epidemic.
reviewing study after study comparing incarceration rates, sentencing,
and public perception, we can draw one of two conclusions: 1) minority
youth are simply more criminal or, 2) that a premium is placed on youth
who are classified as White hence they (Whites) are suspected, arrested,
sentenced, and incarcerated at significantly lower rates than minority
is an indisputable fact that minority youth are arrested in far greater
numbers than youth classified as White. One recent study in Maryland revealed
that 75 percent of drivers who exceed the speed limit are White, and 18
percent are Black, and yet 70 percent of the drivers who are pulled over
and searched are African American (Schlosser, 1998).
figures make it difficult to argue the value of reframing the discussion.
For instance, instead of questioning why minority youth commit more crimes
and are arrested more frequently, we could explore why law enforcement
agencies consistently target minorities and often perceive them as more
dangerous than Whites. The emphasis is then shifted away from people of
color—the victims—and placed on those individuals carrying out law enforcement
of the solution to disproportionate numbers of minorities arrested, charged
and convicted can be addressed by changing the consciousness and behaviors
of law enforcement. But is important to note, the behaviors and attitudes
of law enforcement are informed by society in general.
In other words it is not an
isolated indictment on the criminal justice system. The "system"
is all of us. It is an extension of practices and policies in all
facets of life. And it is important to not only acknowledge that there
are disparities, but accept responsibility for those disparities by taking
appropriate steps to reverse and resolve the wrong—even when the implications
are disquieting and uncomfortable.
Fixing What Is Broken
February 2001, the Youth Law Center in South Dakota filed a suit with
the state after an investigation revealed that in addition to being over-represented
in the facility (Native youth account for 10 percent of the adolescent
population in South Dakota but are 40-45 percent of the incarcerated youth
population), Native youth were treated more harshly than White youth.
addition to being the victims of excessive and abusive force, staff was
recorded on video tape forcing youth into metal handcuff restraints and
overwhelming them with cell entry teams dressed in riot gear. The youth
were also assaulted with pepper spray for minor infractions—one of which
included punishment for anyone caught speaking in Lakota, their native
tongue. Because the staff could not speak Lakota, this was considered
a violation of facility rules.
cannot help consider the frightening similarities between the corrections
staff's behaviors and the restrictions often employed by slave-masters
to control enslaved Africans on the plantation where, among other things,
they were often brutally punished for speaking their native languages.
December 2000, The Youth Law Center reached a settlement with the State
of South Dakota to end the abusive practices and provide adequate mental
health and educational services including proper training for the staff.
2001, enormous changes were made and instead of continuing to point an
accusing finger at the minority youth as the source of the problem, the
facility was forced to look within itself. The policy prohibiting youth
from speaking Lakota was changed and the staff was given cultural diversity
training and Native-American professionals were brought in to provide
more culturally appropriate activities for the youth. The population of
the facility—which had been over 120 when the law suit began—shrunk to
51 in approximately a year's time.
Renaming the Problem
seems we have not traveled so far from what has historically been referred
to as "the negro problem." The implication being that if the people who
are victims of an injustice behave differently or somehow change, i.e.,
themselves up by their bootstraps," the problem would cease to exist.
with reframing the issues, we might raise the level of discussion by renaming
the problem. What if we were to view the disproportionate confinement
of minority youth as a "dominant majority problem?" If we acknowledge
that minority youth are disproportionately charged and convicted for more
crimes—and numerous studies confirm this—then shouldn't we assume that
White youth must be disproportionately not charged?
in the United States we tend to view most social and political issues
through a dominant majority lens, perhaps this shifting emphasis to the
dominant majority offers new and more truthful insight as to why privatized
prisons are one of the fastest growing industries in the country (Bates,
1998; Schiraldi & Ziedenberg, 2001). In whose best interest are for-profit
prisons and who is benefiting most? Corporations that
are driven to make profits, require products. For a corporation in the
prison business, prisoners are their chief producers of revenue and empty
beds mean poor profits.
Corporation American is one of the top performers on the stock market
in recent years and boasts of extremely high return rates. Private for-profit
prisons currently operate secure juvenile facilities in 23 states and
the District of Columbia (Bates, 1998; Shichor, 1995).
for-profit companies emphasize the bottom line, what incentive is there
to develop innovative programs that encourage rehabilitation? When the
bottom line is at stake, cost savings are king and programs such as mental
health treatment, arts, and education are inhibitors to greater profits.
Facilities concerned about profit hire fewer people and less qualified
staff—often resulting in deteriorating conditions which result in violent
incidents and injuries. The emphasis is on tighter security measures rather
through the dominant majority problem lens, we might gain insight as to
why state after state continues to allocate dollars at accelerated rates
to build more juvenile jails rather than spending dollars on crime prevention.
And most importantly, we might better understand why non-white minority
youth are so undervalued in our culture as to be over represented in prisons
questioning the issue from a dominant majority problem perspective we
reverse the emphasis from the victims to the perpetrators. As uncomfortable
as it is to grapple with, when we recognize that minority youth are unfairly
over-represented, we must address the reality that youth classified as
White are indeed the beneficiaries of privilege which cause them to be
under-represented in comparison. It is from this place that we step closer
to a more fair and just system.
The Faces of Juvenile Court
past year I made a film with a group of juvenile court youth on probation
who were assigned to work with me and the Oasis Center in Nashville for
12 weeks to make a video. During the program the youth were encouraged
to create a piece about something important to them and that others would
learn from watching. The youth decided to make a documentary about their
neighborhoods so that those in juvenile court (the youth) would see who
they were outside of the offense they had committed.
the 30 minute documentary, the youth reveal many things about themselves
and it is clear that the issues brought forth in the film have raised
questions and eyebrows for most anyone who watches. The post-viewing discussions
are revealing and powerful and as the Tennessee Commission on Children
& Youth determined in its 2003 report, the video highlights all of
the high risk factors of youth disproportionately inhabiting juvenile
prisons. These factors are poverty, race, class and the negative influences
that often plague those living in urban public housing communities where
drugs and crime flourish.
their documentary, "Welcome to My Hood," all four of the young people
featured in the video are African American and live in what are referred
to as projects or public housing in notoriously high crime areas. Very
often after viewing the film, someone will inevitably challenge me about
the racial make-up of the video and ask me why there are no White youth
or say that it seems slanted and unfair that there are only black and
brown faces. Of course I agree but I am always pleased when this question
is asked because it underlines a key issue. In the last three videos produced
with court-ordered youth, all of the youth are either African American
or Latino. They are not selected by me as a filmmaker; they are the young
people who are in the juvenile justice system. Very seldom have I walked
into a room and seen more than one face that mirrors my own complexion.
the film, the youth are questioned about violence in their neighborhoods
and how they are affected by it. Seventeen-year-old Keisha—who was arrested
for shop lifting—matter of factly states:
When the interviewer delves further
and asks Keisha if she is scared living in close proximity to a shooting,
she simply shakes her head no and says, "Not really, cause I'm used to
a 15-year-old male, is asked in the film what scares him. Without hesitation
and almost before the interviewer can finish the question, he responds,
"Getting locked up, going to the penitentiary." For this young man, jail
is a very real possibility if not probability. His brother is in jail
and throughout the film it becomes clear that his brother's incarceration
has had a deep impact on his life and shaped how he views his future.
When asked if "hanging out with the wrong folks scares him," Lamont clearly
and articulately paints a verbal scenario, "If I am in a car with some
friends who have drugs, I'm going to jail regardless of whether I knew
about the drugs or if I graduated from Harvard." As a young African American,
Lamont has learned well that he is not judged solely on the content of
his character or by his actions alone.
the hundredth time, minority youth are charged, arrested and convicted
at much higher rates than those classified as White. I learned this my
first day conducting a life-skills group in
a juvenile facility several years ago. While conducting an exercise intended
to help the participants retrace their path to prison, the discussion
turned to sentencing and a comparison game developed. The game that I
have now witnessed more times than I care to count was "who got how
much time for what crime." Out of the twelve young men in the group,
only three were classified as White—a fairly accurate representation of
the prison population. As youth compared crimes, arrests, and sentences
the room inevitably divided along racial lines. Very often one of the
youth classified as White would point out the obvious: that they had received
different treatment during an arrest and/or a lighter sentence for the
same offense as the guy they were sitting next to who was of a darker
is always disturbing when faced with facts that reflect the inequities
of the criminal justice system that point to institutional racism and
prejudice. It is quite another thing to witness a conversation among youth
who are incarcerated wherein one admits to the preferential treatment
he or she has received because of his or her race. The silver lining during
those experiences—although it is little comfort for those who feel unjustly
incarcerated—is that sometimes a trust is built because one human validates
Why the Face of Juvenile Court
recent study in Tennessee revealed that in seven counties—including Davidson,
where Nashville is located—100 percent of the primary juvenile judges
are Caucasian, despite significant minority populations in some of these
counties (Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth, 2000). Since these
are elected positions, voters can significantly alter the racial balance
and it is essential that the judicial system and the public recognize
the inequities and the need for change. When the person standing before
you is someone you recognize and perhaps even empathize with, you are
more likely to more accurately interpret their behavior and history which
naturally affects their sentencing.
year, Sasha, one of the 17-year-old African-American women participating
in one of the video classes violated her probation and was caught selling
marijuana to the vice squad several months after the completion of the
project. She had never sold drugs before but an opportunity arose to make
some money, and since she had been experiencing difficulty getting a job
because she had no transportation, she made a terrible decision. The news
was devastating to her grandmother and her mother who works very long
hours—second shift mostly—to support the family.
most American teenagers, Sasha has a laundry list of what she considers
to be needs that her mother can't afford—shoes, clothes, and getting her
hair styled. For many African-American woman (young and old), hair is
often a subject of conversation and a source of great stress. The dominant
culture sets the standards of beauty in a way that leaves many women of
color in a constant struggle to live up to an ideal.
any young woman who is concerned about her appearance—and show me one
that isn't—who doesn't have enough resources to dress and groom herself
to her peers' approval, who doesn't fit in, has little self confidence,
and who is the source of ridicule in her school because of her attire.
In a weak moment, operating outside the law becomes an option.
young middle-class teenagers, this is often a non-issue. Necessities don't
weigh on them (and clothes and grooming are indeed necessities for teenagers)
because their family has the resources to provide for them.
It doesn't mean that middle-class teenagers don't suffer the slings and
arrows of misfortune in high school, but they are not the ones filling
the cells in juvenile detention. And when white, middle-class teenagers
find themselves in court, they are faced with someone who most often looks
like them and perhaps identifies and empathizes with them.
Sasha decided to take the fast money and we both knew that violating her
probation put her at risk for lengthy incarceration. While I was visiting
her in lock up, Sasha told me how lucky she had been. The fact that I
received a phone call informing me of her arrest (someone recognized her
from the video) let me know Sasha was right.
of the probation officers, judges, and referees had viewed the video Sasha
had made with other juvenile court youth just a few months previous to
her arrest. In the video, Sasha expresses her views about "white people"
and states clearly why she generally doesn't trust them—"the white people
downtown that is." When she appeared before the juvenile court referee,
two people in the room recognized her from the film—and lucky for Sasha,
one of them was the referee who also has a great reputation for fairness
and compassion. Instead of being locked up and forced to drop out of school,
Sasha was sentenced to weekend jail time and community service. For that,
she felt extremely grateful.
there is no way to know for sure, Sasha believes that being recognized
by the referee and the bailiff are probably what saved her from being
locked up. Perhaps by seeing her in the video, they felt they knew her,
understood her more. Or perhaps because of what she said, they wanted
her to have an opportunity to experience those "white people downtown"
differently. There is no question that humans tend to extend empathy and
compassion to those with whom they have an affiliation. Perhaps Sasha's
story illustrates this.
Identification and Sentencing
recent study in Tennessee revealed that juvenile court judges weigh a
number of factors when deciding whether or not to adjudicate a child as
delinquent. Among the social and criminal history and the evidence of
guilt of the juvenile, the judge considers family attitude, parental involvement,
along with school behavior and performance, and whether the juvenile is
repentant. For several reasons these factors tend to work against minority
youth. Very often in marginalized and disenfranchised families, parents
find the judicial process intimidating and sometimes attitudes which are
motivated by fear and intimidation are interpreted as being uncooperative.
8.2 Last year I worked with Lavonne, a 15-year-old African-American male whom I had been warned by the probation officer lived with a single mom who was obstinate and difficult to deal with. She missed the first appointment we set for an interview and before I ever met her, I concluded she was her child's greatest deficit.
she finally made the meeting, she seemed distant and a little impatient,
if not short-tempered. Instead of immediately discussing the issues that
brought her to juvenile court, I decided to spend some time asking about
her day. What I learned was that in order to make our appointment she
had to leave her second job one half hour early and take two buses across
town. She missed one of them and, because of an inadequate public transportation
system, had to wait nearly 30 minutes for another bus. In less than 10
minutes, Lavonne's mom began to soften and smile and I realized I had
been wrong. It wasn't as I had assumed. She wasn't uncooperative, she
was exhausted. We discussed the difficulty of relying on public transportation
and she revealed that her dream was to buy a used car so that she wouldn't
have to take the bus to do the grocery shopping. That's why she was working
the second job and often unavailable for meetings.
is sometimes interpreted as being obstinate or uncooperative behavior
is often a symptom of stress, fear, or plain fatigue. For a low-income
minority family relying on public transportation in a city with a poor
transit system, adhering to a schedule requires a herculean effort. And
like anyone, many people are too proud or ashamed to admit hardships and
often camouflage their circumstances in order to preserve their dignity.
Often what lies beneath bravado is insecurity and fear and very often
this is where misunderstandings and faulty interpretations are bred.
significant factor used by judges to determine adjudication is whether
or not the juvenile is repentant. For many
poor and disenfranchised youth, bravado is a form of survival—especially
for young men. A common mantra heard among many juvenile court youth is
"show no fear."
a 17-year-old African American who participated in the documentary video
"Welcome to My Hood," was asked about her neighborhood and what scared
her. Jessica replied "Walkin to the store….You could be walkin to the
store and you never know what might happen…but you can't act scared. You
just got to face the 'real' even though you really are scared…but you
still got to face the 'real.'"
For Jessica the "real"
is the reality of the threat that surrounds her. She has learned well
to "show no fear" in order to survive the neighborhood. Unfortunately
for young people like Jessica, her bravado might be interpreted as arrogance
or lack of contrition and precisely what lands her in jail or compounds
Juveniles and the Death Penalty
the United States a person must be 18 years of age to vote or to sit on
a jury. In most states children under the age of 18 (in many it's 21)
cannot even legally purchase alcohol, gamble, get married without their
parents' consent, or join the military unless they have been emancipated
by the state. Although these civil laws exist because juveniles need special
protection and treatment under the law, we are still not dissuaded from
United Nations Convention (Article 37[a]) provides that "Neither capital
punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall
be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age."
Contrary to the self-image boasted by many Americans regarding human rights
practices, the death penalty for juvenile offenders has become a uniquely
American practice. In over seventy countries that employ the death penalty
by law, juvenile offenders under eighteen years of age are exempt. The
United States is the only country in the world that has not yet ratified
this international agreement, in large part because of our desire to remain
free to retain the death penalty for juvenile offenders (Human Rights
you consider the disproportionate number of minorities in juvenile detention,
how many on death row suffer from inadequate judicial proceedings, and
that their age was never presented as a mitigating factor, the execution
of juveniles is exponentially unjust.
are currently 28 inmates convicted as juveniles awaiting execution in
the state of Texas. Of the 28 inmates, 21 are Black or Latino. Of the
seven convicted juveniles on Louisiana's death row roster, six are African-American
juveniles incarcerated for serious crimes are themselves victims of extreme
physical and/or sexual abuse, drug addictions, and mental illness. As
juveniles they are deemed less capable of controlling their emotions,
or using maturity to aid them in responsible decision making. This represents
a grave injustice in that any young person considered too immature to
vote or to drink alcohol can be held to adult standards when it comes
to criminal (capital) punishment.
Crime, Punishment and Restorative
visiting Italy this past year, I interviewed Dr. Franco Casciano, the
director of prisons in Tuscany and former director of juvenile prisons
for nearly 20 years in that region. Dr. Franco expressed great concern
about restorative justice policies in the United States.
been born in the first state in the world to outlaw the death penalty
over 100 years ago, Dr. Franco grew up believing all human life is valuable
and views every person as worthy of rehabilitation.
10.3 In the Italian prisons of Tuscany, rehabilitation is not only a goal but an expectation. Guards are not considered dead-end, minimum-wage gatekeepers but an integral part of the rehabilitation process and are put through extensive training. Prison employees and guards are taught not just how to restrain prisoners but how to instill self-esteem and encourage productivity among the youth. And because prisons are not profit-making business ventures in Tuscany, the goal and incentives of those operating the prisons are not compromised when it comes to rehabilitation.
firm believer in spiritual restoration through art, Dr. Franco started
a program whereby juvenile offenders engaged in a multitude of artistic
disciplines to recoup their humanity and to understand the journey that
led them to prison in the first place. Dr. Franco believes that when a
young person has landed in prison—regardless of the reason—a part of his/her
spirit has been damaged and requires reconstruction. He emphasizes the
importance of helping them recapture a part of themselves so that they
are not destined to a life of imprisonment.
collaboration with various artists throughout Tuscany, the juveniles study
sculpting, painting, writing, bicycle making and various other disciplines
that help to engage their minds and spirits.
interviewed several inmates who were released nearly 10 years early because
of a local gallery owner. The gallery owner committed to house and support
the inmates for a two-year period by paying their rent, providing studio
space, and showing their work in his gallery. During that time the young
men were on probation, the gallery agreed to be accountable for the ex-offenders
and cooperated with probation officers who conducted periodic checks on
the former inmates' progress.
of the former inmates, Russiello, told me—through an interpreter—how fortunate
he was to have met the gallery owner and Dr. Franco and how much better
his life is now than he had ever expected. Going to prison was one of
the worst and best experiences of his life. In prison he discovered the
person he was meant to be.
many of the juvenile offenders I meet, Russiello was born into a desolately
poor family—one of twelve children—and began selling drugs to help support
his family. He served two years of a 15-year sentence and has been out
for nearly 10 years and is now a successful contemporary artist whose
work is being shown in one of the oldest contemporary art galleries in
above story for many Americans probably sounds fanciful at best and ludicrous
at worst. Why wouldn't it? After all, isn't the idea to punish criminals,
not adorn them with privileges?
enough, our attitudes towards those filling our juvenile jails are often
shaped by the media, politics and fearful leaders who want to gain the
confidence of voters. Even among some faith communities there is a reluctance
to address the inequities of the criminal justice system. It is difficult
to admit that it is primarily the poor and mentally ill who are relegated
to death row or a life of imprisonment and that the road map is laid out
for them as juveniles.
Zero Tolerance Policies
the last decade, Americans have become numbed to the frightening increase
of rigid security measures—which disproportionately affect people of color
and especially those who are immigrants.
fear into the hearts and homes of many Americans, the current administration
has succeeded in making Homeland Security a household phrase. One of the
residual affects is the increase of zero tolerance in American schools.
the increase of violence, availability of guns, and weapons being carried
by young people, schools have justifiably become more concerned about
safety issues. The result is school suspensions and expulsions have reached
of color are subjected to far more suspensions and expulsions than those
classified as White—especially immigrant youth. Although African-American
youth were only 17 percent of national public enrollment from 1998-1999,
they received 32 percent of suspensions (Schiraldi & Ziedenberg, 2001).
In Tennessee, White students were suspended and expelled only half as
much as Blacks and Latino/as (Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth,
practice begins early in minority youth's educational experiences. In
Connecticut—which during the 1999-2000 school year nearly 52 percent of
the suspension of kindergartners were African American, 35.2 percent
Latino/a, and only 12.1 percent where White (Schiraldi & Ziedenberg,
11.6 Unfortunately no-tolerance is confused with prevention or eradication. Zero tolerance is clearly not a solution and has in fact created another layer of more complicated and dire problems (Building Blocks for Youth, 2003). When students are expelled and suspended, they end up in the streets, are far more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, and naturally find themselves in the juvenile justice system.
again, the numbers reflect that the finger is aimed at minority youth
and thus Blacks and Latino/as are caught in the cross-fire.
there are alternative programs to zero tolerance being developed around
the country. The National Crime Prevention Council is currently supporting
a pilot project focused on dropouts in Woodford County, Kentucky that
relies on "soft" services that emphasize fostering positive student/teacher
relationships as well as more tangible preventive measures which involve
purchasing security equipment. In addition to prevention, alternative
education models are being developed like detention programs known as
SMART which are being implemented in Chicago and Philadelphia schools
(Building Blocks for Youth, 2003). The more young people are banned from
education and relegated to the streets where criminal activity is virtually
inevitable, the more jail constructions can be justified. Perhaps there
should be a zero tolerance policy for legislators and politicians proposing
more juvenile facilities.
Immigrant Youth Transference to
youth—especially Latino/as—tend to suffer doubly harsh treatment in juvenile
justice. In Los Angeles, a 1996-98 study revealed that Latino/a youth
are arrested 2-3 times as often as Whites, prosecuted as adults 2.4 times
as often and imprisoned 7.3 times as often as Whites (Schlosser, 1998).
Latino/a youth are also transferred from juvenile court to adult criminal
court at much greater rates than White youth and they suffer additional
consequences if they come to the attention of Immigration and Naturalization
Services (Building Blocks for Youth, 2001).
12.2 Numerous cases have been reported whereby Latino/a youth are assigned counsel who does not speak their language and no interpreter is provided. Often when a Latino/a youth is taken into custody, his/her parents are too intimidated to contact the authorities—fearing deportation. As a consequence, many youth are traumatized by long periods of incarceration with no family communication (Building Blocks for Youth, 2001).
year I was contacted anonymously by a woman in Nashville who worked in
juvenile justice and was mortified by the treatment that four young Latinos
received who were being tried for drug possession. Although there were
nine youth arrested for possession of marijuana, only four of them were
prosecuted. None of the White youth were charged.
of the young men were barely 20 years old, first time offenders, who spoke
no English, and had no previous interaction with the criminal justice
system. Because both of them were economically deprived, they were represented
by court appointed attorneys who didn't speak Spanish and were not able
to communicate with their families in Mexico.
more I questioned the woman, the more incredible the story became. Although
the total amount of marijuana was significantly less, the State's Attorney—a
prosecutor known for histrionics in the courtroom and who has been disciplined
by the Bar more than once for unethical behavior—was allowed to wheel
over 500 pounds of marijuana into the courtroom to dramatize his point—that
these four young men (two first-time offenders) were a dangerous threat
to the community.
of the language barrier, the defendants' attorneys knew little about them
and barely presented a defense. In the end, the prosecutor convinced the
court. The jury, also affected by his performance, sentenced all four
young men to life in prison without possibility of parole.
does it say about how we view youth—although the two younger defendants
were technically adults—that we throw away the key for first time offenders
who have no ability to communicate or to offer a proper defense for themselves?
competency in juvenile justice is severely lacking in most states. Criminal
courts don't generally provide competent personnel and services including
translation of documents and forms into the defendant's native language,
recruiting bilingual staff, and providing services that are culturally
recently overheard a conversation between two juvenile court attorneys
who were discussing a diversity training program they had attended. They
commented on how "touchy" people have become about being referred to as
either "Latino" or "Hispanic." Both seemed to think there was no difference
and felt satisfied that the term "Hispanic" identified anyone
who spoke Spanish. One of the attorneys expressed little patience for
needing to be "politically correct."
offered that there were rich cultural differences between people from
Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, and other Latin American countries
and suggested that perhaps people feel overlooked and invisible when referred
to as "Hispanic." After all, isn't it the equivalent of being identified
as a "North American?" As is often the case with those considered
members of the dominant White majority (majority in this country only),
neither had ever given it much thought.
Reconciling the Dominant Majority
along the line we turned a blind eye to a system that is warehousing a
future generation of black and brown youth behind bars. And although we
"North Americans" generally tend to perceive ourselves as setting
the standards for human rights in the rest of the world, it is our philosophy
and policies regarding juvenile justice that are sadly lacking and lagging
behind many other countries.
must overcome the urge to become "color-blind" and face just how much
of our own inherited blindness stems from the racist/classist/elitist
principles of the White European founding fathers who espoused freedom
and justice for all—unless you were a person of color.
requires courage and conviction to acknowledge the racist principles embedded
and still practiced in our
social, economic, and judicial policies. The tough questions require us
to identify and weed out those practices that continue to victimize a
growing segment of the national population.
prevents us from wholeheartedly embracing and working towards an equitable
criminal justice system? What subconscious elitist values and principles
cause us to resist acknowledging what numerous studies have revealed:
that minority and disenfranchised youth do not receive equal treatment
in the criminal justice system?
many (in the dominant culture), equity means losing a position of dominance
and naturally engenders fear. Perhaps we haven't traveled far enough in
our thinking to re-imagine how true equity might actually free us and
render that fear unnecessary.
work before us is not simply political or personal. It is both. It is
"we the people" who run the criminal justice system and it is
often human ignorance and arrogance which prohibits justice "for all"
from prevailing. People are the criminal justice system and it is "everyday
people" who enact policies and procedures that disproportionately
affect people of color. We are all responsible for continuing the practices
that unfairly target minority and disenfranchised youth in the juvenile
justice system. And it should matter to us all who is minding our prisons
and whether or not young people are seen as potential profit or future
exploring the issue as a dominant majority problem and retracing the road
most traveled by minority and disenfranchised youth—from juvenile detention
to adult prison and death row—perhaps we will begin to chart out more
equitable and productive alternative routes for all our youth.
Bates, Eric. "Private Prisons." The Nation 5 January 1998: 11.
Building Blocks for Youth. "History of Zero Tolerance." 6 May 2002 <www.buildingblocksforyouth.org/ issues/zerotolerance/facts.html> 9 August 2003.
Building Blocks for Youth. 7 February 2001 <www.buildingblocksforyouth.org/latino> 10 February 2001.
Human Rights Watch. "Children's Rights U.S.: A World Leader in Executing Juveniles." Human Rights Watch 7(2) (1995): 23.
Schlosser, Eric. "The Prison-Industrial Complex." Atlantic Monthly Digital Edition. 10 December 1998 <www.theatlantic.com/issues/98dec/prisons.htm> 11 September 2003.
Schiraldi, Vincent and Jason Ziedenberg. “Schools and Suspensions: Self Reported & the Growing Use of Suspensions.” Report. Washington, D.C.: The Justice Policy Institute, 2001: 4, 6, 9, 12, 16.
Shichor, David. Punishment for Profit: Private Prisons/Public Concerns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.
Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth. “Executive Summary.” 8 August 2003: 6-9, 11.
---. “Inequities in the Juvenile Justice
System: Trouble TCCY Taskforce." The Advocate 10(1) (2000): 7.
As a writer/speaker/filmmaker/activist Molly Secours has been called an "uncompromising fighter for racial equity and social justice." Since 1995, Ms. Secours' writings have been published by over 50 mainstream and internet magazines and newspapers and she has appeared on numerous radio and television talk shows to discuss issues of racism, white privilege and reparations for slavery. After receiving a grant from Open Society Institute, Secours co-founded a program with Oasis Center Inc. called Youth Voice through Video (YVTV) wherein she teaches video making to juvenile offenders and incarcerated youth in a Nashville prison. She has written, produced and edited documentary videos related to social justice issues and is working on several documentary film projects for her company, One Woman Show Productions.
Table of Contents