Local child advocates are reacting favorably to United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments about the dire need for major juvenile justice system reform.
In remarks to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder called for the Department of Justice to adopt a new approach that combines evidence-based research and comprehensive community partnerships. Holder also said that it’s time for us to ask some important questions such as; why is it that African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, but comprise more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime? Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior? And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance? Some even plead guilty to criminal offenses without the advice of a lawyer. Read the full speech.
Some of the points Holder made in the March 7 address include:
- Serving our young people makes good economic sense by keeping them out of “over-stressed and under-funded corrections facilities and saving precious law enforcement resources.”
- How we treat our children speaks to who we are as a nation.
- It’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice – and to ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process.
- We must transition from a prosecution-and-punishment model to a prevention-and-intervention paradigm.
- We must adopt a comprehensive plan of action – one that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and community leaders.
- We as a nation must be smart, not just tough, on crime to help generate the positive outcomes we seek for our young people.
- Juvenile justice reform will also save the nation money in the long run.*The best—and most targeted—solutions will be shared solutions, "created together—after rigorous scientific evaluation and innovative resource levering."
- Evidence on our nation’s juvenile justice system demonstrates that change is needed because the current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should.
- Even though many of those who are incarcerated enter the juvenile justice system for non-violent offences, they often emerge violent – or, at the very least – traumatized.
- Each year too many of the 100,000 young people who exit formal custody have nowhere to go, return to unstable homes or end up in shelters, on the streets, or in other potentially dangerous or violent situations.
- Many juveniles who leave the system are not welcomed back to their community school and struggle to find educational opportunities.
- Juvenile justice reform must become a nationwide effort to bring systemic, not incremental, reform to our justice system.
Here’s what some local leaders and child advocates had to say about Holder’s comments.
Emanuel D. Jones, State Senator (D-Decatur)
“The attorney general spoke very powerful words regarding our system of Juvenile Justice. I agree with his call to action and we can do better by our kids. The system is broken and too many poor and children of color are being unfairly punished in a system that lacks accountability of their efforts to rehabilitate detained children. Our system of juvenile justice is broken and anytime institutions are allowed to profit off youth detention, justice is compromised. We need to remove this yoke from around lady justice' s neck and allow meaningful reform in our juvenile justice system. Alternatives to incarceration are available and I believe the Departments of Juvenile Justice must be given greater flexibility to rehabilitate children to include the authority to parole children in youth detention centers.“
Tanya Culbreth, Home-School Parent Liaison, B.E.S.T. Academy (an all-male Atlanta public middle and high school)
“We treat our children as sub-standard human beings -- not as human beings who can succeed -- and get sub-standard results. I agree that we need to implement more intervention and prevention methods on the front end and not the back end with prisons and detention centers. I also agree with the attorney general that it is time for major reform. This system is clearly not working. We need to look at where we are spending our resources. Working at an all black-male Atlanta Public School, his comments really resonate. He’s right about the racial disparities. The answer to this lies in the answer to the question; how do we engage a population that feels so disconnected? These young men come from families that also feel disconnected from mainstream society. They feel like the odds are stacked against them. The school-to-prison-pipeline is real. By cutting education spending and investing into prisons we are grooming our kids to go right into the prison system. Now many schools are merely teaching our kids how to past the standardized test. After that the teachers don’t have time or the energy left to explore, inspire and encourage the students. No Child Left Behind did just the opposite of the stated intent; No Child Left Behind has left everybody behind!”
Steve Teske, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge
“This past November I delivered a keynote speech at a conference in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Department of Justice on juvenile justice. Attorney General Holder made introductory remarks to my keynote speech. He shared the same information. My speech supported what he said. It is time we re-invent the juvenile justice system using evidence-based practices. However, evidence-based practices must include a system that is multi-disciplinary and supports evidence-based programs that effectively restore youth. Effective programs are only effective in practice when all stakeholders work together.”
Chara Jackson, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia Legal Director
“I am very pleased with what Attorney General Holder said. His comments speak to exactly what we’re trying to do in Georgia with SB 127, the juvenile code rewrite, led by JUST Georgia and other stakeholder groups. His comments really show people who have been committed to juvenile justice for years that we all really are on the same page. I think with the passage of the code rewrite in Georgia can be at the forefront of change in the juvenile justice system. Hopefully we are close to getting this measure approved in the Georgia Senate.”
Viveca Famber-Powell, Atlanta Defense Attorney
“I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Holder. I have worked as a defense attorney for almost 30 years with much of that time defending and advocating for children charged with offenses from ungovernable to murder. At every level, incarceration is a tool that is always used too quickly. This is especially so in the most serious cases where the imposition of minimum mandatory 10 and 25 year prison sentences for children as young as 13 in cases where there is no loss of life or even injury is a routine occurrence in Georgia. These expensive prison dollars can be more efficiently, economically and successfully spent on supervision and services for more children. These services are already in place and work and can be shown empirically to be successful on most children, even in serious cases. The $180,000 it costs to keep a young offender in prison 10 years on an armed robbery can educate 45 boys in the public school for a year. If there is any way to avoid spending that $180,000 on one child, we should try it. There is ample research already to show that young offenders here can be rehabilitated, monitored and supervised in the community at a cost far less than the close to $500,000 per child it would cost to imprison that same child for 25 years as current law mandates. Crime and punishment is not what we should aspire to when we talk about children in the criminal justice system. The better identifier would be mistake and correction.”
By Chandra R. Thomas
Dublin, Ga. Juvenile Court Judge William Tribble, Sr. says he has plenty of work to keep him busy on the bench. Now’s he’s concerned that a new ordinance signed into law Tuesday banning saggy pants in the middle Georgia city might end up overloading an already jam-packed court docket.
“I can just see my assistant district attorney prosecuting a case like that,” says Tribble, who claims he spotted a young man in sagging pants on the streets of Dublin during his phone interview. “We’ll have a robbery and child molestation cases to handle and then there will be 20 baggy (pants) cases that we’ve got to get rid of. In the juvenile courts there are lots of serious issues going on with our kids. We’ve got to focus on that in court. The last thing we need is more business. We have plenty of it.”
The rule, passed unanimously by the seven-member city council, prohibits people from wearing pants or skirts more than three inches below the tops of the hips and exposing any skin or underwear below. Violators would be fined $25 for a first offense and $200 for an additional offense. Riviera Beach, Florida, and Flint, Michigan, passed similar bans in recent years. The Riviera Beach legislation later was declared unconstitutional after a court challenge.
“I just don’t see the cops running down the street after all of the sagging pants in town,” quips Tribble. “They’re going to need get a lot more police cars to enforce this.”
Dublin Mayor Phil Best has said that the rule promotes mutual respect because not everyone wants to see other people's underwear. Proponents of the measure say city leaders had no choice but to resort to legal action after fielding a rash of complaints from residents who say they’re offended by the fashion trend that is especially popular among teenagers and young adults. Opponents, however, say the new ordinance will be an enforcement nightmare for police, encourage racial profiling and ultimately tie up Dublin’s court system with minor infractions.
Sixteen-year-old Jardez Johnson, of Dublin, is a supporter.
“I think it’s good; people shouldn’t walk around with their underwear showing,” says Johnson of the trend wildly rumored to have been sparked well over a decade ago by prison inmates banned from wearing belts behind bars. “They should have more respect for adults. A lot of people at my school dress like that and they’re probably going to be mad about it. I don’t support that trend because I don’t like showing my drawers to other people like that.”
His father, Derrick Chatman, a Dublin native, agrees.
“I was hoping that particular style would have played out but it’s gotten progressively worse,” says Chatman, who runs an entertainment company and works in the advertisement department for a chain of Dublin radio stations. “It’s unfortunate that an ordinance had to be passed to get some control over this. I’m in the entertainment industry so I understand the hip-hop culture and style, but we’ve also got to think about the mother, or grandmother or little girl who has to see this (on the streets). It’s really gotten to be ridiculous!”
Chatman, however says, he was surprised the law passed because he did not consider sagging pants to be a particularly prevalent problem in Dublin. As for concerns raised about the potential for racial profiling, Chatman, who is African-American, says he’s not worried.
“I’m not concerned about racial profiling; I’m concerned that the youth of color won’t recognize that they’re setting themselves up for profiling by emulating the styles of entertainers whose lifestyle is nowhere near theres,” he says. “A lot of these kids aren’t the convicts or drug dealers who dress like this too. This (ordinance) is long overdue. There won’t be any problems (from the police) if you dress, I won’t say normally, because to a lot of these kids that is their norm. This won’t be a problem for the kids if they dress appropriately.”
Gary Johnson, a nearly two-decades long member of Dublin’s council, has said the ban is not a surreptitious form of racial profiling because the attire at issue is worn by all races.
American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia Executive Director Debbie Seagraves says such assertions couldn’t be further from the truth. She feels enforcement, particularly to whom and where the ordinance is enforced, could become problematic.
“In a society that has for over 200 years been race-based with a history of racial segregation and inequality, any law can become a law that results in racial profiling,” she says. “This dress style originated with young men in communities of color. While it is no longer restricted to those communities anymore it is often more prevalent there. The potential is there for this to lead to racial profiling.”
Seagraves says she shares Tribble’s concerns about overloading law enforcement and the court system with what should be considered a fashion choice.
“Lawmakers should not regulate style; that is not the role of the government,” she says. “This is not about exposing your body in public, this is about exposing your boxer shorts. This is about the government trying to take a role in saying what piece of cloth is okay to be seen in public – denim or cotton? Jeans or boxers?”
NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton agrees.
“It is fascinating that a city council would spend this amount of time and resources on something that is nothing more than just bad taste (in clothes),” says Shelton, who also serves as the civil rights organization’s vice president for advocacy and policy. “This is an issue of priorities when a city council chooses to focus on a fashion trend worn mostly by young black males rather than deal with the real issues in their community. We should stop trying to criminalize everything we don’t like.”
“Will law enforcement in Dublin be reduced to becoming the fashion police,” he asks. “Sagging pants are not a danger to society.”
Shelton says he’s also concerned that young violators who can’t pay their fines will end up with a criminal record.
“These are mostly teenagers who dress like this and they don’t have jobs,” he says. “What’s going to happen if they can’t pay it? Are they going to arrest them? Will there be bench warrants? This sets a dangerous precedence.”
Atlanta Councilman C. T. Martin is familiar with the brewing debate. He drew a firestorm of controversy in 2007 when he sponsored an amendment to the city’s indecency laws to ban sagging. The measure ultimately was downgraded to a resolution that asked adults to encourage young people to pull their pants up. Martin, however, says he received more than a million hits on a Website dedicated to the topic and he received calls from all over the world with people from Japan to Germany claiming they had similar problems in their community.
“A lot of (Atlanta) judges told me that (had it been passed) that they would have thrown out those cases because there’s no room for [the violators] in jail,” he says. “I would venture to say that in a small town it probably will be enforced. I don’t think the punitive part is a good idea. A lot of people don’t have the money to pay. My hope is that, at the least, it will generate a discussion about respect in that community.”
Dublin High School Assistant Principal Jamie Paulk says now that the ordinance has been approved, it’s everyone’s responsibility to observe the new law.
“If it’s a law we must follow it,” says Paulk, who also works with youth as Pastor of Living Faith Baptist Church in Dublin. “Do we always agree with every law? No. But there are always consequences for those who do not heed the law.”
Paulk is optimistic that the rule will be enforced equitably.
“I hope and pray that those who we have entrusted and elected to govern us will be fair and consistent in the enforcement of it,” he says. “It should not be enforced based on skin color. If not, then don’t enforce it at all.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.