It is time for youth justice reformers to stop and take stock of how we pursue justice.
The racial disparities that pervade our youth justice systems from beginning to end are not random occurrences. Rather, youth justice reformers can directly track the development of our justice policies to government control of populations largely seen as “other” by the white majority. As such, our work to shrink the system is insufficient if we do not fully confront the racist roots of the youth justice system itself.
Well before the first juvenile court was created at the turn of the 20th century, we used the court and prison system as a mechanism to perpetuate racism. During Reconstruction, our adult justice system was used as a means to extend slavery’s chains to freed black men who were picked up on newly passed vagrancy laws and other laws that comprised the “Black Codes” — criminal laws solely applicable to black citizens. These men were rented out to nearby coal mines and plantations under the forced labor of convict leasing programs.
This ability of our court and prison infrastructure to serve as a tool for the extension of slavery was enshrined in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which notably abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.”
It's upon this history that in 1899 in Chicago white women, emerging from the progressive settlement house movement, which provided education and services for poor immigrants, created our country’s first juvenile court. The court was a response to the growing evidence of the abuses in the "houses of refuge" — essentially detention centers for poor and immigrant youth — and the use of the adult justice system for children.
These women believed that these poor children — largely immigrant youth — who were unschooled, unsupervised, filling the city’s streets and getting in trouble with the law — often precisely because of their poverty — should be treated in age-segregated courts that would provide the child and family with a guiding hand and instill in them white, middle-class values.
The definitions of misconduct that could land a child in court were broad and, pursuant to the noteworthy judicial precept of “parens patriae,” judges were able to usurp all parental control over the children appearing before them, allowing the judges to impose wide-ranging interventions. From the very beginning, black youth were overrepresented in these courts — a source of concern for some black advocates, who recognized that there were insufficient social supports in communities for black youth.
As a result, we created a system that was practically tailor-made to oppress and contain youth of color. We can see a court system that was grounded in an imperialistic view that white middle-class people had the knowledge and obligation to improve the lives of "other" (even "inferior") people, the understanding that the state knew better than families and was authorized to act in their stead and a promise of rehabilitation that was built upon community services that were lacking or nonexistent for black youth.
That today our system exhibits dramatic racial and ethnic disparities and is party to inhumane and unconstitutional abuses of youth should not, therefore, be surprising.
Jumping ahead to the 1970s, after the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement, we witnessed white politicians stirring up the public’s fear of crime to gain political points and white votes. They tapped into deep-seated, perhaps subconscious, concerns among white populations about the precariousness of their own supremacy in the face of legally protected civil rights for blacks. To this end, we saw a rise of “public safety” candidates who latched onto periodic increases in crime and mythic “super-predators,” enabling the subsequent cancerous growth of our justice system.
Over the last 45 years we have witnessed a never-ending war on drugs, unprecedented prison growth (often at the expense of public education), “three strikes and you’re out” laws, civil asset forfeiture, the annual charging of hundreds of thousands of youth in the adult system, the use of solitary confinement as default housing for prisoners, gang injunctions and databases and so much more.
So where does this bring us to today? Our youth justice systems exhibit intractable racial disparities at every decision-making point. This, in spite of the fact that youth of color and white youth self-report similar rates of offending.
And horrifyingly, our web of laws and community surveillance have led to fully one-third of adult black men being under some sort of court control (prison, probation, parole). We see our justice system binding itself to the immigration enforcement bureaucracy by collaborating with ICE to enable increased deportations of immigrants, and we see police officers stationed in schools, facilitating the arrest and court-processing of “disruptive” youth of color. After a century-plus of juvenile court development, our youth justice system has become a well-tuned tool for social control of black and brown young people.
While substantial advances and reforms have been made in youth justice in recent years — including dramatic drops in youth incarceration (there are fully 50 percent fewer youth held in youth prisons than a decade ago), greater awareness of the dangers of the school-to-prison pipeline and an increase in local and state efforts to stem this tide, fewer youth transferred to the adult court and a decrease in the use of solitary confinement — significant racial disparities in the system persist.
It is still youth of color who wear electronic monitoring devices, who get arrested at school and who sit in lock-up. In fact, in many instances, the rate of racial disparities has increased as the overall numbers of youth in the system has decreased. It is important to note here, that while youth of color bear the brunt of our system’s yoke, there are other groups of marginalized people who suffer as well. Youth who are LGBTQI, disabled, girls, First Nations’ people and others are disproportionately ensnared in and maltreated by our youth justice systems.
So what now? For we who seek justice, what is our path forward?
If the roots, trunk and branches of our youth justice system have grown out of the forces of white supremacy, then it is white supremacy that must be confronted. And by white supremacy, I do not mean the people who chant Nazi slogans in support of Confederate statues, although they clearly are white supremacists. I mean the white supremacy that lives in the structures of our society, in our organizations and in ourselves.
It is white supremacist culture that allows the implicit bias against youth and adults of color to which we all fall prey. It is white supremacist culture that reinforces the power imbalances that determines who gets funded, who serves as executive directors of our nonprofits, who speaks at conferences and who informs our policies.
What are we doing right now to dismantle these power structures in how we seek change? How do we run our organizations? Who are our leaders? Who are our staff? Have we partnered with and supported youth and families who are most negatively affected by our youth justice systems? Have we connected with and supported related movements for racial justice? Who holds us accountable? These and other questions should form the basis of our work ahead.
Yes, we must and we will continue to pursue policies that shrink our system and make what remains fair and effective. But this work — difficult as it may be — is insufficient if our goal is true justice. We must also simultaneously pursue our work in anti-racist ways. There is no simple recipe for a transformed society; it’s a journey that we engage in individually and collectively. So, let’s begin.
NEW YORK — When Carlos Jennings got out of prison in 2014, he wanted to kill the person who helped put him there.
“I wasn’t home seven days after doing 10 years in jail, and I’m in the car with somebody else, with a gun in my hand, trying to do something to somebody,” he said.
He was 22 and deep in the narcotics business in Queens, New York, when he fatally shot a man who had previously shot him in a failed paid hit, according to Jennings. He eventually served 10 years for the murder. When he got out at 35, he wanted revenge against the person who gave him up to police. It was logical to him then, tit for tat.
“My normal thing was to get a gun and kill,” Jennings said.
But before he found his target, he met someone who changed his mind, and then his life.
Jennings was paroled to Long Island, where he had family. His parole officer advised that he go to meetings led by Risco Mention-Lewis, the Suffolk County deputy police commissioner. A small group, mostly men with criminal records, gathered each week to talk about what was going on in their lives.
Mention-Lewis called it the Council of Thought and Action. People who became members had astoundingly low recidivism rates.
Jennings remembers feeling that something was off with his thinking when he was released. He hadn’t seen his grandmother yet but he was already armed and ready to kill.
Mention-Lewis exploited the crack that had formed in his perception.
“She told me I had crazy house rules,” Jennings said. “The stuff I think is normal, people look at it as crazy.”
He listened. He kept going to the meetings. He was open with her — she asked him to promise that he wouldn’t kill again, and he said he couldn’t promise that. But he kept going to the meetings.
Jennings credits Mention-Lewis with saving his life and that of the person he was looking for. Now, two years later, he’s training to facilitate meetings. And he promised never to kill again.
“Coming to COTA and doing things positive, I can see now, like, above the cliff,” he said. “Like people hang on the cliff — I can see over the cliff, like yo, it’s a nice neighborhood here. So I’m just learning that and adjusting to it.”
“The idea is to build a new social moral network within the community,” Mention-Lewis said. “You want to reset the moral standard. You want the moral people to organize together so they can become more vocal than the criminals — people who are very visible in these neighborhoods. The very few criminals are more visible than the good and righteous. The work I do is trying to make the good and righteous more visible, which brings hope to the ones who are in the criminal world.”
Mention-Lewis was a prosecutor in Nassau County for nearly two decades until 2012, when she left in a crisis of conscience. Jailing people was failing to address what was driving them to commit crime, she said, and she didn’t want to keep contributing to the cycle.
She had founded COTA in 2008 as a grassroots movement — not a program, she’s quick to state — that she designed to rewire the thinking of the people whose behavior her office was supposed to punish. When she left the prosecutor’s office, she was offered a job as deputy police commissioner of neighboring Suffolk County. It felt like divine intervention, she said.
Mention-Lewis’ style is unique. She spends time in the streets, driving up to corners where trouble happens and getting to know the people who spend their time there. She visits the homes of young men who she knows are involved in criminal activity, sometimes intervening when a beef is brewing and could turn deadly. And every Wednesday she leads a COTA meeting in Wyandanch, a hamlet with the highest crime rate in the county.
She started working in Wyandanch in 2012. Since then, 150 people have attended at least three meetings, the only requirement to become a COTA member. Mention-Lewis checks for new arrests every six months. Among those with records, the recidivism rate is 10 percent, she said — a fraction of the 77 percent of people who are arrested nationally within five years of release from state prisons.
Crime decreased countywide in Suffolk over the past four years, but the drop has been most dramatic in Wyandanch. There were 15 percent fewer violent crimes last year than in 2012, and 31 percent less crime overall, according to the Suffolk County Police Department.
Despite this, Mention-Lewis insists that the crime rate is a flawed way to judge a community’s progress, in the same way that a person’s growth shouldn’t be measured by their lack of offenses. “It’s about individuals and groups of people changing their social networks, changing the way they think about life, and paying bills and raising productive children,” she said.
The meetings also act as networking events. Members share information about job training programs, openings with local unions and resources for developing hobbies like clothing design into small businesses. Just as personal hook-ups drew many into illegal money-making, they draw many away from it.
Mention-Lewis often goes into matchmaker mode, excitedly sharing names and numbers when an interest is proclaimed. Homeless COTA members have become homeowners and high school dropouts have graduated from colleges with honors.
While she rebuilds the community and its image of itself, she also tries to inspire new ways of thinking in her department. “They see how I can relate to people, and they see that there’s no harm in relating to some of these people that you never would have thought that you could even relate to,” Mention-Lewis said.
“... I guess what I’m trying to say to people is just because you lock them up doesn’t mean it goes along with treating them like a scumbag. I can lock you up for your behavior knowing that 90 percent of the time you’re not committing crimes,” she said. “And so I think building a new vision of communities and people — people of color in particular — makes for better policing, and I think that the precincts that have been working with me do see the value of the work.”
Inspector Mathew Lewis commands the precinct that covers Wyandanch. He agreed that a more intervention-based approach, which includes the meetings, is having success there. He noted the determination he said Mention-Lewis brings to her work. “She’s passionate about what she does, and you’ve got to respect somebody who’s passionate about something,” he said. “And I do enjoy working with her because of that.”
Mention-Lewis spent her early childhood in Boston’s predominantly African-American Roxbury neighborhood, then moved to the mostly white town of Hanson, Massachusetts when she was 11. “I was tough when I was in the other neighborhood, and when I moved to Hanson I had to learn that fighting was unacceptable,” she said. “So I learned that there were two cultures.”
Bridging them helped prepare her for the two worlds she now straddles. Mention-Lewis is the first black woman to have her job in Suffolk. The rest of the department’s top brass are white men.
Chief Stuart Cameron and his colleagues had to adjust to their new superior getting personally acquainted with local troublemakers. “It’s very unusual to have a deputy commissioner that’s out amongst the people like she is,” he said. “I mean, she’s really out — she’s out on the street corner, she’s out talking to people all the time. And a lot of the people she’s talking with are people that we have dealt with in the past and maybe even arrested. At first you’re like, why is this going on, why’s she doing this? But then when you understand what she’s doing and you see that it reaps results, it’s hard not to accept it.”
Mention-Lewis once explained criminals in a way that was a revelation to Cameron. “Their lives are lives of fear,” he said. “And I never even gave that any thought, what criminals think. You know, I just saw my role in the police department as: Someone commits a crime, you identify them, you arrest them and you try and put them in jail. So if a criminal’s afraid, they would definitely potentially be receptive to another law-abiding lifestyle where they don’t have to live in fear.”
Mention-Lewis describes crime as a flawed solution to valid problems, and describes herself as a problem-solver.
“Sometimes people see crime as a reflection of a person’s true self, but I see crime as a system that we use because we’re poor problem-solvers,” she said. “So if you have a person in your life who’s a good problem-solver, you’re much less likely to rely on crimes to solve your problems.”
Police Commissioner Timothy Sini called his deputy “a weapon” who uses her charisma to advance cutting-edge intervention strategies. He said many in the department value an approach that isn’t all cat and mouse.
“In some ways, they’ve been doing this, just not as formalized and not as deliberate,” Sini said. “The notion of sort of approaching someone because you think they may be the victim of or associated with crime, that’s not unique. Just the way that Commissioner Lewis has set up the structure and used evidence-based practices, there’s just always so much more utility to it.”
One strategy is custom notifications. A shooting victim or their friends or relatives might be primed for revenge. Sometimes enough is known about a situation but there isn’t enough evidence to make an arrest. Mention-Lewis shows up at the home of the person or people in question. She is accompanied by a small team, typically two officers, two supervisors and someone from the community who has respect and credibility. They bring an official letter from Sini spelling out the consequences of any further criminal activity.
“Basically saying you’re not anonymous, we know who you are, we know what you’re up to,” Sini said. “You’re going to end up in jail or worse, hurt or killed, and there’s a better way. And she tries to connect them to resources to get their lives back on track, and sometimes that will be COTA.”
That’s one of the ways Mention-Lewis compels young men who live on the edges of society into her discussion forums. She also visits inmates.
“They can’t say, ‘Hey, I never got a chance, I never got a shot,’” she said. “How many deputy police commissioners come visit you in jail?”
In the meetings, she chips away at systems of perception and reaction that people have built for themselves. She uses the existing motivators in most people who engage in illegal enterprises to introduce new concepts:
The individual as a corporation, their own chief executive officer, who should have a board of advisers for wise counsel.
The imposter, or the misrepresentation of oneself by aggression, deceit or otherwise, which has outlived any purpose it evolved to deal with and now causes self-destruction.
The rocks in the backpack — emotional traumas, often inflicted at an early age, that emanate from a reservoir of pain and play a false and negative tape in their host’s mind.
Mention-Lewis has a propensity for one-liner wisdom. “The strongest man you know is a woman,” she often says.
“The universe is always conspiring for your success,” she repeats at every meeting.
Meetings are attended by regulars, newcomers and some who check in every so often. Local politicians, social workers, uniformed police officers, professionals of many stripes — people hear about the meetings and drop in, sometimes at Mention-Lewis’ invitation and often by word of mouth. Sini has sat in.
“I found it extremely empowering, and relevant,” he said. “It’s for anyone. Certainly we’re targeting people who are at risk, because that’s the whole idea, but I benefited from it, you know? You’re talking about your feelings and thoughts and where you want to be in life and how to get there. There’s the famous saying that Commissioner Lewis is always saying: your rocks in the backpack. So it’s incredibly helpful for professionals, and it’s particularly helpful for folks who need that guidance.”
Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, knows Mention-Lewis and has sat in on a COTA meeting. Jacobs recognized in COTA aspects of workshops she’s taken to improve her own personal habits, “and was always curious where Risco had kind of figured this out, and how she had kind of made it available to people,” she said.
Jacobs added that any ongoing supportive community that is owned by the people it supports is powerful. “And the kinds of concepts, or precepts, that underlie COTA are — I mean, in my own life, I’ve kind of discovered — are the secrets of the universe,” she said.
She praised its focus on participants’ strengths and ambitions rather than their deficiencies. “Like, ‘Those people need something,’” she said. “A lot of us have problems with that and balk at that.”
A trap with such things is what Buddhists call spiritual materialism, she said, “where you take something that can be a really powerful practice, but you make it into ‘a thing’ — a thing that makes you right because you do it and somebody else wrong because they don’t,” Jacobs said. “Anything can devolve into a thing if you let it, and that would be a hazard in this too.”
It is to avoid the pitfalls that programs fall into that Mention-Lewis calls COTA a movement. If a newcomer utters the word program in a meeting, Mention-Lewis calls out, “Are we a program?” to which the room responds in unison with a resounding, “Movement!”
The movement’s biggest challenge is how it will grow. Jacobs said COTA shares elements of other initiatives that have had success, usually because of a charismatic leader or a treatment program that is carefully designed and applied. But both models are limited in scale by what makes them successful — a leader can’t teach their charisma and a good program loses its potency if it isn’t administered properly. The uniqueness that makes a phenomenon special is what makes it difficult to replicate.
“How do you share it in other settings when Risco isn’t going to be the one convening the meeting and modeling the behavior of leadership?” Jacobs said.
But COTA has spread since Jacobs visited, to three more communities on Long Island. The facilitators who run them are group members who volunteered, and are trained continuously by Mention-Lewis. She sustains the network on $60,000 a year from the state, which is divided between a case manager and an outreach worker. There are also five sites in Chicago, started in 2014: three in high schools and two adult sites, one of them inside a detention center. The city spends $400,000 annually to fund them; $80,000 for each site.
That kind of expansion means Mention-Lewis is figuring out how to make it work, Jacobs said, adding that COTA seems to be a hybrid between the fraught extremes of charismatic leader and strict program adherence. She has decoded cognitive behavioral therapy for people of any education level, Jacobs said, and is teaching others to do the same.
Another potential problem is the toxicity of participants who don’t want to be there. COTA isn’t mandated and it has no rules that can get a person kicked out, which helps ensure that its participants are motivated.
A motivational structure is key, according to Richard Gray, a psychologist and former federal probation officer who developed a celebrated treatment program for offenders with substance abuse disorders. “It seems that there are many participants who run with the opportunity and take advantage of the counseling provided,” he said. “So there is a behavior distinction made to separate the unmotivated from the motivated. Good call.”
Members tend to have home groups, but will travel to others. Malik Roberts, 20, met Mention-Lewis seven years ago in Hempstead, New York, where she founded the first group. He was in and out of trouble, and once served eight months in the county jail for burglary and assault charges. He now has a steady job and mentors teens. “Before COTA, I was ripping and running,” he said, “but now I just be chilling and getting my life back on track.”
Jacob Key, 20, of Wyandanch, got involved four years ago when Mention-Lewis enlisted him to help bring in other young people. “You can go there and be comfortable,” he said.
After leaving his first meeting in April, Kion Carter, 23, said he would go back. “Obviously, nobody likes cops. You’re standing in the middle of a known town that’s known for drugs and guns, you know?” he said. “Me personally — she’s a strong lady. She took it further than just being a cop. She looks at it as other people are in trouble and nobody else is putting their neck out there to help.”
Mention-Lewis focuses her energies on transforming Wyandanch by an evolution of consciousness, and looks for people who can steer the groups the way she can. “I think you have to have an innate wisdom to do this,” she said.
She entrusted the Chicago chapter to Charles Perry, 51. They met at a workshop organized by the National Network for Safe Communities. Perry served 19 years of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell cocaine. He got a college degree in federal prison and started rethinking his life. He did volunteer work when he got out and landed a job doing reentry work with released prisoners.
Perry said he found in COTA what he always felt was missing in the work he was doing. “What struck me was the language. The first part was that we should see ourselves as a corporation. That’s something that I had always thought about,” he said. “It meant that you were in charge of something larger than yourself. So when I started reading over COTA and listening to Ms. Risco, I said, ‘This is it.’”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visited a meeting once and told Perry she could only stay 45 minutes. “She stayed the whole two hours,” Perry said, “and then stayed another 30 minutes engaging the participants.”
And new adult participants react no differently, he said: “They come in and they’re just there because it’s part of the reentry process that they’re going through, but by the time they reach eight to 10 weeks, they’re telling you how this has impacted their lives — how they’re making better decisions, how they’re understanding that the way they react in certain situations really wasn’t them, but it was the imposter that was inside of them, and now they’re learning to control the imposter and be the president of their own corporation.”
Perry added that the verdict is still out on how young people will take to it. They’re not tired of consequences yet, he said.
Mention-Lewis said she’s undaunted by youthful folly. They require more intensity and communication, but it’s still a matter of pursuing them by helping them pursue their dreams. “This knowledge can change the world,” she said.
It has already changed the world for Carlos Jennings. “What I’ve learned is you have a choice,” he said, then paused. “The most valuable thing, I think, is love. I’m gonna be honest with you. True, unconditional love.”
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The close of 2012 focused so narrowly on terrible events and startling numbers - the Newtown massacre, for example, or Chicago’s sharp rise in homicides - some major criminal justice developments were nearly squeezed out of the national conversation.
Take the statements made just over a week ago by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who vowed to take on the tricky issue of the skewed racial picture in the county’s corrections and justice system, including within the juvenile justice system.
Speaking to a group of reporters, the news – including a statement that she will “work with the actors in the public safety arena” to lessen the overall corrections population and push alternatives to locking up non-violent offenders – the story got little more than a day’s play on the airwaves and in other media. Always outspoken, the board president served many years as an alderman fighting for various social justice causes, including race and drug issues (she at one point challenged the validity of any national “war on drugs”).
So in saying she would lasso the needed parties to lessen the numbers entering the corrections populations, and continuing the pitch to rid Cook of the juvenile system as currently set up, Preckwinkle made news. The numbers, so often repeated, were underscored in her talk: “The last time I checked,” she said, “68 percent of the people in our jail were African American - or double their proportion in the overall county population. Translated, she is attempting to answer a criminal justice and societal problem that has stymied policymakers, academics and law enforcement, among others, for decades.
And yet, like so much news at the turn of the year, it was swallowed by national news of tragedy, the fiscal crisis and President Barack Obama’s cabinet changes, and the play didn’t last long.
Also struggling to gain traction was a push by advocates, politicians and the courts to tip the balance of juvenile justice away from harsh punishment to rehabilitation. But to do so, Preckwinkle’s promise to fix local correction’s racial imbalance, weighted so heavily against blacks and Hispanics, would have to be addressed.
In Shelby County, Tenn., the problem was so profound it recently invited a federal settlement to remedy it. Still, the problem of Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) continues to plague minority populations.
DMC, the racial tilt of the criminal justice system, is a long-running issue for many civil rights and advocacy organizations who have put out conflicting studies over the years that compete over the reasons, including low educational achievement and high unemployment among minorities, and urban environments with more open-air criminal conduct where the crime is more easily spotted by police (unlike in suburban and rural areas).
“For so long we’ve invested in building up these institutions (jails, juvenile courts, detention centers) at the detriment of investing in communities and social services, especially in the neighborhoods where [detained] folks are coming from,” said Tshaka Barrows, deputy director of the San Francisco-based Burns Institute, a national non-profit aiming, with law enforcement and community leaders, to erase racial disparity. “And that’s not a productive way of engaging your citizenry. We as a society really need to invest in education, housing infrastructure, etc., because that investment matters, as we see on the justice side.”
The trick is to speed the process and, perhaps, start to eradicate a stain on the system – one that has drawn an increasing volume of suits, legislation, and community pushes to inject balance in a system that too often spins out black and Hispanic minors who are further traumatized by prison, highly unemployable, and lacking a decent education to break the school-to-prison pipeline.
Cycle of Poverty, Incarceration Systemically Tied
Black youth make up 17 percent of the overall youth population in the United States, but they make up 30 percent of arrested juveniles and 62 percent of minors prosecuted in the adult criminal system, according to the D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice.
A look at Illinois shows black youth represent 85 percent of the juvenile justice population, according to the Cook County Circuit Court, even though they only represent one-fifth of the state’s youth population.
The problem was accelerated by the high-crime decades of the 1980s and 1990s that introduced severe laws targeting minors to stem a suspected “superpredator” generation that never came to pass. Youth prisons were built. Now they’re empty. Schools placed more and more police officers or guards in schools, something that is now on the map again following Newtown. Now there are studies claiming the presence of more security in the schools has only worsened the problem.
percent of that population is black - and year-to-year stats put the black population in juvenile dentition at roughly 75 percent of the total, which includes about 15 percent to 18 percent Hispanics and 7 percent white.
"Why,” asked the board president in Cook County, which covers Chicago, “is there a disproportionate number of black children in the JTDC and what does it say about the way we police our communities?"
Very often, police, called out to crime dens on Chicago’s South and West Sides, sweep streets or target large areas to clear them of crime and blunt the prospects of violent gang reprisals. In doing so, they snatch up a large percentage of black and Hispanic youth, who are most likely to be stuck in the cycle of poverty and poor education that so feeds the criminal justice system.
"It's not necessarily true," she said, "that the more people you arrest, the safer the community you have. And you're more likely to end up in secure juvenile detention if you are African American and display the same behaviors as someone of another race."
Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized the disparity, and taken measures to address it, be it for drugs or other felonies that could land youngsters in adult court. But it’s been a tough, often losing fight.
For example, take drug arrests of minors – a push to tackle a problem that quickly drove incarceration rates up dramatically. But recent studies show states’ recent decriminalization of some use of marijuana – including in California – has already resulted in a downward spiral in youth crime rates.
Already, pot bars are starting to grow up in that state, while others consider following its lead, and still others, including Illinois, are working on laws to ease restrictions on medical marijuana. Also, cops in Chicago have started focusing on greater stashes to justify arrests – meaning fewer people are arrested, and therefore jailed.
Indeed, in California, 2011 saw a 61 percent drop since 2010 of youth arrests for marijuana possession, according to a recent report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The new state law reducing that offense from a misdemeanor to an infraction directly affects juvenile detention numbers, as drug arrests are the leading cause of youth confinement.
What remains to be seen is whether the racial and ethnic disparities of those arrests will also drop. Experts hesitate to be too optimistic considering the institutionalized disparities in America’s juvenile justice system. As with most crimes, minorities aren’t more prone to drug use or drug possession than whites. Nevertheless, minorities count for a disproportionate number of drug arrests.
In 2009, the rate for drug violation arrests for black juveniles was twice the white rate, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Black youth are also much more likely (48 times more likely in 2001, and the numbers haven’t budged much since) than white youth to be incarcerated in an adult prison after a first-time drug arrest.
Laws such as California's are attempting to hit this issue from the policy level. But many of the ground-level factors contributing to DMC are not adequately addressed, according to experts in the field.
New York City police statistics show that between 2005 and 2010, police made 2.5 million stops. Of those, 90 percent were people of color and 90 percent did not result in legal action.
“The police are a critical part of the juvenile justice decision-making system and are afforded far more discretion than any other formal agent of social control, but researchers have paid surprisingly little attention to contacts between police and citizens, especially juveniles,” according to criminal justice professor Alex Piquero of the University of Maryland-College Park.
Piquero, in research dating to 2008, said police act as the “gatekeepers” to juvenile courts, and if their decisions are somehow race-based, minorities will continue to be overrepresented in the corrections system.
“The first step is to really address the use of data within jurisdictions … to look at [the numbers] regularly enough to help drive the way people make decisions,” Barrows said.
For example, jurisdictions look at how many kids in juvenile detention centers are from a particular geographic area. In Chicago, the concentration is on the heavily minority neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.
Other standards include the study of race, ethnicity, gender and offense. After assessing it, the idea is to monitor the data and reform the responses and thinking practices that have contributed to systematic disparity.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was created by – and is directed by – the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. Providing a federal grant program, it requires participant states to address DMC through a data-driven approach. This calls for states and communities to assess their DMC levels and develop mitigation initiatives.
However, many in the system, including experts, the affected minors, teachers and law enforcement, say the nearly 40-year-old law has little teeth. As a result, communities nationwide are using increasingly innovative measures to tackle DMC.
Recent models use community interveners or mentors to talk to kids directly, attempting to de-escalate a situation through an adult rather than automatically resorting to detention.
This model attempts to connect probation clients to community-based resources and services to avoid recidivism usually caused by ineffective, cyclical, punitive measures. Such initiatives are examples of what Barrows calls a “renaissance” of community engagement and partnership approaches in dealing with racial and ethnic disparities.
However, with today’s Congressional push for spending cuts – as well as ongoing budget deficits at the state level, especially in Illinois – juvenile justice funding has taken a back seat to other, more popular or welcome projects.
"Our big concern right now has to do with the cuts to juvenile justice funding, part of which gets used to make sure [states] comply with JJDPA,” said Benjamin Chambers, National Juvenile Justice Network spokesman. “Without those resources, they don’t have to comply. And that’s a slippery slope.”
Bureau editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this report.
Ambitious and certain to draw criticism, President Barack Obama’s plan to rid the nation of the most powerful weapons on the market and attempt to arrest mass and everyday shootings was expected by Congress Wednesday, marking a sharp turn in a decades-long fight to curb America’s gun violence.
As the debate was playing out in Washington, several local and national leaders gathered at the University of Chicago Tuesday evening to discuss guns and policy, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city holds the dubious “murder capital” title, among the group and pushing sweeping gun control legislation that cracks down on assault weapons. Also on the panel was Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who this week said that the National Rifle Association’s recent assertion that Congress would not enact the sort of change that Obama and others were pressing, was off base. In fact, he said, real legislation will squeeze through the legislative process and signal real change in the nation’s laws and gun dialogue. Also in attendance was the head of the University of Chicago CrimeLab, who noted that while the United States has managed to improve its count of more common crime – property theft, etc. – we are dubiously at the top in terms of violence.
While this played out, the NRA issued statements condemning the actions of New York lawmakers over a sweeping move late Monday-early Tuesday to ban assault and other high-powered weapons while also addressing the difficult, more open issue of mental illness. This comes after media reports over the past week showing that mental illness is, seemingly, not often considered by gun dealers when selling weapons in this nation.
So even as Washington remains center stage this week in the fight to curb gun violence, increase purchase-point background checks, better mind the mental health of buyers and put tighter limits on the legal gun market - a rights and safety battle that has gone on for decades but whose profile was fast raised by last month’s Newtown school massacre – the ramifications were fast cascading through the country.
Here, in Illinois – and, more narrowly, high-crime Cook County and Chicago – most of the political bigs have joined in a loud call to end the bloodshed that claimed upwards of 500 lives last year. In fact, Cook County, even before the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the gunman and his mother, was on to a somewhat different and unique idea: Tax bullets and filter that money into hospitals to care for those wounded by gunfire. The slayings also counted some 100 minors among the victims – and many teenagers are also counted among the suspects or those arrested in the slayings.
Also in Illinois, the battle over concealed-carry permits or licenses has restarted after a state ban was recently declared unconstitutional. Before Illinois lifted the ban, 49 states had already allowed people to carry firearms with a permit.
According to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the decision to allow people to carry concealed weapons would actually decrease violence, noting most mass shootings such as the Newtown shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, CO earlier last year occurred in gun-free zones, where citizens were not allowed to have guns.
“So these gun-free zones become magnets for thugs and crazy people to attack other people because they know they can’t defend themselves,” Pearson said.
Although it is too early to see the impact of the lift, Illinois’ youth is deeply affected by firearms and, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the state ranks among the top 10 in per capita gun-related homicide rates among children and teens.
And, as with other cities and states, policymakers here – as well as academics, editorialists, grassroots organizations and established institutions – Newtown was the impetus for upping the volume and speed of the political and everyday conversation on guns.
But while big names like Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, drew much of the attention here – there is more focus growing up around Preckwinkle’s gun and bullet taxes. Preckwinkle, who also wants to ban assault weapons and joins Emanuel and Quinn at events on the issue, has been pushing twin taxes since October. The tax on gun purchases has passed and new restrictions take effect in April, with a planned $25 tax on firearm purchases to help pay for the sharp costs of public health and public safety. With the money raised, the county plans to shift $2 million toward violence prevention, intervention and reduction.
What remains an open question is whether the other proposal – to tax bullets and ammunition for these guns – will also get the nod and take effect to offset medical costs even more.
According to Cook County spokesman Owen Kilmer, the expected funds derived from the gun tax will primarily go to non-profit organizations that have known experience in violence prevention. At least $100,000 of the total will go towards education, enforcement, and straw purchases, or firearms purchased legally but then used for criminal activity.
Also, a seven-member advisory board at the county level will not only oversee the $2 million but also seek out effective models of gun control, and study the possible addition of a youth component.
But violence has always been a problem in Chicago with 2,051 shootings occurring in 2011 and about 700 more last year.
Chicago and Cook County residents met news of the tax and violence prevention pushes with as much skepticism as hope.
Those interviewed for the story, and polled by local media, apparently see the problem as less to do with the availability of guns, and more to do with youth falling through the cracks in the justice and child welfare systems, with broken families that, perhaps unintentionally, spin youth into the open arms of gangs through neglect, violence, and the chaos of troubled households.
With the tax still a couple of months off, there is no good way go gauge it’s potential. Yet, there are those like Briceson William, 28, a graduate of Austin High School on Chicago’s troubled West Side, who said the real problem lies with unemployment, deep poverty, poorly planned housing – and law enforcement, who, according to some crime and academic studies, are quick to throw minors in jail, crippling their opportunity to earn a decent living.
Mark Iris, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, attributes the high number of youth in jail to zero-tolerance policies here and elsewhere in the nation that criminalize ordinary classroom misbehavior. Taken with the high number of police in schools after the high-crime 1980s and 1990s – an issue given greater profile after Newtown – the zero-tolerance policies have, according to many of the same studies, created an atmosphere in schools where police interactions and quick responses to students and disciplinary problems have raised the number of police-juvenile interactions and, consequently, trips to police stations, courts, and even juvenile detention.
In fact, juvenile detention in Chicago has been a topic for debate. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”
According to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.
Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training. Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to be realized.
For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.
“[When] in a juvenile center of some sort, or juvenile detention setting, it’s certainly going to disrupt [the youth’s] school progress, and realistically for many of these youths, they would have been at risk, [in a] disadvantaged position anyway,” Iris said.
“We can put the guns down if we get money, jobs,” William said. “[The government] gives us nothing to do. We’re sitting around twiddling our fingers all day long with nothing to do, looking at each other, walking down the street daily. I mean, something’s bound to happen.”
Angela Reavers, 36, an accountant from the South Side of Chicago, agreed that violence spins from a vicious cycle – one that often begins with the justice system or the child welfare system. And once a child is caught up in that system, the crossover between child welfare and justice is frequent and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free to a kind of normal life.
For her part, Reavers said, many times when young men and women are released from jail, they aren’t rehabilitated or given the proper tools to find a job. According to a 2006 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, the system is weighted heavily against blacks and Hispanics as white youth tend to have better access to programs and services.
Locked into this cycle, they many times ask themselves, “What do I do to live, to eat?” and in search of money, head out to the streets to find a way to provide for themselves. According to William, this plight was not only his, but many other’s as well.
After winning back his freedom, William said he has had to “hustle,” or sell whatever items he can find: clothes, socks, and shoes. “I gotta eat,” he said.
And so the lure of community in gangs becomes all the more appealing. Reavers said much of the violence and feeling of separation that feeds the gang network stems from a lack of a father figure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report, 51.2 percent of African American children in one-parent families lived with their mothers, whereas 3.5 percent of children in single-parent families lived with their fathers.
“Young men go to gangs because their fathers are not at home,” said Reavers, explaining the youth’s need for a sense of family. “And to a certain extent, gangs care; that’s what [youth] are looking for.”
But despite his conviction that Chicago has failed its youth and his belief that gun violence will only increase, William acknowledges that improvements have been made to better the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.
“I see they’re starting to [do] a lot of after school programs and stuff like that,” William said. “That’s good.”
Just across the street from where William and his friends spent the afternoon, East Garfield’s Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School offers after-school work-study programs for its students to learn basic job-finding skills. Students like Marcus Hallam, 18, a senior, leave class early in order to attend a program where students are taught skills such as interviewing techniques. He is preparing to apply to colleges and possibly seek a sports scholarship.
Despite the acceleration of laws and talk and promises after such a violent year in Chicago, and the Sandy Hook tragedy, finding a solution to gun violence remains daunting. Small steps might be the answer, according to some observers, and Cook County’s proposals to tax weapons to raise funds for uninsured victims of shootings, which make up about 70 percent of victims, could prove a concrete start.
But, this too was met with some hesitancy, as William said he sees no clear purpose to the tax. “People [are] still going to get shot. [The politicians] [are] only taxing them for money [purposes], for their purpose, for their pockets. They aren’t taxing them for our pockets, [there isn’t any] money coming out here for us. The politicians in Illinois are untruthful, can’t be trusted.”
What many say is most important is that violence – chiefly that committed with firearms – needs to be stopped for upcoming generations. Termaine Johnson, 16, is a sophomore at Crane Tech. While he sees the county’s tax push as a “nice” way to raise revenues for gunshot victims, ultimately what he wants is an end to the violence that so bloodies Chicago and hurts the reputation of a city that is otherwise so prominent in business and culture.
“People…dying left and right…for nothing,” he said. “I just wish it could stop.”
This story appears in The Chicago Bureau. Bureau Editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this story.
CHICAGO -- It was rare news in a summer filled with frightening crime statistics, equally alarming headlines and a mayor and police superintendent on the defensive: For the month of July, killings in this city were down 11 percent from the same period last year, with the number of homicides for the month at 49.
But such news matters little to people like Shirley Askew, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, whiling away days playing in the streets and city parks. And it means little when the overall homicide rate for the year is still up nearly 27 percent. Many children are scared; they’re kept indoors, and, in a very real sense, locked out of their childhoods.
Now 59, with four sons and four grandsons, Askew indeed worries about the increasing neighborhood violence that threatens local children’s safety. Just Thursday afternoon, not far from where Askew spoke with reporters, two 16-year-old boys were gunned down and another wounded.
“God knows I wouldn’t want to go back and be a child again,“ she said, “Boy, I just feel so bad for them, because they have nowhere to play, nowhere they can go to without somebody fighting and shooting everything up.”
Askew, who was selling snow cones outside a convenience store on North Avenue, said this summer seems more violent than the last because she hears about shootings just about every day. This environment is rough for children, she added, growing quiet as a young girl and her father approached the stand.
“These babies don’t have a chance,” Askew said, watching the pair walk away with their fruit punch flavored cone.
City officials put a good face on the crime numbers that were reported in the local media Thursday. But they acknowledged the city has a long way to go to halt the killings. Through the end of July there were 308 homicides in Chicago - still far above last year's total of 243 for the same period.
Strategies borrowed from the playbook that saw New York’s crime rate plummet from a high in the mid-1990s, known as the broken-windows program, have been implemented in some cases here. The police target even minor crimes to chip away at the more headline-grabbing murders that have so marred this summer.
Some residents say much of the violence is due to gang disputes in various pockets of the city. Michael Lee, 54, also from the West Side, said he hears shots once or twice a week.
“We’re wary about walking down the streets, sending our kids to the store and letting them out of the house,” he said.
Lake View High School student Destinee Davis, 17, said the July Fourth holiday seemed to mark the height of violence so far this summer, when she could not distinguish between fireworks and gunshots.
While Davis said it is difficult, with violence so rampant, to tell if this summer is any worse than previous years, she said she has witnessed a number of muggings. She said her cousin, who lives with Davis, has been jumped three times this year.
“It makes me scared to go out,” she said as she stood waiting for her bus.
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hosted a congressional briefing on the 2011 documentary film “The Interrupters.”
Sponsored by the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, the briefing featured statements from Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and a panel discussion featuring Alex Kotlowitz, the producer of “The Interrupters” and author of the book “There Are No Children Here.”
“The Interrupters” focused on Chicago’s CeaseFire movement, a grassroots project in which members of communities seek to reduce acts of youth violence through localized, concentrated intervention programs.
CeaseFire employs “violence interrupters,” community members who work with youth in high-violence areas, to pinpoint and prevent potential crimes before they transpire. Two “violence interrupters,” Cobe Williams and Ameena Matthews, were present at the ACLU’S briefing in Washington, D.C.
The event drew the attention of a diverse group of attendees, including high school principals, public health officials, law professors and congressional staff. Congressman Scott hailed the Youth PROMISE Act -- proposed legislation that would provide funding for comprehensive, community-based intervention programs, such as CeaseFire -- as a potential means of curbing street gang activity and juvenile delinquency.
The Youth PROMISE Act -- officially titled the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education Act -- would provide funding for evidence-based practices regarding the prevention of juvenile delinquency and gang activity.
The bipartisan-sponsored bill would also amend the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 by creating a Youth PROMISE advisory panel to aid the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
“Nothing in the Youth PROMISE Act eliminates any of the current tough on crime laws,” Rep. Scott stated in a recent editorial on his website. “And while it is understood that law enforcement will still continue to enforce those laws, research tells us that no matter how tough we are on the people we prosecute today, unless we are addressing the underlying root causes of criminal activity, nothing will change.”
Tallying Chicago’s violence during the first half of 2012, including a 39 percent jump in murders, it can be difficult to get what criminologist Tracy Siska is talking about.
True, the streets are bloodied by gang warfare, said Siska, head of the Chicago Justice Project, an independent, non-profit research group that analyzes criminal justice data. The numbers don’t lie; there had been 260-plus murders through the end of June, up 72 over the same period last year. And overnight Tuesday, two girls 12, and 13, became the latest child victims of the gunfire here. Neither were thought to be intended targets, but rather were victims of errant gunfire just days after the release of a University of California Davis study showing the prevalence of stray-bullet victims.
But Siska has argued much of the media is playing the hype game, skewing reality for Chicagoans or observers by screaming with headlines about more city children getting murdered this public school year than any year since 2008 – the first full year of the recession – and countless stories of overnight mayhem suffered in many Chicago neighborhoods.
There has been a parade of stories – ones Siska would agree should and must be told. But lost is perspective, he said. There’s a breathless quality to the pieces, Siska argued, and the city has gotten panicky with headlines like this in the Chicago Tribune on June 29: “Girl slain selling candy is latest victim of Chicago’s homicide surge” – or this banner from the Sun-Times on July 8: “Chicago Under Fire: This is Genocide.”
His point is not to cut slack to city officials, who are getting an earful from key aldermen, other lawmakers, community groups, residents and the media. This is their city; they chose the spotlight and need to deal with the glare.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged as much in a recent interview with CBS: “I can’t create an island… So the decisions in Washington do matter. But where I used to as a mayor rely on Washington, I’m going to try to come up with different strategies to do a break out, because I’m not going to get stuck in their disfunctionality, and I’m not going to get caught in the fact that the state, they have their own budget issues.”
For police Supt. Garry McCarthy’s part, he told reporters this week that while crime is certainly down – and by a lot – since the peak in 1994, when there were nearly 950 murders, he is not satisfied by his own watch. Crime is sliding, he said, and progress is being made. But McCarthy said he wouldn’t call it success at this point.
Siska wants the stories to include context – such as putting some of the blame for an overall jump in homicides from year to year on the warm winter months that stretched the average killing season. Still, he acknowledges it’s difficult to ignore comparisons that put Chicago’s crime – a calculation that factors high poverty, low educational attainment, sharp class divides and stubborn segregation – in a harsh light. Take, for example, Houston, he said. It has a similar number of residents spread over a larger area with a much lower crime and murder rate and less than half the number of officers policing the city.
As well, Siska and some police on the street worry the public relations throttling of Mayor Emanuel and police Supt. McCarthy is forcing officials, locally and on national television, to make big promises and be far too reactionary in planning a combat strategy. Among other things, the city plans to invest $4 million to shore up deteriorating businesses and buildings that attract squatters, dealers and violence; a $1 million grant to the controversial CeaseFire group made famous in the documentary “The Interrupters;” and the training of about 500 new officers.
Gone are the days of quick-hit strike forces that swarmed gang and violence hotspots and became such a signature of Chicago policing under previous superintendents. In their place are more patrols – a slower, get-to-know-you strategy that, according to some officers and experts, could pay dividends down the line by familiarizing residents and cops that police them but lacks the fast fix that seems so needed now.
“I have no evidence we are under or short on cops,” says Siska, who said the number of sworn Chicago cops is actually lower than the 13,500 on the books. “If we are, someone is going to have to prove to me that there was some study that detailed the exact number of officers Chicago is supposed to have based on calculations dealing with crime, population shifts, calls for service, etc.”
The reasoning recalls a speech by McCarthy soon after NATO held its summit here in late May – when flare-ups between protestors and police got widespread attention, and just as the violence seemed to be boiling. Standing before a crowd of moneyed and influential guests at the Chicago Club, McCarthy said Chicago was facing a “perception problem,” that focused too much on the negative without giving good results – such as drops in most major crime categories – their due.
Siska would get some agreement from Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University Chicago. Both echo a study by the Justice Policy Institute that found more police does not equal less crime – and in fact, could swell court costs as minor offenses arrested to blunt the major crime clog an already full court system.
“There’s not a powerful point-by-point linear relationship between number of police officers and crime rate,” Lurigio said. “It’s more complicated than that… You can expect that if you add more and more police, streets will get safer and safer and safer. And there’s also trade-offs. I’m not saying this about Chicago because I think Chicago’s been under-staffed, but if you add enough police officers to the force, then you start encroaching upon people’s liberties, police presences could be regarded as intrusive, unfriendly, creating a view of the public that they’re being scrutinized unnecessarily and excessively by the police.”
The bigger issue, according to Siska, Lurigio and some police supervisors, as well as cops on the beat, is deployment – an issue that is touched on but not factoring large into the debate or frenzy over the spike in killings.
“Its not only how many police officers you add to the force,” Lurigio said, “but where you assign them and what you assign them to do that really makes a difference. So adding new police officers I think is a good idea, but where you assign them, and the kinds of activities that they engage in, is equally as important as the actual numbers.”
One supervisor said many of the moves by the Mayor’s office and police brass is PR that will come back to haunt the city going forward. McCarthy’s training of up to 500 new officers, for example, won’t show a real impact for another year – long after this season of violence has passed – since it usually takes six months to complete the academy, and officers are then assigned for 12 weeks to field training officers to get a feel for the beat.
“You have some people [at the training academy] with very minimal time on the job and streets teaching new recruits,” he said. “Instructors should be rotated in an out of the academy to keep their skills updated. Sending them out for a week here and there for Operation Protect Youth doesn’t cut it.”
Adding to the problem, this supervisor said, is that police are defeating their own argument against specialized quick-strike units by how the new officers are used.
“They started doing it, just too late,” he said of the hiring. “Manpower is the key issue. Even when they try to argue that the additional resources deployed to [the South Side and West Side] are causing a decrease in homicides, they are reinforcing the argument that saturating areas with officers has an impact on crime. Same holds true for their overtime initiative: They are sending them en masse to help control specific areas, clearly showing that it is not about strategies or computer simulations, but boots on the ground.”
But while that philosophy gets credence with Siska and Lurigio on some fronts, it doesn’t convince them on all points. Take homicides, which are causing such frenzy here, according to Lurigio: “People don’t understand, in general, that a homicide is one of the least preventable crimes,” he said. “And they’re the most important metric on which we evaluate the police overall in their performance. But homicides are now unpreventable. It’s easier to prevent burglaries and car theft and vandalism.”
But he counters his own point by noting that some 60 percent of murders in this city are thought to be gang-related, “in which a motive is known. It’s very important that the police concentrate on those, because there’s some chance that they can prevent gang-related homicides.”
Headlines from Dallas and Chicago over the past few days seem to underscore that the debate over gun rights, following the Trayvon Martin killing, is far from settled.
In Dallas, there was this: A gun range in nearby Lewisville is prepping a program to host children’s parties for those as young as 8 to enjoy cake, ice cream and some shooting. It’s a very “Texas” thing to do, they say, and Eagle Gun Range is just an example of the state’s proud stance on gun rights.
According to Jame Kunke, the tourism director for city of Lewisville, a tiny town west of Dallas, locals have largely endorsed the opening of Eagle Gun Range.
“Maybe it’s because this is Texas, but the idea of gun ownership goes back a long time and there’s a high demand,” said Kunke, 45. “I’d let my 12-year-old daughter go to the birthday party if there’s proper adult supervision and there’s no reason for concern.”
Reactions from nearby cities were also of support.
“There are no rules for how old a kid has to be before he or she can shoot,” said John Ellison, director of support services for the neighboring Rowlett Police Department. “As a general rule, people here in Texas enjoy shooting so it’s a little different than other places.”
Places like Chicago – where there are no gun shops, it’s difficult to obtain a gun permit to have a weapon in your home and there is no allowance to carry one in public. Chicago is also a place where police and prosecutors have made targeting guns a top priority to beat back violence.
Consider that 480 people in Cook County, which covers Chicago, have been charged under a 2009 law designed to target gang members carrying guns. The law, which was pushed by the Cook County State's Attorney after a Chicago police officer was slain, adds a serious weapons offense to any other charge the suspect is facing from an incident.
And just this week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new anti-gang law that targets drugs, weapons and other offenses under RICO-like statutes that allow for more sweeping prosecutions and are frequently used in federal court to go after drug cartels and organized crime. The idea was to more easily get at a gang’s hierarchy instead of charging low-level drug and weapons dealers - who are often the younger members of a gang.
Chicago – where about 80 percent of homicides are gun-related – is facing a rising murder tally for 2012 despite a stretch that saw shootings decline in nine of the last 10 weeks. Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy stressed the good numbers in a speech this week, saying the city is facing “a perception problem.”
But not all the news is good: After a weekend in which 53 shootings and nine murders were recorded, there were at least five shootings and one known homicide overnight Tuesday.
To stem the violence, the city, which is heavily in debt, is expected to pay officers overtime to increase police presence on the streets although research is conflicting about the benefits of swarming streets with more officers. Some studies, including by the National Policy Institute, say long-term crime and cost benefits are negligible or even opposite expectations; other studies show more manpower can translate into reduced crime and cost savings for a city.
For its part, Dallas saw a drop of 5.6 percent in overall reported crime through the end of February – but an 18.5 spike in violent crime compared with the same period last year.
The enforcement of gun laws, at least anecdotally, can vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, region to region – as can the cultural perception of gun ownership, said Roseanna Ander, executive director of The Crime Lab at the University of Chicago.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, agreed.
“The different opinions about guns has been longstanding and it’s very much alive,” he said. “The culture has been alive in the Southern states for a long time so I’m not surprised to hear about [Eagle Gun Range].”
There are also jurisdictional differences in terms of how courts treat gun cases. In some areas, the most minor gun offense is treated as a most serious crime; in others, possessing a weapon might draw less scrutiny than driving drunk, Ander said.
“Courts can inadvertently send the wrong message,” she said. “With crimes that are probabilistic, like drinking and driving, maybe you’re safe three, four, five times but that last time a family of four gets killed. The same can be with gun possession. You carry, carry and carry and that last time, maybe someone had too much to drink and a person is shot dead.”
Meanwhile, a recent study by Texas A&M found that murder and manslaughter rates have actually gone up in many of the 23 states that have stand-your-ground laws - the same defense claimed in the Trayvon Martin case. For their part, Martin's parents have argued before a panel reviewing Florida's version of the law that the defense should not be a justifiable reason for death when the person who delivers the fatal shot or blow actually initiates a confrontation.
A Houston jury agreed with that reasoning Wednesday regarding Texas' version of the law, finding a man who claimed the defense guilty and setting him up for a life sentence.
But as the gun debate gets new legs and figures into local state and federal elections, David Prince, owner of the Eagle Gun Range, said the key is education – something that is stressed heavily in pro-gun states.
“The children are shooting guns in video games,” he said. “By giving them proper education, it would take some mystery out of it and let them know that a gun is not a toy.”
I lived for almost 15 years in Wheaton, Ill., a wealthy suburb outside of Chicago. Within the city borders were five different colleges, therefore, city officials kept a very tight rein on teenagers. My sons, who went to high school with hair past their shoulders, often felt “targeted” by the high school police officers and the local cops patrolling our downtown.
Wheaton had very tight curfew laws. The Wheaton city code applied to anyone under the age of 17 requiring them to be home “from 12:01 a.m. to 6 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, and from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday nights.” The state also had curfew laws that made parents responsible. My sons’ driving licenses “expired” after curfew, curtailing the amount of driving that was done by teens between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.
I rarely had a problem with my three sons when we lived in Wheaton, but there was one night when my best laid plans to keep within the law went awry.
My son, Josh, at 16 wanted to attend a concert in downtown Chicago on a weekend. He and his friends hired a limo driver to bring them back to Wheaton after the show. Since they would get back after curfew, I assumed Josh would be dropped off by the limo driver at home. Of course, teens rarely think the same way parents do so he asked to be dropped off with his friend. They were hungry, so they visited the Taco Bell drive-thru before heading to our house. It was about 1:00 a.m. when a Wheaton police officer called me to tell me he had my son in custody for a curfew violation.
I was glad to be living in a town where my sons were under so much scrutiny. They knew someone was always watching them, if not me, the cop in the police cruiser at the Taco Bell. And my sons rarely got in trouble. Crime was low and my suburban streets felt safe, even when walking home at night from taking the Chicago Northwestern trains home from downtown Chicago.
Was my suburban experience typical? According to Patrick Kline, a researcher from the University of California-Berkley, “…curfews appear to have important effects on the criminal behavior of youth. The arrest data suggests that being subject to a curfew reduces the arrests of juveniles below the curfew age by approximately 10 percent in the five years following enactment.”
I’m one parent who appreciated the governmental support to my role as a “good” parent. The police didn’t supplant my parental role of ensuring that my teenagers were home at a decent hour. But they did offer help.
Kline noted the role of parents in ensuring a safe community. In his study he said, “An alternative rationalization of the evidence is that parents play an important role in the enforcement of curfews over and above that of the police. If municipal curfews act as focal points in the establishment of household policies, a curfew with modest fines (and arrests) could lead to large changes in the behavior of youth. The potential role of parents in self-enforcement of curfews is an important area for future research.”
The Taco Bell lesson? My son learned if you’re going to be out after curfew, don’t get hungry. And, I learned as a single mom that it was great parental leverage to have the police officers watching my back by helping my sons to grow into decent human beings.
Cherie K. Miller lives on a lake in Georgia with her husband, Steve, and a blended family consisting of seven sons, two dogs, two geckos and a freakishly grumpy 17 year old cat. She is an author of three books. She and her husband have a nonprofit, Legacy Educational Resources that provides character education materials to school teachers, administrators and others who care about developing character in our young people. Contact her at www.character-education.info
For 17 years I was married and living in a beautiful home in Wheaton, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. I was a stay-at-home mom, choosing to raise my three sons, rather than delegating that to a sitter or child care center.
I had been successful in constructing an almost perfect life.
That’s why it was so devastating when my executive level husband lost his job. His company, a trade association of the savings and loan industry, was a victim of deregulation. His offices, in downtown Chicago dwindled from a bustling 150 people down to 30. He was one of the last people out the door.
He’d been employed there for 10 years. Losing that job caused something inside him to just snap. From the last day he turned off his lights and said goodbye to his long-term office, he quit looking for work. For almost three years I supported the family with day care income earned by taking care of other people’s kids, but it soon became apparent to me that he wasn’t ever going to work again. He became depressed. Then, he became scarily psychotic.
Before too long I found myself in front of a judge filing for divorce and sole custody of my children. Devastating doesn’t even describe the depth of feelings I had as my hands shakily signed the papers for divorce from the only man I’d ever loved. Over the past year, he’d become a danger to his children, his wife, and possibly even himself.
I found a secretarial job at a nearby company, found a friend to take care of my youngest, who had just turned four and started my slow slog through life as a single mother. I’d never envisioned EVER finding myself in this situation. I wasn’t prepared:
I hadn’t worked in 10 years.
I’d never even seen a fax machine, much less all of the computer-driven technology that was mandatory in every office.
I had no college degree since my husband had always pooh-poohed it as a waste for me.
Once the divorce was finalized, with a judgment for 33 percent “child support” based on some future salary my husband might make, he disappeared off the face of the earth. For awhile, while I still had some funds, I hired a private investigator to find him. He’d covered his tracks so well, he couldn’t be located.
I had several frustrating meetings with a totally overwhelmed child support collection officer. His office was so piled with manila folders of women in exactly my same situation; he had a path from the door to his desk chair. Folders tipped crazily in stacks at least three or four feet high. Needless to say, he didn’t have any more luck finding the ex than I did with my fancy private eye.
So there I was, a suddenly single, totally unprepared mom of three sons, aged 4, 10 and 12, with a below poverty wage of $25,000.
Looking back at the eight years I struggled, daily, to feed, clothe and educate my growing boys, I sometimes wonder how I managed. I had to get rid of my beautiful house -- property taxes were $6,000 a year, almost a quarter of my salary -- the only one my children had ever known.
A full 10 years after my divorce in 1994, Illinois voted in a new governor. One of his campaign promises was to clear up all of the old deadbeat dad cases. My ex was at the top of the list, considering he owned approximately $50,000 in unpaid child support. I’d completely written him off and forgotten him after 10 years of no contact, not even birthday cards or Christmas cards for his kids.
But the child support division had not forgotten him. And, through whatever wizardry they possessed, they found his bank account with a balance of $50,000. Imagine my surprise when I opened my mailbox and found a check from the state of Illinois in the amount of $50,000. Too late, because now my boys were quasi-adults, ages 14, 20 and 22. With those funds I purchased an inexpensive home for one son, a car for another and a college fund for the third. I was sorry they had to suffer.
This past Father’s Day the Cook County, Illinois, Sherriff published a website with more than 1,100 parents who are being investigated for avoidance of child support. A recent sweep picked up 80 parents who were behind on child support payments and who are now behind bars.
These types of actions are needed, because according to the U.S. Census Bureau only 47.3 percent of all custodial mothers received ALL of the child support the courts required. Seventy-seven and a half percent received SOME. And the rest, like me, received none.
Since Bill Clinton’s presidency, new laws have been put on the books that will help single moms that find themselves in the same tight spot I was in. The National Deadbeat Dad List was created to track nonpaying parents from state to state. In 1992, the Child Support Recovery Act and in 1998, the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, was passed which criminalized non support of biological children.
Let’s hope that the next generation of children that grow up in single parent households have all of the financial support they need to grow into productive members of society. If they don’t, it’s society that foots the bill.