UK Advocates Turning to NYC as Model for ‘Saner’ Criminal Justice System

For decades, New York City was besieged by violent crime, peaking in 1990 when the city was ravaged by an estimated 2,245 murders.

But then something remarkable happened, according to Greg Berman, author of the recent report “A Thousand Small Sanities: Crime Control Lessons from New York.” Over the last two decades, New York City experienced an unprecedented turnaround in violent crime. In 2009, there were 461 murders in the city, a 79 percent drop from 20 years earlier. Other crimes drastically declined as well, with the city seeing significant decreases in rapes, robberies and car thefts. Berman quotes Frank Zimring, author of the book “The City That Became Safe,” who called the crime rate reduction in New York City “the largest and longest sustained drop in street crime ever experienced by a big city in the developed world.”

The report, released by the Centre for Justice Innovation, explores the possibility of applying the policies and practices implemented in New York City to communities in the United Kingdom - where in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, London’s Metropolitan Police tallied more than 170,000 instances of violent crime, including 113 murders and more than 2,800 rapes.

Berman praised New York City’s commitment to incarceration alternatives, stating that the city has “long been blessed with an infrastructure of non-profit groups” such as the Vera Institute of Justice and the Center for Community Alternatives, which he considers vital players in the development of community-based solutions. Another key to the city’s success, according to Berman, is its use of specialized court-based programs, such as drug courts and mental health courts, which give judges the discretion to eschew prison sentences for treatment and rehabilitation services.

Place plays a critical role in policing, Berman says, not just people. And New York City successfully expanded its focus through its use of localized “hotspot” patrolling - most notably, the New York City Police Department’s use of COMPSTAT, which zeroes in on specific precinct and neighborhood activity.  Also important, according to Berman, was the promotion of informal social control processes that encourage voluntary adherence to the law through implicit and explicit community and family pressure.

An example of community pressure, recently created, teen-led youth courts in some New York City neighborhoods allow local juveniles to hear actual low-level misdemeanor cases. According to Berman, youth court sanctions are intended to be restorative, not necessarily punitive.

“As valuable as they are in terms of training leaders and providing an early intervention for troubled teens, youth courts’ most valuable contribution is probably symbolic,” he said. “They are a potent symbol of the justice system being willing to cede a measure of authority to local voices and to engage in the co-production of justice.”

In his conclusion, Berman calls the United States’ legal system, and its often-overlapping federal, state and local jurisdictions, “notoriously labyrinthine,” but admits it sometimes allows innovation to bubble up. For New York City, Berman says most of the credit for the steep decline in violent crime should stay in the city.

“Very few, if any, of the programmes described in this paper originated among federal officials in Washington, D.C.,” he says in the report. “Indeed, most were the product of frontline police chiefs, judges, and other criminal justice reformers responding in creative ways to the immediate problems in front of them.”

But he also believes the federal government can help cities. He praises Congress for authorizing funding to put more officers on the streets of New York City, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice for supporting intermediary organizations that provide training and assistance to what Berman calls “would-be reformers” in the community. He said that, no matter which party was in power at any time over the last 20 years, federal investments in community courts and policing have remained relatively consistent.

“This may be the ultimate lesson of the New York experience,” Berman wrote. “The ability of local reformers to generate a thousand small sanities and the consistent willingness of national government to encourage and sustain them over the long haul.”

All That is Wrong With Private Prisons

John Last 1A friend of mine called me last week from prison. We hadn’t spoken in a few months, so we did a lot of catching up, mostly talking about how things were at the prison, friends, and the many turns my own life has taken.

I told him that a mutual friend of ours was at the new private prison in Milledgeville, Ga., a place called Riverbend Correctional Facility. He groaned and told me he had heard only bad things about the place. Dozens of the most troublesome inmates at his prison had been sent to Milledgeville to populate the 1,500-bed facility run by the GEO group.

All three of us had been at another prison in Milledgeville, a town well known for prisons and mental hospitals. During the last decade, four of the area’s five prisons have been closed, leading to thousands of lost jobs in a region without a lot of alternatives. When the GEO Group announced a few years ago the company would be building the facility, the news was happily received by many in the community. GEO, formerly Wackenhut, operates private prisons, immigration detention centers, and mental health facilities in the United States, South Africa, Australia, and the United Kingdom. It is one of several bigplayers in the private detention business. Crime is good for business.

I am relieved that I have never had to serve time in a private prison, because I have always found the idea of monetizing human suffering repugnant. These companies are masters at it. The GEO Group, and corporations like it, are invested in continuing mass incarceration. These businesses actively work to ensure that it will continue. The 10 - K form that GEO submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission named as a potential problem,…” reductions in crime rates [that] could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.”

They have also inserted themselves into the controversy about immigration. The filing continues. “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.”  An NPR investigative report showed that private prison companies essentially wrote Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant legislation, with the purpose of creating more detainees that needed to be housed. This is a profit motive gone wild.

Blatant corruption often accompanies private prisons. The notorious Kids for Cash scandal in Pennsylvania was a scheme concocted by a privately-owned youth prison and two juvenile judges to fill the prison up, even if the kids did not deserve to be there.

The latest disgrace of the industry is the withdrawal of GEO from management of four Mississippi youth prisons, most notably the facility at Walnut Grove. As reported by NPR, “Federal Judge Carlton Reeves wrote that the youth prison ‘has allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk.’” A report by the Justice Department found that staff was having sexual relations with inmates at a level seldom seen in the country. Additional findings included deliberate indifference to inmate on inmate sexual violence, beatings and possession of weapons. Guards were found to have used excessive force, and many had known gang affiliations.

The market cannot deliver all services, and the actions of these groups are an excellent example of that. Only the government, as the agent of the citizenry, can carry out certain actions that best serve society. Allowing corporations, whose guiding interestis the bottom line, to take on a task of such importance is madness. The results will be continued corruption, poor treatment of inmates (including children), and no commitment to reducing recidivism. As problematic as government-run prisons are, they have private prisons beat hands down.

Day Two: John Jay Juvenile Justice Conference

NEW YORK – The John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice is holding a two-day conference for journalists on its campus in New York Monday and Tuesday.

While the conference, Kids Behind Bars, Where’s the Justice in America’s Juvenile Justice System?, is primarily meant for journalists, many of the topics will be of interest not only to those in the field, but the general public as well.

JJIE/Youth Today’s John Fleming and Clay Duda are attending the conference and continue their reporting today. For Day One coverage head over to our post here.


Panel One:

Mike Bocain

Mike Bocian, provided the keynote address Tuesday morning. Bocian, is a founding partner at GBA Strategies, a public opinion research firm.

Bocian discussed recent findings showing that most of those polled accepted that young offenders could change and that there was widespread support among those polled for prevention and rehabilitation. He also pointed out that those polled seem to be much more willing to favor rehabilitation and prevention when it was clear the subject of the poll was juveniles.

The overwhelming majority of those polled felt that youth who committed both violent and non-violent crimes should be housed with other youth, not adults.

The public, Bocian said, cited public safety and reducing recidivism as the best reasons for juvenile justice reform. For the most part, however, they did not mention budgetary concerns as reasons for change. He noted, however, that many reform measures currently being undertaken are being driven by budgetary concerns.

More than 50 percent of those polled said they found former youth offenders one of the most trustworthy experts on juvenile justice issues. They were found to be more trustworthy than experts such as juvenile judges and prosecutors.

Bocian also spoke about the importance of language. He pointed out, for example, that 42 percent of those polled saw “juvenile” as a negative term, while 37 percent saw the word “youth” as a positive term.

Liz Ryan, the president of the Campaign for Youth Justice and R. Dwayne Betts, an author, commentator and former youth offender, discussed Bocian’s findings.

Liz Ryan

Ryan stressed to the journalists and policy experts assembled the importance of understanding how many young people are brought into the criminal justice system each year.

Some 250,000 children are prosecuted in adult criminal court each year, she said. She also pointed out that not just a handful of states, but every state tries kids as adults. “It is wrong when you hear that not many kids are tried as adults each year,” she said.

Ryan said that many people will say that kids are locked up for a reason and that they must have done something wrong. Yet, she insists, this is often wrong; often kids are tried for relatively minor offenses and there are many instances when young people are locked up and have not even been charged.

Ryan also pointed out that juvenile crime is actually going down, not up, but that juvenile violent crime is not going down because more people are being locked up.

Dwayne Betts spoke of his time in prison and his journey through life since his release.

Dwayne Betts

Referring to the poll’s findings, Betts said while he found it encouraging, it still reminds him that young people in the system are invisible.

Youth in prison have been ignored for decades, he said.

He pointed out that he was locked up for car jacking when he was 16 and is 31 today. He was tried as an adult and served eight years in prison.

One of his cellmates was serving a 63-year-sentence for a non-homcidal offense he committed at age 16.

Betts said that his first 10 days in detention were spent in solitary confinement. He had no mattress, he said, no pillow and no sheets. A brutal introduction, he said, to confinement.

Betts reminded the audience that people who go to prison are more than the statistics they represent.

“I was treated as a number from the beginning,” he said. “I was an honors student, but the prosecutor never saw that. The judge admitted to me, in front of my mother and my family, that he was under no illusion that prison would help me.”

Betts went on to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Maryland, authored A Question of Freedom, a memoir, was awarded a Soros Fellowship and is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard.

Panel Two:

Judge Steve Teske, a juvenile court judge from Clayton County, Ga., and a frequent contributor to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, moderated a panel on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Others on the panel included: Nancy Heitzeg, a professor of sociology & co-director of Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity at St. Catherine University; Elton Anglada of the Juvenile Defender’s Association of Pennsylvania and Joseph Gaudett, the chief of police of Bridgeport, Conn.

Professor Heitzeg explained that the school-to-prison pipeline is essentially a growing trend that involves tracking kids out of school and into the criminal justice system. There are, she argues, several reasons for this growing trend, including the re-segregation of schools, growing poverty rates, the over representation of kids of color in special education classes, the underrepresentation of kids in advanced classes and zero tolerance policies.

She said that zero tolerance policies being implemented in schools have increased, while at the same time, violence in schools has fallen across the nation.

Zero tolerance policies have resulted in some three million suspensions and 100,000 expulsions per year.

Heitzeg said there is a blurring of the lines between the educational and judicial systems. With police in the school and drug-sniffing dogs in the hallways, she asked, “how likely is it that you are going to go to school if school continually resembles jail?”

She also pointed out that racial disparity is the biggest issue in the school-to-prison pipeline. Endless studies, she said, show that African-American students are punished at much higher rates than non-minority students, though studies also show that white youth engage in the same kind of disruptive behavior at a similar rate.

She cautioned the assembled journalists that while the individual story may be compelling, that it is important to explain the larger context of the school-to-prison pipeline. It does not exist in a vacuum, she said. It is complicated, and it is about deeply entrenched racial stereotypes.

In a question and answer session, Chief Gaudett, talked about his department’s philosophy in dealing with children. He said his officers are trained to engage with children in an attempt to humanize the officer and to build trust with the kids.

After a lively discussion with Teske, almost a courtroom exchange, Anglada spoke about the lack of due process in public schools.

He pointed out that when a child is arrested in school, the kid is expelled or suspended without legal representation, that he or she is already thrown out of the school without due process.

He also spoke of the reality of family court. It is a place that is seen by many as “kiddy court,” it is not, he said, “taken seriously. It is where many attorneys cut their teeth. It’s not a bad idea, it is good experience, but it is not good for juveniles.”

He added that juvenile court is incentivized to plea kids out. It pays low-paid attorneys more, he said, to plea than to carry the case forward.

Anglada spoke at length about a recent scandal in Luzerne County, Pa., that involved kickbacks paid to juvenile judges in exchange for sending juveniles to detention.

It was, he said, a big and important story. But it only became a story after the judges in the case were indicted. When it became “Kids for Cash,” Anglada said, it was a big story. But few though it was a story when his organization was trying to get anyone’s attention, including the state’s Supreme Court, to the fact that some 7,000 kids had gone through juvenile court in Luzerne County without legal representation.

“Why wasn’t ‘7,000 kids without an attorney’ not a story?” he asked.

For Day One coverage head over to our post here.

Photos by Clay Duda |

The Myth of Suburban Gangs: A Changing Demographic

Westside Norteno 14 in Cobb County.  Picture Confiscated during arrest, Sept. 20, 2003.
A photo of Westside Norteno 14 in Cobb County, Ga. Photo confiscated by Cobb County CAGE Unit, Sept. 20, 2003. Courtesy of Rebecca Petersen.

When most people think of gangs and the criminal activity often associated with them problems of the inner-city may come to mind -– issues that are far from their manicured suburban lawns, something that could never touch their lives directly.

But the demographic makeup and geographic location of gangs are changing, according to Rebecca Petersen, author of Understanding Contemporary Gangs in America and a Criminal Justice Professor at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta*.

“We have seen this trend of gangs moving out of the city and into the suburbs for 20 years now,” Petersen said. “We don’t associate the suburbs with people being poor or homeless, but it’s one of the fastest growing populations [in the suburbs].”

While gangs are not exclusively comprised of low-income members, the correlation between harsh economic conditions and the proliferation of gang activity has been documented in communities around the country since at least the late 1980s.

In the decade leading up to 2010, the suburban poor in major-metropolitan suburbs grew by 53 percent, compared to an increase of 23 percent within the cities, according to the Census Bureau. As a result, the majority of the traditionally urban poor population now resides in suburban communities throughout the United States. In 2010, suburbs housed about a third of the nation’s poor, outranking major urban centers that accounted for about 28 percent of the impoverished population.

Part of the problem, Petersen noted, is that many suburbs and outlying towns don’t have well developed social support systems or infrastructure to deal with the influx.

A number of factors contribute to the shift of population to the suburbs, including immigration, availability of affordable and subsidized housing and economic stagnation. According to a 2009 study by the National Youth Gang Center, quality of life issues, such as employment or educational opportunities, were the most significant factors in gang member migration, and not the expansion of existing criminal activity.

“More often than not it’s not a gang migration, but an individual migration,” said George Knox, Director of the National Gang Crime Research Center, adding that family ties and economic opportunities usually underpin the relocation of gang members. “It’s not as if [a gang] suddenly got together and took a vote on whether to move.”

Nationally, gangs have been migrating from the inner city to suburban communities for more than three decades, starting slowly in the 1970’s and becoming “entrenched in many suburban communities across the nation” during the 1990s, according to the "Attorney General's Report to Congress on the Growth of Violent Street Gangs in Suburban Areas" in 2008. According to the same report, suburban gang migration also contributed to an increase in violent crime, including homicide, within a number of the suburban communities they moved to.

For example, in 2007 law enforcement officials in Irvington, N.J., a Newark suburb, reported 23 homicides for the year – 20 of which were gang related.

“The suburbs just aren’t geared for this type of issue,” Knox said. “Usually [the suburbs are] more vulnerable, and gang members know this.”

According to Petersen, most gang-related violent crime was directed at rival gang members, while a variety of less-serious offenses made up the majority of overall gang criminal activity.

Looking at arrests in Cobb County, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, Petersen found that about 60 percent of gang member arrests were for misdemeanor offenses. The most common crimes included property damage, drug possession, theft and burglary – along with arrests for robbery, aggravated assault and statutory rape.


From Atlanta, a closer look:

In metro Atlanta, gangs have long been seen as a largely black, inner-city problem. But when Peterson moved to the city in 2002 she was “shocked” to learn that the majority of gangs were of Hispanic origin and mostly operated away from the city center.

“Immigrants are moving to the suburbs as their first step when arriving here in the United States,” Petersen said, “where before they would typically go to the cities, and then the suburbs.”

In Cobb County, Ga., the focus of Petersen’s recent research, Hispanics account for about 74 percent of the known gang population – a demographic trend that is mirrored in national data.

“All you have to do is drive up and down the highway in Atlanta to see the evidence of gang migration,” Knox said.” There’s MS 13 (a notorious Hispanic street gang) markings prominently displayed everywhere.”

Unlike in the past, many of these gangs don’t claim “turf,” or a given geographic area with strict boundaries, as their own, Petersen said. Instead, members can be scattered across a wide area and often travel outside their own neighborhood to commit criminal activity.

Gang recruitment, especially among Hispanics, largely takes place in middle school where kids are still impressionable and have a stronger desire to fit in than older teens, Petersen said. For law enforcement, it’s also a time to drive home the dangers and consequences associated with gang life.

Since Cobb County’s inception of the Cobb Anti-Gang Enforcement (CAGE) Unit in 2002, the operation has documented more than 53 different gangs with more than 600 known members. Petersen said the actual number of gang members is likely three times that of known members.

Gang involvement declined throughout the late 90S until hitting an all-time low in 2003. Since then, the number of gangs around the country has slowly crept back up, but still hasn’t hit previous highs. Gang activity continues to be largely centered around major metropolitan areas, with two-thirds of all gangs residing, the National Gang Center reports.


*This is a publication of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University.

Swimming Pools, Not Prisons

John Last 1Until I was in the sixth grade my family lived on an Air Force base in South Georgia. The base was a great place for kids. From the time I was six or seven I could ride my bike to wherever I wanted to go. Trips to the movies or the library were a lot of fun, and my parents didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was safe. In the summer my favorite bike ride was to the swimming pool. My friends and I would spend the whole day there, jumping off the high dive, eating ice cream, and just horsing around. It was the perfect way to spend those hot South Georgia summer days.

Last week, I was in Maryland and Washington D.C., where I met a lot of people involved in restorative justice and other human rights issues. In many parts of Maryland there are problems with poverty, gangs, juvenile delinquency, abuse, drugs and the whole gamut of social ills that plague many urban areas. Several of the people I met on my trip are involved in gang intervention, creating peaceful schools and obtaining services for young people in need of health care, counseling and other services.

One friend was telling me how miserable the summers in that part of the country are. They have a lot of days in the 90s, and often even crossing the 100 mark on the thermometer. The humidity is oppressive. I told my friend how much it sounded like the place where I grew up, and I was reminded of this when I read a recent story at, a Baltimore area news site, titled, “Schools and pools shuttered while city officials advocate for cells and bells.

This is a pretty catchy title, and it nicely encapsulates what is happening there. The mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, ran on a platform that included new schools and increased funding for education and youth services. Recently though, she has called for the closing of Baltimore’s seven public swimming pools, while at the same time continuing high levels of funding for city police and supporting the construction of a new youth jail, even though crime has steadily decreased and homicide rates have dropped to their lowest levels in 30 years.

This kind of thinking points out a fundamental flaw in the way that most people think about justice issues, including policy makers. Monday I spoke about restorative justice to Georgetown students enrolled in a class that focuses on Social Justice and Conflict Studies. These young people are very sharp, and they asked some tough questions. We spent a lot of time talking about how restorative justice systems can be implemented in the present society. It is not possible to separate justice policy from social policy, and to try is folly.

I am not saying that the closing of these pools will lead kids directly to crime and prison, but there is a link between how society chooses to allocate its resources and what happens to its citizens. If we put money into prisons instead of schools what can we expect? If Baltimore buys more police cameras on the backs of school kids, what will be the outcome? How these kids are treated now is important. Resources are limited, so it is important to consider where to invest them. This is a big question on a national level, but it goes all the way down to city politics and even to individual citizens. If we build prisons or fund other, more traditional, law enforcement options, we can expect an increase in incarceration. I would rather we worked on ways to spend our money that would help kids get a decent education in a decent school and that we gave them viable alternatives to running the streets. Maybe that is an arts program, maybe it is a baseball team, maybe it’s a mentor and just maybe it’s a swimming pool on a hot Baltimore day.

The Myth of the Young, Black Male: A More Subtle Racism

John Last 1When I was a kid, around 10 or 11, I loved fantasy novels, especially The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. I read these books over and over, and with my friend Michael would act out the various scenes of the books. We would run around the yard with toy swords and trash can lids for shields, battling monsters until it got too dark to play any longer.

One day we were pretending we were wizards, casting spells and dispensing vague wisdom to our imaginary comrades. As part of our costumes we made hoods out of pillow cases, and were blithely going about our business when my dad came home. He looked at us playing, and yelled for us to take those hoods off at once. Then he told Michael to go home, and he made me come inside and sit down for a lecture.

I was confused, and only became more so as he talked about prejudice and racism and the history of the South. He told me about his own upbringing, and about how blacks were treated in his small town. He told me about his time in the military, and how it changed his views of race. He was disturbed that Michael and I had been pretending we were in the Ku Klux Klan. I did not know what the Klan was, and was surprised to hear about it.

Before that, I did not really know what racism was, because it was not modeled for me by my parents. I was blissfully ignorant of how immersed I was in a society where race was a huge factor in how people were evaluated. The day I had that talk with my dad in a small south Georgia town was in the summer of 1977 or 1978. Racism was still a strong force there.

Now, in the spring of 2012, racism is still with us, though perhaps in a more subtle fashion. The case of Trayvon Martin is receiving a lot of scrutiny, and how it will play out is unknown. What is certain though is that many in our society view a young, black male as inherently suspect. As a class these youngsters are perceived as more prone to crime and other antisocial behaviors. He was suspected by his killer of being high on drugs and up to no good. There is debate about his appearance, and questions about the photos used to represent him in the media. But the bottom line is that how he was dressed, how tall he was, or whether he had gold teeth doesn’t matter.

This myth about young black men is not borne out by the facts though. As Mike Males, a researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, notes in a recent op-ed in Politico, “The latest figures from the FBI, Bureau of Justice Statistics and public health agencies show that among black youth, rates of robbery and serious property offenses are the lowest in more than 40 years. Rates of murder and rape are now lower than when nationwide crime statistics first appeared in 1965 — and those were far less complete than today’s. Assault rates are lower than when this crime statistic was expanded to include domestic violence and new offenses a quarter-century ago.”

No one argues that violence and crime are not problems in this segment of the population. They are still more likely to be victims of violence, and are definitely overrepresented in contact with law enforcement, convictions, and incarceration. But these facts do not make up the totality of their reality. By far the majority of these youngsters will not commit a crime, nor will they be victimized. Most of them are not drug dealers or addicts. Most of them are not anti social. Yet this is the stereotype that they live with, and that is perpetuated by the media and politicians.

As Males points out, it is not just conservatives who are painting this picture. The president himself, in a 2008 speech, “deplored African-Americans’ ‘epidemic of violence’ that he blamed on an ‘entire generation of young men in our society.’”

And it is not only Fox News that uses this image to titillate. CNN's show "Deadly Lessons," accused African-Americans of perpetrating “a growing culture of violence, especially among young people,” a culture described by one commentator as “a generation of folks that do not value life.” Even Geraldo Rivera’s recent comments about how dangerous it is to wear a hoodie are based on a twisted view of who young black men really are.

So, let’s take a deep breath and look at the facts. Let’s not greet each young black man that we meet with fear or suspicion. It is overwhelmingly likely that he is someone you will want to know. Let’s start making room for that in our lives. It is 2012, and far overdue.

For One Former Inmate, A New Life

Ray Tebout

NEW YORK -- Getting shot was probably a critical turning point in Ray Tebout’s life, he says. It was 1990. Tebout had just turned 16 and was living on the streets of the South Bronx, selling drugs and doing his best to survive. And then some guy had to go and shoot him in the foot.

The day of the shooting Tebout was on the corner selling drugs when “a guy wanted something from me,” he said. “I gave it to him but he decided he wanted something from someone else.” The man got angry and walked away but then — suddenly — he turned around and shot Tebout.

“Getting shot in the foot may not sound like much,” he said, “but it’s pretty horrible.”

Homeless, with his foot in a cast and walking on crutches, Tebout was mostly immobile, at least by the standards of drug dealers in the South Bronx.

“Losing your mobility in such a predatory environment was tough,” he said. You can’t sell drugs, he added, because you can’t run from the cops or the thugs.

He may not have been able to walk, but this was still the first step toward turning his life around. But it was only the first, very tiny step and it would be years, spent in and out of prison, before his life would be truly stable; before he stopped burglarizing stores because he was starving, homeless and desperate.

In early February, Tebout sat on a panel discussing prisoner reentry during the second day of the John Jay College/Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America held here. His words held an added resonance as he was the only speaker on the panel to have actually been to prison. But now Tebout stands on the other side of the wall, counseling former inmates like himself and proving that a prison sentence doesn't preclude you from becoming a leader in your community. Tebout is now director of counseling at College Initiative, a reentry community organization in New York City that helps the formerly incarcerated transition into college.

Tebout was born in Manhattan in 1974 but spent his youth travelling the country with his family, finally landing in the Bronx when he was 12. All those years of travel isolated him from other kids, leaving him with very limited social skills.

“I was a misfit there,” Tebout said. “I was decently educated, but not socially educated. I read well but I had zero social skills.”

Suddenly he was an awkward suburban kid dropped into a “hostile urban environment.” It wasn’t long before he was committing petty burglaries and selling drugs.

“My first criminal activity was to fit in,” he said. “It gave me something to bond over with folks. When you are interested in engaging in criminal activity you find the people involved in criminal activity.”

It was an important step in the wrong direction, but Tebout says, “It took me out of the position of least powerful in my social group.” And eventually, he says, his petty crimes became more violent.

Tebout’s father had sent him to a number of good schools, but he struggled with authority and got kicked out of them all. “That didn’t work out,” Tebout said simply. Frustrated and facing his own troubles with addiction, Tebout’s father kicked him out. He was 16.

Tebout lived on the streets of the Bronx for 10 months, selling drugs to survive. But he soon realized there was an easier way, he said, and he started looking for people to rob.

“It was a lot easier to rob people than it was to stand on a street corner and sell drugs,” he said.

But then he was shot, left defenseless in a dangerous place and was soon arrested for burglary.

“I was hungry, it was cold and I needed something to eat so I burglarized a store with a couple of guys,” Tebout said. “They got away and I didn’t.”

Tebout was soon back on the streets, his case dismissed and sealed.

When he was 18, in 1992, everything fell apart once and for all when a late-night robbery went sideways. Tebout wanted to make some money. His sister was struggling and he wanted to help her out.

“I was already robbing people,” he said, “so I decided to go out and look for somebody and at the end of the night in a quiet subway station I found a guy.”

Tebout's target pulled a gun on Tebout and tried to shoot him but he managed to wrestle the gun away from the man. Then Tebout pistol-whipped him.

Tebout says he still feels remorse for the attack.

“That was probably one of the worst things I have ever done,” he said. “I think about what that man must have gone through and it’s horrifying. I feel really terrible about it.” Having been attacked himself, Tebout said, he knows the pain the man must have gone through.

He was convicted and sent to prison for 11 years. His time there, Tebout says, was horrible.

“I think I only slept, ate and fought for the first year,” he said. Soon he got involved with gangs on the inside. Tebout is a big guy, tall with a shaved head, and intimidating, but everyone can use protection.

“In some ways [gang members] were essential to helping me out with my time,” he said.

But his first seven years in prison weren’t moving him any closer to rehabilitation. Tebout was actually adding more time to his sentence.

“As I stayed in prison my time got increasingly violent,” he said. “I got an additional one and a half years. It was escalating and escalating.”

Tebout appeared lost, a young man who only knew violence and crime. But his grandmother, like so many grandmothers, knew her grandson better. She wrote Tebout in prison and asked him simply to be a good citizen. He listened.

However, his rehabilitation wasn’t overnight. His criminal behavior faded away slowly, partly out of necessity.

“For gangs that means your defenses are down,” he said. “You are vulnerable and I had to be careful.”

He didn’t stop getting in trouble, he says, but he was more thoughtful and stopped being reckless.

But one day, he says, he prayed and then he was done.

“I’m out,” he says he thought at the time. “I’m not going to put my hands on anybody. I’m going to go out and be a good citizen.”

His good behavior didn’t go unnoticed by prison administrators and they offered him spots in rehabilitation programs telling him his participation could lead to an early release.

Tebout went along with it, mostly because he wanted to get out of prison faster, he says, but eventually he saw they were helping.

“The value of those programs to me,” Tebout said, “was that it started me thinking differently.”

One program defined criminal thinking as the lazy, easy way out and helped Tebout identify the steps to stop him thinking like a criminal.

“I needed to start pursuing the longer, harder road,” he said.

And he did, becoming part of the 33 percent of ex-offenders who do not recidivate according to an offender reentry report for Congress.

Speaking on the same panel as Tebout at the February symposium at John Jay College, attorney Margaret Love described some of the difficulties many former inmates face.

"There are more and more laws that exclude people with convictions from a variety of benefits," she said. "There are upwards of 35,000 laws."

Even harder to deal with is the social stigma, she says.

"Most people who are convicted are not a public safety threat," she said. "But the pervasive backgrounding and the fear that has overcome us since 9/11 has made it very easy to exclude people who have characteristics we fear."

Tebout was released from prison when he was 29. He has $170 in his pocket and the support of some positive friends. Tebout is still proud that he didn’t land in a homeless shelter upon release and instead stayed with an old friend from high school.

He started working in restaurants and used the money he earned to put himself through culinary school. He cooked professionally for two years but he said, “I realized I was doing more counseling in the kitchen than cooking.” So he switched gears and moved into human services.

He continued to work hard, earning credentials in substance abuse counseling and entrepreneurship teaching all while working as a counselor at the Fortune Society, a social service and advocacy group that supports successful reentry into society after prison. He later joined College Initiative and enrolled in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he is pursuing a bachelor's degree.

His work has done more than just keep him out of prison, it’s given him a purpose.

“No one was addressing the needs of those being released from prison,” he said. “It’s very rewarding.”

According to the Reentry Policy Council, many communities have few, if any, reentry assistance programs. Through his counseling work, Tebout is working to change that.

Tebout brings a lot of personal experience to his counseling work and says he knows how to approach teenagers in danger of travelling the same path to prison that he did. It’s all about choices and Tebout can’t make decisions for them.

“I’m not here to tell you what to do,” he tells his mentees, “but here are your options.”

Disney, Take Beyond Scared Straight Aff the Air

Leonard Witt
Leonard Witt

An Open Letter to

Robert A. Iger, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company

Dear Mr. Iger:

I know Disney is a large company and you, like Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, can’t oversee everything. So I want to let you know about one of your company’s investments -- Disney’s one-third equity stake in the A&E Television Networks. Since it is not fully under Disney’s control, maybe that’s why you haven’t been watching A&E’s "Beyond Scared Straight." Certainly if you had, you would have intervened and pulled it off the air, but alas last week marked the beginning of its second season.

I am calling your attention to "Beyond Scared Straight" because it doesn’t at all fit the core principles of the Disney Corporation. I am sure you have read those core principles, maybe you even helped write them because they are front and center on your website.

Here, I will reprint them as a reminder:

Three core principles help guide our daily decisions and actions:

  • Act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions
  • Champion the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families in our endeavors
  • Inspire kids, parents, employees and communities to make a lasting, positive change in the world

Let’s take them one at time:

  • Act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions

scared_straight_seriesThe evidence is in, the Scared Straight program where kids are sent into prisons to be scared straight, does not work. Experts  writing for and at other reputable publications have made it very clear that volumes of research have shown the Scared Straight approach does not work. Here is what Joe Vignati, director of Justice Programs at the Georgia Governor's Office For Children and Families, recently wrote: “The scared straight approach is an inappropriate and unacceptable means for disciplining children. This approach has been shown to cause short- and long- term harm and actually INCREASES the likelihood of re-offending among some participants.”

Of course, you are free to argue with Mr. Vignati and the scores of researchers, but if by chance, you might believe in empirical evidence, then you might ask yourself and the folks at A&E if all of you have acted in an ethical manner and considered the consequences of your decision to subject these kids to the public humiliation they receive on the show.

That brings us the second of Disney’s core principles:

  •   Champion the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families in our endeavors

Does that principle include having several hulking adults surround individual teenagers and scream at them until the teens break down into tears? Does championing their well being include dressing them up in prison stripes and have then duck walk across the prison floor in front of your two million-plus viewers who watched the show last week? Does it include threatening to toss one of the teens into a cell with a prisoner who eyes the boy up and down and smiles big -- or coupling him with a big ugly guy who wants to make him his girlfriend with the complicity of the guards? You know what Mr. Iger, I found it down right disgusting and I do believe it tarnishes your image and Walt Disney’s legacy that has been put in your trust.

The final Disney core principle:

  •  Inspire kids, parents, employees and communities to make a lasting, positive change in the world

If you think screaming at kids until it gets your stomach churning is inspiration to make a lasting change, then sir, you and Disney have a problem.

Enough, please do me a favor, watch the program, then call your equity partners at the Hearst Corporation and NBCUniversal and pull this show off the air now. Then apologize to everyone who really cares about kids and then invest some real money in the kids who have been in the program and get them the help they need to lead productive lives.

John Roman On the Possibility of U.K.-Style Riots Happening in This Country

It has been a bad week in the United States in a bad year marked by remarkable international turmoil. The recession and high unemployment persist at a time when the powerless seemed poised to fight back, creating a recipe for insurrection—as happened first  in the Middle East and now in Great Britain.

According to Wednesday’s (August 9) Washington Post editorial, “the common factors [sparking the riots] include high unemployment, resentment toward a prosperous and seemingly impenetrable upper class and hatred of the police.”

All that sounds only too familiar, so should the United States expect riots here next? Are recent instances of mob violence in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Montgomery County Md.,  leading edges of a wave of violence here?

I think the answer is probably not, at least not on the scale of what has happened in London.

First, a few facts about riots. They are exceedingly rare events, and like all rare events exceedingly hard to predict. There’s little formal research on what causes or comes with riots. They seem to be more likely when the economy is sour, but aren’t in sync with larger crime trends – notably, the decline in violent crime here and in the UK.

And, a critical incident with police, such as the police shooting in South London, is often the spark that ignites.

Look at Washington, DC. It has seen two waves of rioting – the first in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, and then again in Mount Pleasant in 1991. (In both cases, the White House was just two or three miles away.) Of the two, the Mount Pleasant riots were closer to what’s going on now in the U.K.

On May 5, 1991, Washington, DC police confronted a group of Hispanics drinking alcohol outside their homes. A minor but poorly handled confrontation blew up when police shot an unarmed man (look here for a riveting blow-by-blow account).

Despite calls for calm from leading civil rights activists, Mount Pleasant exploded in a wave of violence. The city’s response, however, is what makes me optimistic about today’s situation. D.C. basically acknowledged that the rioters’ complaints — a police force insensitive to cultural differences when dealing with recent immigrants and too few resources to meet these newcomers’ needs — were valid.

Since then, D.C.’s government has made headway against both these problems a priority. It  has improved at-risk communities, adopted community policing, created more humane and rehabilitative juvenile justice systems, and applied effective programs to divert drug-involved offenders to treatment instead of prison, among many other initiatives. Though imperfect (many moves have been responses to critical incidents, not staples of a long-term strategic plan), overall, local government has been working to help address the problems of those on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Another substantial U.S./U.K. difference  is that the U.S. is much more of a police state than the U.K. While the U.K.’s police force is shrinking, the number of sworn officers per U.S. citizen has held steady, growing along with the U.S. population for three decades.  Since the number of prisoners in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1980, the U.K.’s incarceration rate is only about one-fifth of ours. Heavy policing costs a lot, but it does leave the U.S. better prepared for emergencies, including riots.

That said, the London rioters seem to defy many stereotypes, which should give us pause. The U.K. rioters are multi-racial and appear to encompass middle class and poor residents alike. While anger over social service cuts is often named as a cause of the riots,  closer to the whole truth might be this take from Richard Sennett and Saskia Sessen in the August 11th New York Times: “the rioters seem motivated by a more diffuse anger, behaving like crazed shoppers on a spree.” This sounds more like Philadelphia’s  flash mobs in 2011 than the Watts rioters in 1965.

At day’s end, the question is, how much we are willing to spend to protect ourselves against a potentially high cost event that is unlikely to happen? I wish I felt less sure that in today’s super-charged political atmosphere we’re unlikely to get the open and honest discussion needed to answer it well before push comes to shove.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system. It originally appeared on the Metrotrends blog of the Urban Institute, and is reprinted with permission.

Georgia D.A.: Bullying May Lead to Life of Crime

Bullies may not have committed any crimes while bullying, but officials in one south Georgia county say bullying may lead to a life of crime.

Dougherty County, Ga., District Attorney Greg Edwards told The Albany (Ga.) Herald that, while there is no specific crime for bullying, “about 25 percent of cases we come across relate to bullying to some extent.” Edwards went on to say he believes bullies often, “start in juvenile court and graduate to more serious crimes.”

According to Dougherty County’s juvenile prosecutor, Andre Ewings, those crimes can vary greatly.

“It can be almost anything,” she told The Herald. “It can be a simple battery to as serious as an aggravated assault. It may also be terroristic threats.” Today, much of that bullying is done online through social networking sites like Facebook.

Ewings also said she believes bullies tend to get in more trouble than other children.

What can parents do if their child is being bullied? Edwards says intervention is critical.

“When someone ignites against them, they back off,” he said. “That seems to be effective.”