Just as lightning flashes and dances across the sky, so too, does this life I live. In a world away, a jungle so thick that everything touches you, a war not of my making, took my father and sister in a cloud of thundering smoke.
BOOM — POOF, gone forever. I was ducking and dodging bullets and bombs in a body not mine, my mother’s.
She cried to heaven above and unseen spirits all around: not for what death just took but for what was not taken. My mother gave birth to a baby before its time, knowing it would not survive.
True to her fears, I came roaring into this world to the drowning sound of silence. A stillborn baby, dead, cold and blue like the river that caressed me. My mother, seeing her plight, gave me up to this river. Took, not taken. As I was being carried away by its current.
My first act as a human being was theft. It was then I took life from Death. I opened my eyes to a billion falling tears of angels, demons and spirits alike, the pouring rain. My first breath, a sound of thunder, my mother swam after me. Took not taken.
Now safe in her arms, she whispered, “You are a constant pain and worry to me. I will call you Pheej,” a name meaning constantly in a language soon to be lost like its people.
Fated to be a thief in this life, so I chose to believe. Took not taken. Three years old, living in a camp of dirt, surrounded by barbed wires and machine gun towers. My home a house made of bamboo trees tied together. Near dying, from hunger and thirst, death came for what I stole.
“No,” I said. “This life I took cannot be taken.” Saved through a miracle and grace, away to America we went. At 7 years old, I grew bold from the loss of my innocence, torturous beatings. Took, not taken.
By 12 years old, I took a lot of pain, joined a criminal street gang. Tired of shame and in pain. Hunger for revenge, I grew cold. With no guidance nor values, not wanting to understand, I became a wicked being.
Sixteen years old, in and out of juvenile hall and the Youth Authority (youth prison), I embraced my destiny and pain. I gave life to a criminal street gang, and the streets is where I found myself drowning again, this time in a pool of my own blood. Five bullets to my body, death, my old friend, came calling again. Deja vu, it said. My vision static like an old TV, out of picture and focus, then silence. I awoke to the sounds of machines beeping, to the face of a crying angel, my mother.
Took, not taken. I’ve done things I’m too shamed to mention. A thief I truly was, not even my family was safe from me. How right she was, though I never listened. Those friends she warned me about led me straight to prison. By 17, I took two lives. Now, I was walking with a limp from the shackles and chains made of iron. “Guilty of murders,” said the jury. “Life in prison!” cried the judge.
Took not taken. To hell here I come, your newborn son. Twenty-three years later, still nothing’s changed for the better, only worse. Thirty-nine years old, a flash of blood pouring out from six holes in my chest, my body torn to shreds. Drowning yet again in a pool of my own blood. Finally, death and I are together at last, I said.
Took, not taken. Darkness, then light. A new voice echoed inside my mind. Rise, my son, and open your newborn eyes. I did. Once afraid to care, live and love. Thought it was cool being a thug. How foolish I was to ever believe my fate a THIEF! My destiny PAIN!
Truly I must have been insane. How could this be, I exclaimed! Suddenly, so simple, the answer came to me. After destroying and ruining countless lives, I have come to truly realize and understand. This life is a gift given to me, not theft.
Took, not taken. Now with meanings and purpose, a new flame ignited deep within me. Burning every ounce of my soul with a thirst and desire to raise people higher than even they can see or believe possible to achieve.
We all possess a beautiful mind, a heart filled with courage, a soul strengthened by compassion. Greatness awaits us all, accept it. Don’t follow your anger. Don’t give in to hate. Take your gift of life with the knowledge learned and build a life for the family that awaits your arrival.
The third time is a charm, so they say. I am here alive today to tell you it’s never too late. Took, not taken.
Pheng Ly was sentenced as an adult to 50 years to life at age 17 for two counts of gang-related first degree murder. Now 40, he is incarcerated at the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.
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 national media has widely reported the story of Brendan Dassey, whose murder and sexual assault convictions were reversed by a federal court in Milwaukee on Aug. 12; he had served nearly nine years in prison. He was ordered released unless prosecutors wanted to file a new charge.
Dassey, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, was a central figure in a very popular Netflix documentary — “Making a Murderer.” The court found that the youth was mentally unfit and was coerced into confessing his involvement in the crime by false promises by investigators. The court held that his confession was involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. His lawyer had not challenged the propriety of the confession.
This was not an isolated incident. Davontae Sanford, a developmentally challenged 14-year-old, was also released after more than nine years in a Michigan prison for allegedly murdering four people in a drug house. His confession to police was made after two days of intense questioning without the presence of his guardians or an attorney. A professional hit man subsequently admitted to the murders. It appeared that Sanford’s interrogators ignored or did not reveal gross inconsistencies in the original confession.
Most Innocence Projects have focused on exonerations of adult defendants. There have been hundreds of these cases over the past decade. Many of these cases involved utilizing forensic evidence, especially DNA. Most of the exonerations are also due to inadequate legal representation, false eyewitness identifications or coerced confessions.
There are several Innocence Projects that look for cases in which the defendant was under age 18 at the time of the arrest. It is estimated that 38% of juveniles are falsely convicted due to false confessions, compared to 11% of adults convicted due to false confessions. Some research suggests that minors are more likely to tell interrogators what they want to hear or to brag about their gang exploits. The other concern is that youth are not equipped to adequately participate in their own defense and may be victims of inadequate counsel. There is some very limited research suggesting that eyewitness identifications may be harder with younger people.
These innocence cases often involve plea bargains or jury trials that occur in criminal courts, but they are the tip of the iceberg of excessive punishment for juveniles. Different from the issue of actual innocence are situations in which minors are prosecuted as adults either via statutory mandates, direct filing by prosecutors or transfer hearings in juvenile courts.
There are many youth advocates pursuing the issue of handling youth as if they were adults, such as student clinics at the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount Law School. These advocates are relying on recent Supreme Court decisions in Miller v. Alabama as well as some state laws that provide for sufficient due process for minors who receive life with possibility of parole or very long sentences known as "virtual life." The Supreme Court very recently extended the scope of the Miller decision in Montgomery v. Alabama to all prisoners serving these harsh sentences who were arrested before age 18. Typically, remedies in Miller or Montgomery appeals seek petitions for resentencing or for reconsideration of parole decisions.
There are many organizations that are trying to reduce the number of youngsters who are tried in criminal as opposed to juvenile courts by challenging state laws and prosecutor discretion in this area. It is often alleged that minors do not receive adequate representation in the early stages of the judicial process that might limit these transfers. For example, juveniles may unknowingly waive their Miranda rights or be pressured by their guardians to tell the law enforcement people "the truth."
There have been many cases in which minors tell court social workers or probation staff about prior involvement with drugs or gangs that can trigger sentencing enhancements that lead to transfers to adult court and/or long mandatory sentences. Given the vulnerability of youngsters and their limited ability to actively participate in their defense, treating teens as if they were just small adults is very bad public policy. The underlying philosophy of juvenile court, with its focus on treatment and education, is far more humane than the punitive criminal sentencing system.
A very different approach to reducing the mistreatment of young people by prosecutors and the court system is that taken by the National Juvenile Defender Center, the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia and the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. These groups focus on establishing standards for the representation of juveniles in criminal or juvenile courts. The emphasis is on the fair application of federal and state constitutional protections covering search and seizure, the Miranda decision and the right to counsel, which is very uneven and underfunded in many juvenile courts. There also are a set of groups such as disability rights advocates and public counsel that look at the particular developmental and mental health challenges faced by young people and push for increased legal attention to mental competency issues for minors.
Even before formal legal proceedings there are difficult issues involving the preadjudication detention of juveniles, both in adult jails and in specialized youth centers. Since young people do not uniformly have a right to bail, the detention decision is critical for them.
Many youngsters are held for substantial amounts of time "for their own protection" or for very minor violations of the rules of their probation. Most of these young people will be ultimately released with charges dropped or a nonsecure residential placement. There was a tragic case in New York City in which adolescents were held on Rikers Island for years without any charges being filed.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been the leader in reducing inappropriate and excessive detention of young people. The reforms here usually involve increasing the legal representation of youth at the detention hearing and the routine consideration of nonincarceration alternatives. The conditions of juvenile detention are often very harsh, educational and social services are often nonexistent, and solitary confinement practices are common.
Concerns of fair consideration of juvenile innocence and due process occur in a variety of nonjudicial and administrative forums that may involve very significant adverse consequences for youth, such as school-based discipline and expulsions. Even some very well-intended nonjudicial programs such as diversion programs, peer juries or restorative justice programs have ill-defined protections for youth rights and parental interests.
These cases also bring in the concerns of child welfare or protection agencies that might result in removal of the child from the home to shelters or foster care placements. Another important issue involves the use of powerful psychotropic drugs in the foster care system and the protection of youth who may not want or need these medications. While some locales have sought to better regulate these potential abuses, much more needs to be done.
Other crucial areas for needed reforms involve the rules governing the sealing or expunging of juvenile records and the mélange of state laws on the confidentiality of juvenile court hearings. Large issues involve whether juvenile adjudications can count as prior offenses in the criminal courts, especially under Three Strikes laws, or the use of juvenile adjudications to bar employment, college admissions or access to college loans. Still another important topic is the handling of minors who are undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings and policies of mandatory detention holds for these youth if they are arrested.
While there has been impressive progress made in the reduction of youth incarceration and more attention given to alternatives to confinement, these positive changes could be reversed if fears about juvenile crime are fueled by ambitious politicians and the media. The legal protections for youth have made some fitful steps forward, but the actualization of youth rights requires adequate access to high-quality legal assistance.
It is time for juvenile justice advocates and enlightened professionals to protect the basic legal rights of minors in a variety of settings. These problems are especially pronounced for young people of color and the poor. Issues of basic fairness and ingrained prejudice must be eliminated wherever they appear.
Barry Krisberg is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California, Berkeley.
New York — On Friday, Manhattan Justice Edward McLaughlin sentenced Taylonn Murphy Jr. to 50 years to life for the 2011 murder of Walter Sumter. Murphy was also convicted of conspiracy, robbery and weapons charges.
Murphy Jr., 20, was one of 103 young men and teenagers who were swept up early on a June morning in 2014 in what was then the largest raid in the New York City Police Department’s history. The Manhattan district attorney's office said the violence between rival crews from the Grant and Manhattanville Houses resulted in the shooting deaths of both of Murphy's sister, Tayshana, and Sumter.
In a victim impact statement, Sumter's father forgave Murphy but did not minimize the impact his son's death has had on his family.
"It is not just my wife and I that lost our only son," he said. "Walter was a brother to his sister and an uncle to his niece and nephews."
After the hearing, court officers escorted Sumter's family out of the courtroom. They declined to comment.
Speaking before issuing the sentence, Judge Edward McClaughlin admonished Murphy for what he called "narcissistic and egomaniacal gang behavior" that lead to Sumter's death — and criticized Murphy for wearing rosary beads during the trial. He also told Murphy not to expect visits from the many friends and family who filled the courtroom, sobbing as the judge admonished Murphy's family and community.
The courtroom was filled to capacity. Outside young men, many of them teenagers, waited for the outcome of the hearing. Some of Sumter’s friends wore laminated pictures of him around their necks. The friends of Murphy Jr. walked over and talked to Sumter's supporters while a group of court officers watched, some of them with their thumbs hooked through their bullet-proof vests.
The judge had ordered additional security to his courtroom for the sentencing. Taylonn Murphy Sr. described it as theater on McLaughlin's part since there had never been any disruption during his son's trial.
The elder Murphy spoke to the 20 or so young people who had come to support his son. He said he wanted to use his son's fate as a learning experience and discourage them from using use it as a pretense for more violence.
"Let's use this energy to prove them wrong on what they were saying about the community," he said. "No disrespect to your honor, but I don't know if he's been in our community, or has he seen our community, or understand the plights we have in our community."
Murphy Sr. said they convicted and sentenced his son with no physical evidence. Outside of 100 Centre St. Murphy looked to the courthouse across the street, where he sat through what he described as "two grueling trials" for his daughter's murder.
"It's hard to smile; I don't know how I do it sometimes," he said. "I've lost children to both sides of the gun. First Tayshana now my son. We're losing young people in droves."
LOS ANGELES — In Los Angeles County, one in every three young people released from a juvenile camp or other placement are arrested again within a year. And even if a kid manages not to return to juvenile hall or camp, the re-entry process can be difficult, and the young person often faces it without any help.
Smith Chan, 22, felt constantly on the defensive for a long time after he was released from an LA County juvenile camp in late 2011. The camps confine juveniles and provide treatment, care and training for an average of 20 weeks.
He didn’t get any help with re-entry into his community from any of the camp staff, and he doubted they could help at all, he said.
“There’s not really that much resource they can give you, just probably a couple hotlines you can call when you’re like in distress or something,” Chan said.
He had a probation officer when he got out, he said, though they had little interaction.
“She didn’t really talk to me,” Chan said. “I was supposed to see her once every two weeks, but I never seen her.”
Chan’s camp-induced paranoia gradually subsided and life began to normalize when he got a job several months later, without the help of his probation officer or anyone else in the probation system.
The county should have a program for helping people like him find jobs so “they understand how it works to be a grown person,” he said.
Since Chan was released, LA County Probation has introduced new resources to combat poor outcomes for youth coming out of juvenile camps and halls. Primary among them is the Camp Community Transition Program (CCTP). The program, which was put into place two years ago, was meant to provide services for young people transitioning from a juvenile camp or other placement to their home community.
CCTP aimed to be unique in that services and interaction with a probation officer would begin before release. After release, the goal was to have a probation officer supervise each youth intensely for 30 to 60 days to ensure school enrollment, and involvement with other community-based organizations and programs as needed.
However, many young people who have been released since CCTP began have not seen much difference in the quality of re-entry services.
Luis Zepeda, 19, has gone to juvenile camp three times. His most recent release was about a year ago, but his interaction with probation officers in camp and after his release was similar each time.
“I didn’t get no resources,” Zepeda said. “It was always punish, punish, punish, punish.”
He added: “Once you’re out, it’s like, [the probation officers are] done. They did their job once you’re in there. Once you’re out, you’re on your own.”
Zepeda eventually found help at Homeboy Industries, the LA-based gang recovery program founded by the Rev. Gregory Boyle. Homeboy gave Zepeda a job and the opportunity to participate in classes, attend therapy and build professional skills and life skills.
Zepeda has a younger brother, who also ended up in the system, and a newborn son. He feels responsible for showing them the way and keeping them out of trouble.
Most young people who get released from a juvenile camp “don’t know what’s in store for them,” he said. “They don't know how to go about getting a job. They don't know how to be respectful because I don't think they were ever taught to be like that.”
Eduardo Mora, 18, who was released from a juvenile camp for the fourth time a few months ago, expressed similar feelings toward LA’s juvenile probation services.
“[Probation officers] tell me, ‘You’re a gang member,’ like ‘You’re not going to do anything in life, you’re just gonna keep getting busted,’” Mora said.
Mora, who also landed a job at Homeboy Industries, said he feels that probation officers negatively stereotype the young people they work with.
“They see someone walking and they'll be like, ‘Oh, that’s a gang member,’ and he could just be a normal person who just wanted to shave his head,” Mora said.
LA County Probation Commissioner Azael “Sal” Martinez, a former gang member who also made several trips through the county juvenile justice system when he was younger, agreed with Mora’s observations. How a juvenile looks can affect the help they get from their probation officers, although this shouldn’t be the case, Martinez said.
“I can have a tie on, dress really nice, and your assessment, based on my appearance, is that I can be helped, versus me coming in with a beanie, white shirt and baggy pants,” Martinez said. “Too often, probation has already given up on the kid with baggy pants and a beanie — not because of assessment, but because of appearance.”
In LA, the Probation Commission is largely an advisory body, with two commissioners appointed by each member of the county board of supervisors. (Martinez was appointed by Hilda Solis, the former U.S. secretary of labor, now an LA County supervisor.) But, in his most recent term, Martinez has made it his special mission to make sure the department is giving young people adequate resources when they’re released.
With this goal in mind, starting in August 2015, Martinez conducted a series of unannounced visits to probation field offices. One of his primary purposes was to observe CCTP at work to see how the program was working. The reports from his visits make clear he was not pleased.
For instance, after his Aug. 27 visit to the CCTP’s San Gabriel area office, his report was scathing:
“... there are serious issues and concerns,” he wrote. “The visit was alarming and extremely unacceptable. There appears to be a disconnected relationship with the community and client. There is no relationship between staff, their clients and community based organizations.”
San Gabriel probation officers he observed seemed “complacent” and unprofessional, he wrote. Their methods of case planning were not consistent and they were not effectively using the resources available for their clients.
Most of these officers had less than 10 cases assigned to them, he wrote. Despite the low caseload, none of them could discuss a client’s case sufficiently when asked.
When Martinez made an unannounced field visit to the Pomona office, he found conditions similarly “unsatisfactory.”
All the minors were listed as being gang members or gang-involved in their files, but few had been offered appropriate resources for kids struggling with gang involvement, such as a referral to something called the Prospective Authorization Utilization Unit, which offers extra programs and services.
“Or the kid’s probation officer could tell the gang probation officer in the area to keep an eye out for him, so there was an extra set of eyes on him out in the street, to make sure he was doing OK,” Martinez said.
Juvenile probation officers in the Pomona office had no more than eight kids on their individual caseloads at the time of the visit, but their files showed they were not coming close to exhausting all the appropriate resources in any of their cases, Martinez said. He also found that violation reports “requesting an excessive sanction on a minor” were filed for some of the youth, without any record of utilizing less extreme methods first.
“In one case, a few weeks before, the probation officer had written in her report that the probationer was an excellent kid,” Martinez said. “And now, without trying any kind of services or intervention, she wanted to lock him back up in juvenile hall.”
His assessment after his visits were completed: “There is a delay of services and breakdown in providing services.”
Proper assessment by probation officers is crucial, or “we’re going to lose [kids] to the pipeline and they’re going to end up in prison,” Martinez said.
Spending time matters
Though Martinez’s reports reflect poorly on some juvenile probation officers and their supervisors, he made a point of saying that in spite of the problems with the system, there are other probation officers who work hard to help their young clients.
Lily Anda is one such officer. She says the necessary services are available for released youths. However, the officer must spend time getting to know the client, and often their family, to determine exactly what resources will benefit the person most, she said.
In cases where the family is part of the problem, the job of the probation officer, and other adults in the juvenile’s life, such as school counselors, is to be the support system.
“No matter what, you can’t change your family and you can’t change your parents. But if you have a probation officer who’s pushing you, and a counselor who’s pushing you, and your teacher who’s pushing you,” this constitutes a positive support group, “and then you will see change,” Anda said.
In April 2015, a team of researchers headed by Dr. Denise Herz, of California State University, Los Angeles, released a study measuring outcomes of juvenile probation in Los Angeles County. The study, which was overseen by The Advancement Project, and funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation, looked at the cases of every juvenile released from a camp or other placement during 2011.
The researchers found “a lack of integration between county departments,” said Kristine Chan, MSW, who was one of the primary researchers on the project.
Probation officers don’t have all the access they need to be as effective as they could be, she said. They are limited in the help they can provide a recently released young person because they don’t have a full picture of their background and individual needs.
The study triggered a motion passed by the LA County Board of Supervisors in September to establish a work group that would address the issues the report raised.
The motion said: “... juvenile justice youth and their families … may require evidence-based trauma informed mental health services, substance abuse treatment, health services, educational services, housing or other supports … It is unsound to continue placing these youth back into the same situations without additional support and then expect different outcomes.”
So far, according to Martinez and others, little has improved.
David Muhammad, the former chief of probation for Alameda County, now a leader in criminal and juvenile justice, also has ideas about how the re-entry system in Los Angeles County can become more effective.
“We, first and foremost, need to continue to reduce the number of youths in the system,” he said.
If there are fewer young people put in juvenile camps and other placements, fewer young people will need re-entry services, Muhammad explained. Additionally, fewer young people in the system means more resources and services can be refocused on the kids who need it most.
The population in juvenile halls and camps has decreased by 34 percent since 2004 in an attempt to only commit individuals who commit higher-level offenses, according to the LA County Probation Department’s website. With lesser offenses, such as shoplifting, fare evasion or possession of alcohol, probation tries to divert some young people to other programs such as community service, counseling or some form of educational classes.
But Muhammad believes the camp and hall population can and should be reduced more. There is a lot more state funding now for re-entry services, but the money is not being appropriated effectively, he said.
“If you talk to young people and their families, they don’t see that resource, very little of it,” Muhammad said. “A lot of that is pure bureaucracy and a lack of interest and passion of folks who are resource holders that don’t do enough to get that money and those resources to youths, to families directly and also to service providers.”
Muhammad is now working for Impact Justice, a national innovation and research center focused on reducing the number of people involved in the justice system. And in the last few years he has helped develop the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a nonprofit organization founded by film producer Scott Budnick in 2013 that provides services and support to former and current inmates.
Though ARC has seen tremendous growth in the three years since its founding, Muhammad said they, along with all re-entry-focused organizations, could be doing more for formerly incarcerated young people.
“Service providers, [ARC] included, have to improve. We have to improve our reach in terms of making sure that all of the young people that are coming home from those areas of detention camps and out-of-home placements know about our services and that we’re providing quality services to those young people,” he said.
However, Martinez and other juvenile advocates say there is a fundamental disconnect between the young people coming out of LA County’s juvenile camps and the help the county can and should be giving them.
“They’re trying to survive in an environment that doesn’t open doors for them,” Martinez said. “It’s the probation department’s job to open those doors.”
I knew I didn’t look good, but after a day of ice packs and Netflix, I was getting used to it. The curve of skin where my nose met my face had been cracked open. A bright purple crescent bloomed across my puffy cheek, swooping out from the inner corner of my right eye.
“A girl did that to you?” my coworkers asked when I came back to the office, wincing at the sight. “Why?”
It was the same question I’d asked in the emergency room, waiting to find out if my nose was broken, and the same question I tried to answer a year later while reporting a story on girls in the juvenile justice system.
I was headed home on a warm night in Washington, D.C., in May 2012 when I saw the girl. As we parted ways, the friend I’d met for dinner asked if I’d be OK getting back from the metro station. It was a 20-minute walk to the basement apartment I rented a few blocks off H Street Northeast. After decades in decline, the strip was changing fast, with quirky bars that served craft beer popping up near closed storefronts and inexpensive nail salons.
I’d lived in the area for more than a year, so, I knew which blocks to avoid. And although at first I’d felt self-conscious as a white person living in a mostly black community, I’d quickly realized I was pretty much invisible to the teenagers who hung out in the neighborhood.
So when I noticed a group of young people in front of a row house across the street as I walked home, I didn’t think much of it — until the girl started to drift towards me on a diagonal path. She seemed drunk or high, maybe. I thought she might want money. I’d recently heard a woman asking for $8 so she could feed her daughter; I figured it was the cost of a hit of something.
I quickened my pace and pointed my city stare straight ahead as if I didn’t see the girl. But my body tightened as I felt her loop behind me. Still, it seemed alarmist to run or scream. I half-expected her to shout “Boo!” and break into peals of laughter, glad to have made me sweat. This was a joke, I decided, and on a dark street with no one else around, I wasn’t going to jeopardize it by doing something off script.
A few seconds later, I realized the two guys with her had cut into the middle of the street and were walking parallel to us, blocking me from crossing to the other side. It was not a joke. I could feel the girl close behind me — too close. My knees strained with each step against the pencil skirt I’d worn to work that day. My heels clicked against the pavement like a metronome, the sound suddenly louder than anything else.
“I have a headache,” she said, the only thing I remember hearing her say.
I clenched the long strap of my purse against my hip and wished I had written down my credit card numbers and put the passcode back on my iPhone. I was at once terrified and strangely calm. After five years of living in the district, I reasoned, it was finally my turn to get mugged.
What happened next took me totally by surprise. As I braced for her to rip my bag away, the girl hooked a punch around my right ear. I touched the blood gushing from my nose and remembered that a teenager had once randomly clocked my friend Tim on the Philadelphia subway. “So that’s what it feels like,” I thought.
I realized in disbelief that my bag was still on my shoulder. I looked inside to find my phone and wallet still there. By the time my legs realized it was time to run, my assailants were gone. I ran anyway, hiking my skirt up over my knees, looking over my shoulder, dashing into someone’s yard and listening for footsteps before I decided it was safe to keep going. Before long I ran into a man who walked me across the street to a 7-Eleven where several police cars were parked.
The officer who took my report told me it sounded like a textbook gang initiation. Hitting me was something the girl had to do to be accepted, to prove she was tough. I couldn’t fault her choice of victim — at five foot five and 125 pounds, I don’t exactly look like the kind of person who will hit back, especially in a peach-colored dress shirt. But as I lay on a gurney in the ER, waiting for a CT scan, I knew I was lucky. It could have been much worse. And for that girl, I knew it was.
I wondered what went through her mind before she put her fist in my face. She seemed numb but also hesitant, scared. Why was she there that night? What had gone so wrong for her to make this choice? Did she feel bad for hurting me? Did she laugh about it?
Would she do it again?
Next time, would it be easier?
I never got to ask her those questions, but I still wanted to know the answers. Reporting for JJIE, I talked to researchers who study female gang members, practitioners who work with female juvenile offenders and girls who’ve been through the court system. They confirmed that while what happened to me was random, the circumstances that drive girls to commit violence aren’t. Dysfunctional homes and neighborhoods, tumultuous relationships, physical and sexual abuse, mental illness and a lack of adult support all play a part.
Buddy Howell, a researcher at the National Gang Center, told me girls who get involved with gangs take on even greater risks.
“The gang is like a mirage to young people,” he said. “The major reason they give for joining the gang is protection, but the irony is that they're more likely to be victimized if they join a gang."
I did find one bright spot in my conversations with researchers. Dana Peterson, a professor at the University at Albany School of Criminal Justice, told me studies contradict the popular lore that once someone enters a gang, it’s for life. Many young people who join do move on, she said.
"It doesn't mean that they don't have some kind of serious experiences or cons from even a short-term gang involvement,” she added.
My nose healed and my black eye faded a few weeks after the assault. The small patch of dried blood on my shirt came out in the wash. I’m more careful of where I walk at night and I look over my shoulder a lot, but I can still do the things I want to do. Not long after I was attacked, I watched friends get married in New Orleans, traveled to Romania for work and then moved to New York to start grad school.
I don’t know what happened to the girl who hit me. I doubt I’d even recognize her if I saw her on the street today. In my memories of that humid night, she’s a faceless person with a short haircut, a blue t-shirt and a headache.
I do know she needs help. If she hit me because a couple of guys wanted her to, I worry about what else they can get her to do. If she grew up surrounded by violence, like some of the girls I interviewed, she needs to find other tools to resolve conflict.
I’m not sure she will get the support she needs behind bars, if that’s where she is now. She may be worrying about her own safety. Or she might feel that the system has given up on her and her fate is to grow into the role of an adult criminal.
A few months ago I spoke with a young woman just before her release from a juvenile facility. I asked her what about leaving she was looking forward to.
“I want to go back to a real school,” she said. She told me that in the classes she attended while in custody, the teachers didn’t care when kids put their heads down on their desks. Fights broke out frequently, and the other girls always had a point to prove.
“I’m too different for this,” she told me. “I got in trouble, but this is not who I was supposed to be.”
CHICAGO - Violence stalks Chicago’s streets, but when faced with staunchly rising homicide rates that show no sign of ebbing, residents’ capacity to tolerate the state of crime drains by the day.
After Hadiya Pendleton performed with her high school marching band during the presidential inauguration two weeks ago, the King College Prep teen became Chicago’s 42nd homicide victim of 2013 when she was gunned down on Chicago’s South Side – the unintended victim of a gang dispute.
Her death added to a January homicide toll that was the bloodiest since 2002, according to Chicago Police reports, suggesting that despite wide attention to Chicago’s murder woes, shifts in policing strategy and big promises by powerful politicians, there will be no immediate respite to the escalating violence that claimed more than 500 in 2012.
The ups and downs of Chicago’s homicide toll over the past six years/Graphic by Lynne Carty/The Chicago Bureau
Perhaps it’s because Pendleton performed for Obama, or maybe because she starred in an anti-gang public service announcement four years ago (Pendleton PSA) pleading for an end to the chaos, but the nation has embraced this 15-year-old as a symbol and not just another statistic.
As for those who study crime, who write about it and opine about it in Chicago, the nation’s murder capital, the question remains whether it will really matter:
“There is action because of the attention but it is not clear that it will work,” said University of Illinois at Chicago’s Dick Simpson, a known political expert and former alderman who recently studied the nexus of drugs, gangs and police corruption.
The recent moves by City Hall and police brass, for example, are not only an open question for Simpson but do not impress the likes of Tracy Siska, whose organization, The Chicago Justice Project, analyzes and presents on police data and statistics.
“The [high crime, and particularly this sensational murder] is nothing new to Chicago and the faux responses will also be nothing new,” he said. “You will see the police author some new plan to ‘really impact violence’ that has little chance of impacting violence.”
So what will it take to really dent the violence that stains the city and its reputation as a tourist, business and social destination? Siska, who recently analyzed crime and economic data in a column posted on the Bureau, said there will be no unraveling the riddle of Chicago’s high crime until the city’s native cycle of poverty is given real attention and ultimately fixed.
“Nothing,” Siska told the Bureau Friday, “will change until we start talking about changing the horrific economic conditions of these communities and the flow of easily available guns from the suburbs of Chicago.”
With gun control dominating public policy debate at every level of government since the Sandy Hook mass shooting, which claimed 20 children, Pendleton’s death is another source of pressure for the nation’s leaders to deliver on anti-violence promises.
Yet strip away Pendleton’s connection to the president – whose Chicago home is a short distance from the murder scene – as well as the politically charged timing of her death, and she becomes like any other bright-eyed victim of rampant child violence.
The fact is that in many neighborhoods, Chicago’s streets, front yards and parks aren’t safe for children to play, and the reasons for that have only increased despite the youth task forces and anti-violence efforts.
In addition, Chicago has pounced on anti-gun initiatives with sweeps, gun swaps and new laws. Hoping to clean the streets of so much weaponry, Chicago Police have turned to gun buybacks. They have staged weapons raids and strictly enforced gun laws by tacking on taxes – and potentially more severe sentences – for committing a crime using, or in possession of, a weapon.
Does it count for much?
Pendleton was hanging out with friends after school in a neighborhood park when an unknown assailant shot her in the back on Tuesday. She died at the scene, but another boy was wounded in the leg and transported to the hospital. It’s an all too familiar scenario for those working in violence reduction, and although Emanuel’s news conference following the tragedy has been met with both doubt and support, activists largely agree that crime is a symptom of deeper-set social illness.
Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence, which employs interruption methods to address crime in individual neighborhoods, sympathized with the mayor’s move to do all he could in the immediate wake of Pendleton’s death. However, he said a complete understanding of Chicago’s violence requires viewing crime as an epidemic to be eradicated through a public health, disease control outreach approach.
“Violence feeds on itself,” Slutkin said of analyzing rising homicide rates in recent months. “The problem has been so refractory for so many years that it hasn’t been completely diagnosed, completely understood. It actually operates through our brain processes of copying and of social belonging, and so you have to use the sciences of interruption and behavior change to effectively get reductions.”
He added that although Pendleton’s story certainly deserves the media spotlight, it’s more imperative that solutions to systemic violence are equally addressed.
In many ways, Emanuel and McCarthy, experts are saying, have reached back to the days of Mayor Richard M. Daley and past police bosses like Terry Hillard with an inching toward more, and closer, interaction between the cops who police our streets and those who live here, run the businesses and community organizations who try to prop up the most at-risk residents and neighborhoods.
The push then, mostly in the 1990s and through the early 2000s, was called community policing and was credited, in some circles, with vastly reducing crime – both nonviolent and violent – in Chicago. But pundits love to dismiss politicians and while others are looking for answers in what Emanuel and McCarthy announced, others, including the union, see it as grandstanding by a mayor who has seen problems with the schools, with violence, with city’s finances, among other issues, in his short tenure.
McCarthy can still stand on statistics showing an overall dip in crime to the lowest level in years. But the sensational – the talked-about – statistic is murder, and Chicago ended 2012 as the nation’s bloodiest city. The murder capital of the United States once again.
In fact, so much has been tried in Chicago, and so much has fallen short – including strict anti-gun laws – that the city is frequently pointed to as an example of where the local anti-gun measures have actually proven a catalyst for the high number of killings here. Rather than blunt crime, the pro-gun lobby has said the strict control over guns in Chicago has contributed to the violence.
That, according to other academic, health and law enforcement studies, is nonsense, with anti-gun groups arguing that more guns leads to more opportunity to kill by intention or accident.
Still, for all the high-minded talk, what the conversation for most Chicagoans and most in the nation boils to is this: A 15-year-old majorette, who spoke out against violence, who did well in school, who was very much a part of her family and neighborhood, is gone. There is now a $30,000 reward for anyone who can provide information about her death.
“These were good kids by everything that I learned,” McCarthy said at a Wednesday news conference. “Wrong place at the wrong time.”
Bureau reporters Safiya Merchant and Lynne Carty contributed to this report
Gang members may be using the Internet to commit crimes – more so than non-gang members – according to a study published in October by JRSA Forum, the official newsletter of the Justice Research and Statistics Association. The study examined the crossover between gang-associated activities and Internet use.
“Gang Offending and Online Behavior,” written by Arizona State University’s Scott H. Decker and Sam Houston State University’s David Pyrooz, involved 585 interviews with current and former gang members in five cities, including Cleveland, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
According to the researchers, the average age of the subjects ranged from 25 for current gang members to 28 for ex-gang members, while young people that did not self-identify as gang members reported an average age of 23. Males made up 80 percent of the interviewees, with Hispanics representing the predominant ethnic group evaluated.
Regarding non-criminal online activity, approximately 80 percent of all three groups (current gang members, ex-gang members and non-gang members) reported regular Internet use. Researchers said that the primary function of Internet applications for the population was social networking, with about 90 percent of interviewees reporting that they frequently watched videos on YouTube while 80 percent of respondents reported using sites like Facebook. About 21 percent of non-gang members reported using Twitter, while 15 percent of current gang members and 11 percent of former gang members reported using the service.
The researchers listed eight types of illegal online activity, which ran the gamut from selling stolen goods on online auction sites to conducting web searches to pinpoint potential robbery sites. The study found that 43 percent of current gang members had committed an online crime over the last six months, with the three most prevalent activities consisting of illegally downloading movies or music, uploading “deviant” videos - primarily, footage of street fights - and participating in assaults precipitated by online communication.
Only about one third of non-gang members and former gang-members reported engaging in such online behaviors - a discrepancy the researchers consider to be statistically significant.
“In comparing gang members to non-gang members and former gang members, it is clear that the impact of gang membership on crime also holds for online criminal activities,” the authors conclude. “It is clear that offenders and the groups they offend in are using the Internet to further criminal activities.”
CHICAGO-- Although gangs are a chronic problem in many urban and suburban areas of the nation, this city included, certain aspects of gang life don’t receive the attention – and therefore the resources – necessary to combat them.
In particular, the sexual exploitation of girls by gangs is a serious problem currently facing law enforcement, courts, educators and social service programs across the country, according to a panel that met this week to discuss the issue.
“The top thing that sexually abused, victimized girls say they want in treatment and in custody is someone to talk to,” said speaker Keith Burt, a retired deputy district attorney and former Chief of the Gang Prosecution Division in San Diego. “Someone they feel they can trust, that they can just talk to.”
Although the speakers acknowledged males and transgender individuals suffer from sexual exploitation by gangs, the victims are overwhelmingly female. Burt also stressed that it’s important to remember these youth are not child prostitutes, but actually victims of horrible sexual abuse imposed by sophisticated perpetrators.
“What we do know about exploiters is that they are very organized,” said Jenee Littrell, who directs the guidance and wellness program at Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego, and has experience working with sexually victimized students. “[Exploiters] are making a lot of money out of this. They have a huge investment in staying ahead of us, and frankly, they’re able to respond and move their systems way faster than we are. So the more that we can do to share our information and stay tight together… then the more responsive we’re going to be able to be in identifying and preventing students from falling into this.”
Alfredo Nambo, the principal at Latino Youth High School in Chicago’s Little Village, has encountered similar problems of general sexual violence among his female students involved in gang life.
“Not only does [sexual violence] happen, but there's not a support system for them to come out and get those services that they need,” Nambo said. “And so they suffer in silence that way.”
Nambo’s frustration with the lack of resources for this “rampant” problem was echoed during the webinar. Other problems include limited access to juvenile records and a lack of options for law enforcement when dealing with the victims.
For example, officers have typically been limited to charging youth as underage prostitutes. But the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010, decriminalized sex-trade involvement for children younger than 18. Deemed unable to consent to their own commercial sexual exploitation, minors are no longer considered perpetrators or juvenile prostitutes. And states across the nation continue to pass legislation against human trafficking.
Some states are even developing progressive programs to address the unique situations of these victims. Burt, for example, mentioned the Hawai’i Girls Court as an example of the judicial system effectively addressing the specific needs of girls who have been sexually victimized by gangs. According to its website, the Hawai’i Girls Court boasts an all-female staff and is “one of the first courts in the United States built on a full range of gender-specific and strength-based programming with a caseload targeting female juvenile offenders.”
The Hawai’i Girls Court is just one example of promising methods for addressing the issue. But beyond big scale approaches like a gender-tailored family court, Burt and Littrell stressed collaboration with victims as a means to better understand their situations and move forward together. In response to a question about what small businesses could do to address sexual exploitation by gangs in their immediate communities, Burt suggested owners could essentially befriend the victims. Instead of seeing victims as aliens or a part of a crime problem in front of their business, Burt said this approach could really make a difference.
“You’d be surprised at what information [you] can get, what little thing may… turn the tide for one of these victims in terms of changing her life,” Burt said.
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.