LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County Supervisors are scheduled to vote today on a motion determining whether or not they will give the go-ahead to a comprehensive plan for a countywide youth diversion program designed to redirect the trajectories of thousands of LA youth who would otherwise be headed for the juvenile justice system.
A committee established this year wrote a detailed, highly researched report on youth diversion strategy, with the goal of “minimizing youth contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system.”
The report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” outlines a three-phase strategy that, according to one of its authors, could have the first stage of the proposed new diversion program up and running within 18 months — or even less.
If fully implemented, the roadmap has the potential to make Los Angeles County, which has the largest juvenile justice system in the U.S., one of the nation’s “most forward thinking counties” in improving the wellbeing of kids who might otherwise struggle with “the lifelong consequences of justice system involvement,” the report said.
Although there is a great deal of variation in diversion programming nationwide, a wide array of research has established that involvement with the justice system produces long-lasting collateral damage for young people.
Justice contacts such as arrest, probation supervision and stays in juvenile lockups are not only stigmatizing but interrupt the young person’s positive development and, lead to an increased risk for dropping out of high school, along with additional childhood trauma. Even one justice system contact reportedly greatly hikes the risk of further justice system contact.
This kite string of consequences too often follows kids into adulthood, affecting one’s ability to earn, leading to increased family disruption and a markedly increased risk of adult incarceration.
About 11,000 youth arrests were reported throughout Los Angeles County in 2015, the report said, “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies,” which would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation, under the California Welfare and Institutions Code.
Los Angeles County has made progress in reducing the number of arrests and citations for kids in the last 12 years. According to Department of Justice statistics, the total number of youth arrests and citations plummeted from 56,286 arrests and citations in 2005 to 13,665 in 2015.
This is in part due to a general long-term drop in youth crime, which was helped when, through the passage of Senate Bill 81, the “Juvenile Justice Realignment Bill” signed into law in 2007 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state drastically reduced and reformed its scandal-plagued California Youth Authority (basically a prison system for youth), and directed that all but a very small percentage of law-breaking juveniles be kept in California’s counties instead of far away from home in the mostly cleaned-up state facilities.
But, as the report points out, the statistical change was also a product of a concerted effort by child advocates and others to reduce “youth involvement in the justice system” altogether, “through collaborative, data-driven efforts” to persuade county officials to treat low-level misbehaviors as a flag that a youth needs help, not a reason to call police.
LA County Probation is now working to close as many of its juvenile camps as is possible, and to turn those remaining camps and juvenile halls into therapeutic, research-guided, “trauma-informed” environments that help and heal, not punish. Campus Kilpatrick, which opened this past summer, is the flagship and pilot for the department’s new ethic.
Juvenile facilities are expensive and have notoriously poor statistical outcomes. For instance, the cost per youth per year in an LA County juvenile probation camp is estimated at more than $247,000, with a recidivism rate (as defined by rearrest within one year) of approximately 33 percent.
In contrast, there are successful community-based organizations such as Centinela Youth Services, which has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a restorative justice diversion program that keeps youth who qualify out of the juvenile system if they break the law. This Juvenile Arrest Diversion Program, or JADP, costs an average of $4,000 or less per youth, with a recidivism rate of 8 to 11 percent.
Another urgent reason for the new program to be voted on today, according to juvenile advocates, is the matter of racial disparities.
Even as juvenile arrests declined throughout LA County, racial disparities have grown. Youth of color continue to be disproportionately impacted at all stages of the juvenile justice system, when controlling for offense, and represent 95 percent of youth in the county’s probation camps and juvenile halls.
Early in the process, the ad-hoc Youth Diversion Subcommittee, supported by consultants from the nonprofit research center Impact Justice, set out five basic goals for the new plan:
- Increasing and improving collaboration between law enforcement, community-based organizations and other youth-serving agencies;
- Reducing the overall number of youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
- Reducing racial and ethnic disparities in youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
- Increasing the number of youth who are connected to services that address their underlying needs without acquiring an arrest or criminal record;
- Improving health, academic, economic and other outcomes for youth.
This story was written for WitnessLA.
This month marks one year since the passage of Proposition 57, a California ballot measure that prohibited district attorneys from filing charges against youth as young as 14 directly in adult criminal court through a practice known as “direct file.” The initiative passed with 64 percent of the vote, signaling strong popular support for curtailing prosecutorial authority and expanding access to the rehabilitative benefits of the juvenile justice system.
While juvenile courts are premised on rehabilitation and required to provide young people with education, mental health and other age-appropriate services, the adult criminal justice system offers no such guarantee. Youth placed in adult courtrooms are exposed to the trauma of stigmatizing, high-stakes proceedings and may face lengthy adult sentences devoid of rehabilitative opportunities. Furthermore, youth prosecuted and convicted as adults are saddled with lifelong criminal records, severely limiting access to education, housing and employment, and potentially impacting their right to vote or their immigration status.
Research supports the notion that adult court prosecution is fundamentally inappropriate for young people. Studies comparing youth tried in juvenile courts to those processed as adults find that criminal prosecution is associated with poorer mental health outcomes, including higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and elevated risk of rearrest after release. Though proponents of these policies claim they are necessary to deter serious crime, research has linked direct file, transfer and waiver policies to increased levels of youth violence.
Though the burden of these laws falls most heavily on youth relegated to criminal courts, the effects also filter into the juvenile justice system, disadvantaging young people who retain their status as juveniles. In states that permit prosecutors to exercise discretion over transfer petitions or the filing of adult charges, the very threat of criminal prosecution can be used to exact unfavorable plea agreements, exposing young people, unnecessarily, to additional juvenile justice system contact.
Fortunately, decadeslong reductions in youth crime have allowed the pendulum of juvenile justice policymaking to swing towards common-sense reforms that honor youthfulness and emphasize treatment over punishment. In California, Proposition 57 ensures that youth are no longer subject to unchecked prosecutorial authority and cannot be criminally prosecuted without first receiving a transfer hearing in juvenile court.
All California youth are now presumed suitable for the treatment and care of the juvenile court, and prosecutors carry the burden of proving otherwise. By law, California juvenile court judges must look beyond the seriousness of a young person’s offense and consider the “totality of the circumstances,” including their social history, mental health, level of participation in the offense and success with prior interventions, when determining whether they can be transferred to adult criminal court. By abolishing direct file and establishing a higher standard of proof for transferring youth to the adult criminal justice system, California is expected to prosecute many fewer youth as adults in the coming years.
Several other states have introduced reforms aimed at correcting longstanding overreliance on punitive, criminal sanctions for young people. Recently, New York and North Carolina used their budget processes to expand the age bounds of their juvenile justice systems to ensure that 16- and 17-year-old youth can no longer be automatically placed in adult courtrooms.
In Indiana, state law now permits youth to be processed in juvenile court for any remaining lesser charges if they are tried and acquitted for a more serious offense in adult criminal court. This prevents prosecutors from gaining unfettered access to criminal prosecution through overcharging. In 2016, the Vermont Legislature granted original jurisdiction to the court’s Family Division in all youth misdemeanor cases and in select youth felony cases, ensuring that most young people are processed in juvenile rather than adult criminal court.
Though incremental, these reforms have the potential to lessen criminal justice system involvement for thousands of youth, bringing the U.S. one step closer to ending the unjust prosecution of youth as adults and delivering on the full rehabilitative promise of the juvenile justice system.
Misguided and reactionary policymaking eroded the core values and protections of the juvenile justice system throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Yet relics of these policies remain, contrasting starkly with current realities. State lawmakers must heed contemporary research, record-low rates of youth crime and increasing public support for progressive justice reforms, and act now to halt the inhumane treatment of youth as adults.
Maureen Washburn is a member of the policy and communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.
That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.
The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.
Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.
It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.
Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.
So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.
Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.
During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.
Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.
This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.
These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.
Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.
In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.
The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.
Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”
Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.
It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.
There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.
At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.
Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.
Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.
At 7 a.m., teenagers are scurrying to dress and head to class. There are no parents or older siblings nearby to push them out of bed and out the door. And the commute isn’t long — just a short walk from prison bed to classroom.
But these young men at the MacLaren Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, are going someplace — and that’s a start, state educators and justice officials say.
The students meander from four different buildings, depending on their status — some as young as 15 and others who were sentenced as adults but placed in juvenile facilities — down long corridors to a central school.
“MacLaren is a regular school, and if you were to walk in you’d think you’re in a high school hallway,” said Deborah Martin, senior policy advisor for community services at the Oregon Youth Authority.
The students get the usual array of math, English and science. But MacLaren and most of Oregon’s other youth detention facilities also offer the chance to learn a vocation. An advanced auto mechanics class ties to a partnership with a local community college. Classes teach latticework and woodworking. Some students learn wildlife preservation and take advanced classes in fighting wildfires common to the Pacific Northwest.
The most advanced students, usually in their late teens or early 20s who have spent years in the facility and are ready to transition into the public sector, are allowed to work with local firefighters out in the fields.
“As a state, we’ve made a conscious decision that we can’t just give them a high school education, but give them a vocation and a chance to succeed in the work world,” Martin said. “For most of these kids, something wasn’t quite right about their life — that’s why they came to us. We want to help them get back on track.”
Oregon is considered at the forefront of efforts to improve the transition from juvenile detention back to public schools or into the workforce, according to education and juvenile justice experts.
In addition to schoolwork, the state has set up a system in which each teenager entering the juvenile justice system is assigned a parole officer who will stick with them until they exit the system.
The officers serve as case managers, arranging counseling, mental and substance abuse treatment if needed and, working with the teens, teachers and their families, devise an education and support plan as soon as they enter the system.
Additionally, Oregon provides some juveniles with transitional parole officers whose job is helping the teens and young adults in their first reentry months. What began as a pilot program four years ago with a single officer has developed into a statewide assistance program that has put about 100 teens into the workforce and helped many more return to the classroom.
Jim Kramer, chief of parole and probation for the Oregon Youth Authority, said transition officers stay in specific regions so they know about job opportunities and can build contacts in local school systems. They mostly support youth 17 and older.
All students leaving detention facilities in the state must be admitted into local schools. But “let’s face it, in some of these schools our students are going back to places in class with some of their victims, so there is some pushback,” Kramer said. “Our transition POs work to soften that landing and work with the school and student to come up with a transition plan.”
National trend to reduce recidivism
Oregon’s attempt to ease the transition from lockdown to society is part of a larger national trend that experts say is tied to a steep drop in juvenile crime and recidivism.
In the past two decades, the population of young people held in juvenile facilities or other forms of detention has been cut in half nationwide, according to a study by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focusing solely on youth and their families.
The figures are encouraging, juvenile justice experts say, and show that more states are using data and lessons learned from comprehensive studies (such as one from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice in 2016) as blueprints for diversion and treatment programs that keep teens in school and ultimately make them far less likely to reoffend.
But the success of diversion programs has created a new reality for educators and justice professionals: Those who are locked up now are sometimes more hardened, more difficult to reach and present a challenge to educate and treat before and after they reenter society.
“What the data shows is that as incarceration rates have gone down, the population still incarcerated are higher risk and higher need, and recidivism rates still tend to be pretty high because it’s a challenging group to work with,” said Josh Weber, program director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York City.
“It requires a more nuanced reading of data and a more sophisticated understanding of risk placement and how to tailor education programs to the individual,” Weber said. “The juvenile field has done a good job, much better than the adult system, of keeping kids from coming back into the system. But I think we’re still struggling with developing enough programs for mental health and substance abuse.”
Recidivism and dropping out of school
Educating teens held in facilities is crucial to helping them return to the classroom when they are released, experts said. But that’s not always easy, in large part because of circumstances students can’t control. Some teens are in locked facilities for only a few days or weeks, making it difficult for teachers to learn the best ways to help them learn. Nearly all students can be pulled from classes for court appearances or other reasons related to their legal issues.
In all, two-thirds of teens released from juvenile facilities never return to school and “find themselves far behind their peers,” according to a study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focusing on disparities in the justice system — adult and juvenile.
“A huge problem, and I’m not sure it’s talked about enough, is the lack of transfer of academic credits when students go from a facility back into a local school system,” said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. “When they are going to school in a facility, they think they are getting credit, and they should be. But when they go back to their old school — or sometimes it’s even worse because they are forced to a new school away from where they live — they come to realize the school districts won’t accept those credits.”
That leads to frustration for the students and increases dropout rates, Burdick said.
National guidelines and action plans
Several states and local jurisdictions have implemented new rules to increase the chances that students graduate when leaving detention facilities. For example, New York — pushed into action by a lawsuit and consent decree — has created “credit equivalency charts” that provide uniform standards for integrating students back into the classroom. That includes efforts to make sure students are enrolled in schools in the same district in which they and their family live, increasing the odds they stay in school.
Virginia and Washington state have introduced legislation that speeds up the time between students leaving detention and being enrolled in a local school system.
The federal government has also created guidelines in recent years, aimed at smoothing the transition from detention to graduation. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines for disciplining students, part of an effort to keep teens in school and out of the justice system.
The guidelines stressed the need for strong partnerships among mental health agencies, counseling, law enforcement and school systems — designed to help divert students who might be sent to the juvenile justice system into counseling or specialized school programs. But the guidelines also focus on helping schools and students adapt as they leave lockdown facilities and return to public schools.
In 2016, the Department of Education released a “reentry toolkit” that provided tips and resources for local jurisdictions to provide services for students returning to the classroom.
Another program designed to help both adults and juveniles reenter society, the 2015 federal Second Chance Act, overcame efforts by the Trump administration to slash its budget by 30 percent as of press time. On July 14, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to provide full funding for the project at $68 million with support from both parties, according to committee member Scott Taylor, a Republican representing Virginia. The vote is seen as a key step in the budgeting process.
There is still much work ahead, said Weber of the Council of State Governments. States must do a better job gathering and analyzing case data that will help them craft more effective education programs to help teens graduate high school when they leave detention, he said.
“The good news is that the field is more aware of the need for having a more robust reentry program, and the planning starts much earlier,” Weber said. “It used to be that 30 days before release planning programs would begin. Now, from the moment they are placed in facilities, we see families involved, treatment planning with staff, making sure kids get re-enrolled in school as soon as they are released.”
Despite the difficulties, Weber and others said there are several concrete steps jurisdictions can take to improve the chances teens graduate after incarceration. First and foremost is having mental health and substance abuse treatment programs inside the facilities and in the school systems.
“We’re struck by how few states have a dedicated mental health or substance abuse system,” he said. “The default in many instances is to handle those problems as criminal justice issues, and that’s not where they belong.”
Last year several groups focusing on juvenile justice and education issues combined to create a detailed, 10-point blueprint to aid reentry. The study and guidelines, created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Bar Association Center of Children and the Law, the Juvenile Law Center and others, provides concrete examples and recommendations for states and local jurisdictions to follow.
Still, the success of any program depends on states dedicating money and time to ensure students have the best chance of graduating once they leave detention facilities, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center.
“There are software programs available, lots of innovative ways to engage students and tailor programs to individual needs,” Levick said. “But there has to be the will to do that.
“What’s always frustrated me is that these kids in locked facilities should have the same exact opportunities as kids on the outside. Yet we don’t hold facilities accountable for delivering the same quality of education. We have to really change that mindset if we want to see better outcomes.”
Trying to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline
The 2014 U.S. Department of Education’s “Guiding Principles A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline” articulates the federal government’s acknowledgement of inequity when it comes to school discipline:
“Nationwide, data collected by our Office for Civil Rights show that youths of color and youths with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspensions and expulsions. For example, data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although students who receive special education services represent 12 percent of students in the country, they make up 19 percent of students suspended in school, 20 percent of students receiving out-of-school suspension once ... and 23 percent of students receiving a school-related arrest.”
While the guidelines are nonregulatory, and “the extent to which states and school districts implement the suggestions in this resource guide is a matter for state and local school officials to decide,” it does provide 13 specific action steps designed to reduce suspensions and other out-of-school referrals.
- “Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.” This action item names groups of youth who are often disenfranchised — from those with disabilities to LBGTQ youth and young people of color. Specific goals may include reducing numbers of suspensions and expulsions and law enforcement referrals, and “identifying and connecting at-risk youths to tailored supports, or increasing the availability of quality mental health supports available for students.”
- “Train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner so as not to disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, or at-risk students.”
“Remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, ensure that alternative settings provide academic instruction, and return students to class as soon as possible.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that diverting individuals from the juvenile justice system, which is consistent with public safety and still holds offenders accountable, is generally a best-practice concept. This can have a significant impact on public safety by increasing successful life outcomes for young people. A crime prevented is far better than a crime successfully adjudicated.
Having spent my career in the juvenile justice field and now serving as a Virginia state senator, I have gone through a complete metamorphosis in my thinking on how best to deal with juvenile delinquency. Throughout most of my career, my efforts involved laying out ground rules for youngsters on probation and holding them accountable to those expectations while trying to help them through counseling (individual, group and family), changes in their education platform or opportunities for placement in residential treatment environments.
Mostly, I was in the lesson-teaching business, which I now believe to be a simplistic and largely unhelpful approach to changing behavior and providing public safety. I should have been focused on providing them with skills and better capacity to deal with their circumstances.
The best information regarding what works in changing the behavior of delinquent youth is to keep them out of court and out of placements. To this end, restorative justice programing can be a very effective tool that can be used by courts, police and communities to offer an alternative to the court appearance, investigation and probation that has been traditionally offered. Restorative justice is defined by the Center for Justice and Reconciliation as:
“A theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm created by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders which can lead to the transformation of people, relationships, and communities.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Norfolk, Virginia, Court Service Unit began to use restorative justice as a means to deal with their probation clientele. While this certainly had benefits, the impact and effectiveness of restorative justice could have had greater impact by using it as a diversion from traditional court/probation services. It brings all parts of the criminal justice system and the community together in an effort to focus on the child instead of the fulfillment of traditional justice system roles and responsibilities, which can take a protracted amount of time and be very frightening and confusing for low- to moderate-risk offenders.
Fairfax County, the county I represent in the state General Assembly, has introduced restorative justice into the diversion process. Virginia General Assembly authority was required to allow sharing information among the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Fairfax County Police Department, Fairfax City Police Department, Fairfax County Schools, Northern Virginia Mediation Service, Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services and other county agencies and nonprofits.
But it was not easy! The first time I introduced this legislation I was not aware that restorative justice was viewed negatively in the Virginia House of Delegates Courts Committee. While the measure moved easily through the Senate, this committee killed the bill based on a previous restorative justice effort that failed in the adult sector.
The following year we got the bill through with a different bill patron and no mention that it was a restorative justice program. Never underestimate the difficulty in obtaining legal authority just because something looks like a no-brainer. Titles and words matter. These efforts were a necessary step in authorizing Fairfax County to determine who was appropriate and eligible for the program.
These agencies are using restorative justice conferencing techniques as a:
- Proven approach to reduce the number of youth who are court involved and have criminal records;
- Hold youth accountable for their actions without exposing them to risk factors with having a criminal record;
- Create appropriate, incident-specific responses for each case;
- Reduce reocurrences of criminal acts by youth; and
- Provide support for victims to participate in identifying how their harm is addressed.
The program focuses on critical issues including:
- Reoffense and recidivism of harmful criminal and discipline acts;
- Minority over-representation of youth in criminal justice and disciplinary proceedings;
- Community stakeholder harm from youth crimes; and
- Victim impact.
Restorative justice used in this way brings county agencies, nonprofits and families together in responding to unacceptable criminal behavior in ways that improve a child’s opportunity for a better life outcome. Diversion gets services to kids quickly and sends a positive message to the child that he is not inherently bad but has made a mistake that can be rectified in ways that meet the goals of public safety, education and rehabilitation.
What I find most interesting in this diversionary restorative process is that it provides better mechanisms for police to have a role in ensuring future public safety, provides schools with an opportunity to avoid zero tolerance policies and maintain youngsters in their education process, and allows courts to focus on more serious offenders while allowing the community to deal with lower-risk youth.
For years police officers were taught they should just write up the charge but not judge it. What we are now asking officers to do in Fairfax is to have a role in screening and diverting offenders and reinforcing with them the notion that this is evidence-based crime prevention that improves the odds of a youth not reoffending.
I often joked with people during the legislative process that led to authorizing this in Fairfax County that the hardest thing for decision-makers in this process was to resist the urge to teach a sulking, smirking or indifferent child a lesson through detention or a court appearance and exercise what we now know is a best practice by minimizing that child’s penetration into the justice system. A court appearance and further disciplinary action is always available if restorative justice is unsuccessful.
Having our communities respond to the needs of our young people with timely, informal and best-practice alternatives to juvenile court is the growing wave of the future. This, combined with the use of structured decision-making instruments that help determine service needs and level of risk at the time of arrest and detention, can only lead to better decision-making and better outcomes.
Preserving the dignity and self-worth of youngsters in ways that are consistent with public safety can only lead to fewer young people leading criminal lifestyles. This is a less costly and more efficient means of responding to delinquent behavior than expensive court processes that lead to counterproductive residential care. Let’s keep moving in this direction.
Dave Marsden served as a probation officer, group home director and secure juvenile detention superintendent in Fairfax County, Virginia from 1970 to 1999. He was chief deputy and acting director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice from 2000-02 and also worked at the Development Services Group Inc. He has served in the Virginia General Assembly in the House of Delegates from 2006-10 and the state Senate from 2010 to the present.
Two 15-year-olds, Ryan and Michael, are both arrested for simple assault. While Michael is ordered to complete a diversion program, Ryan is to be locked up for six months in a juvenile facility. Why the difference in punishments? They live in different counties in Michigan.
Every youth, from Detroit to Marquette, deserves the same chance to overcome the mistakes of youth and reach his or her full potential. Simply put, that’s not happening today. Stakeholders have been talking for years about reforms needed that address geographical and racial disparities and that emphasize rehabilitation rather than punishment. Despite broad bipartisan support, the reforms have stalled.
Michigan’s current juvenile justice system is decentralized and inconsistent. Each county has its own complex system of jails, local courts, budgets and private providers. The entire system needs to be reformed so that it provides fair and equitable outcomes for all youth. For this to happen, all counties in Michigan need the tools to provide appropriate treatments that address the complex needs of youth in the system.
Research into brain development shows that a youth’s ability to reason and exercise sound judgment continues to improve well into their mid-20s. Since minors are likely to outgrow impulsive behavior, diversion programs and community treatment options better serve them. But currently counties in Michigan are not consistent on how and whether they use evidence-based diversion programs, treatment services and assessment tools.
Michigan's current approach is also expensive. Michigan is one of just five states that treat 17-year-olds as adults if they are charged with a crime. On average, locking youth in adult prisons costs taxpayers $34,000 a year per prisoner. Worse still, youth who serve time in prison are more likely to reoffend after being released back into their communities and are more likely to commit a violent offense than their peers in the juvenile justice system. The policy of adjudicating 17-year-olds as adults is at odds with the research that shows youth are better served by rehabilitative and positive youth development practices.
In spring 2016, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a Youth in Prison Legislative Package to address problems facing the system. The package passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but died in the Senate.
Stakeholders are currently renewing discussions to bring about change in Michigan’s juvenile justice system. It is important for this talk to turn into action. Going forward, policymakers should consider these guiding principles to achieve statewide improvements:
- Every young person deserves fair and effective support to become a productive, law-abiding adult.
- A child’s development and well-being greatly impact future success.
- Systems should be designed to meet the developmental characteristics unique to youth.
- Policies and practices should effectively identify and address disparities among vulnerable youth and marginalized communities.
- Public safety is improved when young people are given the opportunity to thrive.
- A child-serving system should use data and research to inform best practices and wisely invest.
Some local juvenile justice systems have taken the initiative to make improvements by investing in evidence-based assessments. Others are establishing diversion programs, school partnerships and effective community-based alternatives to detention and incarceration. But statewide reform is incomplete until this work is taken to scale and all 83 counties have the access, knowledge and resources to address the needs of justice-involved youth.
Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.
“Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family, a diverse family, a mighty, mighty family, headed to Albany, fighting for justice …”
NEW YORK — The civil rights marchers had gone about a mile and change into Wappinger Falls, a quaint village in Dutchess County, New York, when it was time for a bathroom break.
“Sometimes,” one of the marchers joked, “you need to take a bathroom break for justice.”
The three-vehicle caravan of a ramshackle school bus, a 12-foot Penske moving truck and a Toyota FJ Cruiser that had followed the marchers from Harlem all pulled to a stop at the curb.
The marchers had been walking for about an hour on a bleak and unseasonably cold and rainy September morning without incident when they decided to stop at a coffee shop along Main Street. A handful had been on foot from the starting point in Harlem on an 180-mile walk to Albany, New York, in an attempt to draw attention to the abuses in state prisons and, they hoped, bring about some reforms. Others had just joined the group a few hours ago.
A few of the marchers, a mix of white and black, young and old, gay, trans and straight, went inside the coffee shop to grab a hot drink to warm up They were a bedraggled bunch. Many had slept the night before on cots and inflatable mattresses in the sanctuary of a nearby church. So the warm, dry Ground Hog coffee shop was a welcome relief.
Stepping into the shop felt like stepping back in time to Mayberry or some other small-town idyll, aside from the cleverly named espresso drinks on the chalkboard like dirty chai latte or coconut moka. The chessboard-tiled floors, wooden tables and framed black-and-white photographs all had the feel of a timeless bit of Americana.
The customers, all of them white, lifted their heads up from breakfasts of French toast and omelets to observe the wet group of marchers ambling past, wearing a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky on the back of their T-shirts. It read: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
As the marchers lined up, the opening piano riff of Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird” came over the speakers. The man taking orders came out from behind the slatted wood counter and approached a 30-year-old black woman, one of the march’s organizers.
“You all need to leave,” he said. “You all need to get out. Now.”
“Why is that?” Lilly Oseitutu replied in a lilting London accent.
“We’re busy and can’t have you blocking up our establishment,” he snapped back.
The two squared off in the middle of the cramped dining room. Ronnie Van Zant sang, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”
“I don’t understand,” she replied making a deliberate effort to remain calm. “We’re paying customers. Why would we have to leave?”
The counter man was in no mood for an argument and shook his head.
“I want you back outside now,” he said.
“We’re not leaving,” she replied.
The man held his ground for a few beats, then shook his head in disgust and returned to his station behind the counter.
The woman went to the bathroom and left the shop a few minutes later.
“You’re damn right I’m not leaving, I’m a paying customer. What does he think this is?” she asked no one in particular. The patrons watched as the door shut behind her and “Free Bird” reached its rousing final chorus.
“Lord knows, I can’t change, Lord help me, I can’t change ...”
The march’s origins
When Soffiyah Elijah, the march’s leader and chief organizer, hears about the incident inside the coffee shop she is not surprised.
“Remember when I told you we were heading Up South,” she said. “This is Up
Elijah lifts her red megaphone to her mouth and leads the group in a new chant. They have a long way to go yet.
The nonprofit organization she founded and is executive director of, Alliance of Families for Justice, came up with the march. Here is an incomplete list of some of the abuses behind prison walls she is hoping to end. She has them printed on a pamphlet with a pair of black hands in handcuffs on one side and a white hand clutching a billy club on the other: Waterboarding. Mangled ears. Plastic bags held over prisoners’ faces. Teeth kicked out. Prisoners shackled and thrown down flights of stairs. Years spent in solitary confinement.
When the nation saw students punched and kicked for trying to integrate lunch counters, or marchers going from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, hit with billy clubs and tear gassed, it was outraged. That led to two signature pieces of civil rights legislation.
But, Elijah said, New Yorkers remain indifferent to the savagery in the state prisons that line the march’s route to Albany. That’s why she self-consciously borrowed from an effective civil rights tactic from the 1950s and 1960s. She wants to get people to see that the injustices plaguing the modern criminal justice system have parallels to the past. She sees a profound disconnect between how people lionize the work done in the civil rights movement but remain oblivious to the need for one in present.
It’s a paradox that frustrates Elijah and many who have dedicated themselves to the work of making reforms to the state’s criminal justice system — from the juvenile justice system to adult prisons. She, like many activists and advocates for juvenile justice reform and ending abuses behind prison walls, gets frustrated that the public does not see this as an urgent civil rights catastrophe going in New York state. It’s a partisan issue at best that gets bogged down in predictable policy debates in Albany.
All the while, people like Elijah, the alliance board and its members, made up mostly of volunteers who have seen firsthand what happens behind bars in New York state or who have family there now, watch as children and adults, a staggering number of them black and brown, get beaten out of sight in one of the prisons nestled deep in the bucolic woods and farms of the Hudson Valley.
She thinks the 21st century is in as desperate need for a civil rights movement as the 20th century was, and that the work started then is not done. It’s something she learned working as a defense attorney for decades.
“I started to grasp what my client’s families were going through,” she said. “Particularly mothers and spouses, mothers and partners, fathers and what they were going through. And the agony that they experienced having someone incarcerated. And they would suffer in silence, there was nowhere for them to go, there was no organization, there was nothing. They wouldn’t tell their pastor, they wouldn’t tell their fellow parishioners, frequently they wouldn’t tell other relatives. They would say, ‘Oh Johnny went down South to visit his relatives,’ but like I said, Up South.”
Elijah first stepped into a New York prison because she was in love. She was 17 and her boyfriend was in Auburn Correctional Facility. He was a few years older and was in for a drug charge. His older siblings had already died of heroin overdoses. Elijah was a freshman at Cornell University, an elite private school about 30 miles from the prison. She scheduled her classes so she would have Thursdays free.
“He was someone that I knew that I cared about,” she said. “So I went.”
On her class-free days she would go to the Greyhound station, take the bus to Auburn and visit him.
“I didn’t tell anybody,” Elijah said. “My parents went to their grave never knowing.”
Although she didn’t know it at the time, she said, those visits to the prisons were making a mark on a teenage girl that would shape the lawyer, prison reformer and civil rights advocate she would become.
“What struck me was that everybody in the visiting room being visited looked like me, and all the guards looked like you,” she said, motioning to a white man. “And that was really stark to me, really stark.”
Elijah explained the origins of her brainchild, the March for Justice, sitting on a beat-up metal chair at a rickety foldout table in the lobby of the Unitarian Universalist church in Poughkeepsie, New York. Just down the hall in the sanctuary is where she would be spending the night with the rest of the marchers.
“The other thing that was stark to me was that I saw so many people from my neighborhood in that prison who I had thought had gone down South to visit relatives. I didn’t know they had gone Up South.”
Elijah’s Alliance of Families for Justice is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. She conceived of the March for Justice, a 180-mile walk from Harlem’s National Black Theater to Albany’s Capitol Building, as a way to be more aggressive in getting out the message of prison abuse.
She witnessed those abuses first-hand while she was the executive director of the Correctional Association, from 2011 until last year. It is the only private organization in the state with the legal authority to access prisons. The legislature granted it the authority in 1846 to inspect prison conditions and report back to the public.
But Elijah felt the association wasn’t doing enough for families, so she founded the Alliance to support incarcerated people and people with criminal records, and their families. Its purpose is also to mobilize people to put pressure on the political system to make sweeping institutional change. That was part of the inspiration for the March for Justice.
“When you are trying to move people you have to deal with their hearts and minds, and you can’t do hearts and minds on the phone,” she said. “You have to literally bring it to their living rooms, or at least to their neighborhood — the March for Justice brings it to people’s neighborhood, it brings it to their churches, their houses of worship.”
Justice, but first forms and stretches
It’s not even 9 a.m. on Sunday morning and Lilly Oseitutu in her second church. She describes herself as the “co-logistical coordinator of the whole damn thing.” She walks around the lobby with three clipboards with forms for new arrivals looking to join the march. One is for an emergency contact in case anything happens on the way.
After all the new arrivals fill out their forms they head into a wide hallway of the Beacon Light Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church. Oseitutu takes a head count — 15 will march today — and turns the crowd over to Elijah. Outside it’s gray and overcast with a cold steady drizzle. Elijah speaks the letter “S.” Bill, who wears a long scraggly beard and camouflage and seems like a veteran of the civil rights battles of the 1960s, leans toward a newcomer and whispers, “When Miss Elijah says ‘S’ it means be quiet.”
Elijah turns to the group and flashes a broad, warm smile.
“Welcome to the March for Justice,” she said. “We’re scheduled to do 14 miles in the rain!
“I’m going to start with the importance of following leadership. Oseitutu and I call all the shots. When in doubt,” and then she paused and corrected herself. “I’m not even going to say the word doubt. Just ask us. If anything comes up — ask. If we say get off the road and on the bus, you will get off the road and onto the bus.
“We have a long road ahead of us. There will be times when you can’t be heard and we’ll say reserve your voices and just march. And when we say that, just march.”
After she laid out the importance of leadership, it was time for chi. Every morning Elijah leads the marchers in a series of stretches designed to get people’s chi going. She jokes that you can’t get justice without the chi. After series of twists, toe grabs and leg stretches it’s time to hit the road.
“This is a good time for a bathroom break because we don’t know where the next bathroom will be. So now is the time!”
Bathrooms, snacks, potential allergies volunteer marchers might have, roads with shoulders, alerting police departments, routes, alternative routes, places that will have outlets to charge phones, accommodations, sleeping arrangements, laundry — when you spend a few days on the March for Justice you get a sense of how much of the work is dedicated to a dizzying array of minutiae, tasks and navigating around unexpected obstacles that pop up, both major and minor.
Everyone climbs on the bus. Elijah is riding in another of the caravan vehicles. But she gives some final words of wisdom from the doorway.
“Our goal is to be what?” she asks the passengers. They look back blankly. Elijah nods. “To be safe!” She flashes a mischievous grin. “If you get a little anxious, sing ‘The wheels of the bus go round and round’!”
Bill turns the key, the bus makes a loud wrenching noise and rumbles to life, headed to the next spot where the organizers have found a safe marching route.
Banners hang from each side of the bus covering the windows. On them are pictures of some of the incarcerated people and their families they are marching to help. The feeble light creates a gloomy atmosphere, but it doesn’t affect the marchers. The mood on the bus is upbeat. A few women are trying to retrace yesterday’s route on a map.
Another clutch of newcomers are engaged in lively chat, the kind of conversation you expect out of strangers who just met in a church lobby at 8 in the morning. Miss Ivey, the oldest member of the group who has been with the group since they left Harlem on Aug. 26, is napping. Her son has been in a New York state prison for two decades. She calls him daily to keep him updated on their progress.
Bill pulls the bus into a Valero gas station in Wappinger Falls about nine miles outside Poughkeepsie. Kevin Barron, the media coordinator, stand up and shouts: “OK, everybody off!”
The marchers gather gear. The banner carriers work out the best way to hold them so they can be seen by passers-by. Elijah makes sure everyone has a poncho as the rain continues to steadily fall.
“Hey, does anyone want a megaphone,” one marcher shouted to the crowd. “I have two,” she said, raising the bright red amplifiers in the air.
They’re on the move.
Elijah lifts a megaphone to her mouth and shouts the first of dozens of call-and-response chants she will lead that day:
“One, two, three, four! Tell me what we’re marching for,” she says, almost singing the words. “Five, six, seven, eight! An end to the prison state!”
A car zooms by honks and waves. Elijah doesn’t miss a beat as she smiles and waves back.
Hot soup and a new home for the night
After Oseitutu’s showdown at the coffee shop, the rest of the march goes without incident. A few people roll their windows low enough to voice their displeasure. But most of their reception is positive, with people scooching their windows down to wave. The afternoon turns into a torrent and Elijah decides to drive the remainder of the day’s route. Everyone piles back in and Bill delivers them to a Unitarian Universalist church.
Everyone forms a bucket brigade and helps haul in all the supplies from the Penske truck. Once everything is inside the church, people settle in for lunch. A pile of brown bags sits on one table, and two pots of steaming soup sit on another. Volunteers made homemade chicken noodle soup and veggie and bean wraps. Stickers are on the foldout tables with bold black lettering that read: #Feed the Resistance.
Elijah calls out “S” and the room falls silent. She tells everyone what’s on the menu.
“The lunch is vegan, the cookies are not,” and then she starts singing it, as she would a march chant.
During lunch many of the participants talk about what brought them out to join the March for Justice and walk in a cold, dreary rain. Chaia Lehrer, a member of Mid-Hudson Jews for Racial Justice, explains it with a picture she recently took.
“It’s totally off the road, it’s way back behind the woods,” she said, almost with an air of paranoia. “That’s how they do it. They hide it back in the country so no one can see it — so no one knows.”
Lehrer pulls out her phone and pulls up a photo. It is a picture of a sign. Highland Residential Center Office of Children and Family Services. It’s a juvenile center that was at the heart of a 2010 lawsuit for numerous abuses.
She pulls up another. This one is a picture of a nondescript building behind a fence ringed with barbed wire.
“Who knows what’s going on in there,” she says in a whisper.
Lehrer explains that her main frustration is that the children in the facility have no connection to the community in the surrounding area, and the community has no connection to the children. There is no incentive, she said, for anyone in the community to care about what is happening to the children imprisoned behind the gates.
“There are no kids from around here in there,” she says with a dismissive wave. “These are all kids from the city. The community has no connection to what is going on in the facility. Their parents are too far away to know. It’s a very bad situation.”
She pointed to the members of the march scattered around the sanctuary.
“This is the civil rights movement,” Lehrer said. “This is just the next phase of the civil rights movement. This is how civil rights abuses happen now. Locking people up, putting them under supervision. Making a whole new class of people with no rights.”
Jake Salt agrees that the March for Justice is at the heart of a burgeoning civil rights movement.
Salt, 31, said he first realized that the criminal justice system was broken when he got arrested for a prank gone wrong when he was a teenager, in the early 2000s. Salt and two friends were in the Youth Detention Center in Passaic, New Jersey. Salt, who is white, was in a holding cell awaiting an appearance when another teenager, who was black, approached him. Salt remember the black teenager yelling at him that he and his two white friends were going to be out of here and that everyone else in the cell would be stuck in jail.
“He was right,” Salt said, talking in the Unitarian church’s sanctuary after lunch. “The three white kids went home. All the black and brown kids stayed in jail.”
Growing up white and middle class insulated him from the pipeline that eventually funnels many black and Hispanic children into the adult prison system, he said.
“I was able to go through a year of probation and live my life and not be exposed to recidivism,” Salt said.
The experience forever changed his worldview. Salt, who now runs the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, dedicated his life to activism because of that day in the court. He said it was important for him to come out and show solidarity with the March for Justice because so many LGBTQ, especially youth of color, are vulnerable to the juvenile justice system.
“Sure, I’m in this Universalist Unitarian church sitting being able to feel great about being able to go and march and make a difference, and that’s fine,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people out there who could be doing the same thing but they didn’t have the chance because the way they looked sent them down a different path.”
After the volunteer marchers who just signed up for the day leave and only the hard-core marchers remain, Elijah places a computer on one of the lunch tables and plays a video from the day before. It shows the march going past the Fishkill Correctional Facility. An administrator comes out and tells them to leave. They refuse. Oseitutu and the administrator get into a heated argument. As they go back and forth, corrections vehicles race past in what appears to be an attempt to intimidate them.
Miss Ivey, the oldest member of the group at 82, has a son serving time there. He is 55 and has been inside for two decades. She talked to him on the phone later on. He told her he couldn’t hear them. She counseled him not to mention it to the other inmates. She was worried that the word would get out and her son would face retribution from the corrections officers.
Day 9: Next stop, New Paltz
The next morning is the same as the one before. More forms, a head count, more channeling the chi. Elijah warns the new marchers to be polite and not get into any skirmishes with anyone who might disagree with their message along the route.
She points to Miss Ivey. “Miss Ivey is here to make sure there is no counter-revolutionary activity,” she tells them, smiling. “If anyone gets out of line she is here to straighten them out.”
During breakfast, a heated argument breaks out among a few marchers about the best way to persuade people to their cause. One argues for direct action and confrontation, the other for persuasion. They agree to disagree.
Everyone is ready to go by 9 a.m. They file out with Elijah at the front. As the marchers make their way up the church driveway and down a narrow sidewalk a few step on someone’s lawn. Elijah cautions them to be careful.
“We don’t want to disrespect anybody’s property,” she tells them. “So please go single file.”
They are headed for Hudson Valley Rail Trail. After conferring with Oseitutu and Barron, Elijah decides that since it’s Labor Day they will be able to reach a lot of people with their message. She is concerned because this will be the first time the caravan won’t be by their side. The trail doesn’t allow cars. But, it's a warm and sunny day, and she expects there to be a lot of people out.
While they are walking along Hooker Avenue, a white man in another pickup truck slows down and honks to get the marchers’ attention. Then he stuck his hand out the window and gave them the middle finger.
“We’re getting mixed responses,” Oseitutu said. “Very mixed responses.”
It is a sign of things to come.
First the march enters downtown Poughkeepsie, where Oseitutu said she has encountered more resistance to the message since they left Harlem. She has been darting back and forth across the street handing out fliers. She goes into businesses like a barber shop and Dunkin’ Donuts and makes her pitch.
Oseitutu tries to give a flier to a woman but she refuses.
“Black people kidnapped my kids,” she shouts. “You got to stop doing what you’re doing!”
“It’s to be expected,” Oseitutu says as she hustles across the street to hand another passerby a flier. “The further we head upstate we go, the more we are going to be encountering people who are resistant to our message. But I have really been feeling it today.”
When Oseitutu recounts the encounter with the woman to Elijah, she flashes a sardonic smile.
“Black people kidnapped her kids,” Elijah said sarcastically. “White people kidnapped my family. Did you say that?” she asked Oseitutu.
“No,” she replied. “I should’ve said that.”
“Listen,” Elijah said. “We don’t want to have a lecture about kidnapping.”
Taking the scenic route for justice
It doesn’t take long along the Rail Trail, a pedestrian trail that has a bridge that spans the Hudson River offering a stunning view, when they encounter their first obstacle. After a bathroom break at the port-a-potties and guzzling some water in the shade, they make their way to the bridge but are stopped by a Parks Department worker driving a golf cart.
“Who’s got the permit, you can’t march without a permit,” she says with finality.
After some initial confusion, Elijah approached the parks employee.
“I called the police station in the area and alerted them that we were coming and that we would be coming through.”
The employee starts shaking her head before Elijah can finish her sentence.
“There’s going to be no marching today,” she said. “Not without a permit.”
“Well,” Elijah said with a weary smile. “I’ve been marching all the way from Harlem. I’m not turning back.”
The two women stare at each other. After a few beats, the mechanical, officious bureaucratic demeanor of the parks employee melts away and her off-the-clock personality comes through.
“All right, listen,” she said. “You all go ahead and march. Just try to keep it to one side and watch out for the bikes.”
Can we chant, one of the marchers chimes in. The question hangs in the air for what seems like an eternity. For a second it seems like the hard-won victory may be derailed. The emotions that play across Elijah’s face make it evident this was a rookie question. Seasoned protesters know you never ask for permission.
The parks employee takes a deep breath, sighs, drops her chin to her chest and nods.
“Go ahead, chant,” she said. And then she leans forward and whispers to Elijah: “Keep up the good work!”
Crossing the Hudson
The small victory rallies the marchers, and they need it. They have logged about 5 miles under a bright sun and seem tired. All except Elijah. On the March for Justice she is equal parts drum major, singer, coach and CEO. At the front of the march she appears to fall into a reverie, slowly nodding her head and moving like a dancer, crouching with athletic ease.
Elijah gets the marchers organized and has them shouting another chant. She waves and beams a huge smile to visitors on their Labor Day strolls who gawk at the marchers navigating the crowds. Meanwhile Oseitutu and Ray Ray are sprinting up to people, handing out fliers to anyone who will take them.
Ray Ray, 42, a black activist from Poughkeepsie, approaches a white man along the trail and tries to hand him a flyer. He refuses. “Ninety-five percent of all the people in there deserve to be in there,” he said. “They’re all killers.”
Ray Ray politely disagrees and points to some of the facts on the flier. She then points out the Alliance for Families for Justice website, which has information and data on New York state prisoners. He does not show any interest.
Ray Ray tries another tactic.
“If you think that people who are killers or hurt other people should be put in prison, you should be marching with us. That’s what we’re fighting against. These prisoners are getting beaten and tortured and sometimes killed.”
The man does not agree. Ray Ray thanks him for his time, joins the chant and jogs to catch up with the march.
Another white man shouts at Oseitutu: “Can you please keep moving? We’re trying to enjoy our Labor Day.”
Oseitutu responds politely but forcefully.
“Actually, we have as much right to be here as you do,” she said. “So sit there and listen.”
Jayme Schultz, 38, who is white, had not planned on marching. She was out on a leisurely walk with her son on her shoulders when she noticed Oseitutu enthusiastically handing out fliers to passers-by. She changed her route and joined in the march from the rear. After a few paces she started joining in the chants.
“I saw them and it seemed like the right thing to do,” she said.
Schultz talked about a friend who was teaching behind the walls of a local prison. The administration would constantly sabotage her efforts to do her job, the friend said.
“She came out of that experience completely changed,” she said. “She saw lots of abuses and the corrections officers treating the prisoners so badly, calling them racial insults. She said they were treated so poorly.”
Schultz said she had no doubt that the abuses in prisons and the racial inequities in New York’s criminal justice system represent a civil rights crisis.
“Absolutely,” she said. “That’s why it’s such a good thing these marchers are out here. You need to make people feel uncomfortable. They live their comfortable lives and they aren’t touched by any of the horrors that are going. You need to make them feel uncomfortable. You need to put it right in their faces where they live, where they go for their Labor Day walks.”
When she got across the bridge she stopped. She had a long walk ahead of her to get back home and needed to get her son lunch. Arthur, still on his mother’s neck, craned his neck to watch the marchers head off into the distance.
“I want to go,” he said in a disappointed voice.
“I know you don’t want to stop, you want to keep going,” Schultz said in a reassuring tone. “It’s OK, buddy, we’ll be able to join up again some other time!”
Not a safe route
After they cross the bridge and head farther north on the trail, the crowds diminish. They are now walking through towering woods that occasionally create a canopy with dappled light on the path. Elijah announces there won’t be any more chants until they reach a more dense area.
“I want you to conserve your energy,” she tells them.
The marchers slow their pace and chat among themselves, recalling some of the encounters they’ve had along the way.
There are exercise stations set up along the trail. One of them has a sign mounted that reads: Hamstring Stretch. Ray Ray sees it and gets excited.
“Oh man, hamstring stretch, I need that,” she said.
She jogs over and slings her leg up one of the bars and starts leaning in. She groans as she stretches.
“All right,” she said, limbered up. “Time to go.”
About a mile or so later, they reach Tony Williams Park, where another volunteer has lunch waiting. Two big trays of peanut noodles, one with chicken, another strictly vegetarian, and an economy-sized bag of ginger snaps for dessert. There’s a sense of camaraderie among the group. Even though many of them met in a strange church about seven hours earlier, they are laughing, hugging and sharing intimate conversation.
After lunch, Elijah, Oseitutu and Barron spread a map out on one of the picnic tables and assess the next move to New Paltz. The only road to New Paltz from the park has no shoulder. Elijah decides it’s too dangerous and tells Bill to get the bus ready.
Elijah explains to everyone that they need to drive the next few miles. They look visibly disappointed. They relish hitting the pavement. But Elijah is insistent.
“It’s just not a safe route,” she said.
New Paltz is where Elijah is scheduled to meet a 105-year-old named Journey Truth.
She wants to join the march.
The road to New Paltz
The mood turns at New Paltz. More people join the marchers as they make their way through downtown. At the head of the march is Elijah, trotting backwards, shouting one of her favorite chants:
“Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family, a diverse family, a mighty, mighty family, headed to Albany, fighting for justice …”
Right behind her, singing along, are Miss Ivey and Journey Truth, a local, a former artist and activist who insisted on joining the march. She is being pushed in her wheelchair. Miss Ivey stands next to her, clutching her walker. The crowd is as big as it has been in days and the sidewalks are narrow.
The road is steep and they have to be careful. Miss Ivey and Journey Truth are determined. They find each other in the scrum of the march and reach out for each other. They clasp hands for a brief moment and look at each other while they sing.
Truth can’t make it to the end of the march. She is wheeled back to her car, where a marcher and her caretaker gently guide her into the passenger seat of a car.
“She’s 105 years old; she’s seen everything,” said Amy Trompetter, one of the many friends of Truth’s who care for her. But, she added, Truth is horrified by what the prisoners in New York endure. “She is going to leave the planet soon. She knows this. But she’s determined in helping to lead the struggle.”
The gloom that had settled on the group after the run-ins in Poughkeepsie has lifted as they make their way through historic New Paltz. As they approach the Reformed Church of New Paltz, they can see a huge crowd waiting for them. The crowd is jubilant, cheering them as they make their way into the driveway. The front lawn is covered with picnic tables that have spread out on them farm corn, casseroles, potato salad, burgers, hot dogs and a variety of homemade treats.
A celebratory feeling is in the air. Miss Ivey gets a burger and a hot dog, a little squirt of ketchup and mustard on each. Miss Ivey lives in the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn, but was born in Selma and moved to the Florida Panhandle town of Pensacola when she was still a toddler. She still spent many of her summers in Alabama growing up, and said her time there had had a big influence on her.
“Now, when we were in the South, white people were the ones who taught their children there was a difference between black and white,” she said, munching on her burger. “Preaching hate at the dinner table. Black people didn’t do that. They just told us to be careful. They just told us what to be careful of. They never taught us to hate.”
She recently went back to Alabama to visit Edmund Pettus Bridge with seven of her grandchildren. But she said, civil rights isn’t a chapter to be relegated to a stale history book. There is no doubt in her mind that the March for Justice is part of a movement.
“It’s civil rights, it’s human rights, it’s the whole nine yards,” she said. “The brutality shown to the inmates. There’s no reason for a human being to be treated that way, to be dehumanized. What we’re marching for is unfinished business from the old days.”
A huge gust of wind blows through, knocking over some cups and causing a minor commotion.
“The wind is telling us,” Miss Ivey said. “We got to get moving.”
Bill helps escort Miss Ivey down the stairs to the basement. Elijah, Oseitutu and Kevin Barron are already there, converting a foldout table into a makeshift information booth. They stack their literature in neat piles and arrange their merchandise. After they’re done, they sit and relax for a moment.
Barron looks at Oseitutu.
“Tired?” he asked.
“I could sleep for three days,” she replied, hanging her head with exhaustion.
Barron, 62, arches his eyebrows and looks puckish.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“What does my age have to do with anything,” she shot back. “I’ve just marched for nine days. I don’t care how old I am, I am going to be tired.”
“How old are you?” he asked again.
“I’m 30,” she said. “Were you doing 19-day marches when you were 30?”
Barron leans back in his chair and waves his hand dismissively.
“I could have marched to California when I was 30,” he responded with a grin.
Elijah, who has been enjoying watching the exchange, chimes in. She turned to Barron.
“Do you remember what you said to me when I said we’re going to be marching from Harlem to Albany?”
“No,” Barron said.
“You said, ‘Who?’” Elijah responded. “‘We’ is a plural pronoun last time I checked.”
The anecdote has them all laughing, but it’s short-lived. Moments later, people coming for that evening’s program are already crowding around the table. They start asking about T-shirts and tote bags, and inquiring about the pamphlets.
The march has ended for the day, but their work has just begun.
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My young parents didn’t have the skill sets to properly raise me, which at a young age caused me to search for acceptance in other places. I began running away at the age of 13 and quickly got heavily involved in drug use.
Nearly two years later I was a victim of sex trafficking. My trafficker was arrested and later sent to prison for the remainder of his life and I was sent to jail, where I received no healing and was sent back home nine months later. I once again found myself on the streets, and for the second time became a victim of sex trafficking not even a year later. This time, I decided to stand up against my trafficker. I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t want to relive the traumatic process of the court system.
On Aug. 31, 2011 I was arrested and jailed for six serious felonies against the man who brutally raped and trafficked me. Not even a month after sitting in the Juvenile Detention Center at age 16, I was charged as an adult and placed in the adult jail. The day I was sent to adult jail would change my life forever. Because I was under 18, I had to be separated from all adult prisoners by sight and sound to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Based on my developmental age, I should have been placed in a dorm with juveniles where we were treated differently and received proper services. In reality, I was placed in a mental health dorm even though I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis because there was no space in the jail to place me anywhere else. I was on lockdown 23 hours a day and was deprived of regular programming including access to education, recreation and mental health services that I didn’t qualify for.
I was in a dorm with legally insane people. They yelled and screamed at night about things that made no sense to me. I heard inmates banging, kicking and slamming heads on doors and walls, people throwing their feces out the flap of their blue metal door and much, much more. I saw people pepper-sprayed, tased, hog-tied and strapped down to a black restraint chair because they were being “too loud” or banging on the doors for “too long.”
As a child you can imagine the effect this had on me. Stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day forced me to relive the many traumatic experiences I had experienced years prior to my incarceration. Some days I blamed myself for the trauma, abuse and neglect. I convinced myself I deserved to be separated from the world because I only caused harm. On other days, I felt ostracized. All I wanted was to feel like I was a part of the human race — not like some caged animal. I felt alone, like no one cared and sometimes even asked myself, why am I even living?
It was almost impossible for me to process the feelings of being alone in a cell for 23 hours a day with no positive human contact. After being in a mental health dorm for some time, I saw quite a few people try to commit suicide so that question of why am I living turned into an action and I attempted suicide on a few different occasions. I remember one incident of me rolling off of the top bunk several times, trying to land on my head, hoping I would just die.
After attempting suicide didn’t work, I mentally tried to escape from confinement; I eventually started using a variety of mechanisms to dissociate from my experience. I felt like I was going mad. I started to play games with the walls in my room. I would count the bricks over and over again. I would play Tetris with the bricks, rearranging them in my mind. I even convinced myself that every time I went to sleep and woke up, a brick from the wall would be missing and the cell got smaller and smaller.
I was really lonely. I started arguments with myself and pretended like I was two different people arguing. I played out scenes from movies that I saw in the past. I remember one instance where I banged my head on the wall several times until I started bleeding, just to use the blood to enact a scene from a movie. The games of dissociation only lasted so long and eventually I began struggling to cope with confinement and I faced a losing battle with myself.
Soon, I fell into a deep, deep depression and had my first anxiety attack followed by uncontrollable rage. To cope with the depression, anxiety and rage I began daydreaming and sleeping. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was in bed trying to sleep. Get up, eat and back to sleep. This cycle of suicide attempts, dissociation, mind games, depression, anxiety, rage and sleeping my life away continued until I turned 18 and was moved in an adult dorm.
I can’t speak for all young people that have spent time or are currently spending time in confinement in an adult jail. I can only speak from my personal experiences. Duval County jail’s mission is “To operate facilities for secure, humane, corrective, and productive detention of those awaiting trial as well as those already sentenced.” But where was the productiveness in my incarceration? Where was the correction? Where is accountability for the jails to make sure arrested youth have the right space and services to avoid deeper damage?
Prior to ever ending up in the justice system, I had already experienced severe trauma. Being placed in confinement made the trauma experiences more exacerbated. The justice system is supposed to rehabilitate individuals but you can only do this if you understand what the people entering the system need.
Because of the lack of adequate mental health services and no one ever taking the time to ask me what happened to me, suffering was worse than it may otherwise have been. I was forced to relive the trauma over and over again, and eventually I detached myself from the trauma, further delaying my healing.
It wasn’t until four years later that I began receiving services. Not because the jail allowed me to, not because anyone recommended that I receive help, but because I was tired of living in misery, pain and suffering. I was tired of being bound to my past mistakes. I think of all the other children like me who are still stuck in solitary confinement and wonder if they will make it out as lucky as I did. I wonder if they get out, will they just go back because of all the damage that has been done to them.
Statistics suggest a higher recidivism rate for juveniles in the adult system, and especially for the juveniles stuck in solitary confinement. Our children deserve better. It is by luck that I’m able to write this. We need to eliminate luck from the equation. I am no longer bound, but other children are and will continue to be as long as we keep looking the other way.
Alyssa Beck is a survivor advocate who helps develop laws and practices that will support survivors of sex trafficking and youth involved in the justice justice system. Connected to the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, she is also a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Youth Advisory Council.
This post originally appeared on JDAIconnect.org.
This column has been updated.
Watch WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show to learn more and meet videographer Micah Danney and Risco Mention-Lewis
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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It has been said that all a child needs is one caring adult in order to become a success in life. When a child is removed from home because of parental abuse or neglect or the child’s delinquent behavior, often the best path to a successful life involves one caring adult who acts as a mentor and a guide. If this is true, it contains an important message for juvenile court judges and for the attorneys and other professionals who children meet.
Mentoring a child ranks as one of the most popular interventions we use to improve outcomes for children. The number of mentoring programs nationwide can only be estimated. More than 5,000 mentoring organizations within the United States serve more than 3 million youths to promote youth well-being and reduce risk. Nationally, then-President Barack Obama called upon individuals in all communities to commit to mentoring young men of color through the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. This initiative seeks to address persistent opportunity gaps and ensure all youth are able to reach their full potential. Corporations, schools, churches, athletic centers and community-based organizations all invest time and resources in operating mentoring programs. Additionally, national organizations such as CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Boys and Girls Clubs of America operate in almost every state and local jurisdiction.
Mentoring involves a relationship between two individuals based on a mutual desire for development toward career goals and objectives. Mentoring can be defined by the following three characteristics: (1) interaction between two individuals over an extended period of time; (2) inequality of experience, knowledge or power between the mentor and mentee (recipient) with the mentor possessing the greater share, and (3) the mentee being in a position to imitate and benefit from the knowledge, skill, ability or experience of the mentor.
The data support the effectiveness of mentoring programs — in short, they work. No one seems to have concluded why mentoring is effective and what elements in the mentoring process make it successful; yet the results continue to impress. The data show that the mentees are involved in less criminality, less aggression, less substance abuse and improved academic success, all leading to a more positive role in society. Perhaps most significantly, mentors are problem solvers and can help mentees plan for their future.
What does this mean for juvenile court judges, attorneys and other professionals? We need to support mentoring programs in our communities. This conclusion is consistent with Standard of Judicial Administration 5.40(e), which states in part:
“Judges of the juvenile court … are encouraged to:
(1) Provide active leadership within the community in determining the needs of and obtaining and developing resources and services for at-risk children and families.”
“(2) Investigate and determine the availability of specific prevention, intervention, and treatment services in the community for at-risk children and families.”
Similar emphasis is included in standards for attorneys, social workers and probation officers.
The juvenile court judge should start with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). This program was created to provide a trained support person for abused or neglected children who are the subject of legal proceedings in the court system. The advocate often becomes the most consistent support person for the child and provides critical information to the court about the child’s best interests. While the CASA agrees to serve as a mentor for a year, some volunteers remain connected to their child for years after the youth has aged out of foster care. Juvenile court judges recognize the importance of CASA and have led the creation of 44 CASA programs in California counties serving 50 counties and approximately 12,000 children. Nationally, nearly 1,000 programs serve more than 251,000 abused and neglected children. While it takes a judge to start a CASA program, attorneys and social workers can support the judge’s efforts and can urge a hesitant judge to start a CASA program.
Creative juvenile court judges have expanded the CASA concept to include youth in the juvenile justice system. In Santa Clara County, for example, Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Pat Tondreau worked with community leaders, attorneys and other professionals to create CAFA, the Court Appointed Friends and Advocates program, a mentoring program for adolescent youth in the juvenile justice system.
Partially modeled on CASA, the CAFA volunteers are thoroughly screened and receive a minimum of 30 hours of training before they are sworn in by a judicial officer to serve as officers of the court. Volunteers are typically college age and often are on a career path toward law enforcement or probation. Many see mentoring as an ideal introduction to the juvenile justice system. Trainings focus on family engagement, school, probation, courts and court reports, the law and the juvenile justice system. Pursuant to local rules of the Santa Clara County Superior Court, volunteers have access to the courtroom and to juvenile court files. At court hearings, they provide a report to the court on behalf of their mentee.
The purpose of the CAFA program is to provide a minor with an advocate who is consistently in the minor's life and to support the youth while on probation and in moving out of the juvenile justice system. The CAFA establishes a relationship with the youth and becomes a friend, a mentor and an advocate. The CAFA will advocate for the youth in courtroom proceedings and will assist in accessing activities including sports and tutoring as well as educational and training opportunities.
The CAFA also helps the youth address problems that face all adolescents, such as getting a driver’s license, getting a summer job, finding housing, sealing juvenile records and securing health insurance. The youths in the program are either wards of the court living at home or minors who qualified for Deferred Entry of Judgment. This relatively new program has already served 56 youth, with 18 currently in the program and four on the waiting list. Plans for expansion are currently under discussion. Critical to the success of CAFA in Santa Clara County was the involvement of FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth), a local youth advocacy program with a focus on rehabilitation. FLY has offices in both San Mateo and Alameda counties.
If mentoring has such positive effects, why do we not find mentoring opportunities for more youth? Perhaps an attorney could ask the court to require the probation officer to take steps to identify a mentor for the youth or locate a mentoring program that will work with the young person. That mentor might be a coach, a teacher, a college student or a volunteer with a local program. In any case, it would be a person who can bring a positive role model into the youth’s life.
In this regard it makes sense for the juvenile court judge to meet with probation officers, attorneys, local mentoring programs and community leaders to discuss using mentoring programs for youth in the juvenile justice system. That is what happened in Santa Clara County. Judge Tondreau with his justice partners , the Santa Clara County Probation Department, the District Attorney’s office and minor’s counsel brought together corporate, religious, educational, service clubs, sports leaders, local community-based organizations that have existing mentoring programs and other judges, particularly retired Superior Court Judge Melinda Stewart. Participants brainstormed ideas about the need for mentors and how a mentoring program could be created.
CAFA has been so successful that the Santa Clara County Probation Department has agreed to provide funding for the next year. They recognize the value of mentoring juvenile justice youth.
The juvenile justice system devotes a great deal of time and energy explaining to delinquent youth what they should not be doing. I suggest that by finding a mentor for youth we will be including a potentially positive person in his or her life, and that may make all the difference. In 1899 the creators of the juvenile court embraced rehabilitation as one of its primary goals. A mentor can be a powerful intervention to help a youth on that path to rehabilitation.
Judge Leonard Edwards is a retired judge now working as a consultant, educator and trainer. He served as a Superior Court judge in Santa Clara County, California, for 26 years and then for six years as judge-in-residence at the Center for Families, Children & the Courts, a division of the Judicial Council of California.