OP-ED: Opening Our Eyes to Uncomfortable Truths

John LashAthens, Ga., is a funny town. It’s the home of the University of Georgia, meaning some 35,000 students make their home here for nine months out of the year. A lot of full-time residents are connected to the school as faculty or staff, and many businesses count on the money students spend. The downtown is vibrant with restaurants, stores and nightclubs, and the live music is everywhere.

A 15-minute walk from downtown can take you to several lovely neighborhoods of a type not seen much anymore. The homes are older, closer together, neighbors actually know one another. A lot of homes have decorative gardens. Oak trees line the streets, and the streets have sidewalks. This is the realm of professors, doctors, lawyers, retirees and other folks who have worked hard to create a sense of community with their neighbors.

The same 15-minute walk in a slightly different direction will take you to a poorer part of town. The homes in these neighborhoods are often run down, the residents more likely to be impoverished, and the crime rates higher. Several housing projects are in the middle of these neighborhoods. The residents are mostly black.

In Athens/Clarke County the poverty rate is almost 35 percent, more than double the state average. Among  children the rate is even worse, at almost 43 percent. The state average for kids is a little more than 22 percent. The disparity is striking, particularly when contrasted with either the high culture of the wealthier residents or the party lifestyle of many of the students. You don’t see many black people in either of these scenes.

I was pretty blind to this separation when I first started living here, but working at the conflict center has taken me to parts of the city and introduced me to residents I wouldn’t have otherwise had cause to encounter. Like many people, I was unaware of the larger picture of the community.

Blindness exists in all of us to some extent. Humans create systems of interaction, and whether they are communities, families, workplaces, or some other collection of folks, all systems have facets that are hidden. They are hidden, but they still exert an influence on the big picture.

One blindness I am beginning to be healed of has to do with young people, and in particular their propensity for crime and other forms of stupidity. The beginning of my cure was reading an op ed in the JJIE by Mike Males a few weeks ago. The article pointed me towards a few studies, and lead to a correspondence with Mike about his conclusions.

To summarize: when we take into account the level of poverty, kids don’t commit crimes at a higher rate than adults. Take a few seconds and read the previous sentence again. Now, if kids aren’t as stupid as we’ve been lead to believe, what are the implications?

First, a lot of the interest in brain research might be a red herring, or at least misdirected. As Mike wrote to me in an email, “...whether adolescent crime is seen as an innate, biodevelopmental feature or as one related to social conditions is pivotal in all kinds of public policies.”

Not to discount approaches to rehabilitation that have shown promise (for instance cognitive behavioral therapy, or my favorite, restorative justice) but is it possible that these approaches could work with anyone who is committing crime, and not just juveniles? The differences between those who commit crimes, regardless of age, and those who don’t, are far more striking than the differences between adults and kids.

Is it possible that the real obstacle to conquer here is not crime, which can be seen as symptomatic of social conditions, but poverty itself? I think the answer is yes. Imagine that we were able to drop the poverty rate here in Athens to the state average. It seems probable that we would see a drop in criminal activity across all ages.

Perhaps we can employ both avenues of addressing problematic behavior, but let’s be clear that currently we are only following one path. The larger social and economic context is being ignored by many connected to the criminal justice system, both researchers and practitioners. This is a choice we are making as a society. As Mike writes, “...a policy choice to subject young people to far higher rates of poverty and family abuses than we would accept in middle age, and we have a self-interest in dismissing their offending as just a teenage attitude problem.”

This means that we, as adults, extract some heretofore unacknowledged benefit from the power imbalance we have with young people, and that young people’s concerns, as with those of all disadvantaged groups, are minimized and trivialized.

My eyes are opening, and I invite you to open yours as well. It can be disconcerting at first, but I believe the discomfort will give way to energy and purpose as we begin to address this root cause of crime.


Living the Dream

John Last 1I was sitting at a table with a fellow prisoner more than 20 years ago. We were taking a break from our work in the staff kitchen, smoking cigarettes and talking about some forgotten subject. The room we were in was one of the few places where I could relax, since it was a restricted area and usually quiet. One of his friends walked into the room, paused, and stared at us for a few seconds. He made a comment about talking to a white guy, a “cracker.” My coworker, who was black, just laughed and said, “We’re living the dream of Dr. King.”

I had of course heard of Dr. King, but in that world his influence and ideas seemed pretty far away most of the time. My own path led me to study Gandhi, particularly his use of nonviolence as a way to oppose the domination of India by the British. Gandhi, who is said to have been set on his own course by reading the works of Thoreau, in turn had a deep influence on King.

All three men had in common a willingness to name injustice where they saw it, and to then do something about it. Most of us don’t even acknowledge injustice, especially if there is a potential for us to be harmed. Even fewer have the willingness to act. One of my favorite MLK quotes is, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

This quote originated in the works of Theodore Parker, an abolitionist, a Unitarian minister, and, like Thoreau, a transcendentalist. Here is his longer quote, published in a collection of surveys in the mid nineteenth century:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

The nation has set aside this Monday to celebrate King’s life and works, and his legacy. We are urged to go into our communities and work to make them better. Some work on beautification projects, others volunteer at homeless shelters. There is always good work that needs doing. Yet, I wonder who is doing the harder work that King took on, the work that led to his assassination over forty years ago?

Parker was born in 1810, and King died in 1968. No one has stepped forward to fill the gap left when King’s life was cut short.  I do not mean that no one speaks up for justice; indeed I know many who have committed their lives to it. Where is that bold figure that speaks the truth though? Where is the leader who captures the moral imagination of a nation?

I still hold out hope of seeing King’s dream realized. He saw a world not only of racial equality, but of care and concern for all in need. He saw a world where injustice was dealt with, whatever forms it takes. Readers of this site will be familiar with the ongoing injustices of our day. The overrepresentation of minorities in the justice system, criminalization of misbehavior in schools, harsh sentences for kids that harm instead of heal, a lack of resources for real solutions…The list is long, and sometimes it seems fruitless to act, a wasted effort. Yet, like King and Parker, we can remember that while it may not be our fate to see the results of good action, it is our duty to move forward in the faith that justice will overcome injustice. Let this be our guide as we move into another year.


Assessing the Cradle-To-School-To-Prison Pipeline

John LashFor some time I have read about the “school to prison pipeline,” an idea that links zero tolerance policies, school policing, disproportionate minority contact with disciplinary processes, and other factors to the increased incarceration of minority youth. The basic idea is that the system formed by these practices and structures contributes to putting more kids in prison.

Lately, I have come across a similar term, the cradle to prison pipeline. This is the phrase trademarked by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF).

It is daunting to consider that societal structures and policies can have such an affect on a newborn. We can reasonably predict the chances of an infant growing up and being incarcerated based on its race. I find this very disturbing. Consider these highlights of their 2009 report:

A Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a Latino boy a 1 in 6 chance; and a White boy a 1 in 17 chance. A Black girl born in 2001 has a 1 in 17 chance of going to prison in her lifetime; a Latino girl a 1 in 45 chance; and a White girl a 1 in 111 chance.

Identified factors besides race include: pervasive poverty, inadequate access to health care, gaps in early development, unequal educational opportunities, abuse and neglect, untreated mental health issues, and an overburdened juvenile justice system that includes the school to prison pipeline.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


Reports like these are discouraging to read, and many of us turn away from such evidence. One go-to position for many is that life is about personal responsibility. By the time these people are old enough to commit crimes it is easy to say that they deserve what they get. Few people though have the heart to look at a little baby and say that he deserves to have a one in three chance of going to prison because he is black. Even the staunchest law–and–order proponent can see the inherent injustice of the situation.

Our problem is that issues like these involve a type of justice that is usually unaddressed by laws and courts: social justice. Social justice is difficult to solve through legislation. There are clear victims of injustice, but no clear perpetrators. There is no one to take to trial when kids in areas of high poverty don’t have as many experienced teachers as kids who live in richer areas. Nobody goes to prison, except the kids themselves, when children grow up in less stable homes.

schoolppipe_seriesWhat can we do about problems with such deep roots? The CDF proposes some approaches. Some particular solutions may be debatable, but I think most of us can agree that the underlying goals are worth pursuing.

  • End poverty by creating jobs that offer livable wages, increasing the minimum wage, expanding job training programs, making college affordable for every student, and expanding income supports such as the Child Tax Credit.
  • Ensure all children and pregnant woman have access to affordable comprehensive health and mental health coverage and services.
  • Make early childhood development programs accessible to every child by ensuring such programs are affordable, available and of high quality.
  • Help each child reach his/her full potential and succeed in work and life, by ensuring our schools have adequate resources to provide high quality education to every child.
  • Expand prevention and specialized treatment services for children and their parents, connect children to caring permanent families, improve the quality of the child welfare workforce and increase accountability for results for children.
  • Reduce detention and incarceration by increasing investment in prevention and early intervention strategies, such as access to quality early childhood development and education services and to the health and mental health care children need for healthy development.

End poverty, take care of kids, help people avoid going to prison. These might be outside of the scope of what people think of when we talk about justice, but they are not. If we can focus on these there may be more justice for all of us in the end.