I spent the entire day today (normally Monday is preacher's holiday) in an audience of community leaders, child advocates, early childhood, health and mental health, child welfare and juvenile justice professionals, educators, lawyers and judges, members of law enforcement, elected officials, business leaders, foundation representatives, and members of the media. We were being presented with the release of the Community Assessment Report of Disproportionate Minority Contact in our County Juvenile Justice System.
The report indicates that African-American males and females are overrepresented in contact with the juvenile justice system including juvenile arrests, confinement, and cases transferred to Adult Court. No mystery here, it appears that this is just another statistic that continues to highlight the trend of overrepresentation of minorities in categories that are negative, harmful, or dysfunctional.
However, the report also indicated that the most common offense filed with Juvenile Court has been violations of the Safe School Ordinance, a broad area which varies from talking back to a teacher to acts of violence or bringing a weapon to school. Could it be, that in our area we have a pipeline from the schools to prison? If so, this is truly alarming! It does trouble me that the majority of offenders are being sent to juvenile detention from school. This area needs further research and exploration.
But today, I lost interest after hearing one cliche`-filled sermon after another by folk who may not have showed up except to advocate for their own particular program and others who were just talkin' cause they got a mouth. Black folk can talk they behind off! White folk and other ethnic minorities can rock the house too! A ton of statistics, sermons, and singing the blues, but no solutions or strategies were offered and no red flags or cautions recognized or commented upon. In fact, one former city executive commented that we have too many youth programs and are spending too much money on young people in our area as it is.
It may be that we have been paralyzed or benumbed by the avalanche of recent negative anti-social statistics and behavior or that too many of us are content to profit from the misery of others and therefore seek only to "manage" the problems rather than solve them.
I am convinced that if we are going to legitimately address the disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system in my area that the following needs to be done at a minimum:
1. Bring the young people to the table and listen to them. We often miss the obvious because we talk about youth rather than with youth.
2. Utilize qualitative analysis along with quantitative data. Discussion, dialog, and allowing the subjects to speak for themselves (particularly with marginalized and oppressed groups), uncovers the depth and nuances of the problem and adds valuable insight to cold, impersonal quantitative methods and statistical data. It is almost impossible to figure out who youth are and where they are without listening to their stories, finding out what is going on in their lives and what they are dealing with.
3. What is the administrative dynamic and competence within the schools that are sending these kids to jail? There is a potential for conflict where the marginalized students are being taught by teachers whose experience is defined by the dominant culture. Children need teachers and mentors who are not only able to listen to them with empathy, but who also possess cultural awareness and knowledge of them gained from a similar socio-cultural experience. Often a cultural mismatch between the teacher's experience and the child's cultural history can be the source of a problem that leads to further marginalization, conflict, exclusion, or withdrawal.
The Cradle to Prison Pipeline is a national crisis and is very complex and includes many factors including race, low-performing schools, lack of access to health and mental health care, broken child welfare and juvenile justice systems, struggling families and depressed communities, a toxic youth culture, and lack of parenting skills. It behooves us to come up with strategies and solutions before it is too late. The first step may be simply to meet young people where they are, initiate dialog, and listen.
Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink of water." John 4:6,7