Law-breaking doesn’t start with evil or greed.
It starts with embarrassment – embarrassment over living at Grandma’s house, embarrassment over not having one’s own bedroom, embarrassment over living on a crime-ridden street.
“It’s that feeling that makes a kid think, ‘I gotta do better. I gotta get us out of Grandmama’s house,” Rev. Robbie Wilkerson of New Birth Christian Center told a group of social workers, youth advocacy lawyers and teachers on Saturday. “Then one day someone comes up to him. ‘What are you doing, Joe?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Come on with me – we’re gonna get us some money.’”
But the juvenile justice system doesn’t care how it starts, Wilkerson said, just how it ends – frequently with stealing, gambling and drug use, and with overwhelmingly large numbers of young black men in the back of police cars.
That system is failing our youth – especially African-Americans, experts and researchers said at a day-long conference at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum titled “Arresting Justice: A Working Session about Juvenile Justice Issues in Lawndale and Austin.”
Citywide, blacks comprise the overwhelming majority of juvenile arrests – more than 78 percent in 2008, according to data compiled by First Defense Legal Aid and Project NIA. Hispanic youths constituted 18 percent of arrests, while whites constituted just 3.5 percent.
The number of youth arrests in Chicago has dropped over the past decade, reported Caitlin Patterson, an attorney for First Defense Legal Aid.
But the numbers are still too high, she said, particularly on the West Side.
The Austin police district ranked third in Chicago for the total number of juvenile arrests in 2010, with 1,975 arrests, the study said. The Chicago Lawn and Harrison districts ranked first and second.
Despite perceptions of violence among youth – especially in light of recent “flash mob” reports – drug abuse violations and gambling were the most frequently reported offenses, Patterson said.
“These are non-violent offenders,” Patterson said. “Most of the kids I know who are breaking into houses might be knuckleheads … but they want a DVD player. They’re not going in to hurt somebody. They ring the bell first to make sure nobody’s home.”
Betsy Clarke, founder and president of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative, said the current juvenile court system does young offenders an injustice by taking them from their homes and schools and locking them up with other “bad” kids.
“It just makes no sense,” Clarke said, noting that the Illinois spends more than $75,000 per year to lock up each of 1,100 youth incarcerated in eight facilities. “Courts should be our last resort.”
And youth only become angrier and tougher inside a juvenile jail, presenters said, and imprisonment does little to prevent them from offending again; fifty-five percent of young people released from incarceration are arrested again within one year, research shows.
Alternative strategies raised Saturday included youth jobs programs, mentoring for kids with single parents, teaching entrepreneurship at the elementary-school level and working with police – the “gatekeepers” when it comes to youth arrests, presenters said.
Police should be encouraged to release young people with a “station adjustment,” presenters said – a punishment such as a curfew, ordering community service or mediation that goes on the offender’s record but does not involve the courts.
Click here to view the full text of “Arresting Justice: A Report About Juvenile Arrests in Chicago 2009 & 2010,” a report by First Legal Defense Fund and Project NIA.
Click here to view “Every Child Deserves a Second Chance,” a film created by North Lawndale College Prep graduate Joshua Jackson, about youth incarceration.