By Cardell Orrin
Before-and-after success stories work because they’re shorthand for transformation. So when former youth offenders took the stage during a youth voice portion of the recent University of Memphis Public Safety Institute “Breaking the Cycle of Delinquency” symposium, the audience was keen to hear from young people who had turned their lives around.
So why were the emblems of turnaround and triumph both white?
In a majority African-American community where the Juvenile Court has been cited for treating black youth more harshly than white youth, the symposium leaders thought it was appropriate.
In describing the concept of a new “juvenile assessment center,” the decision to highlight white teens only underscored these leaders’ propensity to avoid consideration of the people they serve, a mostly black population under the stewardship of a system that succeeds or fails based on how they feel — or don’t — about that population. A lack of vision for whole youth solutions will only exacerbate a school-to-prison pipeline and further our system of racialized mass incarceration.
One of the stories exemplified privilege so distinctly, it almost seemed satirical: The father of one of these white youths explained how he and his wife were able to make a direct connection to Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, who connected them to Police Director Mike Rallings. There was a reference to downtown Memphis that made it seem like a foreign land and mentions of connections that got an apprenticeship for the young man at the high-end restaurant, Erling Jensen. I applaud the father for doing everything in his power to help his son but question those who decided this story was representative of Memphis youths who have had run-ins with the law.
Unfortunately, the effort to understand this cohort of Memphis-area youths reveals mixed signals about its leaders’ values and other issues. Consider the language used when talking about youth who are involved with the justice system, from police to judges to jail. Dr. Altha J. Stewart, University of Tennessee director of the Center for Health in Justice and president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, asked attendees to commit to stop using the term “juvenile” due to the stigma attached to the word and Memphis’ troubled history mistreating black youths in juvenile court custody.
“If we won’t call our own children juvenile, and conjure up that image of delinquency and disorder and criminal behavior, why on earth would we call someone else’s child that?” Stewart said.
Do you think they stopped using the word? No.
Revealingly, DA Weirich and other law enforcement leaders quickly forgot the doctor’s admonition and kept right on using the term “juvenile” at the symposium and in subsequent op-eds about the assessment center concept published in The Commercial Appeal.
A counselor and social worker on Stewart’s panel made a clear case for universal assessment and support for all young people based on the traumas and challenges they may face. If this is the case, why are our mayors and other leaders content to build a new center and system focused on assessment and support at the point that a youth interacts with law enforcement?
When we model programs, we should be sure their missions align with what we want to see in our own community. Take The Door in New York City, a youth hub focused on delivering services to youth with the mission “to empower young people to reach their potential by providing comprehensive youth development services in a diverse and caring environment.” Contrast this with the Juvenile Assessment Centers in Miami-Dade County presented at the symposium as a model for the local concept, which says their facilities represent “first and foremost, arrest-processing centers that coordinate the different agencies that interface with arrested youth.”
Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, said to be the original proponent of the juvenile assessment center concept, spoke eloquently of mass incarceration and changing the system, while invoking well-known social justice activist, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative. Michael said, “nothing changes, if nothing changes.”
Well, if the Miami-Dade example represents change, we’re in trouble.
We can hold out hope Michael believes what he said and continues work that addresses juvenile court issues identified by the DOJ, even as he and other Shelby County leaders seek to avoid further federal accountability by asking the feds to cease oversight. We should also hope Michael is able to rise out of his law enforcement frame of reference and really shepherd a solution centered on youth development and support.
Former District Attorney Bill Gibbons, who heads the Public Safety Institute, and other leaders have pushed regressive “tough on crime” policies for many years in addition to ceasing DOJ oversight. This is cause for concern and raises the question of whether we can trust these leaders on an effort meant to support youth and families.
So it is not enough for our leaders to say they understand the broader root causes that drive youth to contact with law enforcement, they must believe there are ways to mitigate and to prevent them. We should be able to count on involvement by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to see the need for solutions that reach beyond the justice system.
Our city and county must believe in making investments in positive youth development and active youth engagement for all our youth for us to have a prosperous future. We need to build and pay for systems and places that develop and support youth after-school and during the summer. Law enforcement would then have places to take youth instead of detaining them, without creating a new stigma-causing system just for diversion from detention.
Symposium leaders insist the juvenile assessment center idea is a draft concept and asked for feedback. So here it is:
• Reframe the concept to include thoughtful collaboration to develop support mechanisms for all our youth, not just when they enter the justice system.
• Secure commitments from the surrounding community, especially government, to invest in our youth through learning and career development opportunities.
• Diversify community representation and use of input from youth and criminal justice reform organizations.
• Engage partners we can trust and who have the best interests of our youth at heart. (Look at a person’s track record to know who does.)
• Stop calling children juveniles!
Our children are the greatest assets we have. Either we make the commitment to invest in their future success, or we will continue to see Memphis and Shelby County at the top of all the lists where we don’t want to be first. We can agree with Judge Michael on at least one thing — nothing changes, if nothing changes.
(Cardell Orrin is Memphis city director of Stand for Children Tennessee and former chief information officer at LeMoyne-Owen College. He is a founding board member of Hattiloo Theatre and chair of the board for Freedom Preparatory Academy.)