ANGEL ELLIOTT, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Angel Elliott.
Joining us to discuss youth in Baltimore and the ways in which the city can construct its policies to help them thrive is Bart Lobow. With almost 40 years of improving criminal justice systems, Bart Lobow serves as the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group from 2009 until 2014. Today, as a senior consultant, he supports the foundation’s juvenile justice reform agenda.
Thanks for joining us, Bart.
BART LUBOW, SENIOR CONSULTANT TO ANNIE E. CASEY FOUNDATION: My pleasure.
ELLIOTT: So what do you think about the current policies towards youth offenders and youth in general in Baltimore, from youth lockup procedures to the drug policy to the controversial youth curfew law?
LUBOW: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to make the distinction that you just made, Angel, between youth offenders or referring to these as youth offender policies and youth policies in general. I think if we label kids as offenders right from the beginning and if our policies are driven in that manner, then we probably have already stepped out onto a slippery slope that doesn’t lead to the kinds of opportunities and positive youth development chances that kids in this city need.
So here’s the dilemma we face. We have essentially two sets of youth policies in Baltimore, as is true in most large urban settings. We have a group of policies that are aimed at kids who we think are causing trouble or are likely to get into trouble, and then we have policies that apply to the rest of youth and that provide them with opportunities for development that all of us would like to see all children have. And we’ve got to somehow reconcile the fact that we have these two systems, one that affects primarily kids of color from the poorest of our communities, and the other that apply to the more privileged kids, and especially to white kids.
So the first question is: are we providing all children with the right set of opportunities for them to grow in healthy ways? Kids who come from poor neighborhoods, who are more likely to get in trouble for a variety of reasons, tend to be pushed into a track in which their opportunities are narrowed, in which their problems are criminalized, and in which their life chances are significantly reduced, whether that’s because they get pushed out of schools, whether that’s because problems they have regarding health, mental health, or any other number of life domains are kind of criminalized and end up before a court. Those things have to change.
Court involvement should be rare for children. It should be based on serious misbehavior. All adolescents engage, pretty much, in delinquent behavior. Very few of them end up in the court system. That’s a good thing. They will a job out of it naturally if we stop criminalizing them more. We should start resolving conflicts in communities informally, not through court systems, but through things like community conferencing, which has been shown to not only be able to produce satisfaction for the people who have been harmed by crime, but actually to promote healing and peace in the communities where the community conferences take place.
We should stop deluding ourselves as adults that the policies and practices that we implement, like curfews, are actually changing the behavior of the kids. They make us feel better as adults, even though there’s very little evidence that they contribute to public safety, and certainly not to positive youth development.
And, of course–and this has been the heart of my work for 40 years–we should stop throwing so many kids into the juvenile equivalent of jails and prisons, because those things simply teach kids two lessons: one, that they can endure the pain of incarceration; and two, that they’re not liked, and therefore that they’ve got an ax to grind with society as a whole. If we can change all of those things by converting those policies and practices into more positive opportunities, we’ll have much less crime, we’ll waste much less money on juvenile detention centers and incarceration facilities, and we’ll give a lot of these kids with rotten odds of making it successfully to adulthood a better shot.
ELLIOTT: You know, I have a lot of questions based off of your answer. The first is: why haven’t large cities like Baltimore found a middle ground where they’re not having to involve the police? Why is policing and having this interaction with youth the very first thing that they turn to in order to help, quote-unquote, underprivileged youth when it comes to things like the youth curfew law? I mean, you already have a city where the youth have an inherent distrust of police.
LUBOW: Well, that’s a very interesting question that I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer to. Culturally, as a society, despite our protestations to value liberty and freedom, we have long had a tradition of responding to behavior we don’t like in this society with a law enforcement response. We tend to criminalize all kinds of behaviors. I suspect a lot of this stems back to the early history of the country and in fact to slavery and the culture that emerged when people were being forced to do labor without compensation under circumstances over which they had no control. When that was abolished, we replaced it with a different kind of system, but that involved the same kind of use of force. So we have a tradition here of responding to behaviors that we don’t like in a punitive manner rather than in a healing manner, rather than in a manner that creates opportunities. We tend to criminalize all the behaviors we don’t like rather than convince ourselves and teach ourselves, how do we avoid them being acted upon, you know, whether it’s things like texting while driving, and we think we’re going to eliminate that primarily by making it a crime. I think we’ll be able to punish people after they do bad things, but I think if we want to eliminate it as a behavior, we have to teach people that it’s going to do harm to others and to themselves. And we don’t invest in that kind of approach.
ELLIOTT: Were you able to–did you hear about The Sun‘s recent investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, where they are exposed that the city since 2011 had given out $5.7 million in police brutality settlements? Were you–did you–.
LUBOW: I heard about it only indirectly, so I didn’t know a lot of the details.
ELLIOTT: Do you believe that the way in which police officers are maybe trained to deal with youth in cities like Baltimore is contributing to youths’ kind of distrust of police and then acting out?
LUBOW: Absolutely. And I don’t think this is specific to Baltimore. So I think around the country, police training has not caught up to our new knowledge about adolescent development and why kids behave the way they do. And, in fact, the encouraging thing to report is that in a number of cities, this new knowledge about kids being less mature, more impulsive, more dependent or responsive to peer pressure, less likely to appreciate the consequences of their actions, etc., etc., has been translated into formal police training programs designed to help cops understand what happens when they deal with kids on the street. And we work in a number of places where this has been true. And it’s been an eye-opener for the police and has helped them to do better in dealing with youngsters and to build trust.
And what people need to understand is when cops behave in traditional ways with kids, they sow the seeds for mistrust and for lack of cooperation between the community and young people. And that’s bad for everybody. That’s bad for public safety in general. And it’s certainly bad for what happens when the kids and cops are brought together. There are new organizations in the country, one called Strategies for Youth, whose specialty is training police about understanding adolescence and adolescent behavior and its implications for police strategies. Those are terrific and important new developments that Baltimore ought to embrace and bring here.
ELLIOTT: If you had your own city council whose only job was to reduce crime and to create constructive, healthy policies that would help youth to thrive and survive and be upwardly mobile in a city like this one, what would it look like?
LUBOW: Well, it would be designed to give kids the most in the way of opportunities rather than the most of the way of sanctions. So formal court involvement would be relatively rare and reserved for serious offenses. Kids would be given a variety of supports and interventions designed to keep them in school, because we know quite clearly that the school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing in our country and that in fact severing kids’ connections to schools is probably the most foolhardy thing we can do if we want to give kids a chance to become productive and law-abiding adults.
We would change the orientation of a lot of our work to be much more family-focused and family-engaged. So one of the things that we’ve done with the youngsters who become involved with the delinquency system is to demonize their families and essentially to say the reason that these kids are being picked up by the police and brought before the courts or thrown out of the school is because they’re not getting the proper guidance at home and the proper level of support. Well, if that hypothesis is at all true, there’s a secondary question that never gets asked, which is: so why don’t these public systems work to strengthen families and to help families so they can do their job as the primary socializing forces in the lives of their kids? The state doesn’t do a good job socializing kids. Families and communities socialize kids. But if you look at something like the juvenile justice system, we have probation staff who think that meeting with a 15-year-old twice a month for ten minutes is somehow going to have a more profound influence on their behavior than figuring out what’s going on in the family and helping the family to actually be there to provide guidance, structure, and opportunity for the kid. It makes no sense whatsoever. But all of our public systems, at least those that deal with adolescence, are focused in that way. We’ve got to fundamentally change that and start asking all of these public systems, what are you doing to engage mom and dad? Are you listened to mom and dad when they talk to about the challenges they face with their children? Are you asking them what you can do to help them solve those challenges? Because if you’re not asking those questions, you’re not in fact going to be getting to the solution to the problem.
ELLIOTT: And quickly tell our viewers, for those who don’t know, about the school-to-prison pipeline and the detrimental effects that it has on youth in communities?
LUBOW: Well, the school-to-prison pipeline essentially refers to a phenomenon that has emerged in the last 20 years or so in which kids who present the greatest challenges–they may be behavioral challenges, educational challenges (the two tend to go hand-in-hand)–are oftentimes forced out of schools as a result of their misbehavior. Right? So the school-to-prison pipeline refers to the fact that we have now put law enforcement in schools, that law enforcement has replaced traditional disciplinary interventions in the school system, and it results in kids who engage in misbehavior that my generation engaged in, all the generations have engaged in, and then takes them out of the schools and brings them to the formal court system, where they may end up in a juvenile detention center, etc.
The danger of this approach, aside from the fact that it neglects the fact that most of this behavior is traditional adolescent behavior that adults ought to be able to respond to in a timely way in the school context and keeping kids connected to the school, the danger of it is it forces kids out of schools. A frays their connection. It results in suspensions, it results in expulsions, either of which tend to abort the kids’ connection to schools, even though we know that strong connections to schools is the best protective factor against continued delinquency. Instead of schools, the kids end up in a juvenile court or a juvenile detention center, and that’s the worst thing that we can do with kids. So those kids then become much more likely, by virtue of their lack of connection to the school system and by virtue of their connection to the court system, to have longer delinquency careers that escalate and result, in fact, in their being in prison as young adults.
ELLIOTT: That’s the problem with our education system, as well, for allowing that type of interaction to occur.
LUBOW: A tremendous problem.
ELLIOTT: Thanks so much for speaking with us.
LUBOW: My pleasure.
ELLIOTT: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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