A Letter to My Friends

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A colleague recently called to complain about the criticism heaped on him for his efforts to bring detention reform to his community. He has been called a lot of names and doesn’t know if he can continue to endure the emotional pain.

It made me think of others doing this work and the same painful darts they’re enduring. So I will share with you what I shared in part with him.

By now it should be no surprise that as judges go I am left-of-center. Not that I consider myself a liberal. I grew up with traditional family values that included “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Some of those spankings came by a belt on my legs and butt from my father. My Mom mostly used her hand. Today, she complains I am the one who gave her arthritis. I tell her she should have used the belt. Of course, I dared not offer that when I was a child.

I believe parents should be parents and never suffer a child’s back-talk, disrespectful tone or facial expression, or temper tantrums.  My first and last temper tantrum was around age four, in a store. I was walking, with my sister and Mom. My brother was in the grocery cart and my Mom was holding the newest addition to the family, my baby sister. I saw a big red fire chief hard hat. I wanted it.

“Mommy, I want that.”

“No” she said looking at the grocery list.

You would have thought she pulled out a gun and shot me. I started balling. It was embarrassing — to my Mom that is. Me — I didn’t care — I wanted that hat and I was going to make my Mom’s life miserable until I got it.

This is where many parents stumble. They avoid the embarrassment and give in to their child.

Not my Mom. She had many sayings growing up, I call them “Mommyisms.” One of them was “Steve, don’t let people rent space in your head.” This usually came an hour after she spanked me. She wanted me to know one simple truth — she is the parent, I am the child, and she is in control. In other words, she rents the space in my head — not the other way around.

With a baby in one arm and a toddler in the cart, she cornered me, leaned down, and gave me the most memorable spanking in front of God, my siblings, a cashier, and customers. My Mom was swift, precise, and painful — though my feelings hurt more than my body. My Mom took an embarrassing situation for her — caused by me — and turned it on me. If she was going to go down, so was I. I learned my lesson at an early age. I never did that again.

I can give you a litany of traditional values I hold onto today that include God, country, and apple pie — though I like the latter ala mode.

Despite my traditional values, I have been labeled a “liberal” for my decisions, comments, and practices to reduce the number of kids incarcerated. I abhor the use of detention in many circumstances, which for some that makes me “soft” on crime. The word “soft” will get you that dirty “L” word every time.

I have been blessed to have lived from coast to coast in 10 cities in between – that’s a lot of people of differing races, cultures, religions and social circumstances. After a short stint in the Navy and a college degree, I spent 10 years on the streets of Atlanta as a parole officer, later chief, and left as a deputy director. In between I got my Masters and a law degree.

It’s rather humbling to experience the streets first hand, to see poverty, drugs and crime up close. I have been shot at, thrown through a wall, experienced many foot chases and fistfights with fugitives. On occasion I have pointed a gun at someone’s chest and with the help of various expletives (you have to let them know you are crazy enough to pull the trigger) they dropped to the ground. I have been to a lot of rodeos in my 52 years on this earth.

Despite my diverse background, I find it interesting how a single issue can get you labeled. Oddly enough, it’s not the “L” word that bothers me. I know many with liberal political and social points of view I call my friend and enjoy their dialogue. They help me to develop an accepting attitude necessary for peaceful co-existence — not to mention helping to balance my own points of view.

What’s interesting is that most of my so-called “L” friends were also raised with the same traditional “All-American” values — and like me, passed them on to their children.  Nope, it’s the word “soft” that confounds me.

So I take my Mom’s advice and seek refuge in what I do know, and receive the criticism for what it’s worth — nothing. Otherwise, I let them rent space in my head.

My Mom is not a college graduate, though you wouldn’t know it talking to her. She is well read and can engage a conversation with the most educated and experienced. She dedicated her life to her husband and children. She made sure my Dad excelled in his career. She made sure her four children graduated from college.

Mom once asked me, “Do you want to be a nobody?”

I replied with the obvious “no.”  “Then be ready to be criticized and laughed at,” she said.

Seeing a perplexed look on my face, Mom landed the verbal punch by paraphrasing Aristotle, “A nobody is one who does nothing to avoid criticism.”

So here are a few things I do know and can take refuge in since implementing detention reform using the Annie E. Casey’s JDAI model:

  • 65 percent decrease in average daily detention population;
  • 36 percent reduction in average length of stay;
  • 25 percent fewer commitments to state custody;
  • 1 percent re-arrest rate for those released on alternatives to detention;
  • 63 percent fewer petitions filed;
  • 57 percent reduction in the average daily detention population of youth of color;
  • 47 percent reduction in youth of color commitments.
  • 73 percent decrease in school arrests;
  • 70 percent fewer weapons on campus; and
  • 24 percent increase in graduation rates.

Detention reform may look “soft,” but it’s tough on juvenile crime.

So, to my colleagues in this ever growing detention reform effort, please remember that life is unfair, verbal darts will be thrown at you, and people will try to rent space in your head.

Keep in mind that many critics are intelligent people who are ignorant. Take refuge in what you do know — the kids you are saving from the trauma of detention. Be encouraged in the criticism thrown at you — you become a somebody, and not a “nobody.”

And remember the words of Justice Louis Brandeis– “All great truths begin as a blasphemy.”

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