At the morning plenary of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) conference in Philadelphia, the 800 juvenile justice reform leaders in the room had a real treat — one that resonated with me professionally and personally.
Van Jones, co-anchor of CNN’s Crossfire, former advisor to President Obama and founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, talked about ways we could build on the reform constituency we are forging to build fairer, more effective youth justice systems that are less reliant on incarceration and enhance community safety by creating opportunities for young people.
Jones talked about his initial first-hand encounter with biases in the justice system, describing how he arrived at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and noticed that a high percentage of young people on campus could accurately be described as “nonviolent drug offenders.” Having attended Yale and engaged in my fair share of “youthful indiscretions” during my own college years, I can personally attest to that reality.
During our respective times in New Haven, we both also recognized how the reaction to certain behaviors was strikingly different depending on what you looked like and where you were. New Haven police cars literally sped past college dorms where hard drugs were being used, so that they could make drug arrests of young people of color in one of the city’s public housing projects. While the mostly white, privileged college students (like me and my classmates) were allowed the time and space to engage in youthful, reckless behavior, and then go on to be doctors, lawyers (like me), bankers or even presidents, young people of color in the same city were met with the full force of the law in response to their very similar their behaviors. Not only were these young people not afforded real opportunities to receive a quality education, they also did not see rehabilitation or second chances. Instead, they saw the backs of police cars and prison cells, often for decades as a result of harsh mandatory minimum sentences. “I’ll never forget talking to the dean of the law school,” said Jones. “How can we be in this building, and you can’t walk out the front door and can’t see equal justice anywhere.
The response: “Well, those kids you are talking about are drug pushers. Our kids are experimenting in drugs.”
The reality is that like so many places across our country, delinquent acts and misbehaviors by people who look like me and my children are treated differently than those of people of color who may live in a different part of town, and the consequences were different for young people based on their race and where they lived in New Haven.
While we can now see Jones on CNN every evening engaging in the policy debates of the day, more than a decade ago, the Justice Policy Institute, the Youth Law Center (where I worked at the time), the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and a coalition of other national and local groups, including young people across the city, worked with Jones when he ran the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to launch the first salvo in a long battle against the Alameda County “Super Jail.” At the time, the county covering Oakland, Calif., was contemplating building the biggest per capita juvenile detention center in the country — a facility that would have been bigger than the detention center in Cook County, Ill., (the Chicago-area county responsible for detention).
“We discovered that this proposal snuck past the community, and we didn’t think we could stop it,” Jones said. “But it turned out the jail that they were going to build was going to be built in a white community. And nobody told the white folks. And we discovered a concept called the ‘united front.’”
The Ella Baker Center and their “unlikely allies” won this fight: The “Super Jail” was never built and the juvenile detention center that was built was basically the same size as the one it replaced.
Today, Jones is working with another “unlikely ally,” former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on efforts to advance de-incarceration work. Together, they believe they can bring conservatives — like those organized by Right-on-Crime — and progressives together to advance the sensible changes to juvenile and criminal justice policy that we all want. Although it is great that we can build an “unlikely allies” constituency with conservatives around prisons that cost too much and do not make us safer, Jones thinks that he and Gingrich can also advance models that would not just close prison doors, but open doors of opportunity for young people, including connecting youth to workforce development and education opportunities that will allow them to successfully transition to adulthood. Jones and Gingrich see these as critical connections to training for the high technology jobs of tomorrow, and target these supports to the young people of color that currently fill our youth jails and prisons.
This vision of the future resonates with the experiences I’ve had, and that we are currently navigating in Washington. When I was part of building the D.C. Justice for Youth Coalition as an advocate, and when I served as counsel, chief of staff and interim director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), we built a constituency that eventually closed the notorious Oak Hill juvenile facility, significantly reduced the use of incarceration overall, built a model school for young people in the system, and began to greatly expand the number of services, supports and opportunities for youth in the community.
These are important steps, but in Washington, and around the country, we still need to advance the kind of opportunity agenda that Jones and Gingrich are talking about. Closing facilities are important steps, but the young people who are most likely to end up in these buildings will not make the transition to adulthood unless we are equally focused on getting young people quality educational opportunities and adequately preparing them for employment — and ultimately affording them the chance to have the same things all of us want, a decent job and a way to support ourselves and our families.
Marc A. Schindler is the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute, and former general counsel and interim director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, D.C.