Kids Behind Bars: Live Blogging from the John Jay/Tow Foundation on Juvenile Justice Day 2


Mike Bocian and R. Dwayne Betts speak at the John Jay/Tow Foundation Workshop on Juvenile Justice

How do reporters cover the juvenile justice reform debate in 2012? That is the question that an assembled group of journalists and criminal justice experts from across the nation gathered to discuss during the second day of the John Jay/Tow Foundation Conference on Juvenile Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

8:30 AM Keynote Speaker Mike Bocian, Pollster & Founding Partner, GBA Strategies

Bocian presented polling from a telephone survey of 1,000 adults to figure out where America stands on juvenile justice reform. Over 75% of the public polled believed that youth who commit crimes should be rehabilitated and not incarcerated. They also said there should be more focus on prevention and rehabilitation and not on punishment and incarceration. Bocian said when people hear that children are involved they are a lot more tolerant and believe in helping offenders.

GBA Strategies polled respondents to get a sense of what punishments are most fitting for juveniles that committed crimes. A large majority (over 60%) believed that youth offenders including violent offenders should not be placed in adult prisons but in juvenile facilities. Responders also feel that judges should make many decisions for juveniles.

Bocian also spoke abut messaging and the majority of responders felt that youth should be held accountable and when they have fulfilled their obligations society needs to help them to move forward. Overall most responders felt that juveniles should be punished but should be reintroduced into society with rehabilitative help.

GBA Strategies also tested for language. They asked respondents what they felt about the words “juvenile” and “youth”. Forty-Two percent of respondents felt a negative connotation when they heard the word juvenile and when didn’t feel that when they heard the word youth.

9:00 AM-10:00 AM Fellow Workshop Discussion of Juvenile Justice Poll

Panelists include: Liz Ryan, President and CEO, Campaign for Youth Justice, and R. Dwayne Betts, Author, Commentator, and Former Youth Offender

Ryan spoke about the mismatch between the public’s wants and expectations and the reality of the criminal justice system. Ryan said 250,000 children are tried in adult criminal court annually and there are 10,000 children in adult prison every day, many of them have not yet gone to trial. Ryan also said that every single state in America tries kids as adults and there are many young people tried for minor offenses even school yard fights in adult criminal court. A common misunderstanding about the system, Ryan said, is that kids that are locked up have done something bad, but many times that is not the truth.

Ryan also spoke about the difficulties in gaining access to children in these situations. There are wardens and lawyers that don’t want you to have access to the kids, also Ryan cautioned, reporters have to think about the retaliation against the kids that are interviewed.

She spoke about trends happening across the country. On April 20, 2012 Colorado reversed their direct file law, over 50 facilities have closed over the past five years, and kids are being taken out of adult prisons.

Dwayne Betts spoke about his experience and how young people in the system are invisible. He was fifteen when he got locked up for a carjacking. He was tried as an adult and served eight years in prison. He spoke about how some of his cellmate he went to prison with had much longer sentences some thirty, sixty years. Betts said he could name a dozen people that are currently in prison that are now thirty years old that were sentenced when they were teenagers and are just forgotten about. Betts said that the journey is so difficult that most people don’t make it out the other side, and once teenagers grow into adulthood they are completely forgotten about. He said the only reason that he survived prison is that his judge said that prison won’t help him, so he decided to survive to spite all the people who knew what a death trap that is prison. Betts went on to graduate from University of Maryland, (where he was commencement speaker) attend graduate school at Harvard University and write numerous books, but still struggles daily to overcome his felony conviction.

10:15 AM- 11:15 AM Panel 5: The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Role of Police, Courts and Schools

Panelists include: Steven Teske, Judge, Juvenile Court, Clayton County, Georgia, Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology, St. Catherine University, Elton Anglada, Assistant Chief, Juvenile Unit, Philadelphia Defender’s Association of Pennsylvania, Joseph Gaudett, Chief of Police, Bridgeport, Connecticut

Judge Teske opened the panel with the question what does being tough on crime really look like? Teske said that youth rehabilitation is harder than locking kids up in a detention center.

Heitzeg summarized the topic of the school to prison pipeline what does it mean? It means tracking kids directly or indirectly from school directly into juvenile and adult criminal justice systems most that come from heavily policed schools. School are more segregated today than they were in 1954 and there is a dearth of minority children in advance placement tracks and over placement in special-education tracks. There has been a rise in zero-tolerance policies in school (almost 80% of schools have policy in place) based on the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 and school have broadened this to include all weapons, drugs, alcohol, and threatening behavior. There are increased police presence, metal detectors, mostly in minority schools. There are over 3 million suspensions and 100,000 expulsions annually and the rate of suspension for preschoolers is high than the rate for K-12, noted Heitzeg. Suspension does not change behavior in any way and the likely consequence of suspension is repeated suspension. She spoke about how the federal policy, “No Child Left Behind” has increased zero tolerance and encouraged teachers to exclude students who would bring down test scores.

Black students are suspended and expelled at three and one half times the rate of white students, explained Heitzeg. In some states black students are expelled at six times the rate of white students. She explored deeply entrenched stereotypes of race and crime and how justice has become a measure of social control. Youth of color are criminalized when they misbehave in schools and white youth are given medical labels such as ADHD or autistic, said Heitzeg.

Elton Anglada said it is an uphill battle to represent the children in the school to prison pipeline. He said what he sees in courtrooms, district attorneys and the public is that they are outraged. Anglada doesn’t see a public that is interested in youth rehabilitation, people don’t understand where these kids come from. The homes where his clients come from don’t have books, don’t have love and aren’t taught to treat people with respect, not every client said Anglada, but many. And these are the kids that have no help coming from everywhere. Anglada asked where the zero tolerance policy came from and why we need to apply it to all types of teenage behavior. Anglada tries to humanize the juvenile and tell the story. Anglada said we have school-to-prison pipeline because people want this.

Joseph Gaudett, Chief of Police for Bridgeport said that school police are much different than other units and the most powerful thing we give our police is discretion. Gaudett cut the number of school resource police so none of the principals feel like they have ownership or their own private police force. Gaudett main concern is public safety and he believes that a well-educated kid is the best bet to create that. In Bridgeport, the economy has forced of merger of the police force and law enforcement for the Board of Education, giving them a chance to revise their policies. Gaudett said the police need to create relationships with the children so they can interact in a positive manner. The police are trying to improve their relationships with the kids and to maintain that trust, so they can gather information about the community without endangering the children. Gaudett said there should be guidelines for school police. There should absolutely be clear rules of what information the police officer should have access too in addition to conduct on school grounds, he said.

Teske asked why it is important that there should be a separate public defender system not attached to the court. When a child is arrested in school the starts a process of suspension and/or expulsion without access to counsel and even if kid is acquitted the child can still not return to school, said Anglada. The problem lies in that Family Court is often seen as a not serious court, and newer attorneys are often started in juvenile court and fee structure in often set to encourage a plea. There is an incentive to shorten or plea out the deal, said Anglada. Also many kids go through the juvenile court system without counsel, he said.

Teske said there were two important issues, one, should youth get legal representation and second, should the attorney be appointed by a court or a separate entity? Heitzeg said we should consider the costs of racism and class in access to resources in the creating the school to prison pipeline.

Teske said we can never underestimate getting together with the leaders of our community to understand what stakeholders are going through.

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