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Challenging Biases Against Economic Justice and Respectful Treatment of Youth

“Do what works!” the president and criminal justice authorities constantly declare. Well, here’s “what works:”

  • In impoverished Richmond, California (population 110,000), scores of teenaged youths have died in gun homicides since 1995.
  • In affluent Marin County, California (population 250,000), nearby, none.

Same state, same gun laws, same climate. What’s Marin’s amazing strategy? It’s called “a low youth poverty rate.” Across California, 83% of teenage gun homicides occur in populations with youth poverty rates topping 20%; fewer than 2% occur in demographics with youth poverty rates below 10%.

Don’t force millions of young people to endure crushing poverty. That’s “what works.” It’s the only proven, enduring strategy in city after city, nation after nation, year after year. Yet… no presidential praise, no breathless press splashes, tout Marin’s spectacular success.

Why not? Because many in political and juvenile justice leadership profit from popular myths that quick fixes, programmatic remedies, private schemes, and media-pleasing homilies from bunting-draped podiums will keep funding flowing to interest groups while unpopular, root-cause issues like economic justice for young people remain neglected.

By “interests,” I don’t mean vital, ongoing services such as drug/alcohol and mental health treatment, transitional services, drop-in centers, domestic violence programs, and genuine services targeting individuals and families in difficulty. I mean those initiatives that trumpet themselves as THE programmatic solution to young people’s problems--the ones that come and go.

Popular, piecemeal initiatives like the 1960’s Bedford-Stuyvesant project, President Clinton’s 1990s “personal responsibility” crusade, and now President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper, rarely endure. The short-lived “Boston miracle” of reduced gun homicides (but only among youths 16 and younger over a selected time period) paralleled similar claims in Stockton, Minneapolis, Chicago (every other year), and other cities.

These “miracles” really consist of authorities claiming credit for some random decline in violence or crime, followed by accolades from politicians and the press herd. None could demonstrate from objective study that their approach was responsible for improvements, or would be deemed successful if other time periods or measures were included—or in comparison to other cities that had no coherent strategy at all.

For examples, how did Oklahoma City reduce teenage murders by 85% from 1997 to 2002? No one even knew it happened. What was Los Angeles’s secret in cutting teenage gun homicides from 419 in 1994 to 160 in 1999? The scandal-plagued police department was in complete disarray. What miracle did San Francisco innovate to bring down teenage and young-adult gun murders from 41 in 1993 to just 9 in 1997? Unlike Boston, San Francisco had no cabal poised to grab credit (CJCJ might as well step up).

Recently, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE) exemplified the narrow, biased, self-defeating attitude that troubles me. I’d submitted a column proposing a federal initiative on the scale of Social Security to reduce youth and family poverty (as every other affluent nation does) and more respectful treatment of young people.

I anticipated an “exchange” (as JJIE’s name suggests) on my ideas. Instead, to my surprise, JJIE rejected the column out of hand—no negotiation, no normal editorial suggestions for changes—just a flat rejection. It wasn't the rejection itself (I then submitted a version of the column to Reuters, which published it), but the reasons that disturbed me.

First, JJIE said, my comparison of the hundreds of billions of Social Security dollars the federal government spends annually to prevent poverty among the old with spending just one-twentieth as much on assistance for the impoverished young would be unfair, since the old paid into Social Security all their lives. Second, JJIE stated that the demeaning comments toward young people, such as Michelle Obama’s labeling of young people as “knuckleheads” (and, presumably, JJIE’s column branding adolescence as “the age of stupidity”) were just “playful.”

I find this attitude both unfathomable and symptomatic of the self-serving indifference toward the best interests of young people all too common in the juvenile justice field. Of course a 14 year-old hasn’t lived long enough to contribute decades of taxes. Does that mean 30 million young people deserve to languish in low-income, poor, and destitute environments that have so many provably devastating consequences?

 No responsible media forum would publish comments, even “playful” ones, branding Latinos or women as “knuckleheads” or African Americans as “the race of stupidity.” Why, then, is it acceptable to demean young people with these negative terms? My repeated queries to JJIE failed to produce any response, let alone explanation.

I personally refuse to contribute to a forum like JJIE whose editorial policy is to freely publish columns calling teenagers stupid but reject columns calling for economic justice and respectful treatment of young people. My concerns are not a joke. The verbal disrespect and economic injustice inflicted on young people are interrelated cruelties, and both need to stop. CJCJ is committed to expressing varied opinions that uphold the respectful treatment of all populations and economic justice for young and old alike.

Truly conscientious program, institutional, political, and media forum leaders should be the first to forcefully declare that respect and economic justice for young people is crucial to the success of their work. Unfortunately, we remain a long way from that day.

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice, Political Landscape

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