Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Day 27: Going to the candidates debate

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The following opinions are personal and should not be considered representative of my place of employment.

Last night there was a candidates forum for the upcoming juvenile justice court elections in New Orleans. The event was relevant to my job - I work with court-involved teenagers - and with the promise of "light refreshments," I was good to go.

Little did I know what obscenities were about to unfold.

The four candidates were all middle-ageish with varying degrees of experience with the legal system and youth issues. They were speaking to an audience composed mainly of youth services and advocacy workers and students enrolled in a GED program, a demographic perhaps not ideal for the subsequent conversation about what type of youth can be "rehabilitated" and what type "needed" to be locked up. ["There are lions and tigers and bears that just cannot participate in our society," candidate Doug Hammel theorized. "And there are squirrels and rabbits that can."]

The questions for the candidates had been prepared in advance by the GED students, so they were usefully and amusingly direct: The first was something to the effect of, "What do you see as the role of a judge, aside from locking youth up and setting them free?"

Hammel introduced his credentials by speaking at length about his undergraduate "justice" studies at American University in Washington, DC. Now, I too studied "justice" at a well-regarded Northeastern college, but I in no way feel this qualifies me to be a criminal court judge in Orleans Parish. Actually, I've come to understand how such a pursuit counts against me in certain ways. At this forum, I might have highlighted my experience working with youth, or any other indicator of cultural competency. Obviously another audience member agreed with me; I literally heard someone murmuring, "Yankee go home."

Hammel also discussed his objective to enable children to "have the ability to participate in the school band," which is a goal I don't necessarily oppose, but it ignores the disjointed scholastic experience of many New Orleans children who frequently have to switch schools due to rampant expulsions and incarcerations, mid-year revocations of school charters, and other shuffles in our area public education system. That aside, where is the funding for all this musical training?

The other candidates sounded equally unpromising at first: George "Gino" Gates also played up his Washington, DC-based experience, having advocated extensively for alternative charter schools (aka privatized daytime jails for "bad" kids). Yolanda King talked about her work as a long-term criminal justice prosecutor, sporting an "80% win rate." Cynthia Samuel discussed the importance of not "chipping away at the right not to have cruel and unusual punishment," an extremely good - if awkwardly stated - point. But she went on to sing the praises of so-called child protective services which, in my experience, often do more to pull families apart than to stabilize them.

Throughout the event, I was texting updates from the proceedings to a colleague at another youth services agency. Here is a sampling of our correspondence, edited for clarity:

Me: I'm at the juvenile judge candidates forum and it's offensive.
L: I couldn't do it. Had to sit that one out.
Me: Yeah for real. They're all saying parents are the problem.
Me: They're talking about whether they would lock up nonviolent offenders. Two have said absolutely no, which is interesting.

Samuel agreed, saying she could not "imagine a circumstance when I would lock up a nonviolent offender. But overnight in jail," she elaborated "...sometimes - and parents should know this but they don't always - you have to be strict with kids...so they understand that you have to follow the rules."

Sure. Just like getting grounded, only they're in FUCKING JAIL.

The candidates continued to undermine parental authority throughout the conversation, King asserting that parenting classes would help parents "figure out what to do with their children so they don't continue to commit crimes."

There was a shared opinion that something is wrong with the child who gets arrested. Rehabilitation is possible, but only if (overworked? underfunded?) social workers, probation officers, teachers, and (stressed out?) parents act in accordance with the judge's wishes. There was little questioning of the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating problems for youth and their families. The law was seen as something absolute and unbiased.

Hammel and Samuel pontificated on the "multifaceted" issues some children have, including untreated emotional problems. Most of the youth I work with are on some kind of medication regimen to treat psychological disorders that the youth don't understand and in many cases can't even name. I would argue that the problem here is not a lack of treatment, but the assumption that the best course of action is to force a child to cooperate with the adverse conditions (poverty, racism, dysfunctional school system, etc) of his environment. In my opinion, it would be more effective to stop crime by interrogating those conditions.

Me: Gino Gates just equated getting arrested as a black 13-year-old in New Orleans to the black bar mitzvah, a coming of age ritual. I'm liking him more.
L: Is that real? Did that really happen?
Me: Yup.

All the candidates seemed to understand that court-involved youth typically come from distressed circumstances and are themselves products of difficult environments. However when asked more pointedly, the candidates placed the blame for criminal activity squarely on the youth "offenders" and their parents, with jabs thrown at probation officers, social workers, and teachers for not "supporting" the youth enough:

Me: The candidates have all said something about how parents are uneducated and don't know what to do with their kids ever. Probation officers need to be more strict. Gino Gates is talking about how probation should have athletic requirements.
L: Oh Jesus.
Me: I hate it. I want to throw up. I'm sitting behind Dana Kaplan. I can't tell what she's thinking.
Me: Nothing yet about the crushing effects of racism, poverty, and police brutality.
L: Haha of course not! Those things have nothing to do with the juvenile justice system.
Me: Oh we got something on probable cause from Gino. Police need to be better trained.

Indeed, when asked what they would do to a child who doesn't comply with probationary requirements, such as improved school performance or participation in a counseling program, the candidates all pointed fingers at "the parents," who supposedly need to be educated on what's right for their own children. This conception is extremely unfair, as it establishes a very specific paradigm for successful child-rearing that is not appropriate for all families. It ignores the difficulties particular to impoverished, overworked, single, and/or non-white parents and their children. It is also disrespectful of family structures in which biological parents are not the primary caregivers.

Furthermore, punitive measures that extend to every conceivably problematic area of a youth's life - "wraparound," as we say in the biz - do not alleviate the complexity of the youth's problems so much as create more opportunities for the youth to violate his probation and get in more trouble with a judge. Such measures also conveniently ignore the problems caused by court-involvement itself. Just today I had a client get in trouble with his probation officer for missing an appointment with my agency. The reason why he missed the appointment was because he was given detention at school for missing too much classtime. He missed the classtime because he had been incarcerated.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, it's because it is. Rather than being responsive to the needs of the youth offender, the court expects the youth to comply with a narrowly envisioned model of success. If he can't magically adapt, the youth is discredited as a contributing member of society. It is much easier to accuse an individual of being dysfunctional than an entire system:

Me: Yolanda King says not everyone is college material.
L: Oh my.
Me: Yeah. It's getting real. Hammel is trying to explain why a uniform school expulsion policy is different than zero tolerance.
L: How the eff is it different than zero tolerance??
Me: King says she doesn't believe in the school-to-prison pipeline. I think I did throw up. Discretely. In my brain.
L: Hahaha omg omg I'm dying reading this.
Me: I'm glad someone's amused. "Some kids aren't high school material," according to Samuel. We've reached a new depth of despair.
L: WHAT!!!!

King proposed that a judge might "get at the roots of a problem through social services and counseling," and the reason why those options sometimes don't work is because "the parents aren't educated" as to why they're important.

L. and I have seen in our work that when youth don't comply with probationary requirements, it often has less to do with parental indifference and more to do with logistics. For example, it may seem optimal or generous to sentence a kid to counseling instead of jail. But when the counseling center is two long bus rides away from the kid's house and he's afraid of certain people that hang in the neighborhood by the center, counseling becomes more of a burden than the "second chance" that so many judges are convinced it is.

Moreover, counseling is not always a positive therapeutic activity. Mandating a youth to participate in a counseling program is like telling him that he and his family are wrong or bad in some way. He must be "reconditioned," as Gates suggested. For many communities, counseling is considered invasive and degrading, and thus is met with suspicion or resentment. Such sentencing alternatives can further the general mistrust of the legal system that persists among many court-involved families in New Orleans.

Accordingly, rhetoric of salvation was strong at the forum. The candidates agreed that the most pressing community concern was the need to "save the children." From what?, I wondered. Their uneducated parents and lazy teachers, as the candidates suggested? Or the rolling wheels of a racist, classist court system? This truly gives new meaning to the idea of "blind justice."

Me: I was going to ask a question but I think I'll just go drink heavily instead. It seems more productive.
L: Absolutely.

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