More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City [PART 3]

I was reading my local newspaper this morning when I happened to stumble across an article, which detailed the demographics of a group of individuals, a pair of crimes that they were suspected of committing, and the subsequent charges that have been brought forth against these individuals by law enforcement personnel and other justice administrators . The particular crimes that these individuals were charged with includes multiple courts of felony larceny, breaking and entering, and possession of stolen goods. I was kind of taken aback when I became aware of the ages of the individuals suspected of committing such behavior. The first individual to be apprehended in connection with the crimes was an 18-year old kid. However, within days a 9-year old, a 10-year old, and two 12-year olds were also facing felony charges [all but the 9-year old currently faces multiple felony larceny charges, the 9-year old faces only 1 larceny charge]. It’s a sad situation and one could only wonder how things might have turned out differently had their parents warned them of the perils and consequences of wrongfully taking what does not belong to them [although it is possible that the parents have done this]. Nevertheless, we have a situation here in which a group of youth have engaged in unlawful behavior, so a response is certainly necessary. The questions which remain are: 1) What is an appropriate response to the behavior of these youth? 2) Are felon convictions necessarily in the best interest of the offenders and the larger society?

I am fresh off a semester on the juvenile justice administration process, so I have spent some time over the past few weeks thinking about the causes and consequences of juvenile crime as well as the implications of certain ways of responding to and reacting to delinquent acts. Deterrence – that is the process of preventing individuals from committing crimes through direct negative reinforcement or using others as examples – is and should remain a central part of crime control policy. However, deterrence may be achieved through means that are not blatantly and overly punitive [such as the branding of a 9-year old as a felon within a state with almost no avenues for the expungement of felony convictions from one’s record, even juvenile felony convictions]. When you are dealing with individuals this young, the stigmatization associated with being branded a felon and the ostracization from peers. family, and the larger society exacerbates rather than corrects the factors that might have influenced youth to engage in criminal acts.

I am not suggesting that these individuals walk for their actions. They broke into a woman’s home twice, and seized goods valued at more than $5,000. However, I would recommend that justice administrators be cognizant of the consequences of their actions. Academics within the field of criminology have consistently shown the deleterious effects of exposing juvenile offenders to the formal criminal justice system. Some informal criminal justice mechanisms, such as juvenile diversion, have proven effective in terms of facilitating behavioral change and reducing the likelihood that a youth will engage in subsequent acts of delinquency. Thus, some diversionary programs [not all] actually reduce the cost of criminal justice administration [by reducing court costs and detention] as well as the recidivism of youth offenders. The converse is associated with juveniles who are formally disposed and convicted of felony charges. Labeling theory holds that such a reality, as noted before, increases the prospects of recidivism.

The first question that I posed was: What is an appropriate response to the criminal behavior of the youth? I would support some sort of juvenile diversion program or mediation program. The goal of juvenile justice, especially when you are dealing with very young offenders, should not supplant the practical goal of rehabilitation with that of being overly punitive. These are young kids who, under the right direction and guidance, are fully capable of behavioral reform. I think they would benefit tremendously from family and individual counseling from a clinically-trained specialist. Specialists trained in behavioral therapy are uniquely capable of working with parents to help communicate to youth the importance of making smart behavioral choices and changes with regards to 1) whom do you hang out with, and 2) what types of behavior should one engage in or not engage in while hanging.

I’m not a strong believer in the deterrence effect of the felony-branding of young juvenile offenders, especially not in the state of North Carolina. Felony convictions, as noted before, are almost impossible to expunge in North Carolina. You have to wait 15-years after the conviction to apply for expungement, and if one has committed even the most non-violent and inconsequential misdemeanor during the 15-year period, that action can be used as a pretext for denying ones application to expunge a criminal conviction. Because prosecutors are elected officials, many whom politically benefit from the accumulation of convictions and more so in controversial cases, its hard to see any granting of leniency.

Most statistics suggest that the criminal justice system is less forgiving of African Americans, particularly African American youth. Disproportionate minority contact is the phrase coined to describe the reality of racial disparities at almost every stage of the juvenile justice administration process [from arrest to case disposition (verdict) to length of sentence]. Thus, it is important that the primary line of prevention, that the primary mechanism of crime control for African American youth exists in the home. Parents have to consistently remind their children of what is and what is not appropriate and responsible behavior. Felon convictions are not good, and in many cases automatically [and in a very substantive way] diminishes future opportunities.

The second question that I put forth is: Are felony convictions in the best interest of the youth offenders? I have said this before: The criminal justice system, in many respects, is becoming a systematic process for the abolition of civil rights. Michelle Alexander writes in her book, The New Jim Cross: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, that a felony conviction allows state and federal governments to strip one of all the rights that were acquired (in practice) by most African Americans during the civil rights era; most chiefly, the right to vote and protections against employment  discrimination. I do not believe that we should be engaging in or endorsing a process that strips away that rights of 9-year olds for misdeeds that they may have committed without necessarily fully understanding the extent of their actions nor the ramifications that would likely arise because of their actions. I have always clung to the notion that rehabilitation should be at the core of the criminal justice system’s response to juvenile delinquency. The costs of mass incarceration are exacerbating state budgetary problems, forcing states to divert funds from important social and educational services to fund court costs, and the sheltering, feeding, and provision of health services to inmates. By being overly punitive with these youth, justice administrators risk facilitating the conditions in which these individuals might be placed in a position where they feel as if they have no choice but to engage in extra-legal activities, increase rates of recidivism and the costs of administering “justice.”

Crime is not an inner city problem, everyone knows that. However, it is a problem that partially exists within the inner cities. There are a number of factors that uniquely places inner city residents at-risk for engaging and becoming victims of criminal activity. Scholars have identified changes in the economic structure, financial deprivation and community disinvestment, social disorganization, inadequate educational opportunities, and family structure as some of the factors most closely associated with crime and violence, including youth violence. These are all factors that can be adequately and appropriately addressed via public and social policy, if only our politicians will muster up the courage to address the issues that have historically and contemporarily contributed to the plight of inner city neighborhoods. For decades, policymakers have clung to the false notion that mass incarceration would solve the problem of “the problem people.” However, they could not have been more mistaken.

Instead of addressing the problems derived from past institutions and social structures that subordinated individuals and specific groups, new systems of marginalization and control have been put into place; substantive changes in the ways in which justice administrators respond to crime is one of them [and felony-indictments of 9-year olds is the consequence]. Criminal behavior must be responded to and should not be tolerated; however, the response must be appropriate and should take into account the totality of the circumstances [four of the five suspects are not even teenagers].

This is the third of a series of posts that will examine how historic and contemporary public policies shape the lives of residents in urban and inner city communities within the United States. – PART 3: “On African American Youth and Juvenile Crime”

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