Updated: Nov 8, 2018
Since repairing the criminal justice system is going to be a fundamental and time-consuming solution to reducing incarceration rates, there are many other "right now" solutions that need to be focused on to prevent crime, recidivism and criminal thinking prior to a youth's first encounter with the law, or before that revolving door in and out of the system begins.
As I drive through Metro Atlanta on a daily basis, I go from the 30309 Midtown community where I work and where rents begin at $1,800 for a 500 square foot apartment to, within 3 miles, one of the worst zip codes in the nation for heroin distribution and crime, 30314. That quickly, you move from the top of the food chain to the bottom, and few people seem concerned. As I have worked with many of the youth that reside in and near this zip code, I have realized, many of them don't feel that they could be a part of the upper food chain, that they can achieve greatness beyond their block. As a matter of fact, one of my mentees had never been to a restaurant that served lunch that costed more than $10, as he shared with me. It's not that these teens and young adults don't desire the same experiences that their peers in affluent or even moderate-income areas have, it's just that they can't see the pathway to get there, so they remain in their bubble; typically about a one mile radius from home.
So what is the formula? I know there is no one size fits all solution, HOWEVER, there are some key fundamental structures and practices that can create those bootstraps that these youth were never born with that society tells them to grab and pull. What are the key ingredients?
1. Educational attainment is where it begins. Many believe, and I know, that in this country, the criminal justice system predicts the demand for prison cells based on a student’s ability to read by 3rd grade. According to www.readingpartners.org, students who are not reading at grade level by the 3rd grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school than those who are. According to Researchers at Northeastern University, on any given day, about 1 in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates. The picture is even more astounding for black males, with nearly one in four young black male dropouts incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized on an average day, the study said. This compares with about one in 14 young, male, white, Asian or Hispanic dropouts. So where do we focus? Legislative changes are crucial and the root, but in the meantime, we don't have time to waste by continuing to let the water of this bursting faucet to overflow. If students are behind academically, let's tap into local college students and create tutoring programs at local libraries and schools. Educated parents in low-income areas can tutor at their children's school or other local school. As a former teacher, I believe teachers should also be tracking these students to refer them to these resources, as we know, many teachers fail our students by letting them slip through the cracks; unacceptable.
2. Addressing emotional and behavioral health issues. U.S. prisons are overpopulated with inmates who are black and those with mental illness. Although rising health care costs can be a burden, many people in low-income communities don't believe in seeking healthcare for physical health issues and have an even more serious issue seeking assistance with mental and behavioral health. When parents of children with mental health issues do seek help, they are often met with counselors that provide run-of-the-mill standard talk therapy and a prescription for medication. Our kids need more than this and deserve more. So many low-income youth face trauma early on and learn to deal with it by use of violence, challenging authority and crime. Parents need to seek the best mental health behavior specialist in their area that focus soley on their child's core issue i.e, oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), impulsivity control disorder, bipolar, etc. They also need to make sure to seek Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help youth re-learn decision making. There are many good resources found at https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/tools-learning-resources/finding-evidence-based-programs. We can no longer be afraid to meet our mental health challenges.
3. Providing skills and life skills training is critical. Many juvenile offenders will not attend college, but they will start their own business or consider a trade. We must connect them to entrepreneurship training and micro-lenders in their areas. Most of these individuals already have business and marketing acumen, they just need an outlet and direction to create a business. There are often also, many trade training programs, but it seems these youth are unaware. Urban League programs have wonderful training programs and so do many other community programs. These too should be connected to youth in need of support. We've got to meet them where they stand. Life skills training is equally important. Teaching them about financial education, pathways to success, how to write a resume, interview and create and execute on goals. These combined with teaching them how to identify their personal strengths, aptitudes and visions will begin to bring into focus those pathways to success that I discussed earlier.
4. Mentorship in Mandatory. So many people want to affect change, feel passionate about the same things I'm passionate about, but don't know where to begin. Mentoring is a great start. Approach your local schools, family members, friends, community centers or juvenile courts and ask if they need some additional support. They will embrace you with open arms. Start with a face-to-face meeting with him or her to get to know each other, determine their interests and goals, and begin to provide them with gentle advice, guidance and experiences that will help them achieve these goals. Once a month is ok, but a weekly check in through text or a call is even better. Oh, and by the way, lunch and financial support for costs such as transportation, GED tests and getting their driver’s license is in high demand as well!
This is some food for thought for everyone, I hope you picked up a nugget or two and I'd love to hear how some of you begin to be a part of the solution!
- Tiffany Kirk
Founder, LIFERS Program