Wednesday, May 18, 2005

So many battlefronts, so little time ...

Met last evening with two dedicated women working hard to find answers to the problem of youngsters returning from incarceration -- most coming back into environments that created their problems in the first place. Both were African American. One is a legal assistant while the other is a long time professional who works with the California Youth Authority. Both are compassionate, bright, effective people determined to take a new look at an old problem, and were inviting me to join with them in that effort. What they want to do is to create a support system for families that will enable them to help their youngsters re-adjust more effectively into home, schools, and the society; a tall order.

It's such a familiar story, and one that re-awakens cynicism each time I hear it. It's such an overwhelming social problem with such longterm systemic causes that I find it hard to stay focussed and pay attention when others raise these issues. My mind wants to opt out in self defense. After all, my own sons are now adults. My grandchildren are the responsibility of their own caring parents, and the issues are now purely academic for me, happily, except when I overdo the grandmotherly worrying thing.

There have been so many enlightening studies done over so many decades now, that one has to wonder why we haven't reacted to those findings and corrected what has to be obvious to law enforcement, the justice system, PTAs, criminal courts, judges, drug abuse clinics, social services, colleges and universities, clinical psychologists, anthropologists, etc. The files and archives of every university library and research laboratory are filled to overflowing with those study results -- all pointing directly to the inadequacies of our justice systems, racism, and lack of the ability to move into the mainstream due to unequal educational opportunities and/or job training. Just how many ways can that story be told? How many more billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent before we move to implementation of those findings? I don't believe it too much of an exaggeration to state that -- if the billions of dollars spent on studies nationwide had been used instead to implement once the causes were revealed, we might have lifted the lion's share of the neediest out of poverty and into the mainstream long ago.

There are days when I'm convinced that those studies are really meant to provide career opportunities for middleclass professionals and were never intended to bring any really significant social change to benefit the poor, the societally abused, and/or the disenfranchised. They get funded, evaluated, then shelved until displaced by a new one that essentially proves the same or similar results, ad infinitum.

For instance:

A couple of years ago in my role as field representative for Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, I attended the annual convention of African American city planners. It was fascinating. The most interesting section by far was the presentation of the results of a study done in Hennepin County, Minnesota. As is true in most heavily populated innercity communities, those imprisoned were disportionately young men of color. The assumption being, of course, that these were largely youth jailed for illegal drug offenses. Not so.

The study found that the place where young black males first encounter the justice system was through traffic court. Yes, and as often as not for relatively minor traffic violations.

Youngsters find themselves facing a fine that they can't possibly pay (maybe $60) so -- because they can't ask their already stressed parent for the money, they ignore the ticket. Next comes a doubling of the fine to $120, then to $240, then after months of fear and worry, they identify with the subculture of those outside the law, a warrant is issued and they're picked up and jailed. Incarceration then introduces them to gang life and a higher level of sophistication in street crime. The alternative is that this is the place where they opt to sell a few grams of crack to get the money and that leads to deeper involvement and, finally, to entering the underground economy feuled by illegal drug sales -- in many cases to supplement family incomes (remember the cuts in welfare benefits?), then for status in gang life, tattoos, or gold chains and proper bling. the spiraling down is tragically traceable; predictable.

As the direct result of the study findings, Hennepin County social services, police department, educators, probation officers, etc., came together to recommend addressing the problems by declaring an amnesty to declare a clean slate and new beginnings while positive alternatives were sought by all for all. They expected a few hundred to turn up and instead found themselves with a couple of thousand! It worked. The pattern was recognized and addressed with workable solutions and measurable successes. Not sure what the status of the problem is at this moment, but it's worth checking to see. Will do.


Wonder how many more effective programs are at work out there?

Given the changes I'm dealing with in my personal life at the moment, I can't possibly take on any major responsibility for organizing around the problems of youngsters returning from the CYA. Besides, I need to return to the work force before I go into total financial meltdown! But I will surely try to work with them at least during the first few organizing sessions -- long enough to try to feed new strategies into the mix and try to change the old conversations enough to breathe new energy into the subject. Maybe, even to spend some time on the web researching other study results that beg implementation. Surely there has been a wealth of work done in many places and under reputable institutions and/or nonprofits.

Besides, now that I'm learning to speak only in declarative sentences, I'm getting listened to more closely (grin).

We'll see.

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