The Gates Incident: What It Means for Youth and Cops

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By Jeff Fleischer

Years ago, in an open letter to his daughters, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that he wanted to “experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color.” Today, Gates’ personal experience with the police, not his distinguished work as a scholar and educator on racial issues, has sparked passionate national discussion about relationships between minority communities and law enforcement.

This dialogue is important but incomplete.

With the national spotlight on justice, it is time to move the discussion to the next level. It is time to examine juvenile and adult justice systems with the same passionate scrutiny the recent Gates case evoked.

Gates has resources and connections to make his voice heard. Conversely, most people of color who are arrested each day do not have that access. This is especially true for young African-American males, who are disproportionately represented in the justice system and are often undereducated, vulnerable and living in poverty. They are equally important in evaluating our systems of justice. Their voices should also be heard.

President Barack Obama and national leaders should turn their attention to the juvenile justice system. Since January 2009, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has been run by an acting administrator from the previous administration. When Obama appoints a full-term administrator, it should be someone with a vision for change to lead reform in juvenile justice policies and practice.

In a commentary for Time magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “What we often term as ‘black issues’ [imprisonment, poverty] are really ‘American issues’ that affect an uncomfortably large number of black people.” Over-reliance on incarceration of nonviolent and first-time offenders is also an American issue, but the human toll is especially heavy for young people of color in communities like Chicago’s South Side or New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

We must implement initiatives that build community capacity to support youth in need. One example is the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which should be embraced and expanded nationally. Consistent with Casey research and recommendations, we should evaluate the high costs and the overwhelmingly negative outcomes of incarceration as opposed to cost-effective, community-safe alternatives for young offenders. Millions of dollars and thousands of lives could be saved in the long run with greater use of these proven alternatives. We can do this without jeopardizing community safety.

Far from being “pie-in-the-sky” idealism, the idea of restorative alternatives rather than strictly punitive justice is grounded in reliable research findings. Mediation, community service and referrals to community service providers benefit both the community and the offender – at a fraction of the cost of detention and incarceration. Particularly for young people, the act of incarceration not only threatens humiliation and other injuries, but actually increases the probability of a juvenile being arrested again.

Despite the proven value of community-based care, such alternatives to detention and incarceration are infrequently considered and frequently under-resourced. In difficult economic times, these programs are too often the first services cut. The Second Chance Act, while offering some an opportunity, needs to be fully and more realistically funded to achieve meaningful change. The Obama administration could take an historic first step in a vital policy shift that actually redirects funds from institutions to the less costly, more effective community alternatives.

Following the Gates incident, Obama urged better training and coordination among law enforcement officials to “eliminate potential bias” in the justice system. This is, as the president said, a “teachable moment” in race relations, but it can be more than that. It can be used to inspire meaningful systemic change that results in true social justice for all Americans, especially the young people who hold our future.

Jeff Fleischer is CEO of Youth Advocate Programs, based in Harrisburg, Pa., which provides community-based alternatives to residential placement for youth and adults involved with justice, behavioral health and child welfare systems around the country.


  • Jack Levine

    Jeff Fleischer’s excellent perspective deserves the attention and action by policy-makers at the federal, state and community levels. Given scarce resources, it’s imperative that dollars be invested where they do the most good, in cost-effective alternatives to detention and incarceration. There’s a difference between being tough and being smart. True leadership requires investments in data-driven and research proven policies and programs that pave a positive path to success for our young people.

    Jack Levine

    4Generations Institute