I am an attorney who fights human trafficking. When I became chair of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Human Rights Commission, discrimination in my city became front and center.
State-sanctioned slavery, Jim Crow laws and racism were constructs I understood from American history at a cerebral level: It happened and now it’s largely over.
An internal shift occurred when I heard a narrative from black men and women that tugged at my heart: When blacks hear “war on crime/tough on crime,” they hear “war on blacks.” Looking at our prison population, they are right.
I also heard that when a black man (or woman) comes of age, black parents must have “the talk” about how to interact with police. I also learned the term “Driving While Black.” The narratives were the same without regard to education or social status.
Law enforcement serve an important role in society. I am both grateful and have great respect for those men and women who put their lives on the line each day they go to work. Yes, #BlueLivesMatter.
But, #BlackLivesMatter too. Consider this: We are all products of our environment. We live in a society that bombards us with messages and stereotypes.
What is the black stereotype prevalent in our collective conscience? Let me share mine. I was driving my kids to school and I saw a black man … walking, minding his business, sporting dreads and really baggy pants. Judgments about that man and his potential for badness flooded my mind. Those thoughts could have fueled action — possibly clutching my purse if I hadn’t been in the car.
My faith instructs me to “hold every thought captive.” That is a tall order with an estimated 20,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day.
Since true change begins from within, I resolved to think differently. No human being should fall victim to my prejudices. In fact, no human being should fall victim to any prejudices, especially that of police officers that are sworn to protect and serve.
Let’s face it, we all suffer from what I just described — judgment at best, discrimination at worst. If we come to situations with a more open heart, it may not solve the problem, but perhaps it might allow us to more accurately assess and thereby de-escalate tensions.
And, it is worth mentioning that the international community is watching. Recently the U.N. Human Rights Council criticized our human rights record, pointing to police violence and racial discrimination in places like Ferguson, Mo.; New York, and Baltimore.
In response to the harsh criticism, we pointed to the 400 law enforcement officials in the last six years who faced criminal charges. I don’t know if that should be celebrated because it is but a symptom of the problem.
To change a culture, we must first change.
I took time to lay that foundation on race because (in the course of planning a community dialogue on civil citations) I learned that 52 percent of the teens in the city Teen Court program were black.
Think about this. While people of color make up 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned — that’s one in every 15 black men. One in three black men expect to go to prison in their lifetime. (Ah, there is that “war on crime = war on blacks”).
Those are hard, difficult facts if you are black and worse if you are a black male. No wonder the concern and the common narrative.
Research has shown that once a juvenile officially enters the criminal justice system he/she is not only more likely to re-enter it, but also less likely to finish school, go to college or become gainfully employed. How do we get and keep these young men and women on track for success?
All agree that civil citations are good. Civil citations provide an alternative to arrest when a youth first finds himself or herself in the juvenile justice system. It costs taxpayers less ($300 vs. $5,000 to arrest). More importantly, it ensures that the youth can continue on his/her life without an arrest record that, as we know, impacts the chance of college and subsequent employability later in life.
Moreover, many of these young people encountering our juvenile justice system suffer from mental illnesses, are self-medicating (often attempting to anesthetize pain) and have suffered horrendous trauma — ranging from sexual abuse to being witness to murders and other violence, often on multiple occasions. How would you or I respond to such an environment? Anger, hate, ambivalence, distrust are natural outgrowths.
We fail these children if all we look to do is punish. Punishment really doesn’t serve the public on these occasions. Building much-needed social services around the youth does. Teaching the youth about the impact of his/her decisions does. Exposing the youth to conflict resolution skills and even the simple task of naming emotions (which they oftentimes do not know how to do) does.
In Jacksonville, civil citations are used to move a teen out of punitive justice (because it doesn’t work) and into a system of restorative justice, from which only 4 to 5 percent of the youth reoffend.
In the words of neuroscientist Daniel Reisel, it allows the juvenile offender to acknowledge, apologize and atone. How does that play out? Civil citations are not, by any means, a slap on the wrist. Among other things, the youth receiving a civil citation must take responsibility for the mistake, complete community service and fulfill other sanctions that may include letters of apology, counseling and restitution to the victim.
NABs, Neighborhood Accountability Boards, also hold the young man or woman accountable to community stakeholders (the very community affected and hurt by the conduct) to complete the individualized course of action. It bears noting that just like in parenting, one size fits all doesn’t work. We fail these troubled youth if we fail to meet them where they are and craft an individualized plan to meet their needs as best we can.
Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We need to change from the arrest paradigm to a paradigm that incorporates the best scientific research. Building on the work of Elizabeth Gould, Reisel discovered that even the most callous of psychopaths can change the amygdala in their brain. The even better news for youth eligible for civil citations is that the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the 20s. Given the right tools and in the right environment we can save these kids from a lifetime of encounters with law enforcement. Are you willing to change your paradigm?
Crystal Freed is the managing partner of The Freed Firm, P.A. She earned her law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center. Crystal devotes almost all her professional time to the issues of child exploitation and human trafficking.