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The War on Youth

By proposing legislation to tighten juvenile justice on both state and federal levels, the nation has waged a war on youth -- particularly low-income youth of color. Once rehabilitation programs are out of the picture, what options do kids in trouble have left?
 
 
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I was as deep as you can get in a gang," says Carlos*, a 26-year-old Chicano from the Los Angeles area. Because Carlos lived on the border of rival gang turfs, simply crossing the street meant venturing into enemy territory.Carlos was smart. He had ambition. But in Carlos' barrio, there were "no community events, no activities," he recalls. "Every time I tried to do something [positive], it was stopped. And the gang was conducive to doing something, not necessarily good, but something."Three blocks away from his house, at a sunny fourth of July picnic, one of his friends was murdered by the rival gang, his body torn apart by bullets from an AK-47. Carlos began thinking about protecting himself, about what his affiliation really meant.Soon after, Carlos was arrested for carrying a concealed knife. Tried as an adult, he served six months in county jail. It was his first bid, and it taught him something -- something that prosecutors and politicians don't talk about."When you're from southern California in a Chicano gang, you could choose to disassociate yourself with your Sure–o friends and fend for yourself," he says. But fending for yourself means trying to survive the most dangerous place in the United States alone, with a sell-out reputation. "It ends up being better in the end to join up."Carlos was stuck. "I remember being told by people in school, 'You are a bright kid, you could do anything you want.' So if I go to prison, I'll be the best that I can be. I'll be in the Syndicate [Mexican Mafia], and be what's called a carnal, a shot-caller," he says.In California, Carlos' dilemma could be faced by many more young offenders if voters approve the so-called Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act. The Act proposes to, among other things, unseal confidential juvenile records, make it easier to try juveniles as young as 14 as adults or to send them to adult prisons, and severely increase punishment for a number of juvenile crimes. Youths could face three years for just $400 of vandalism, or the death penalty for a "gang-related" homicide. Call it the War On Youth, in which youths of color are public enemy number one. Supporters argue the Initiative will discourage youths from joining gangs and committing crime. But opponents say that, like Propositions 184, 187, 209, and 227, this "Juvenile Injustice Initiative" is a frontal attack on communities of color, reflecting the impulse to sweep up youths of color and put them away.The Initiative is the latest battle in a nationwide, decade-long contraction of youth services and expansion of aggressive policies that have combined to criminalize young persons of color. Call it the War On Youth, in which youths of color have become public enemy number one.The Sky is Falling During the early 1980s, the government declared a War on Drugs, and a host of repressive new laws took hold in communities of color. Many now question the effects of these laws. Prison expansion and racial profiling have started to come under sustained attack in recent years. Even General Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, recently criticized discriminatory drug sentencing, saying, "It is clear that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem of chronic drug abuse and drug-driven crime."Yet one core aspect of the War on Drugs remains unchallenged -- the targeting of urban youth of color as superpredatory, ultraviolent, drug-infested gangbangers. Here, public opinion has been herded in quite the opposite direction -- towards increasing fear.As so-called Generation Y comes of age some seventy million strong -- a cohort projected to swell the under-18 population by as much as 24 percent -- criminologists like Northeastern's James Alan Fox, Princeton's John DiIulio, and conservative congressmen like Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) have predicted a juvenile crime wave of tsunami proportions."America is a ticking violent crime bomb," warns a widely influential 1996 report, "The State of Violent Crime in America," by the Council on Crime in America (co-chaired by former President Reagan's Secretary of Education, William Bennett). "(R)ates of violent juvenile crime and weapons offenses have been increasing dramatically and by the year 2000 could spiral out of control." In the wake of Columbine, the chorus for punishing juvenile offenders has grown more urgent.In fact, violent juvenile crime rates have plunged during the 1990s. National homicide arrest rates dropped by forty percent between 1993 and 1997. Last year, California reported its lowest juvenile felony arrest rate since 1966. And nationally, juveniles account for just 17 percent of all violent crime arrests. The Juvenile Injustice Initiative reflects the impulse to sweep up youths of color and put them away. But the facts don't matter to race-baiting proponents of the War on Youth. The number of young blacks and other people of color is growing much faster than the number of young whites. Fox points to these numbers as an ominous sign. Does he have the sickening hope that racist stereotypes will prove his juvenile crime wave theory or is he just living, as Public Enemy once put it, in fear of a black planet?No Better Tomorrow Fear of youth and demographic change is not limited to rightwingers. Despite steeply dropping crime rates, most opinion polls find that adults are pessimistic about today's young people. A recent study by Public Agenda and the Ad Council found that three-quarters polled viewed children, especially teenagers, in negative terms.That pessimism is reflected in a major shift in juvenile justice priorities. "We all know that it's a cool thing [for politicians] to be tough on crime. What that translates into for us is being tough on kids," says Lateefah Simon, 22-year-old executive director of the Center for Young Women's Development in San Francisco.In 1899, Progressive reformers sought to reverse the horrible conditions and violence that children faced in adult courts and prisons by establishing a separate juvenile justice system. One hundred years later, tough-on-crime politicians seem to have abandoned the idea that youths deserve rehabilitation and concern. Instead, they seem to be embracing the notion that offenders are only worthy of restraint and containment. Nationally, although whites make up 68 percent of all juveniles, 63 percent of youths in custody facilities are of color. This notion is being implemented in state legislatures across the nation. Since 1992, 48 states made their juvenile crime statutes more punitive. Forty-one states made it easier for prosecutors to try juveniles as young as twelve as adults. The number of young adults sentenced under mandatory minimums or jailed in adult prisons has grown dramatically. Forty states have been moving to make it easier to unseal confidential juvenile records.Across the country, the war has turned against young people. "In Florida, the same number of kids (have been) sent to adult prison on the whim of prosecutors than by the decisions of judges in all the other states combined," says Jason Ziedenburg, policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "And Florida still has one of the highest crime rates in the nation."Not surprisingly, youths of color are the overwhelming majority of the War on Youth's casualties. Nationally, although whites make up 68 percent of all juveniles, 63 percent of youths in custody facilities are of color. In California, 86 percent of wards in the California Youth Authority are of color."The stark reality is that racism is alive and well in the juvenile justice system," says Mimi Ho, an organizer for Californians for Justice. "They are saying, `Youth are our future -- but not kids of color.'"Code Word: Gangs The War on Youth's buildup began in the late 1980s, as jurisdictions increasingly fretted about rising juvenile crime rates and the "out-of-control" youths behind the numbers. In that decade, these "out-of-control" youths were labeled within a single racialized code word: gangs.But even the Department of Justice finds gang membership difficult to pin down. Gangs are often informal, with unstable memberships. Add the inconsistent data collection criteria in police agencies, and you have Department of Justice estimates of the number of gangs in the U.S. that vary from 4,800 to 23,338.If the numbers are elusive, the political opportunism is real. In 1988, then-California Governor George Deukmejian signed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act of 1988 (STEP), a model effort that the U.S. Department of Justice called "the most extensive statutory scheme to criminalize gang acts."The law gave gang-related offenses enhanced punishments, and created new crimes specific to gang activity. Under STEP, gang membership is punishable by up to three years in state prison. Most importantly, STEP wrote into law a process of determining who was a gang member. Today, most major cities and at least 19 states have laws similar to STEP and anti-gang units to enforce them.In 1987, the Law Enforcement Communication Network and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department began developing a large database -- the Gang Reporting, Evaluation, and Tracking System (GREAT) -- to collect, store, and analyze personal information about suspected gang members. Now simply known as CalGang, the database contains more than 300,000 names and is used by departments across the country. The Justice Department and the FBI also fund national databases.Databases indiscriminately criminalize youths, identifying "suspects" before any crime has been committed. Indeed, the definition of a "gang member" is hotly debated. In several cities, the ACLU has filed suits challenging local authorities' definitions of gang membership. Abuses are rampant. Racial profiling, it seems, is most virulent when it comes to youth of color.In at least five states, wearing baggy FUBU jeans and being related to a gang suspect is enough to meet the "gang member" definition. In Arizona, a tattoo and blue Adidas are sufficient. With so many of the crucial details left up to prejudice, the results are not surprising.In 1992, Actions for a Better Community (ABC) in Denver began protesting to local police that the city's gang database was criminalizing thousands of innocent youths of color. "Employers could call the gang list to see if a young person was on the list," says Gloria Yellowhorse, an organizer with ABC. A year later, investigations revealed that eight of every ten young people of color in the entire city were listed. Police met with ABC and quietly changed their database protocols.But minutes away from downtown Denver in suburban Aurora, any two of the following may still constitute gang membership to the local police: "slang," "clothing of a particular color," "pagers," "hairstyles," or "jewelry." Nearly eighty percent of Aurora's list is African American. The local head of the ACLU was heard to say, "They might as well call it a black list."But Aurora is no aberration. In Cook County, Illinois, the gang database is two-thirds black. In Orange County, CA, where less than half of young people are of color, 92 percent of those listed in the gang database in 1997 were youths of color. "The 'gang label' has everything to do with race," says John Crew of the California ACLU. "Frankly, we do not believe that this tactic would have spread so widely, and come to be accepted within law enforcement generally, if it was not being applied almost exclusively to people of color."To Sweep And Destroy At Coronado Mall in Albuquerque, NM, youths cannot even congregate. Like many shopping centers across the country, Coronado enforces a policy forbidding young people to gather in groups of three or more. Violators are cited for trespassing and banned from the Mall. Their records and photos are then turned over to the police gang unit for possible listing. "It's very scary for policy makers, for people in power, to see the numbers of young people of color." Like other War on Youth initiatives, youths of color were the primary targets. "By [one security guard's] count, at least ninety percent of the kids that they brought in were Chicano or Latino," says Robby Rodr’guez, the 24-year-old coordinator of the Southwest Organizing Project's campaign against the Mall. "Ninety percent of the youth [hanging out] in the Mall were not Latino.""[The mall operator's] reasoning was that when young people get together, there's a tendency for them to misbehave and to get into trouble," says Rodr’guez. Such is the logic of the sweep -- whether public space or private, youth of color have been turned into a generation of suspects.In the last decade, sweep laws -- laws against loitering, anti-truancy ordinances, anti-cruising laws, and curfews -- have proliferated across the country. The result? Curfew arrests nationwide doubled between 1988 and 1997. In California, they quadrupled during the same period.But evidence suggests curfew enforcement is not color blind. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Ventura County, CA, arrests Latino and black youths at over seven times the rate of whites. In New Orleans, blacks are arrested at 19 times the rate of whites.The most famous sweep law was passed in Chicago in 1992 -- a gang anti-loitering ordinance that made it illegal to stand on the street with any person whom a cop "reasonably believes" to be in a gang. Under the ordinance, 43,000 young Chicagoans were arrested in just two years, the vast majority of them youth of color. Only a tiny fraction of them were actually charged with a crime."They were arresting lots of innocent people. It takes police away from the real work, and pushes them to simply sweeping youth off the street," says Jeremy Lahoud, a youth organizer with Chicago's Southwest Youth Collaborative. The law was so broadly dismissive of basic liberties that it was declared unconstitutional by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.The sweep mentality now pervades even school safety policy. In Oakland, CA, the school board recently voted to spend $1.13 million a year to maintain its own 24-hour-a-day police force. The only board member to vote against the plan said, "When we have to take money from our core educational function, the children suffer."At Lolita Roibal's high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a modern cavalry of police officers patrols on three-wheelers. "Motorized tricycles," she calls them. Students are searched before they enter the dilapidated buildings. "It just feels more like a jail than like a school," says Roibal, an 18-year-old Chicana.One day, she recalls, two sophomores got into a fight, "so out of nowhere like seven cop cars pull up." As Roibal watched, a cop yelled at a fleeing boy, "Stop, or I'll shoot, you little fucker!"Shocking? "No, I wasn't shocked," Roibal concedes with a sigh.No More Rehabilitation In California, a crucial vote on what opponents call the Juvenile Injustice Initiative will take place in March 2000. Co-sponsored by David LaBahn, deputy director of the California District Attorneys Association, and former Governor Pete Wilson, the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act is a 43-page prescription to overhaul the juvenile system. At the heart of the initiative is the idea that offenders are incapable of rehabilitation.Supporters of the initiative want to scare the criminality out of young people. "Just like the Three-Strikes law has been a deterrent to repeat felons, if you realize that these are the consequences of your actions, we believe that most likely you'll decide a different path," says Mitch Zak, spokesperson for Californians to End Gang Violence and an Initiative supporter.These "consequences," say experts, would roll the crime system back to what it was in the 1800s. If the Initiative passes, 14-year-olds will be given adult sentences in adult prisons, including life without parole -- even for property offenses. And yet studies show that juveniles tried in adult courts are twice as likely to recidivate than their counterparts tried in the juvenile justice system.The law would also expand juvenile sentencing under Three-Strikes, and add to the number of crimes punishable as "gang-related." Before being placed in an intervention program, a youth would be forced to admit guilt in court. Cops could wiretap young people they identify as gang members, and those youth would have to register with the police like sex offenders. The law would also allow schools and employers to review juvenile court records by removing confidentiality rules, eliminating the chance that youth can outgrow their mistakes and move on with their lives.The result is a ballot measure -- one that the independent California Legislative Analyst's Office estimates could cost "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" in additional court and prison costs -- that many believe will be a more effective sweep of young people of color than all the gang injunctions, gang databases, anti-loitering ordinances, and curfews have ever been able to muster.The Task of Transformation Why this Initiative now? "It's very scary for policy makers, for people in power, to see the numbers of young people of color," believes Lateefah Simon of the Center for Young Women's Development. Her group is organizing against the Initiative as part of the Critical Resistance Youth Force Coalition.The Initiative may prove a turning point in the War on Youth, transforming many youths into activists. "The right wing picked the wrong group to mess with, because a lot of young people have already been politicized by Propositions 187, 209, and 227," says Mimi Ho, an organizer with Californians for Justice, which is also fighting the Initiative. "People are looking at this Initiative as a real youth movement-builder."Carlos' own road toward transformation began when a friend helped him enroll in community college and a Chicano studies class. Hoping to finish his education and develop his activism, he now calls himself a lucky one. Yet he still lives on the edge, always within the grasp of the system or the streets."I think for me I feel like I'm always walking on a tight rope," he says. "I will always forever be in [a gang] because the police have put me down in their records, the courts have put me down in their records, and if things ever get bad for me, it would be really easy for me to jump back into the mold.""The transformation is possible, but it's really, really big," he says. "I'm still going through it, and I don't know if I'll ever finish it." If the Juvenile Injustice Initiative passes, thousands of youths like Carlos may never get the chance.*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.Ryan Pintado-Vertner works with the DataCenter's ImpactResearch Team and is a member of the ColorLines staff. Jeff Chang is managing editor of ColorLines.