Local officials discuss disproportionate minority youth incarceration

A group of students, local community leaders and a congressman gathered on a cold Saturday morning to inform the community of a blight upon the justice system: Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC).

The town hall meeting, held in a packed lecture hall in the Batten Arts and Letters building on January 23, featured speakers such as Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, Bobby Scott (D-Va.) of the US House of Representatives and an array of judges, attorneys and city officials.

Representation in the communities

Representation in the communities

The topic addressed in the meeting was a trend occurring with alarming regularity in the juvenile justice system, not only in Norfolk, but statewide; a flawed system in which minority youths are introduced to and immersed in the justice system at a far higher rate than non-minorities. Keynote speaker Shay Bilchik, founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, explained that every class of crime has a higher incarceration rate for black youths, and those youths receive longer sentences.

“We have a problem called the ‘cradle-to-prison’ pipeline,” said Scott. “We need a cradle-to-college’ pipeline. We must change this trajectory, or the next generation will come up and replace the current group, as the cycle goes.”

Several solutions were proposed and are in varying stages of legislation at this time. A list of these solutions included a re-engineering of structures and procedures such as arrest and booking, changing the culture of organizations to encourage racial and economic sensitivities, mobilizing political resources and partnering in developing community and family resources.

In addition, all speakers notes the desperate need for accurate compilation, analysis and implementation of data into specific and detailed plans of action, which could then be monitored for success. “We need to think about therapeutic solutions instead of detention,” said Shauna Epps, of the Center for the Children’s Law and Policy.

Other speakers shared her sentiment. Michael Leiber, a professor from Virginia Commonwealth University, even shared a detailed plan of attack for the problem:

“Phase one would identify the problem and where it occurs. Phase two consists of an assessment of the severity of the problem and a diagnosis of a possible solution. Phase three would be an actual intervention into the environment. Phase four would find us evaluating our solution for effectiveness, and phase five is a monitoring process.”

Though attendees seemed supportive and hopeful, many realized that road ahead would be difficult for supporters and activists. “It was an excellent presentation, and more than that, it needed to be done and just the fact that it happened is outstanding,” said John Coggershall, a public defender. “The family structure is breaking down and street gang activity is filling that void, and this is a real problem. But this meeting was an excellent start.”

Some in attendance disagreed with some key points raised during the meeting. Paul Yizar, a truancy officer for Granby High, voiced his concern that some youths may be excluded from the proposed programs. “These problems, truancy and juvenile crime, don’t just exist for minorities,” he said. “It means young white kids as well, and that wasn’t addressed. We must address all youth because they all have the same problems.”

Attendee Mark Wood did point out Norfolk’s advancement, noting a dramatic decrease in juvenile detention in 2008. “Norfolk is attacking the problem diligently, and I think we’re working hard on improving the situation,” he said.

For more information on how to volunteer for community programs, go here.

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~ by Daniel on February 4, 2009.

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