Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Transitional Communities Putting Youth in Peril, say former prosecutor, councilwoman

Stop me if you’ve lived this one: you are running to get away from some situation that you know is dangerous, unhealthy, or just unpleasant. You find an area that seems just the opposite: safe, healthy, and pleasant. You settle in, breathing sighs of relief and rejoicing, only to find that you are received as an outsider, as different, unwanted. Your manner, language, dress, customs, and culture — in short YOU — are not wanted in this perceived oasis of wholesomeness. And what follows is so psychologically uncomfortable and assaultive that you to think of the troubles you fled with fond reminiscence.

Sound familiar? I’m not talking about immigration. Actually, I am, just not from country to country. I am talking about a situation I suspect most of us have faced to some degree at one time or another in our lives. Colloquially, you might call it “out of the frying pan and into the fire”.

It’s the kind of situation I thought of when I spoke a few days ago with South Euclid Councilwoman Ruth Gray. As chair the council’s safety committee she has become increasingly concerned over the growing involvement of her city’s youth in the county juvenile justice system. Perhaps because she is the grandmother of nine, or maybe it’s because she is a social worker, but she is unable to sit by and watch young lives get pushed off track by their own community.

Councilwoman Ruth Gray
Gray has become increasingly concerned over the past few years as her city grapples with the adjustments necessitated by transitioning communities. We are speaking here specifically about reaction formations as formerly all or mostly white communities experience a critical mass influx of African American immigrants.

The impact on a community is often felt first in the school system, where the mix of ethnicities skews more quickly towards minorities than does the general city population. The 2010 census puts South Euclid’s population at roughly 42% African American. Yet an informed estimate of the South Euclid-Lyndhurst school district puts its African American enrollment at more than 75%, even though Lyndhurst is more than 90% white.

This replicates a pattern occurring throughout our community to greater or lesser degree, in places like Euclid, Maple Heights, Garfield Heights, Richmond Heights, Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights.

Our schools, and therefore our children, principally our black children are placed in a laboratory where the challenges of society are being dealt with. The political, economic, social, and cultural forces have national and global origins that can and do easily overwhelm many local school districts.

These same forces tax local police departments as well. The result too often is that ordinary juvenile behavioral issues that once were handled on a personal, informal, case-by-case basis, are increasingly thrown into our county juvenile justice system.

This is the informed view of Case Western Reserve University visiting law professor Carmen Naso, who says that “we’ve become really, really good at throwing kids in jail. … It’s a disaster that we are taking more people into the system when we should be taking fewer.”

CWRU Law Professor Carmen Naso
Naso is no bleeding heart liberal college professor. He spent 30 years in the practice of law, the last seven of which were as the Supervising Attorney in county prosecutor Bill Mason’s office, where he trained a staff of young lawyers before transfer to prosecute adult felony cases. But lawyers are trained to evaluate evidence, and professors are inclined to study systems, and the evidence of how our juvenile justice system is not working is impossible to ignore.

Naso sees no greater incidence of juvenile delinquency these days than in the past. The difference is these same behaviors now are foisted upon a juvenile justice system that is ill equipped to handle them. He cites as one culprit the No Child Left Behind Act promulgated by former president George W. Bush.

Bush “created a new sub-class of people who would not be in the system, who are placed on track to fail by [the] Act, which allows schools to use the criminal justice system to deal with normal behavior issues rather than find solutions,” says Naso.

Councilwoman Gray would find herself in agreement. Her thrust is to find ways South Euclid can begin to develop and allocate resources to community youth that can help keep them from a meat-grinding juvenile justice system that continues to provide fodder for an ever-more expensive criminal justice system.

That’s why the program her public safety committee has put together tonight — Youth in Peril: A Community Response Public Forum — should be of interest, not just to South Euclid residents, but to citizens of all stripes across the county, including educators, legislators, public safety officials, parents, and taxpayers.

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