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Rescuing Lives Without Hope

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Adela de la Torre is director of the Mexican American Studies & Research Center at the University of Arizona

His piercing brown eyes told a story beyond his smile. At 17, he was in jail for smoking “bud” (marijuana). He had not a single unit of high school credit, and his goal for 10 years from now was to be high and not get caught. Another youth, whose smooth baby face masked a bitter cynicism, forecast his adult world as life behind bars with his dad. An unusual strategy for finding an absent father. But perhaps most heart-wrenching was a boy no older than 14 who saw prison and violent death as his inevitable fate. These youths represent many children of color, who disproportionally fill our prisons.

I had met them in a group activity area for violent juvenile offenders, I saw no books there, no posters, no computers--no tools that would allow them to grow as human beings and as skilled adults. The one classroom in the facility could at best serve only 20 of the 130--50 over capacity--juvenile detainees. The facility had become so overcrowded that children slept on mats on the cafeteria floor. What are the prospects for these children who are dropping out of our schools and their families? We have offered them tough love and zero tolerance, but this has had little effect. One youth, on being sent to the center, had remarked, “At least in jail, I can sober up and have three meals before going back into the streets.” So much for deterrence.

Americans should not be surprised that we are failing in our war against juvenile crime. We are failing because the environment these children live in is far worse than any deterrent thus offered. For example, as a society we support zero tolerance of violence in our public schools, but how does that translate in real life? We kick out of school those most in need of education and counseling, and they land on the highest crime- and drug-infested streets. Their “homies” become their family and network for survival and educational training. As they drop into slanging and banging, they move further away from homeroom and football. They become the mean criminals and thugs we hate and believe we can control with further violence to their self-esteem.

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We are creating a growing underclass in American society, one that is disproportionately nonwhite and poor. They are our native sons and daughters who are filling courtrooms and jails. They have a separate language, a separate culture, a separate dream. They are not in our schools because they cannot survive there. As one boy said to me, “The only thing that gets us respect is fear. Being a Mafioso or like Scarface, what could be better than that?” Dying for a friend, defending your turf or grabbing a bat and beating someone who makes you mad are reasonable choices for these youth.

So what do we do beyond creating more prisons and building higher walls around our homes and communities? Perhaps we begin by listening to those children who have hope. I asked these kids what would make a difference in their lives, and beyond the bravado they had concrete solutions for deterring juvenile criminal behavior. Several agreed that they would have had a better chance if their public school classes were smaller and more teachers had encouraged them. If they had a place to play sports after school or if schools would stop taking sports away when their grades dropped, they could play football or basketball and maybe even go to college. If they had jobs in their neighborhoods and someone to guide them to do the right thing, it would make a difference. If churches got involved, they would be able to become closer to God. If they knew that once they graduated from high school there might be financial assistance for college, they would reach for that dream.

Simply put, many of our most violent children know what they need to succeed. They just don’t think that it’s possible, and we have not given them any indication that we care. We must convince these children that success is possible for them and that we care about their future. We need to develop concrete action plans at the neighborhood level. This requires putting aside our prejudices and fears and working together to shift the tide of juvenile violence and incarceration.

Our schools, our churches, our families and our courts are failing, and our children know this. Isn’t it time we become honest with ourselves?

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