Breaking the Cradle to Prison Pipeline


 How Are the Children? Part III: A Symposium Exploring Solutions to Dismantle the Pipeline to Prison for Youth, a March 24 event sponsored by the Community Justice Project of the University of St. Thomas Law School  addressed preventative measures through community outreach and education, early intervention strategies, and rehabilitation techniques for youth already in trouble.

A report published by the Children’s Defense Fund’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign gave a racial profile of the 1,623 youths in residential placement in Minnesota in 2006:

• 75 (4.6 percent) were Latino,
• 537 (33.1 percent) were Black,
• 717 (44.2 percent) were White.

The report also pointed to disparities in poverty, health care and education. Speaking of the report, Joel Franklin, with St. Paul Youth Services, who introduced the symposium, said, “Our babies are not born – they are headed to prison. Imagine coming into this world with a prison cell in your name?” Peterson said that the numbers were depressing, which is why leaders needed to “start talking about solutions.”


The first panel at the symposium looked at prevention strategies such as providing opportunities and support for at-risk children from an early age. “Collaboration is the key,” said Rev. Janet Johnson, Founder of Youth Against Prisons. She spoke particularly of involving the faith community, and educating them about the statistics.

Stacey Decorsey, principal of Jordan Elementary School, has also worked at involving the community. She started a program at her school called Blessings in a Backpack, which sends backpacks home with healthy food for children on free or reduced lunch. Her philosophy is that children aren’t able to focus on their academics if they aren’t getting proper nutrition. She was overwhelmed by communit and parent support and willingness to help. “It brought our community together,” she said.

Other prevention strategies include such programs as The Cookie Cart program, which gives youth their first employment opportunity in a supportive environment that develops life and leadership skills.

Mentoring programs can also be effective. Big Brothers Big Sisters has a mentoring program for children of prisoners. Ann-Marie Shotwell, the coordinator for the program, said “incarceration is cyclical…Too many children are following in footsteps of a parent, aunt or uncle.” She said her program works to be proactive, offering support and mentorship for youth that might be at risk.

Intervention Strategies

The second and third panels talked about ways that organizations could reach out to children who may already be in trouble.Youth  who go into corrections facilities, for example, have a hard time getting back on track, and need extra support.

Enrique Estrada, Community Youth Advocate for Neighborhood House said that often youth coming out of corrections don’t have any resources. “Nobody wants to help them,” he said. Their difficulties are compounded, often times, by the color of their skin and the neighborhoods where they live, which he said present them with opportunities for getting drawn back into violence.

Several panelists discussed the importance of listening to young people, and providing the assistance that they want and need, rather than imposing unreasonable expectations. For example, Neighborhood House provides many pro-social experiences required of youth coming out of detention in one place, so they don’t have to take transportation for those experiences.

Nieeta Presley, Executive Director of Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation said that her organization tries to take a holistic approach. “Many of these young people feel hopeless,” she said. “They need to be empowered.” Her organization has an open door policy. “We are going to forgive,” Presley said. “If someone slips- you’re not kicked out.” She said it was important to have high expectations for youth, but not to minimize the issues that they have do deal with. “You have to meet young people where they are,” she said.

Valentina Banks, founder of Mothers for a Change said it was important to view children as human beings, not as problems. She said it was important for youth to “know we can feel their pain,” and for adults working with at-risk youth to be consistent. “We need to make sure we honor our word,” she said. That means sometimes carrying out programs even if the funding for them is not there.

Melvin Carter Jr., founder of Save our Sons (SOS), said that his organization has changed since it first started. The template message used to be: stay in school, don’t do drugs. “That’s good and has its place,” Carter said, but it “presumes you have a house, have parents.” Carter talked about how youth in detention get disconnected from the “sublime community” outside and what SOS does is to show the young men that they work with that they are loved. “We confront them,” he said. “We tell them we love you. We say ‘You are my precious babies.'”

Systemic Change

One way to aid intervention is to find out if kids are having problems before they end up in detention. Damon Drake, Community Connections Manager for St. Paul Youth Services said he has been working with the Community Justice Project to get Ramsey County to notify parents if their children are on the Gang Database. “Kids as young as 14 are on the gang database,” he said, and parents don’t even know. Drake suggested that if parents know that their children are hanging around with gang members, perhaps they could intervene at an early enough point to make a difference.

Panelists also talked about the need for better community policing efforts, which they agreed have dwindled in Ramsey County under Sherriff Fletcher. “It’s very rare that you see a policeman out of his squad car,” Drake said. “The only time you see police outside is at the liquor store… They aren’t standing at the park.”

Systemic change, according to a number of panelists, comes from challenging economic disparities and social injustices that lead to youth slipping through the tracks, and also challenging the detention system itself.

Addressing economic disparities is one way to break the cycle, according to a number of panelists. Norma Bourland, Regional Organizer for the Children’s Defense Fund, said that when parents are working double shifts and still not making ends meet, that leads to problems for young people. “They aren’t bad kids,” Bourland said. “They’re broken kids making bad decisions for which there are consequences.” She believes we need to create hopefulness for them.

The achievement gap and injustices in the education system were also discussed. “70 percent of U.S. prisoners cannot read above 4th grade level,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, who is a professor in the law school at St. Thomas. Addressing that kind of educational disparity is one of the ways that systemic change can take place.

One new program is The Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), a program funded by the Anne E. Casey Foundation that builds new juvenile systems that are “more fair, effective and efficient,” said State Coordinator Angelique Kedem. The JDAI system uses more objective tools, she said. For example, youth are only put in detention if they are a flight risk or a safety threat. Otherwise, they need to be connected with a more appropriate place that can help them get back on track.

“The reason we engage JDAI in Minnesota is because of our racial and ethnic disparities in this state,” Kadem said. Since the JDAI program has been initiated in Minnesota in 2006, the juvenile detention population has been reduced by 66 percent, and the number of people of color in juvenile detention has been reduced by 55 percent. “It’s a paradigm shift for how we deal with juvenile justice,” Kadem said.

Pam Alexander, the President of Council on Crime and Justice said a current Council  initiative is a bill that would allow judges to give juveniles longer adjudication. It would require mental and chemical health screenings, and limit juvenile records from being released to employers.

Perry Moriarty, a University of Minnesota professor, said that youth have to believe in the legitimacy of the system. “Legitimacy comes from fundamental belief that we are actually carrying out justice,” she said.