Ex-delinquents seek rethink of jail

Youth-offenders-turned-activists fight city hall over juvenile jail expansions.

Elaine Angel Matos spent much of her adolescence drugged up on the streets and in and out of juvenile detention, so she knew she'd have to testify one day.

She just never expected it would be as an invited guest at City Hall.

But here she sits composed, articulate, her long, thin braids gathered in a ponytail, explaining to members of the city council why it doesn't make sense, from her perspective, to build more jails for juvenile offenders.

"By building 200 more beds, it's going to create more kids who feel like they don't have any options. I know I didn't," says the now 22-year-old college student. "Giving alternatives to incarceration - educational programs, after-school programs - that's how you give them back control of their lives."

Ms. Matos is part of a growing grass-roots movement of former youth offenders who are determined to change the way America deals with its troubled teens. From New York to Chicago to San Francisco, they're rallying other young people to fight construction of new juvenile jails and to spending the money instead onprograms creating opportunities in education, drug treatment, and alternatives to incarceration.

They're fueled in part by the high rates of incarceration of young people. Ten years ago, Justice Department figures show, 250 teens were incarcerated per 100,000 nationwide. Today, that's increased to more than 350 per 100,000. Even though the serious juvenile crime rate dropped 36 percent during thhe decade.

Now, groups of former young offenders are organizing rallies, testifying at state legislatures, and lobbying corrections boards to take stock of the impact the incarceration rate has on the nation's youth and future.

"I think it has the potential to become the next real civil rights movement in this country," says Bart Lubow, senior associate of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives.

In New York, Matos is part of a coalition called "No More Youth Jails" that is fighting the city's proposal to spend $65 million to expand two juvenile detention facilities. At a hearing of the City Council's Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice last month, more than two- dozen young people came to testify. Like Matos, they noted that the juvenile crime rate in New York City dropped 30 percent from 1993 to 2000. Serious juvenile crime was down more than 28 percent. During that same time, the number of juveniles in detention jumped 60 percent, from 237 to 379.

Those trends are reflected across the country. For some criminal-justice experts, the higher incarceration rates are responsible for curbing juvenile crime, but others see them as a sign of a system out of balance.

The youth crime rate peaked in 1992, says Dan Macallair, vice president of San Francisco's Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Policies put in place in response to that crime spike, he says, are still being implemented because the funding exists. Two things, he contends, are happening as a result. Large, newly built juvenile detention facilities stand half-empty, like Pennsylvania's $71 million state prison at Pine Grove. Designed to house 500 violent juvenile offenders, it now houses less than 200.

Macallair also contends that hundreds of young people who otherwise wouldn't be locked up end up in detention.

"For example, in San Francisco 10 years ago, 35 and 40 percent of the kids who were arrested were booked into the detention facility," he says. "It's now over 85 percent."

A variety of factors are responsible, from the increasing number of states that try juveniles as adults to a generalized perception that teens today are more dangerous.

A recent poll showed that 62 percent of Americans believe young people are responsible for more than 60 percent of the nation's violent crime. In reality, they're responsible for only 18 percent.

"The trend that I see is a criminalizing of behaviors that most of us would think could be dealt with in the principal's office," says Ruben Austria of the Urban Youth Alliance in New York.

Rachel Jackson, the state field coordinator for the San Francisco youth group "Books not Bars," says troubled teens are being dealt with far more harshly than in the past on the West Coast as well. There, a coalition of youth groups is fighting the expansion of the Alameda County Juvenile Hall.

Last May, more than 70 young people descended on a California Board of Corrections meeting in San Diego to urge them to reject $2.3 million in pre-approved state funding for the project. The young people succeeded in blocking that round of funding.

"Kids that represent all of the stereotypes of people of color - the baggy pants, hats backward - they're the ones that are getting up in front of the Board of Corrections and speaking 'truth' to power whether that be through poetry, personal testimony, policy analysis, or hip-hop rap," she says.

"It's not only a movement against incarceration of young people, but one that in its very existence and activity combats the stereotypes ... of young people."

In Chicago, the Southwest Youth Collaborative has started a campaign to get the city to spend more of its budget on youth development and job programs.

It now spends less than 1 percent, according to the collaborative's Jonathan Peck. He contends young people are being "criminalized" because the culture doesn't provide them with positive resources or opportunities to engage them. So, they're organizing conferences, surveying young people, and petitioning City Hall to invest more in youth.

"The point of the campaign is to get young people involved in decisionmaking and enhance their ability to engage in this thing called democracy," he says.

The impact that has on individual teens and young people is clear. Just consider to how Elaine Matos, in New York, feels after her first City Hall experience:

"It's actually a great accomplishment for me," she says, beaming. "I've come so far from when I was 17. I didn't even know how to speak appropriately. I didn't know what it was to have an education; I never thought I was someone who could actually make it to college because I belonged to the streets."

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