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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Stark View of Juvenile Justice: What Have We Learned in 20 Years?

What have we learned about juvenile justice in Detroit over the past 20 years?  After reading your coverage in Sunday’s front page about Joshua Brown, and the tragic death of Kade’jah Davis, it appears we’ve learned precious little. My heart grieves for Ms. Davis’ extended family and friends.  We should know by now that the injustice here isn’t limited to the fact that her alleged perpetrator wasn’t tethered.  It cuts way more deeply and broadly than this.  On what basis can I make this claim? 

Because just over 20 years ago, on March 13, 1991, my grandmother Vicki was killed in her Eastside home by a newspaper carrier who was 14 years old at the time.  Unfortunately, as we’ve witnessed time and again, we seem remarkably unable to make any substantive changes to prevent these crimes, which impact community life for all of us in the metropolitan Detroit area.

Back in 1991, excessive caseloads and haphazard information and record sharing between the Family Independence Agency, the MDOC and the local police authorities were epidemic.  For instance, no one was able to “connect the dots” and identify that my grandmother’s killer was being commended for meeting the terms of his probation, and recommended for “step-down” to a juvenile center and release on the very same day that he was apprehended for another assault in a neighboring jurisdiction.  His arrest warrant ultimately lapsed and he returned free into the community at large.

People always ask me, didn’t the prospect of his release scare me? Not nearly as much as the facts in front of us, and the imminent threat this poses.  25,000 people are currently under some form of MDOC “supervision,” and over 5,000, or 20% are in violation of their parole or probation.  These are staggering numbers, in case you were thinking this problem is limited strictly to residents of a decaying inner city.  Admittedly, those who let Brown slip through the cracks need to be held accountable.  But the Free Press failed to report on one other important measure in this equation—the size of correction officers’ caseloads.  Let’s not put the blame solely in one place—if we all don’t rise up together to address this epidemic, we will all stand lamentably arm in arm at the grave of another hapless victim. 

Because the facts regarding Kade’jah Davis’ death appear suspiciously similar 20 years later:  an entirely preventable crime, and a perfect storm of missed opportunities to put a safety net of corrective measures and protections into place. 

While the myriad causes of juvenile capital crime continue to baffle, we see a startlingly similar pattern here: corrections officers overwhelmed with extraordinary caseloads unable to track probationers; prosecutors without the necessary tools to enforce stricter penalties early on to deter delinquent behavior; and a dearth of interventions that would separate serious offenders, and minimize their exposure to an arc of increasing violence and crime.  Kim Worthy is right on the mark again.  Holding the system accountable for keeping violent offenders off the streets is a basic first step. 

Taking a look back, I can’t help but concur with juvenile prosecutors who at the time of my grandmother’s murder shared with me the unintended consequences of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1967 that has measurably impacted how we adjudicate juvenile justice.  “In Re Gault” gave juveniles accused of crimes the same due process rights as adults. The case involved Jerry Gault, who at 14 was sentenced to seven-years in prison for a prank phone call.  This case established the constitutional right to legal counsel for children facing delinquency proceedings, an important right.  But is it also possible the pendulum has swung too far, limiting the courts’ and prosecutors’ ability to intervene early with juvenile delinquents?  If early crimes are not being evaluated and treated as potential red flags for violent repeat offenders, is it possible the first clear view of judicial consequences appears when perpetrators have ultimately graduated to a life-altering capital crime?

When I look at the record of Joshua Brown, I see a young man first apprehended at age 10 for a serious assault.  His first offense is dismissed for lack of evidence.  His second offense at 13 of burning a kid with a cigarette lighter is dismissed because the complainant didn’t appear.  The third crime, grand larceny, at age 15 receives probation.  At age 18, arrested for home invasion, followed by drug charges, he receives probation.  And the case goes on and on.  If true, what have we told Joshua Brown in the process over the course of eight years?  What does this say about us, and our collective community safety net?

George Lardner, in his epic book “The Stalking of Kristen” makes a similar case covering his daughter’s murder at the hands of a juvenile offender in Boston in 1992.  Time and again, Kristen’s perpetrator fell through the cracks of the community’s dragnet.  George’s investigative reporting on Kristen’s case was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.  Sadly, the facts sting with a sickening familiarity.  Another beautiful life felled. Another violent crime that could have been prevented if only the labyrinth of the corrections system had seen and responded with the proper tools in place to the clear and menacing signs. 

When will we learn?  I hope for Kade’jah’s sake, along with Vicki’s and Kristen’s and countless others, we start abiding these sobering lessons, and get working together.  Trust me, the consequences for inaction lie in full view. 

Ron J. Stefanski is an educational publishing executive and free-lance writer who currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan

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