At-risk youth beat odds through justice system

The Dallas Examiner
Published October 19, 2012

Clutching $1,500 in fake cash and a pair of dice, millions have sought to get rich while dodging jail time in Monopoly’s fantasy society. Tokens sliding past “Go” on the world-famous board game risk spending a turn in jail to win in a move that aptly captures the tenacity of the American Dream. But it also highlights an American nightmare: The “land of the free” is home to the world’s largest prison population, 2010 figures from the International Centre for Prison Studies reveal. The U.S. houses only 5 percent of the planet’s population, but hosts 25 percent of the globe’s prisoners, a NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet found.

Players pushing a thimble, top hat or car along the Monopoly board each have a 5 percent chance that their next move will land them behind imaginary bars. But the game’s odds reflect reality for Black men. In the U.S., 1 in 15, or 6.7 percent, of African American men were incarcerated in 2008, according to the PEW Center on the States. The odds were slightly better for Hispanic men: 1 in 36, or 3 percent, of Hispanic American men were incarcerated. But compare that to 1 in every 106 of White men. Over 60 percent of those prisoners are Black or Hispanic, The Sentencing Project found.

The statistics are even worse for boys born in 2001. About 1 in 3 Black boys and 1 in 6 Hispanic boys born in that year are at risk of incarceration during their lifetimes, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. That’s a future no 5th or 6th grader imagines. For these vulnerable young men born into a world where race and poverty collide, the juvenile justice system is often the last stop in the Cradle to Prison Pipeline, the CDF stated.

“Once a youth becomes juvenile justice involved, the type and quality of programming provided has a substantial impact on whether that young person will experience a good outcome educationally and otherwise,” Texas Appleseed’s 2010 Texas School-to-Prison Pipeline report stated.

But a recent study by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that a simple lack of funding could be stifling the efficiency of juvenile justice systems in Texas. Their survey of 73 Texas counties found that 64 percent of responding counties have insufficient funding to implement best practices in the areas of mental health and community-based alternatives, which have been proven to reduce juvenile crime and prevent them from falling deeper into the justice system.

“What we’re doing is being penny-smart and dollar-foolish. Kids are going to end up locked up – which isn’t a very good solution to the problem,” Benet Magnuson, a policy attorney for TCJC.

But he noted that Dallas County Juvenile Services was a different case. The county’s emphasis on diversionary courts and other community-based alternatives has placed it and newly appointed Director Terry S. Smith in the limelight.

“We’re trying to lead the way in reform,” Smith stated.

The sheer size of Dallas as one of the larger counties has made it more competitive for government funding, Smith said. But the true secret to the county’s success was the outpour of support from the community partners.

“We couldn’t succeed without that. I don’t know how anyone could. A lot of people, agencies and organizations have embraced the department,” she said.

For Dallas-based chef Chad Houser, it all began with ice cream. He and Jerry Silhan, both board members for the Dallas Farmer’s Market Friends, cooked up the idea for an ice cream competition for local culinary students down at the market. Silhan, the executive director for Dallas Youth Village Foundation, asked if he and some of his guys could participate. The foundation supports Dallas Youth Village, a nonprofit residential facility for young men between 10 and 17 with non-violent offenses. Houser, a chef at Parigi for the past five years, said yes, and he and his restaurant partner Janice Provost gave the gents a crash course in the art of ice cream making.

“One of the guys actually won – actually beat out the college students,” Houser exclaimed.
He says the moment was a defining one.

“Sometimes you realize something is significantly bigger than just making ice cream or just cooking in a restaurant,” he stated.

After volunteering at Youth Village and helping them grow their culinary arts program, buying food from the facility’s thriving organic garden and offering chef mentorship programs to Young Villagers at local restaurants, Houser had another idea as the Great Recession hit.

“There wasn’t any consistency in my industry, restaurants were closing, chefs were leaving town for work. There was only one thing to do – open up a restaurant and just let these guys run it,” he said.
He brought the idea to Silhan and Cafe Momentum was officially born. Every month since June of 2011, Houser and a team of young men from Youth Village host pop-up dinners at Dallas’ leading restaurants to raise capital for a permanent building. The dinners have become one of the most sought-after events.

“It’s not uncommon for the tickets to sell out in 15 minutes,” Houser claimed.

On July 29, Taurus McCoy, an 18-year-old former Samuel High School student worked his first Cafe Momentum pop-up dinner with fellow Youth Villagers. It’s a night he remembers clearly.

“I really liked the people: that they paid to be there and I loved that they showed their support. They didn’t care what we did to get into the program. They just cared about what we’re doing after the program,” McCoy stated.

He shared this excitement with Houser.

“I told him that it was the best night of my life,” McCoy revealed.

McCoy is out of Youth Village’s four-month program. Today, he works as a prep cook for one of Dallas’ top restaurants, where he spends his shifts chopping herbs, cooking fries and everything in between. In January, McCoy will begin courses at Trinity Valley College, pursuing an Associate’s Degree in criminal justice. “I want to help young people that are going down the wrong road. I want to give back and help out. It’s not worth their time sitting in the jail,” McCoy said.

“Dallas County and the U.S. is full of Taurus McCoys, that just need that one organization and one person to put their arms around them and say let’s do this,” stated Houser, who left Parigi to become the full-time executive director and chef for Cafe Momentum in August.

“In the words of Frederick Douglass, it’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”
Over the past year, The Dallas County Department of Juvenile Services has implemented
diversionary programs designed to do just that.

“If they do end up in our system, at least they’re coming to a system that’s going to look at them as an individual,” Smith said.

Nine deferral officers sift through hundreds of deferred juvenile cases, cases the district attorney decides not to take to trial in the courtroom. Most of the time deferred cases are from first offenders, students experiencing their first brush with the law for misdemeanors. Deferral officers screen cases based on the incident. Juveniles that may fit a profile of at least one mental health disorder are referred to the Special Needs Unit for further screening. Young women engaged in high-risk behaviors are referred to the girls diversionary courts, ESTEEM, for a closer look.

That was not always the case, noted Diane Boyd, supervisor of the Special Needs Unit. In the past, deferred juvenile cases for first-time offenders simply linger for four to six months until the case was dismissed. Juveniles were required to attend one day of class and perhaps community service, but there were no home visits or school visits. After the case was dismissed, juveniles were forgotten until they committed another offense and entered the system again.

“It was paper pushing,” Boyd, who has worked in the department for nearly 30 years, stated.

Today, juvenile cases holding symptoms of mental health disorders referred to her unit are interviewed as a possible candidate for Mental Health Court, a six-month program comprised of mental health services in the community, home visits and mentorship through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program that wipes participants’ records clean upon completion. Since its inception in 2011, 25 candidates have entered and 20 have graduated.

“We had three discharged unsuccessfully due to new offenses and one we put in a different program due to the mother refusing to participate and one we closed due to non-participation,” Boyd offered.
Approximately 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health disorder, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Smith credits their 80 percent success rate with Boyd and Judge Robert Herrera, who presides over the weekly evening court sessions with juveniles and their parents. From first glance it’s obvious this isn’t a typical courtroom.

Herrera doesn’t sit sternly behind a raised desk with a robe and gavel. Instead he sits at face level across the table from the juvenile, his or her parents, a probation officer and a therapist. Court is held in the evenings.

“It’s like molding living clay. You have to do this believing that every child is capable of success,” Herrera stated.

Across town at the ESTEEM Court, Judge Cheryl Shannon, who also chairs Dallas County’s Juvenile Board, chats with young women and their mothers for updates. Just like the mental health court, ESTEEM, which stands for Experiencing Success Through Empowerment, Encouragement and Mentoring, participants move through the program in phases. Good reports on school attendance, home visits and curfews for ESTEEM ladies mean they are eligible for promotion to the next level. Participants move through the ranks from Sapphires to Emeralds to Rubies until they finally become Diamonds and graduate from the program. Without hiccups, the young women can complete it in four months. But for most, the journey is a bit longer. Nonetheless, the opportunity to offer these ladies a second chance at a stainless record means serious progress to Shannon, who helped design the program.

“Dallas County is doing some great things,” she stated.

“It’s amazing to see their transformation to giggling little girls,” Smith echoed.

Soon ESTEEM will have a male counterpart. A Disproportionate Male Contact Court designed specifically for at-risk Hispanic and African American boys is in the works. Just like the Mental Health Court and ESTEEM Court, referred cases will come from young men committing their first offense. Upon completion of the program, which tracks participants at home and school for progress, the young men will leave with a spotless record.

“We have to put youth first. Prevention’s the name of the game,” Smith said.


One Response to “At-risk youth beat odds through justice system”


  1. Law & Disorder | The Re-Education of LaShonda - July 18, 2013

    […] At-risk youth beat odds through justice system […]


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