Acting to change the narrative of youth and crime in DC
By Aysia Morton
Special at AFRO
DC Action, DC Out-of-Time School Coalition, Latin American Youth Center (LAYC), and DC Girls Coalition held a virtual community discussion about the urgent need to change the district’s narrative on youth and crime. Attending this important summit was District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, who listened attentively and participated in the discussions.
“We recognize that the recent increase in youth crime is the result of systems that are failing our communities that need it most and that require immediate and long-term solutions,” said Kim Perry, Executive Director of DC Action. “The pandemic has caused significant trauma to children and young people, who have seen their families’ financial stability disrupted, experienced loss and grief, and been forced into social isolation. The structures and opportunities that generally keep young people safe, healthy and flourishing have been eroded and undermined.
The webinar had over 200 attendees and created a space for youth in attendance to express their experiences with afterschool time programs and their ideas for improving DC’s juvenile justice system.
“I would describe DC’s response to young criminals as punitive – punishing people for what they’ve done; when what really should be done is restorative justice – making amends for the people who were hurt in the crime, but also restoring the person who committed the crime to the community so they can hopefully get better and not commit any more crimes,” said a student and panel member Jamison Ford when asked how DC deals with crime from a young person‘s perspective.
Student Calvin Armstrong’s hand also went up to answer the question. “The main thing that needs to change is the general hatred of the police towards blacks and browns,” Armstrong said. “Everyone should come to the same to understand that we are all the same people and should be treated fairly.”
The resounding agreement of the members of the discussion was that the best way to prevent crime was to address its root causes and use restorative justice and rehabilitation. Kristi Matthews-Jones, director of the DC Girls Coalition, shared that the root causes of crime and violence are often emotional, mental and beyond survival.
“At DC Girls Coalition, much of our programming comes directly from the young people we work with and support,” said Matthews-Jones. Last summer, young people within the organization expressed the difficulties of coping with COVID, while balancing the challenges of school and life. The Coalition worked with a community healer to teach young people coping mechanisms for anger, depression, anxiety, grief and other emotions. They listened and responded to the emotional needs of young people, and Matthews-Jones believes this is the most crucial element of their organization.
“In fact, a more effective approach would have to focus on positive youth development, which you find in after-school time programs that offer young people the opportunity to not only have a safe space to hang out after school and during the summer, but also to access social-emotional learning materials, mentorship and a range of creative outlets,” said Perry of DC Action.
The programs involved in the panel are urging DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and the District of Columbia Council to significantly increase local funding for organizations outside of school. “What’s important here is the responsibility of local government to contribute to the after-school time sector,” Perry said. “We need to go deep for organizations that are already doing the work. They need more money and we need to distribute it more. Parts of DC are unserved and have no programs. We have to serve them,” Perry said.
Attorney General Racine expressed his deep appreciation for the programs and their impact on its young members. “Our philosophy at the Attorney General’s office is that the door to the criminal justice system is too wide; we think the door should shrink. The criminal justice system does more harm than it helps and we know that because the data shows it,” Racine said.
The DC Action team said they are actively working on the sequel, including following up with their partners at LAYC, DC Girls’ Coalition and Racine.
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