WASHINGTON, July 26 - George Flaggs Jr. shudders to think what might have happened if he hadn't been given a second chance after he got into trouble as a Mississippi teenager. He was following a likely path to jail, but the juvenile justice system in the 1970s did not give up on him. Instead, Flaggs went on to become an influential state lawmaker who this year brought about legislation that will bring profound positive changes to Mississippi's beleaguered juvenile justice system. Because of his ideas, tens of thousands of troubled young men of color will be given chances at rehabilitation and mental health care instead of being marched into a quagmire of detention, punishment and lost potential.
Yet in most places across the nation, such improvements in public policies have yet to occur, and life options for minority males remain limited. After 25 years of increasingly harsh treatment of troubled young men of color, it has become clear that failed policies force the schools, police, courts and juvenile authorities to give up on poor and minority children. Counterproductive rules, laws and programs have stealthily and systematically targeted young men of color, undermined the health of their communities, and wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Policies that marginalize young men of color and elevate incarceration and recidivism rates are having devastating consequences on communities, families and individual health.
To address this insidious threat, the Joint Center Health Policy Institute has launched the Dellums Commission, an expert panel examining the many ways in which misguided public policies damage community health and limit life options for young men of color. It is well understood that significant racial disparities in health status exist; the Dellums Commission aims to demonstrate that, to a great extent, these inequalities inadvertently have been exacerbated by ill-advised policy choices.
The panel will review national, state and local policies in the areas of health and mental health services, education, juvenile justice, criminal justice, family support and child welfare. The goal is to use innovation to light the path to sensible and cost-effective reforms.
The panel is named for its charismatic chairman, the Honorable Ronald V. Dellums, a social worker by training who served with distinction in the U.S. Congress from 1971 to 1998 as the representative from Oakland, Calif. He was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus and earned a reputation as a consensus-builder and an intellectual, respected by both the defense establishment and peace activists.
"The statistics on young males of color are sobering," Dellums said. "This commission will show how increasingly harsh public policies have been injuring entire minority communities. These are big policy issues that require big solutions, so no ideas will be off limits. We will prepare a strategic plan to change the thinking of policymakers at all levels of government. This is an effort to get that discussion started."
The other 21 commissioners are rich in the talent, experience and insight needed to craft recommendations that can resonate with policy makers when the final report is issued in mid-2006. They include state legislators, judges, educators, human rights activists, corporate executives and religious leaders. The African American, Latino, Native American and Asian communities are all represented.
The Joint Center Health Policy Institute was established in 2002 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies with a multiyear grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The institute's mission is to ignite a "Fair Health" movement that gives people of color the inalienable right to equal opportunity for healthy lives.
"The Dellums Commission will make an important contribution to the investigation of disparities in health care, the policies that contribute to them, and the concomitant search for real and enduring solutions," said the Joint Center's President Togo D. West, Jr. "The Commission's work-and the legacy it will produce- are ambitious, timely, and offer potentially significant benefits not only to people of color, but to all."
The institute is under the direction of Dr. Gail C. Christopher, vice president of the Office of Health, Women and Families at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
When considered individually, misguided public policies generally are justified as small steps to assure public safety. They include the abandonment of drug treatment in favor of the force of punishment; the growing diversion of youthful offenders to adult criminal systems; and the escalation of zero-tolerance policies to expel students from school for a variety of transgressions.
But collectively, they represent a hardening of society's response to youth who deviate from the norm. The cumulative impact of these policies has fallen most heavily on young men of color, and the toll on entire communities has been profound:
Among Black, Latino, Asian and Native American young men, high school drop-out rates have increased and college enrollment levels have declined as incarceration rates have grown.
More than 25 percent of black men who are 20 years old today are likely to go to prison at some point in their lives, compared with 4.1 percent of white men of the same age.
Many young men of color are unable to recover from serious mental illness because they are warehoused in juvenile detention centers-often with no charges filed against them-where community mental health care is severely limited. Similarly, adult jails are filled with inmates who need treatment, not punishment.
School systems assign minority students in disproportionately large numbers to "mental retardation" and "emotional disturbance" categories in special education programs.
Minorities are over-represented in the foster care system-a population that is more likely to have behavioral or emotional problems and to be suspended or expelled from school.
The commission will study innovative solutions that prove change is possible, including Flaggs's efforts in Mississippi and a powerful new push to change drug laws in the Pacific Northwest. In Seattle, Roger Goodman, director of the Drug Policy Project at the King County Bar Association, helped create a broad-based coalition of professional and civic groups that is making it safe for politicians to break with failed drug control policies. "The fact that the drug war isn't working isn't news, but the fact that professionals are speaking up about it is," he said.
Goodman and his colleagues concluded that criminal penalties fail to reduce drug abuse and actually are counter-productive and discriminatory. "There is a disproportionately adverse effect of drug law enforcement on minorities and the poor," he said. "If we went around arresting middle class white folks like that, the drug war would be over tomorrow."
As a result of that work, Washington state lawmakers have given judges more sentencing discretion, reduced incarceration for drug violations, and captured money not spent on imprisonment and redirected it for more drug treatment. County governments are suddenly flush with funding for drug courts, he said.
In Mississippi, the juvenile justice reforms took effect only this month, but already Flaggs has been saluted by editorialists and honored for an achievement made more impressive by the virtually unanimous political support that his ideas won. "When it comes to children, it ought to be nonpartisan," Flaggs said. "I don't play politics with children's lives."
Dellums Commission members want to study successful innovations as a way to ignite interest in reforms that would enhance the well-being of ailing American communities and demonstrate that the United States is second to none in applying compassion, commitment and logic to social problems once thought to be intractable. A community simply is not healthy if large numbers of its members are locked up and then sent back into the world without adequate attention to their health and mental health needs.
"The world has changed," Dellums said. "It is time for us to see things from a different perspective and to convey the moral imperative and the heightened sense of urgency that these issues present."
The Joint Center Health Policy Institute was established in 2002 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, with a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The institute's mission is to ignite a "Fair Health" movement that gives people of color the inalienable right to equal opportunity for healthy lives. The Joint Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, conducts research and analyses on public policy issues of concern to African Americans and other minorities, promotes their involvement in the governance process, and operates programs that create coalitions within the minority, business, and other diverse communities. For more information, visit www.jointcenter.org.
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