THE BLOG
09/14/2010 08:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Mayor's Cause?

This post was co-authored by Dwayne Betts.

Today, District of Columbia residents voted in the Democratic Primary. In a city where 75 per cent of the voters are Democrats, the election will determine the city's next mayor. It is no secret that the election reflects the city's complicated race and class divisions. These divisions seem poised to decide a primary in which the incumbent candidate, Mayor Adrian Fenty, swept all 142 district precincts in the 2006 election, receiving an overwhelming amount of support from the Black community. Now, the candidate projected to win, Vincent Gray, hopes to claim the city's majority Black vote, in part by framing Fenty's as the incumbent Mayor that has neglected the city's poorest Black citizens.

We grew up in the D.C. area, Alexandra in the privileged and predominantly white neighborhood of Georgetown, and Dwayne in the overwhelmingly Black suburb of Suitland, Maryland. We have inherited an awareness of the ways that the race and class divides have colored our experiences, perceptions and life trajectories and those of our friends and families.

During our teenage years, D.C. was known as the "Murder Capital of the World." At the time, we were two promising young students interested in politics and on a path to college. And here is where our lives present the question that troubles this election. Instead of college, in 1997 Dwayne completed high school in a jail cell on his way to a nine-year prison sentence for carjacking and armed robbery, and Alexandra began her freshman year at Yale University. It is true our lives were determined in large part by decisions we made, but it is also true that a child's fate is often inexplicably tied to his surroundings. This campaign has revolved around the failure to change this fact. Many citizens in the most affluent neighborhoods are pleased by Mayor Fenty's work, while citizens in chronically underfunded and impoverished areas feel that little has changed.

For the ten-year period after 1997, the city -- like many other places across America -- faced unprecedented economic growth. By 2004, income inequality in the city was greater than in any other city in the country. On the surface, the D.C. we left is unrecognizable to us today, with areas like the 14th Street corridor transformed from a zone of prostitution to an alley of luxury condominiums. Yet, much has remained the same: the politics of race, class and crime continue to intersect, and the city's poorest residents continue to bear the burdens of these politics. The two mayoral candidates, wise to the dominance of these issues, have made the reduction of crime central to their election platforms.

Crime disproportionately impacts the poor African-American citizens of the city. From September 2009 to September 2010, there were over 1,300 violent crimes that took place in the city's impoverished Southeast quadrant. In the city's wealthiest area, there were approximately 500 violent crimes during the same period. The seventh district had one of the city's highest violent death rates in 2007, at 48.6 per 100,000. This astonishingly high rate of victimhood amongst young African-Americans is an issue that Vincent Gray and Mayor Fenty have thoughtfully looked to address in the past; however, politics threaten to roll back meaningful reform.

In 2000, a Blue Ribbon Commission on Youth Safety and Juvenile Justice reform published a comprehensive report. One of its primary recommendations was to expand community-based alternatives to incarceration in the city. In supporting these alternatives, the Commission perhaps also recognized - like the electorate today - that all young people in the city need access to meaningful resources that support public safety and their transition into adulthood. Mayor Fenty championed the reform and was at the forefront of the effort to introduce legislation that would support reform efforts. Now, it appears that Mayor Fenty has shifted his approach in the aftermath of several high profile crimes involving young people. And of course the irony is that in the brief posted on the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) website that announces the firing of Interim Director Mark Schindler, it is announced that Harvard's Kennedy School has praised DYRS as one of the 50 most innovative government programs.

Ultimately, amidst a number of high profile crimes, public officials have failed to fully articulate what a successful DYRS looks like. For politicians and pundits alike it is much easier to describe failure. Councilman Gray embraces reform, but his future choices are impossible to predict. How will he react if another high profile crime involving a juvenile occurs? And to what degree does his public rhetoric match what he will do once in office, or even what is stated in his campaign?

Today's election will not settle the issue of youth crime. It will not change the call to rollback gains achieved through reform when violent crime occurs. Between us, we have over a decade working with young people affected by these issues and working to change ineffective policies. What worries us is not the rhetoric of political campaigns. The rhetoric has not changed -- there will always be candidates and supporters of candidates calling for harsher penalties for a larger range of crimes, just as there will always be those who support effective reform efforts. What worries us is the real risk that steps toward progress initiated by Mayor Fenty and supported by Councilman Gray will be rejected due to the whimsy of political expedience. Will New Beginnings, the new secure residential facility for youth in the District, return to the gladiator school once known as Oak Hill? Will the prison to college pipeline that has led some troubled youth to become striving college students be dismantled?

There are never easy answers. And as the ballots come in we wonder if this is the moment that juvenile justice reform becomes the Mayor's cause. We hope that the voters and politicians will recognize that violence by young people is borne out of the very vicious forces of segregation, inequality, and indifference. The next mayor needs to continue reforms that are so badly needed, especially investing in more community based alternatives to incarceration. The reforms were broadly supported by the community, recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission, and unanimously approved by the D.C. Council.

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