Huddie Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly", was honored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Grammy Museum at a special performance on April 25: "Lead Belly at 125." Lead Belly's music, some of which was written while he was incarcerated in Texas and Louisiana, focused on Jim Crow laws, a justice system that favors the rich, and deep seeded prejudice and inequality in America. Lead Belly's music heavily influenced American folk singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and British greats such as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
Lead Belly is no longer alive, though his words live on, to sing about racial discrimination and the injustices of the criminal justice system.
Fortunately another great musical artist is taking up the mantle: John Legend.
At a listening tour on the same weekend as Lead Belly was honored in Washington, D.C., a place that Lead Belly sang about in "The Bourgeois Blues", John Legend shared his perspective stating that, "All around the country, I hear stories of children who look like me being labeled as criminals for doing the kinds of things that children do."
Legend was visiting the New Achievement Center, a program of D.C.'s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) to provide community-based, non-residential programming for youth in the juvenile justice system. He spoke to a roomful of D.C. officials, advocates and young people stating that, "The fight for educational equality is deeply tied to the system of incarceration -- which all too often begins in our schools. Kids who act out in even minor ways, which once would result in a visit to the principal, now results in a trip with the cops and time in cages." Legend says this is one of the reasons he launched the #FREEAMERICA campaign.
With Loretta Lynch now taking over the helm of the U.S. Department of Justice as the new Attorney General, it is crucial that she takes John Legend's and Lead Belly's concerns into account and focuses on redressing juvenile injustices.
We have been waiting for this administration to take a stronger stance on ending the discriminatory treatment of youth of color in the justice system, a system that operates as The New Jim Crow detailed by Michelle Alexander in her book where she coined this phrase. Under this administration, very little action has been taken to address the fact that youth of color are treated more harshly and punitively by the justice system. For example, African American youth are 4.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers even when charged with similar offenses.
AG Lynch does not need to host more listening sessions, to establish more task forces or to commission more reports.
We've had enough of those.
She needs to implement the recommendations this administration has already commissioned, but largely left unenacted despite all the rhetoric, such as the Attorney General's Task Force Report on Children Exposed to Violence, the two National Academy of Sciences reports on the juvenile justice system, and the My Brother's Keeper Initiative report.
Here's a short list of recommendations:
(1) Help states divest from youth incarceration and invest in community-based alternatives.
The administration put in a request for $30 million in their budget for a new initiative, Smart on Juvenile Justice, to assist states in reducing youth incarceration and investing in alternatives to incarceration. AG Lynch shouldn't wait for Congress to appropriate funds. Instead she could reallocate resources now within the U.S. Department of Justice to get started.
There's no reason to wait as the evidence is already in that community-based alternatives to incarceration work. In a report, Safely Home, by Shaena Fazal of Youth Advocate Programs, Inc., the research found that more than 8 out of 10 youth remained arrest free and 9 out of 10 were at home after completing their community-based program, at a fraction of what they would have spent to incarcerate these youth. The findings highlight how high-need youth have been safely and successfully supported in their homes with the help of intensive community-based programs such as the Youth Advocate Program, Inc.
And states such as Texas have experienced decreases in their youth incarceration rates as a result of the kinds of efforts that Smart on Juvenile Justice would support to divest from youth incarceration and invest in community-based alternatives to incarceration. A recent Council of State Governments report, Closer to Home, showed that while almost every state experienced a decrease in youth incarceration, Texas' youth incarceration rate dropped by more than twice the rate of other states.
Smart on Juvenile Justice could help more states move in this direction.
(2) Enforce the Youthful Inmate Standard of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to remove all youth from adult jails and prisons.
AG Lynch needs to ensure that the Youthful Inmate Standard of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) law is fully enforced.
The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission's (NPREC) report shows that youth are not safe in adult jails and prisons, and are at the greatest risk of sexual victimization, and the AG's Task Force Report on Children Exposed to Violence recommendation #6.9 called for removing youth from adult jails and prisons, as well as from adult court.
With nearly 100,000 youth cycled through adult jails and prisons every year, AG Lynch should oppose efforts to gut the enforcement by Senator Cornyn, and work closely with states to utilize the Youthful Inmate Standard to remove youth from adult jails and prisons entirely.
(3) Support the reauthorization and adequate funding for the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act.
Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), a law which has for the past four decades set federal standards for the custody and care of youth in the juvenile justice system and provided critical federal funding to assist states to meet these standards.
AG Lynch must vigorously support the reauthorization bill as it will strengthen the law to ensure that it will redress juvenile injustices, such as reducing racial and ethnic disparities, keeping kids out of adult jails and giving states incentives to stop using incarceration and implement effective alternatives to incarceration.
With recommendations from multiple reports this administration has already commissioned and John Legend's call for youth justice, AG Lynch has the backing to fully implement these key recommendations.
We can only hope she does so lest the haunting words of Lead Belly's Jim Crow Blues will unfortunately continue to ring true for youth in the justice system: "One thing I want everybody to know, You gonna find some Jim Crow every place you go."