“Juvenile [justice] is a big dark hole that no one’s really paying attention to, particularly as we talk about issues of mass incarceration. The juvenile justice system is the feeder system to the prison system. So, to encourage community folks who really care about issues of mass incarceration, to realize that there’s a whole little sub-system working under your nose called the juvenile justice system that’s sending kids to prison, and it needs advocates.”
Reverend Dietra Wise Baker is an organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United working on the break the school-to-prison pipeline campaign in Missouri. The Break the Pipeline campaign is a multi-system campaign seeking to reduce criminalization of black youth, develop a coordinated system of care for black youth, and call for public accountability of those in positions of power driving these institutions. MCU seeks reforms in the school, policing, and juvenile justice systems.
“I’d say to anyone who’s in the system who’s working on these issues: Don’t be hopeless. Be creative. I get that you’ve done your job a certain way for a long time. Get with your colleagues. Some of them are doing some really cool stuff. Maybe you should try it, and see what happens. And some of them with good, evidence-based practice and results. We’re not asking you to chase a dream in the sky. But it’s gonna require some cultural change, and generally, for it to be effective, some folks in our area are gonna have to become thought leaders. And it feels like they’re resistant to that.”
Interview with Reverend Dietra Wise Baker, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on March 02, 2017 at the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, MO.
Joann: So, we'll just start out. Tell me your name, and your position and your organization.
Rev Dietra: My name is Reverend Dietra Wise Baker. I work for an organization part-time here in town called Metropolitan Congregations United. We have a campaign that we've been running for the last three years called Break the Pipeline, and it aims to end the school to prison pipeline in Missouri.
Joann: You just told me kind of what you do in a nutshell, like what your mission is or whatever. Tell me a little bit more about the kind of work that you do and why? What led you to doing this kind of work?
Rev Dietra: Probably should start with the why, why I started the work. I grew up in New York. I grew up in a very diverse community. A little different than St. Louis in that way. Folks are pretty separated here, in silos, and by race, and social, economic levels, people are separated here. In New York it was a little bit more mixed. You couldn't really hide there, and so I got exposed to a lot. Had a great public education in New York. Went off to school, but I started noticing as I traveled to other cities a lot of racial segregation. Big differences in how black and brown children were treated.
When I came to St. Louis I was a youth minister for a long time working with urban youth in the city, and then in seminary I got assigned to be an intern in one of the kid jails here in St. Louis. Through that experience it kind of opened my eyes to what was going on with a whole different population of kids, generally poor, but began to realize what was happening to them. In my view how they were being funneled from juvenile jail more or less through a collaboration of systems into prison.
After watching that for about 12 years I started to realize that probably prayers, and even the system trying to be benevolent, because I think most of the people that work in the system are good people, and they want to make a difference in the lives of children, but realizing that that wasn't working. Our benevolence in the system, and wanting to do good in the system does not mean that we are actually doing good, and so realizing that we weren't doing well and figuring out how I could be an advocate after watching so many kids lose their life to prison and go through this juvenile justice system. And a strong belief actually that we could do way better. That we could do way better than we were doing, and to begin to try to figure out who's doing better in other states.
I think it comes from the will to do this for me as an advocate, a juvenile advocate is sitting there for 12 years, still sitting there now. I still work with incarcerated youth, and the frustration of things that I feel like could be different but that aren't, and wanting to fight so that they are different. Yeah, kids that could've been saved, and that they're going to spend 17, 18, 20 years in prison, and we've watched them for four or five, six years kind of come in and out of juvie, and weren't really able to help. Except for deepen their exposure to a system that overall, again intends to be benevolent and helpful, but overall doesn't seem to be effective for the kinds of resources that we're spending in it, and for the kind of results that we want.
Joann: You mentioned how people do this in other states. Could you tell me a little bit about how it gets done here in St. Louis, St. Louis County, and the state of Missouri, and some of the things that you are specifically working to reform, and maybe some inspirations or some guidance that you've received by looking at other places?
Rev Dietra: There's so many different scenarios in terms of pockets of work and stories that align with those, but I'll just give you an example. Kids that are coming in, like for example in Missouri still, like a young lady that was charged with prostitution, for example. We've done enough work nationally and in other places to kind of know that if a young girl or a young boy is involved, and they're being trafficked. They're a victim. That they're not a perpetrator. There's plenty other models in other states that we shouldn't be prosecuting kids for that.
That's an example. In the last year we did have kids that were charged with prostitution still in Missouri. That's like something that's like even low-hanging fruit. Like I think everybody gets it, but doing the work to get that kind of stuff off the books and change our culture around those things hasn't happened yet. That's just an example of something low-hanging. Like, we shouldn't be charging kids with prostitution. Another example would be things like kids being in detention because like of violations, and so using detention kind of like as a disciplinarian. Using it a lot for girls who are running away from home, or having issues with their family.
We've got to figure out a community-based alternative, and place those girls there. You just can't bring them into the center anymore.
I know that there are some initiatives and some efforts to really push against that, but there's other low level things like that. There's been kids, for example, because there's not a strong kind of probable cause culture I would say in our area like pretty much all the officer has to do is write up their report, and make certain charges. Sometimes kids are sitting there for a while, three, four, five months, and then it gets dismissed. To me it's like they've wasted five or six months of school. Or you're going to charge them or you're going to say that they're guilty, and then you send them out to the next system, and they've been in this system for four or five months.
It's just like sometimes the speed of things, this right to a speedy trial is not something that seems like it's translated very well to the juvenile system. Kids are sitting around a lot in a place that's supposed to be temporary. I would say from the beginning to now it's definitely better. Kids used to sit longer than they do now, but we still have work to do, and there's definitely still a percentage of kids that are coming in there that we need to find some alternatives. Detention is not really the place for them.
We still hold kids for status offenses. Those are kind of low level things. There's deeper things in terms of the cultures, but as I think about it here's another one. Sometimes when I hear the judges talking, or the deputy juvenile officers, it feels like sometimes what's happening in the national landscape hasn't been translated in a way that makes them want to do something different. Like, this is the way we've kind of been doing it, and we've been doing it this way for a while, and this is kind of what we have.
We have residential. We have division of youth services, and those are kind of our options. I think we need to want to increase the buffet of what's available. We need to understand that community-based alternatives are cheaper, and they're more effective, but that doesn't seem to be getting through. I think there's a lot of judges out there that believe that residential treatment is still a benevolent option, and don't understand when families and kids are like, do not send me away from my family.
This history of the juvenile justice system, particular as it pertains to black and brown youth being kind of this paternalistic system that kind of let me get them away from the bad, not good, brown and black people that don't know how to take of their kids. This thinly veiled racism and perceptions about black families, especially poor black and brown families and what they have to offer the kid, and believing, and having an image of that working in your mind. I don't think it's always explicit, but it's there, and that needs to be talked about and drilled down into in terms of what do we really believe about these families? What do we really think about these families?
It doesn't matter if the deputy juvenile officer or the judge is black or white, those perceptions are there. Being able to talk about, hey what are some of the biases that we have, and how is it affecting our work and the cultures that we're creating for these kids? What according to national standards are the best practices? That's what I feel is missing, a kind of robust reflection of, let's be honest about how we're seeing some things, and our realities, and not being so entrenched in stuff.
I know many deputy juvenile officers. They have a hard job. All the kids that they deal with are not easy to deal with. The kids definitely have issues, but realizing that there's a whole system of things around them. Like to understand the social determinants of juvenile delinquency.
Instead of as a group, as a whole understanding that there is a lot of systems that are impacting this family, and how do we engage those systems in ways that are helpful to these kids? How do we not be judgemental? Not meaning to be, but just from doing this job everyday, dealing with these issues everyday. Some of these DJOs, they're worn out. As a preacher, if I was looking at the detention center or the family court system I would say it feels hopeless sometimes, like they need a vision of hope that you actually can function different than you have. That you can actually help. That you can actually make a difference.
I feel like a lot of them that are working in there, they wouldn't say it like this, but as someone sitting on the outside, it feels like they've lost their hope that things can be better, that they can do better. That these kids and their families, that there could actually be a different outcome.
It's kind of sad as I'm reflecting on it and I'm thinking about it, but when I look from the outside it's like I think a lot of them have lost their hope. We'll do the best we can to try and divert some of them. Some of them will be diverted. Many of them will end up in prison, and that's kind of how it is. That's kind of what we deal with.
It's good to see places like Georgia, and places like Connecticut. Connecticut I heard is raising the age in their juvenile system into the 20s. That takes kind of a comprehensive change in how we're going to see research, and how we're going to see data, and then how we're going to shape our laws and policy around that. It's real gutsy, really good work. That's the kind of energy, that's the kind of vision, I would say even the kind of hope that I believe that St. Louis can have.
There's so many good people working, and they're spending so many resources on this kind of factory. What if we could use those resources to what I know everybody wants. Everybody wants to see these kids walk across the stage and graduate. There's not one judge, I don't believe there's one judge in there that doesn't wish that they could see these kids be successful. I think everyone's kind of tied their hands like I don't know what else to do to even make that be possible.
Joann: It's my understanding that a few years ago the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice sued the St. Louis Family Court - St. Louis County Family Court. Have you seen any sort of motivation… It's my understanding that there's a memorandum of agreement that happened as a result of that.
Rev Dietra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Joann: Has there been any sort of community pressure or legislative response, or just jurisdictional motivation to make significant changes as a result of that? Do you think that there have been any kind of positive changes or has anything been put in place to try to address that like you said more on a fundamental level, or is it more just kind of band-aids?
Rev Dietra: That's hard to say.
Joann: I don't know how long ago it was if you want to speak to that.
Rev Dietra: Yeah, the consent decree was just signed in November.
Joann: Okay, so it was that recently.
Rev Dietra: Yeah, that recent. Then the family court moved like a month after that. The juvenile center is now in a multimillion dollar facility, like as of December. It moved around shortly after, at around that time the whole ... That to say, they were in chaos just trying to move facilities.
Joann: So that's quite a premature question for you then, considering it's been less than three months.
Rev Dietra: Yeah, folks are just settling in, but there are some committees, MCU's been in conversation with them and putting pressuring on them publicly, and in meetings with their leadership to first get it done, and to lift up some of the things that we thought were important in terms of things that we saw needed to be changed. Obviously council. There's one public defender for about 400 cases in the county. So what I see on the ground is like, so an example, there's now money been set aside. They closed one of their centers. They closed their residential treatment facility, for example, in St. Louis County. They closed that facility, that made some monies available I'm sure in part to implement some of the recommendations or the memorandum of agreement measures.
There are some funds to do that, so that's the beginning of the commitment is that they're serious about providing some of the resources. There's a spot apparently for this other lawyer to be hired. It's out there. The advertisement is out there but the person hasn't been hired yet. That's just one example of ... I know that the committees have been started, so that some of these committees that are supposed to be working on different pieces of that, they've been assembled.
But to date community voice is not a part of those, and we still don't know what the configuration is going to be, because it's not that great to have community voice if we don't have power. That means we have to be in significant number to be able to shape what's going to happen at those tables. Of course it's even more important that folks that are affected, so actually juveniles and their families that are not currently connected to the system could also have power and a voice in shaping what's going to happen for it. That hasn't been assembled yet. We've been told that that's going to happen later.
We'll be watching for that. In the meanwhile community advocates are saying, hey in the meanwhile there's two things that you can do. One we can have court watch where community members can come in and begin to see what's going on, get a sense of what's going on. As far as we understand felony cases and certification hearings are open to the public, so there's no reason why community members can't come and begin to see what's going on, and also begin to create a complaint system that's outside of view for parents and youth that are experiencing difficulties in the system.
That would kind of be the next thing that we'll be talking to them about. Okay, you're not ready for community engagement, and we don't even know what the shape of community engagement's going to be, but let's work on these two things that are easy to work on really quick. My concern in the system is culture. My concern is culture. I hear things. There's obviously some changes that are being forced to be made. There are people that are retiring and leaving. I don't always think that's a bad thing. That creates the possibility for there to be some culture shifts. Someone kind of inside, outside, I'm concerned about the culture.
Joann: You mentioned somebody was going to be hired. There's a position. What is that position?
Rev Dietra: It's for the lawyer, so for another public defender type. It's not a public defender, but another person to carry the caseload. The problem, however, is that the public defender will get more put on their caseload once their juvenile caseload gets decreased. Does that make sense? They'll give them some other things, because our public defender system in Missouri is willfully underfunded. It's going to help and not help, because one of the legal folks that's connected to that system, she has a certain amount of things that she has to do. So she's like, yeah-
Joann: For the adults.
Rev Dietra: For the adults, right, and so they'll just give her more adult stuff now that she doesn't have as much juvenile stuff, so it slightly defeats what we were going for.
Joann: Now, it's my understanding that there is only one public defender for the adult and the juvenile systems, for the entire county?
Rev Dietra: I can't speak to the adult [crosstalk 00:21:38]. I have no clue. I have no idea.
Joann: But she's the one who's assigned…
Rev Dietra: She's it for the kids in the county.
Joann: For juvenile.
Rev Dietra: There's one for juvenile.
Joann: So this new person will be a juvenile attorney.
Rev Dietra: A juvenile attorney. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rev Dietra: Yeah.
Joann: Explain to me, you've mentioned the DJOs. Can you explain to me a little bit about what their role is and what they do.
Rev Dietra: Oh, Missouri. A deputy juvenile officer, generally in background they're social workers in terms of their training. Some of them have criminal justice degrees. They're the part of the juvenile justice system that in theory is supposed to be this advocate, this one that can sit back and kind of make an objective recommendation in terms of treatment for the juvenile. Not this criminal piece. The criminal charges are brought by, they don't call them prosecutors. I don't know, the juvenile's attorney in our case makes charges against the juvenile. In other states I've seen the same person, but that person has absolutely nothing to do with criminal investigation or charges. They're literally outside. They have nothing to do with the child's public defense, and they have nothing to do with the charges.
Ours is not like that. They are in conversation, and they are a part of how a kid is charged, and so it's not this clean boundary line, which is extremely confusing to the kids and their families. I think for some of them they're confused sometimes about what side of the line that they're on. Quite frankly it depends on how they were raised up as a DJO, which side they lean on. If they lean on their criminal justice side, or they lean on their social work side, it depends on who they were trained by and what their philosophy of deputy juvenile officer is supposed to be. You can talk to several of them and I'm sure you'll get several different answers about do they feel like they're probation officers or do they feel like they're social workers.
I'm going to say they function pretty much like probation officers, and it would be helpful to kids and families to be clear about that. Actually, because of some of the things that have happened out of the DOJ reports, some of the families are getting clear. I have kids now that'll be like, "You know what Ms. Dietra, I'm not talking to her." They'll be like, "And when she comes to see me, and wants to visit me and talk to me I'm not talking to her. The only person I'm talking to is my lawyer, cuz she ain't on my side."
Some of the clearing up of that role is helping families and kids start to see, okay wait a minute when I go to sit down in court you sit over there with the person that's charging me, so in any other courtroom that means you're not on my side. The kids are starting to figure that out, and they don't want to talk to them. They don't want to interact with them. Some of them have a way more personable style. They'll range, like in any discipline. Some of them have a more personable style, relational style, real direct.
I try to tell the kids this person's really, really important. Like 80%, 85% of the time the judge is going to go with their recommendation. It's like not really the person you want to make an enemy. It's just like, I understand but just try to be cordial, you know what I mean? Because this person is really, really important. Missouri has to really answer the question do we want this person to be important in the ways that they are? Is it time for us to reimagine what their role is and how they show up in this system? I understand what the intent is. I think how it plays out in the end isn't as helpful for children and families as we would like it to be.
It'd just be awesome if they just would make, separate them from the attorney, and they are just, I'm just here to give you the treatment recommendations. I don't have nothing to say about, I'm not doing any investigation about these charges. I'm not involved in any criminal part of this. I'm just here to give you the family's background, and here are my treatment recommendations. Y'all handle investigation and charges. But it's not like that. In our system it's all mixed together. Extremely, extremely problematic. That's Missouri. It's not like a unique St. Louis City, St. Louis County thing.
Joann: Do the children ever get an opportunity to talk with the DJO in the presence of their attorneys?
Rev Dietra: It's getting better since I would say, since the investigation from our side, it's getting better because those roles and those boundaries are getting a little bit clearer. You can see that the roles are getting a little tighter. You know when you ask have I seen any, I can see that there's some shift in how some people are operating. Those roles are getting a little bit tighter, and so some DJOs I've heard them say, hey I'm not going to talk to you about anything related to the criminal part of your case without your attorney present. So some of them are starting to shift as they begin to get clear about what their role in this is.
Another part in our system that has changed, like in January the assessment unit, sometimes the detention staff, particularly at night would have to determine if a kid was going to stay or go. Now there's a whole unit that determines that so it's no longer left into the hands ... At no time do detention staff make a determination if a kid is staying in detention or not. There's a whole other group of people that are not deputy juvenile officers, that are not judges, that are not detention staff that kind of make that determination.
Our detention numbers are very low. I don't know if they're going to stay that way, but I'm wondering if that has had a significant impact, just having that group of folks that have been trained to use those tools, which is, it's a DMC tool. They've had the tool for a while but it wasn't used consistently or deployed consistently, and so now there's a group of people that have been trained on that tool, and they're the only ones that get to determine if a kid stays or goes. Since that team was setup we really haven't had any girls. The population has significantly dropped. I don't know if it's going to stay that way, but I'm wondering if that unit has made a difference in that. My guess, my sense, my gut says that it probably has.
Rev Dietra: Disproportionate Minority Contact, confinement, everybody says it different, but the over representation of black and brown youth through every point in the system, and one of the biggest ones is at entry. Who stays in detention or not right from the get go, then the same thing at three day hearings. How many kids did the judge detain or let go? Then you can follow those disproportionate numbers all the way through certification, in our system. All the way through certification black youth are over representative.
Joann: This is a group of individuals who has been funded and tasked with doing INTEG assessments.
Rev Dietra: Yes, and my understanding is that as a juvenile delinquency alternative initiative, so it's part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's recommendations, and to have this kind of objective tool, and that tool has been actually operational for a while in our system, but like after five o'clock the detention staff are picking up the tool, and there's a lot of kids that come in after five, all night.
Joann: So, there is an active OJJDP here. [Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention]
Rev Dietra: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Joann: That's who's doing ... So, at what point are the children advised as to their right to have an attorney? Do you know?
Rev Dietra: I'm assuming it's when they're checked in, so when they're admitted. My guess is those same folks, those same admission folks are reading rights. I know the detention staff sometimes read rights too, but it sounds like they want to check their boxes, you know kind of check the box and dot their I's, and so those admissions assessment unit intake folks are kind of becoming the experts at everything that needs to happen, and they're the ones that are kind of taking that over from the detention staff.
Those detention staff are becoming purely custodial, like now the kid is your, take care of the. They have this admissions group that is making legal decisions about coming, going, rights, all that portion. That seems to be helping kids get clear about who is who, what's next. It seems to be helping. That's new, it's two months, but that seems to have helped.
Joann: Awesome. In your personal experiences with the kids that you've counseled and worked with either in your, you were chaplain at the detention centers, or in your community work. I'm just kind of curious because of the, you know historically, what percentage of them actually had access to counsel? You said you had a girl who said I'm not going to talk to her until I talk to my lawyer. Is this a court appointed lawyer? If they only have one PD do they actually have court appointed attorneys who are helping children who can't afford to hire a private lawyer?
Rev Dietra: They have appointed attorneys, in the case when like two kids might be on the same case or something like that. There have been some other figures that have come in, but generally they'll use the PDs from the city. That's what I've seen more frequently is that if there's kids that's two on a case they'll just get a public defender from a different jurisdiction, if you will, from the city, to represent the other child. I can't say that I've ever seen a kid not represented at their detention hearing or in court, except for two populations of kids. Where I've seen the public defender drop off when Lakeside, for example, when the residential treatment facility was in play, hardly ever was an attorney in their review hearings.
I mean, I'm going to say I've never seen an attorney in their review hearings. See that's that paternal culture. It's just a review hearing, and it's not ... But if that kid ran away or did something wrong, there's going to be some consequences for that, including going to DYS or whatever, but it was presented as this is your dad, judge, or whoever just checking up on you. You know what I mean? It's not really that serious, but that's not true. Your review hearing is very serious. It determines when you're going to get out of treatment. It can determine if you're not doing so well in treatment, some decisions can be made in that hearing for you to go to the division of youth services, to put you deeper in the system.
Yeah, it would be very rare, for example, for there to be representation of a kid. In fact, a lot of times the attorney would relinquish her representation at the end, once the kid was assigned to treatment, so at the end of that case the attorney would say, hey they're going into residential or whatever, can I get off this case now. That was like standard. Sometimes if the attorney didn't say, the judge would say, should I assume that you're not going to be on this case anymore for residential?
I don't know why that is, but that's a pocket of kids. Lakeside doesn't exist anymore, but that was definitely a pocket of kids who often didn't have an attorney showing up with them at their review hearings. That was one pocket. The other pocket are kids that were in the community and coming for their review hearings. I didn't always see an attorney with them. I guess it depended on how serious they thought, if they felt like the kid was going to be in trouble or not. I don't know. I don't know what the rhyme or reason is, but those kids are coming from home or from school or whatever they're going. She wasn't always there, and I understand why, because she had 400 other cases.
These kids, they were just checking in with the judge, so there shouldn't be too much legally happening, but again that would depend on what was going on. Sometimes there would be. Some kids are detained from review hearings and put in detention depending on what's going on and what the DJO's recommendation is. Those were two pockets of ... I see that they've tightened that up. Again I see that they've made sure to fix that in the last few months, but that wasn't always so.
Joann: What are the biggest complaints or areas of concern that you've heard from parents and family members?
Rev Dietra: I can't say that I've had overarching interaction with parents, but when I have had interactions with parents, so for example we brought some parents in. What we want to do is bring in some parents and some families so they can hear from them what they experience of this stuff that you all have on paper, what is this like in the lives of real families and real kids so the court can get regular feedback from the children and families they serve, what is this like in the lives of real families and real kids. Mae Quinn, put us in touch with some with some families and we made sure that their voices were heard at the table with the DOJ.
Some of it was about two brothers getting in trouble. This particular case the two brothers were in trouble. The one brother had never been in trouble before. How did they skip? This is the process in the county. You get a box, you go to residential, and then you go to DYS. You expect most kids to not skip any one of those. Well this kid, he skipped. He didn't even have a referral, like he had never even been in contact with the system at all, and they sent him to DYS.
And in DYS you definitely get exposed to some things. If you're a kid that just hasn't been involved, yeah he was definitely going to get exposed to things, and it may not have the most positive effect on him. His parents very concerned, very concerned about the judge that did that case, and how they were treated, how they were talked to, and that thing that I talked about before. That thinly veiled racism.
I promise you they ... I don't want to say that they don't mean this. Like, they don't know. You think you're objective. You're not! You're not completely objective. You have a certain perspective about these families. You think if they come in there and their dressed a certain way, and I'm saying this because sometimes I think it. What does she have on? Is she high? You know what I mean? I understand. I get it, but we've got to put that on the table if we're going to do right by these kids.
I know you've got a responsibility to protect the community. I get that, and that's serious, especially in St. Louis, but don't we really want to help these kids? And most of these kids are non-violent offenders, 80 something percent of them, so what are we doing if we're doing all this stuff with kids that are non-violent offenders? I get it when someone does something crazy. Judge, we're on the same page. I even think some of them can be really helped, and one of the judges did make a good decision about a kid. I was floored, now, but they did good. I wanted to go up there and give them a hug. They made a good decision about a kid.
I think the only reason is because the kid was younger, and so it softened up that normal paradigm that they kind of make their choices on. The kid was a little bit younger, so I think it really made them think about what they was doing, and how it was going to affect this kid's life. Where if they're a little older, that 16 year old, let's just go on and certify him. Sometimes in our system they'll hold them until they're 17 and certify them. They'll keep them in detention until they turn 17 and certify them, because in Missouri you're an adult at 17.
Parents I think just feeling that thinly veiled racism. This is St. Louis County, St. Louis City is a little blacker, if you will. There's more black faces in leadership, DJOs, judges, and all that in city versus county. County is definitely a little bit more white. You can kind of feel that distance more in the county. Feeling like we know what's best for you, and we know what's best for your children. You don't know as well as we know based on what we perceive about the way that you live, and where you come from. I don't think, again I think that's how it is. I don't think people are ready to own up to that yet.
That's not a St. Louis Country Family Court thing. That's a St. Louis region thing. Pick the system and you can find that thinly veiled racism about people. We've got to disassemble that. I'm prayerful that for the sake of our kids at least that we'll get that right, because they deserve an opportunity to be better and do better.
Joann: I read that there was some blended sentencing in the state. Have you ever seen that?
Rev Dietra: I'm going to take a guess at what you mean by blended sentencing.
Joann: When I say blended sentencing I mean like instead of just automatic certification as an adult, if a child is sentenced to be in some sort of residential facility ...
Rev Dietra: Dual jurisdiction.
Joann: They can stay there beyond the age of 17 and under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.
Rev Dietra: Yeah. No, not that side, but on the adult side there is a dual jurisdiction program. Not just here, but in Missouri, 17 year olds and up, I don't know how late they can stay, May can answer that, how late they can stay in the dual jurisdiction program. It might be to 21 or 20. I don't know how late they can stay there. It might be 18 even, but they have a place where they can go. Let's say they're convicted as an adult in this case.
There's a dual jurisdiction program where the teenager can go to a residential placement that's oversaw by the division of youth services, and they can stay there for a while until at some point they have to transfer to the adult system, but they're in a more therapeutic, developmentally appropriate setting, etc. That is on the adult side. One the juvenile side there's not really what you're talking about, blended sentencing, no. Not that I'm aware of.
Joann: They just go ahead and transfer them to be in the adult system, and then put them in the dual jurisdiction.
Rev Dietra: Yeah, they have the opportunity. They're in or out here, yeah, so ...
Joann: In terms of your, if you could think about all the kids that you've worked with over the years, do any particular stories or individuals stand out to you and could you share those personal stories or reasons why any of them stand out to you?
Rev Dietra: There are so many. There's a set of boys, I'll rename them Michael and Jarvis. Still in some infrequent connection with them, but these two boys in residential treatment, both of them had struggles with their families, and their mothers in particular. Got into some trouble in the community, ended up in residential treatment, and then in residential treatment they couldn't go home because of their whatever relationship with their families, so they ended up at another residential treatment that was more for kids who were like abused and neglected type of setting versus Lakeside, which was more for behavior and treatment, drug treatment.
They stayed there for a while, and at some point they just got kind of tired of like, you know, of being in some restrictive environment. They decided they'd both leave. They went and got jobs in Jeff City. They were doing well. Got their own apartment. Had some challenges, some kind of events and challenges. Ended up coming back here, was homeless for a while. Ended up being at St. Vincent's Children's Home. Thank God for St. Vincent's Children's Home, how many kids they save from a whole bunch of things that could happen to them in the community by just having a place at respite. Stayed at St. Children's Vincent Home, got jobs again. Now have their own apartment, are doing well.
But, to me their situation along with others, another young lady who her and her mother ... She was in a domestic, the teenager was in a domestic situation with her boyfriend, and the families got into a fight, and her and her mother went to go address the family and a crowd of the family came out to attack her and her mother. Her and her mother fought back I guess with whatever they had, including some kind of chemical, or whatever. Her mother gave her the chemical. She threw the chemical on the crowd. It must've been acid or something. It burnt somebody's face horribly.
That family understood all the dynamics. They came into court, please don't certify this girl. The judge did not, at that time did not certify her. She went home actually that day, but her mother ended up going to prison for the same situation. Yeah, so she really didn't have anywhere to go. She had a grandmother, but that was a tense situation. Her mother went to prison for the same situation that she came into juvenile for, if that makes sense. Since her mother's been in prison she struggles with homelessness ever since. She's since had a child. Right now she's pregnant again. I harbored her for about four months. As long as I could, and it's like okay I've made my contribution.
I'm saying, I'm giving you these stories to let you know, one I'm deeply in this, okay? I'm deeply in this. Deeply invested in these kids, but it's going to take people like that. Judges like that that want to be all up in their life. Judges, Deputy juvenile officers need a new approach. Help them get jobs. Help them get stable. Counsel them when they're pregnant, when they're about to become parents. Walk with them, talk with them. It's going to take an investment of our lives. Not just a check on the paper, and not just sending them to the next treatment facility.
That's not really helping them, and that's failing these kids anyways, because most of these treatment facilities are not working, and they have zero tolerance policies, so if the kid gets pissed off, which they probably are because their trauma stricken. They've been through hell, and you expect them to go be in the treatment facility and have absolutely perfect behavior and not get in a fight, and not cuss nobody out. Those are unrealistic expectations for these kids and where they've been and what they've been through, so you kick them out of there, and then you expect them to achieve, and it's going to take an investment of our lives into these kids in various ways.
I don't know that we ready to do that, but we're ready to lock them up though, but we're not ready to make the investment, and we know that so many of these systems has failed these kids, including school. This young lady, you know, she's out there struggling. She's out there struggling. Her mother just got home from prison. She ain't got nowhere to live. You know what I mean? She has to rebuild her life and all that stuff all over.
This beautiful kid that's doing 17 years in prison. An absolute, the smartest kid we've ever seen in our life. The boy is brilliant. He went to Parkway and he just killed it when he was in an environment where it was somewhat structured, somewhat safe, he did great. What we have to figure out is how do we give kids that in their community versus thinking oh yeah we're going to give you structure. We see structure works for you, you did great in detention. I've heard a judge say this, "Structure works great for you in detention so what you need is structure."
In their mind structure means not with your family, because your family, they ain't saying this, but what you're saying is I don't think your family can give you structure. Maybe they can't! Maybe you've got to help the family with that and understand the family ain't going to do that exactly like you do, because they're not white, and our culture's not the same as your culture, so what that might look like might be different, so be open to that, that you don't know everything. Just because it looks unhealthy to you because it's not your culture doesn't necessarily mean that it's horrible for this kid. We've got to get through that.
Judges that say you need structure, you did well in structure, so I'm going to put you in some more structure because that's what you need. I don't think they're hearing the other part which is home is not structure. Home's not discipline. Home can't give you what you need. I understand if somebody's really wylin out, you know what I mean? I get it, but some of these kids you're sending to these places, you really could give them a chance. You really could if you put them home with some support. Our community has to work on what that support is. Families don't need six different treatment centers and people coming in and outside of their house.
That's offensive too, but people don't get that. You sending me the BJC, and Preferred, and the probation officer, and deputy. I've got to deal with all these different white people, more than likely, coming in and out of my house. No, they're not going to be real excited about that either. We've got to figure all those dynamics out to really be effective with these kids in the community.
Rev Dietra: It's a school. I would say an affluent school district, a well performing school district. This kid, being able to go to Parkway and just blow everybody out, it's kind of when people discovered oh my god this kid is really, really smart.
Joann: He's in prison for 17 years.
Rev Dietra: Now he's in prison. He graduated from Lakeside, so he graduated from the program, finished that year in school, was released home, went back to the community, got with whoever he's with. I think he was in a gang or affiliated, or something, and got picked up a murder case, and that's how he ended up in prison. He's one of those kids I always say, damn it! What if we could've really ... You know, because he wasn't an unreachable kid. He wasn't an unteachable kid. He just needed some serious support, and locking him up obviously didn't work in terms of the final solution, you know?
He needed something when he went home, which is what a lot of these kids need. They need something when they get home, and not because their families are horrible, but because their families are struggling too and need some support. So how can we engage with the family and say, well what would actually help you? What would be helpful? What do you need? Instead of us presuming to know.
Joann: What's BJC?
Rev Dietra: Barnes-Jewish Counseling. Barnes-Jewish Hospital system has a whole counseling arm, and they provide I think are really good services where they'll go into the house and do counseling with kids and families inside their homes, so go to them so that'll kind of eliminate transportation issues. When there's five of those different kinds of people it kind of becomes a little bit much for a family.
Joann: At the beginning of the conversation you mentioned that you all are working on the school to prison pipeline.
Rev Dietra: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Joann: Can you talk just a little bit about that? We've talked about a lot of other stuff, and we kind of talked about school arrests, and that kind of situation. What does that look like here?
Rev Dietra: Yeah. The beginning of our problem, if you will. Missouri, I forget where we are in terms of school suspensions. Black kids versus other kids, very, very high. What MCU has worked on for the last year and a half is here we go, K through third grade, like not even upper kids, because that's really political, but just kindergarten through third grade suspensions, which show the same kind of disproportionate problems, but we've just gotten one school district out of, I think we have about 30 to say that in this school year, this school year that they will not expel, suspend kindergartners through third grade.
We've gotten everyone else, and St. Louis Public, they committed before we asked them. St. Louis Public Schools, and I'm going to forget the school district, Richmond, Richmond Heights. Those are the two that in 2017 they are not suspending any kindergarten through third grades, which is forcing a culture shift in their schools and in their districts about what else are we going to do if we're not going to suspend these kids. If we can't send them home, okay, we have to grow up some other things to kind of make sure that we can do what we need to do as educators.
The other groups committed to other tiers really said, okay we're going to work on it. We're going to do it in 2018, and then another tier that said we're going to at least have the conversation. That goes to say, if we can't figure out how not to suspend, what five years old, six years old, seven, eight, is that K through, okay. To me it speaks to the culture that's pushed our culture that we think in our mind a kid doesn't behave, the answer is punishment versus the kid needs support. Especially a little baby, to me those are babies. That's the beginning of what we're trying to do in terms of school suspension and push out, is just work on suspensions because once they stop the suspending they have to work on developing the other parts of their culture.
The hope is to keep on moving up in terms of the age brackets, but it's been kind of shuddering for schools just to stop suspending K through third grade, so incremental, but we've got to start somewhere in this state. I can't remember where we rank. Missouri, I don't want to misspeak, but we rank very high in terms of disparate racial school suspensions. It's horrible when you look at the number. Again there's that racial issue. Because in the whitest of schools you see that number, just like you do if you look at policing, which is the other thing that we work on in the community.
You look at stops. Who gets stopped how often, who gets searched how often. You look at the numbers in the community, it's always five, six, seven more times to blacks than to ... Same thing in the schools. We have a racial issue that we need to address in our region, which the Ferguson Commission kind of tries to center everyone in their workaround. When you're doing all your justice work you need to start with this racial stuff, because it is the thread that ties everything that's happening in our region together, and I'm sure Missouri's not the only place that it's a factor.
The other things that we've been working on in terms of juvenile justice, we've been working on raising the age. Right now we're in the throws of raise the age. You would not think this would be so hard, Lord, Jesus. Missouri going to mess around and going to be the last state to raise the age. So, we're actually in a little bit of a battle to raise age here. I don't get it. From 17 to 18, that's all we're trying to do. We're not even trying to be as progressive as Connecticut. Just 18.
Joann: What's the pushback?
Rev Dietra: The money. The money. They're saying it's going to cost money. As soon as I leave you guys I'm going to go make a call, because this is somebody that's on the ground that's I detention centers all the time, and at least in St. Louis City and County, they're kind of empty. We just went into a multimillion dollar facility that has eight units. Four of them don't have anybody on them. Now what I don't understand and what I do need to find out is how is the staffing done. Is it based upon the units or is it based upon the population? Well it can't vary too much, because the population could change in a week.
My question is what is the staffing pattern based on the population, and from there you should be able to extrapolate real costs, not to mention the costs that you save from not putting them in the adult system. But, the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association is the one that is fighting the passage of the bill. That's the reason it hasn't passed, is MJJA is against it, and the reason that they say that they're against it is because of the money.
Joann: Because it will cost more to ...
Rev Dietra: Because they'll have additional bodies. If you're now holding 17 year olds, which is not that many, that would be coming through, but somebody needs to get clear about from like last year how many actual 17 year olds could we have had for these? Because most of them it's minor stuff.
Joann: So the jurisdictional discussion is all completely focused around detention facility conversations, not-
Rev Dietra: It's money. It's money.
Joann: Money that's related to-
Rev Dietra: They're saying money. They're saying money, and the facility issue might be a problem maybe in some smaller places, but we have the numbers. You know what I mean?
Rev Dietra: We're driving the numbers that are definitely putting the money on there, and so definitely in terms of space in Kansas City and St. Louis, that's not the issue. There could be an issue depending on how they staff according to the population. If it creates a significant population increase in the detention centers, that could have some money attached to it, and Missouri's broke, and so Missouri's not trying to pass anything that's going to cost them money.
Speaker 3: Just to clarify. It's not necessarily going to be more expensive. It's just who it would be more expensive for.
Rev Dietra: Exactly.
Joann: The money would basically flow out of the criminal system into the juvenile system, because the kids are either going to be in the adult system or they're going to be in the juvenile system.
Rev Dietra: They're going to be somewhere. A lot of times thought the kids that end up in that side, they don't stay long because of the kinds of charges that are presented. Adult style, sometime I feel like we should send them all there. Not that, only because sometimes some of our kids, it's just the probable cause of things they just kind of let them go. They don't even hold them, but yes. The conversation, we've got to get clear about how these numbers are being generated, and one of the confusions seems to be how detention centers are staffed, and how much money that actually costs. If it's about facilities, that's not the problem. There's plenty of room for them. That's not the issue.
They could be there now. They bought this multimillion dollar facility. There's plenty of room. What would it mean to staff if you had a huge increase in population. I think that's MJJA's argument.
Joann: Obviously there isn't a lot on the table in terms of diverting them to community-based treatment, because the resources either aren't there yet, or that's not just part of the cultural practices yet.
Rev Dietra: I'm going to go with B on here.
Joann: Okay. We are coming up on about, we've got about 10 minutes, [crosstalk 01:04:28] but we have to take pictures, so we have zero minutes.
Rev Dietra: Okay.
Joann: Because we've got to take that time to take pictures. Is there any kind of final thought that you want to leave us with or anything that you wanted to say?
Rev Dietra: I think I've said it kind of at the beginning conversation. I'd say to anyone who's in the system that's working on these issues, don't be hopeless. Be creative. I get that you've kind of done your job a certain way for a long time. Get with your colleagues. Some of them are doing some really cool stuff. Maybe you should try it and see what happens. Some of them with good evidence-based practice and results. We're not asking you to just chase a dream in the sky, but it's going to require some cultural change. Generally for it to be effective some folks in our area are going to have to become thought leaders. It feels like they're resistant to that. That's someone from the inside outside feels resistant to that.
Folks in the community, particularly the parents and juveniles, but other folks in the community, wake up. Juvenile is a big dark hole, that no one's like really paying attention to, particularly as we talk about issues of mass incarceration, the juvenile justice system is the feeder system to the prison system. To encourage community folks who really care about issues of mass incarceration realize that there's a whole little subsystem working under your nose called the juvenile justice system that's sending kids to prison, and it needs advocates.
Joann: Thank you.
Rev Dietra: Thank you.