If you are 14, an African American male, and starting high school in the fall in Minneapolis you only have a 1 in 4 for chance of graduating high school.
If you are an African American young man in Hennepin County, you are twice as likely to die as young white men ages 18 to 30 and 27 times more likely to go to jail.
According to studies done in three other states, nearly one in four juveniles released from criminal justice institutions were re-incarcerated with in the next 12 months.
Statistics like these led Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and other city leaders to draw up the Blueprint for Action, a plan to reduce youth violence in the city. It also aims to improve the chances that young black men will graduate from high school, go to college, stay out of jail and get good jobs that can support families.
City Council Member Don Samuels supports the Blueprint, but he thinks the community should have “freaked out” a long time ago about those statistics.
“I can guarantee you that if 72 percent of white boys in any school of America were failing, you wouldn’t need a Blueprint for Action,” Samuels said. “Those teachers and that principal and that school district would freak out….The valuation of our young people is still greatly influenced by the color of that thin wrapping that we call the skin.”
“I realize that people are willing to see young people die, fail, have children too early, and America can still be a great country,” he said.
Tanya Bransford, the presiding judge in the Juvenile Division of Hennepin County District Court, says that having more resources for schools and deterrence is key to keeping the youth out of trouble.
“We see more teens coming back for theft and robbery,” said Bransford.
Judge Bransford also noted that problems inside the home often lead to violence.
“What makes teens continue to do more violence is when they have a lot of family problems,” including assaults or fights with other family members, she said.
Lt. Bryan Schafer, who heads the juvenile unit of the Minneapolis Police Department, believes that the city’s Blueprint for Action could make a difference in youth crime.
“I’m predicting right now we might have a 30 percent decrease across the board in juvenile crime (this year). That’s huge,” he said. “We’re already down 20 percent” in the first six months of 2008. “We believe it’s the Blueprint for Action. It’s interventions. It’s not jail.”
Willie Wallace, who runs an Urban League group home for young male offenders in North Minneapolis, said 75 percent of the youth he works with succeed and leave the criminal justice system. It’s critical that staff be dedicated.
“That’s what these young brothers need to hear, need to see,” he said. “I want to see you change.”
To help youth, give free admission to community activities, he suggests. Create a museum honoring black artists, scientists and writers. Create year-round jobs paying 10 dollars an hour for students with good attendance and grades. Make the first two years of college free.
Judge Bransford thinks the court system can do more to help to juveniles get the help they need.
“We are looking at research that has been done on young people that have committed offenses to see what works best to getting them back to law-abiding behaviors,” she said.
Some research shows that community service and work with the families are most effective, the judge said.
The Blueprint for Action also gives juveniles other alternatives besides jail. The new juvenile supervision center in the basement of city hall assesses teens’ needs and refers them to community agencies. Counselors follow up to see if the teen follows through. First-time offenders who commit less serious offenders might be sent to a diversion programs, with five weeks of classes and community service.
Every criminal action needs to meet a response, Schafer said, but not necessarily juvenile detention.
Samuels wants to see big changes in public schools as well. He is so impatient for change that he suggested a few months back that, given the low graduation rate of African-American males, the city might be better off if North High burned down.
“I’m going to be dead in 30 years or so — and leave it all the same?” Samuels said. “I can’t do that….So I’m willing to take some rhetorical risks to freak people out. If the failures of young people don’t freak people out, maybe the suggestion of burning a school will freak people out. Cause they think that’s more valuable than the young people. Nobody’s freaking out about that. I’m really upset about that. The undervaluing of our young African-American human beings is despicable in the face of God and in the face of the rest of the world.”