Caring Adults Help Black Youth Steer Clear of Prison
Scores of adults reach out every day to help young people in some of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods.
WUWM’s Project Milwaukee series is exploring the reasons Wisconsin incarcerates more black men than any other state. One focus of our stories is on boys at risk.
We visited places that work with young African American males every day and learned that many young people face challenges that can lead to prison, if no one intervenes. Here is some of what we found.
An intercom signals the start of a proceeding at the Milwaukee County Juvenile Justice Center. It conducts hundreds of hearings every month for children who’ve committed crimes.
Presiding judge Joseph Donald says fewer juveniles overall have been entering the system, but the number of African American youth arrested, is increasing. Donald observes troublesome signs.
“Some of those characteristics are if there is a high rate of truancy. The other characteristic is if there’s drug use, or if they come from dysfunctional homes, or families, where they really aren’t getting the necessary support or guidance,” the Judge says.
He adds, not only is guidance lacking at home, but sometimes, youngsters face physical or sexual abuse. The stress/trauma can prompt them to act out, sometimes violently.
“What happens is we start with a juvenile who just has trouble with making appropriate decisions, you know, problems with authority figures, all of the things that are very typical of every teenager, but yet, their behavior then has risen to a level that has brought the attention of the authorities,” Donald says.
When offenses send boys to court, it can order them into counseling or send them to Lincoln Hills School for Boys, a juvenile detention center. For lesser crimes, they often get probation.
The ideal scenario is to intervene before they get into trouble according to 26-year-old Chris Morgan. He works at the COA Goldin Center on 24th and Burleigh and leads a group of nine and 10 year olds. Many of the kids comes from homes without a fulltime dad.
“In a classroom of 20, you probably have four or five kids who have a home that is actually intact versus the other 15 who don’t –they come from single parent homes or some of ‘em even in foster care,” Morgan says.
I ask him, ‘How important is it, particularly for the boys to have a male, like yourself, in their life?’
He says, “I think it’s very important to show them leadership and just help them learn basically things that they need in life.” Such as, resisting people with bad intentions.
Quintrell Boyles coordinates teen programs at the center. He says there are abusive adults in this part of town who enlist rudderless boys for illicit purposes.
“It is kind of tragic because a lot of times it’s life and death, depending on the situation. We have seen young people that have been caught up in robberies, that lose their lives. We have seen young people that have been exposed to prostitution at the age of 14,” Boyles says.
He says another risk many African American boys in Milwaukee face is what he calls “the monster of poverty.” Boyles says it can add to their desperation and discourage them from dreaming about the future.
“What we’re looking at is a population that’s worried about the gun violence in my neighborhood, will I make it home tonight? What will I eat? A population of kids that’s worried about the temperature dropping below 50 degrees and I only have a hoodie to wear to school. These are things that overshadow what they might be thinking about happening 10 years from now, they’re thinking about today. If tomorrow comes, God bless, but they are in the moment,” Boyles says.
Jermaine Howard is standing outside the COA center near Reservoir Park on Milwaukee’s east side. He’s waiting for his pre-teen group to arrive for after school activities.The 29-year-old helps kids set goals.
But he says their first challenge, is to learn how to express their feelings – and not bottle them. Howard uses himself as an example.
“Six people that I know have died and four was murders. But my thing is, you know, I’m just hoping for justice. I would hope the kids would mature how I did. I know it’s hard for kids to understand. They want people to die,” Howard says.
He adds, when kids share their anger and fear and other emotions with a caring adult, they’re less likely to express themselves violently.