Interfaith group works to help incarcerated juveniles

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times

Feb. 28 — Most incarcerated youths have never committed a violent act, and many suffer from mental illnesses and learning disabilities, says an interfaith group calling for greater awareness of what its members are calling a crisis in juvenile justice.

Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations drew attention to the problem as part of Juvenile Justice Sabbath over the weekend. Participants prayed, preached, distributed educational materials, hosted outside speakers, and reached out directly to incarcerated youths in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York.

“In my own work, I have too many stories to count,” said Brian Blalock, youth attorney with Bay Legal Interfaith Project, a co-sponsor of the event.

In 2005, some 223,000 juveniles were arrested in California — 75 percent for minor offenses such as truancy, curfew violations, and petty theft.

Three-quarters of all incarcerated youth suffer from learning disabilities, but few receive services, Blalock said. Confined youths have higher rates of untreated mental illness and are more likely to have been subjected to sexual abuse and domestic violence than their peers, Blalock said.

“Those are the issues of the parents and grandparents as well,” said the Rev. Charles Tinsley, chaplain at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall. “You have folks with mental health issues, folks who are illiterate, folks who have learning problems.”

But what does faith have to do with it? And what can faith groups do to turn the tide?

Firstly, faith engenders comfort and concern, said Tinsley. In addition, it provides a lens through which people see public policy and cast votes.

“For a lot of people, the kids are out of sight and mind, and people vote out of fear,” he said. “Given certain interventions — love, support, education — we can look and see the themes of all the major religions: forgiveness, restoration.”

The group is hoping the event spurs discussion and motivates congregants to reach out to young people in the detention system, said a youth minister and theological student who preached about the subject Sunday.

“That in California we can have a 14-year-old sentenced to life, it’s sickening,” said Corbin Davis of Sycamore Congregational Church UCC in El Cerrito. “If you’ve ever been to one of these hearings, they are like a cattle call. It’s so hard to believe we continue to use this outdated system. We tell them implicitly and explicitly that they have no value.”

Davis worked with inner-city youths in Colorado in a “restorative justice” program that helped young offenders take responsibility for offenses and make restitution. For a petty theft at a store, the offender might help stock or clean up on his own time, Davis said.

“Our church has a long-standing tradition as seeing the Christian faith as a call to action,” he said. “For us, faith is a verb, something that calls us forward. I’ve always felt a deep connection with a Christianity that speaks for the voiceless.”

Synagogues and mosques are participating. The Council on American-Islamic Relations talked about the plight of confined youths in its newsletter. Representatives also e-mailed, called and visited mosques in the Bay Area, said Mahruk Hasan, a civil rights coordinator. Many religious leaders agreed to make the juvenile justice system the theme of the Friday night “khutbah,” or sermon.

Bay Legal Interfaith project began charting plans for the Sabbath last year in connection with the national Youth Law Center and Faith Communities for Families and Children.

In particular, the Sabbath focused on the rising number of people as young as 14 being tried and sentenced as adults, often for a first offense.

“You’ve got a system that’s not about putting itself out of business,” Tinsley said.

When a boy named Jeremiah came into Tinsley’s life, “he was a little 13-year-old with next to nothing in his life. There was no home at home. He came with an awful lot of baggage.”

His older brothers stumbled into lives of crime and landed in prison. But the Contra Costa Juvenile Court appointed Tinsley and his wife guardians, and the couple cared for Jeremiah for six years. Today, he is a working, married man and a testament to the value of intervention.

But the faithful need not adopt children to make a difference: “There are all kinds of programs out there that are minimally funded,” Tinsley said. “There are all kinds of programs out there in need of volunteers.”

McClatchy – Tribune Business News [Washington]

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