Cradle to Prison: Youth Incarcerations

More than 600 people are in Houston to discuss alternatives to youth incarceration. The summit, put on by the Children's Defense Fund, is one of the first in the nation to address the issue. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson has more.

People started lining up outside the door at 6am to register for the summit. They're here to talk about the so-called Cradle to Prison Pipeline. The summit literature states some troubling statistics. African-American boys have a one in three chance of incarceration. Hispanic boys have a one in six chance.

Barbara Best is executive director of the Children's Defense Fund of Texas. She says they're looking at the problem through the lens of the whole child.

"Children don't come in pieces. And so today we're systematically going through and looking at all of what a child needs to succeed. They need early childhood education, they need health and mental health coverage, they need adequate public education and when they get into trouble, we need to rehabilitate them. We need to provide them with mental health services and understand what's going on there and intervene."

That intervention already happened in Jennifer Pineda's life. She's on the Mayor's Anti-Gang Youth Taskforce. But just a few years ago she was involved in drugs and gangs. She says she joined a gang because of domestic violence in her home.

"I wanted to get away from it and try to do something to protect my family from my dad's violence. And I thought about it, you know, getting involved with a gang might help me get protection or respect."

Pineda is now 17 and plans to join the military this year. But she says her old friends and the old lifestyle still chase her.

"I'm no longer in it, but there's still times where I get called to do some things that I no longer want to do and it's really hard to stay away from it sometimes. Especially the people that I got involved with a lot."

It's not surprising that Pineda ended up in a gang. Two thirds of youth in the justice system are low-income minority children.

Will Harrell is the independent ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission. He likens his job to putting out fires, but says more will pop up tomorrow. And he says the solution for children can't be found inside detention centers.

"One of the greatest indicators is whether or not your parents have been incarcerated in their lives -- you're nine times as likely to be incarcerated yourself. Now think what that means if we continue in this direction of hyper-penalization of kids and adults. That means we're exponentially growing the prison industrial complex over time. That has to stop."

But Harrell and others at the conference acknowledge it takes more than just talking about the problems. So they're forming five task forces that will meet over the summer. They'll reconvene in October to develop an action plan.

Laurie Johnson. Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...