Young People of Color Are Assets We Need to Invest in

By Janet Murguía, President and CEO, NCLR

The unrest that unfolded in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray has left Americans across the country asking many questions. Today State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced in a press conference that six officers with the Baltimore Police Department will face criminal charges, including second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, in the death of the 25-year-old Gray. While we applaud Ms. Mosby’s swift investigation and hope that the homicide ruling will be the first step toward justice and healing for the city of Baltimore, we must take this opportunity to address another issue that this tragic situation has illuminated: why does it take another senseless death, and the rage and unrest that ensues, for our nation to pay attention to the problems faced by low-income communities and the young men and women of color who live in these areas?

Like many of the youth we have seen on our television screens over the past few days, young American Latinos are more likely to experience poverty, violence, discrimination, and disengagement. The unfortunate result that we’ve seen across the country is a school-to-prison pipeline that has propelled a disproportionate amount of young Latino men and women into the juvenile justice system. On any given day, at least 18,000 Hispanic youth are incarcerated in the United States for mostly nonviolent offenses. To make matters worse, breaking the cycle of recidivism is particularly difficult; once you have entered the system, there is a good chance you will find yourself behind bars again. 

Instead of waiting for tragic events to bring to light the problems that already exist for young people of color, we must be more proactive in ensuring that low-income communities have the resources available to encourage positive youth development. This was the topic of a Hill briefing hosted yesterday by Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) one of our leading champions of juvenile justice reform. The briefing highlighted NCLR’s new report, “Resilient Latino Youth: In Their Own Words,” which found that young at-risk Latinos are able to overcome the challenges of poverty, discrimination, and violence if and when they are provided with support, including from community-based organizations and mentors. Hispanic community organizations are critical because they offer culturally appropriate programs that reinforce workforce skills, foster leadership and personal development; provide academic support; promote mental and physical health; and give young people the adult mentoring that has also been shown to be an invaluable resource. 

As emphasized by the panelists, rather than spending billions of state and federal dollars incarcerating kids, we should instead be redirecting those resources into these communities to strengthen effective community-based programs that will prevent youth from entering the juvenile justice system and help to rehabilitate nonviolent young offenders through constructive interventions with the help of their families and communities. 

Washington has a role to play as well. Decades of so-called “tough-on-crime” policies have resulted in far too many locked-up youth, who have limited opportunities once they have a record. Congress can help our youth by reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to end these policies, passing the “Prohibiting Detention of Youth Status Offenders Act” to end youth incarceration for noncriminal offenses, and implementing the “REDEEM Act” to promote rehabilitation, rather than criminalization, of youth.

Understanding the events that have taken place in Baltimore requires understanding the reality of what many of these youth have to live with every day. The sense of anger and hopelessness that sparked the unrest is, in part, a result of too many ignoring the plight of low-income communities for too long. One lesson that people should take away from Baltimore is that we cannot protect our communities and our youth if we don’t invest in them.