Academic journal article Education Next

Out Jail and into Jobs; Maya Angelou Public Charter School Offers Hope and an Education to Kids in Trouble

Academic journal article Education Next

Out Jail and into Jobs; Maya Angelou Public Charter School Offers Hope and an Education to Kids in Trouble

Article excerpt

"Tell the judge I want a program," pleaded Eddie. "Tell him I don't need to be locked up." Eddie was my client, 16 years old, charged with breaking into a house and stealing a TV and VCR. A Formica table separated us in a dingy room in the Oak Hill juvenile detention center, the jail for kids charged with crimes in Washington, D.C. Like every juvenile client I ever represented, Eddie had one pressing concern: He wanted to go home. He promised me he would do everything right: go to school, attend counseling, pass his drug tests. I believed him; I was a young public defender and it was my job to believe him.

The job of a juvenile public defender is as much social worker as lawyer. In Washington, D.C., the juvenile court still operates, at least on paper, as the founders of the system envisioned over a century ago. Judges are supposed to provide for the care and rehabilitation of the child, as well as protect the safety of the community. In practice, this means that if a lawyer can find a program in the community that meets a client's needs, there is a decent chance that the judge will put the child there instead of locking him up (see Figure 1).

American Youth in Detention (Figure 1)

More than 90,000 American youth were incarcerated in 2006. Nearly
one-third were under age 16, and more than two-thirds were nonwhite.

Juveniles in Residential Placement by Age

Age 12 and under   1,207

Age 13             3,424

Age 14             9,127

Age 15            17,574

Age 16            24,646

Age 17            23,761

Age 18 and older  13,115

Juvenlles in Residential Placement by Race/Ethnicity

Asian              1,155

Other              1,012

White             32,495

African American  37,337

Hispanic          19,027

Native American    1,828

SOURCE: Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement Databook,

Note: Table made from pie chart.

The more I learned about Eddie's life, the more depressed I became. When he was eight, he was physically abused by his stepfather, who resented the competition for Eddie's mother's attention. When he was 10 he began to act out in school, picking fights with other kids and refusing to do his homework. Eventually, he was forced to repeat two grades. At age 13, he was kicked out of school and referred to an "alternative" school for troubled kids. He wandered in and out of this school--nobody really kept track of his attendance--for a few years, until he was arrested and sent to Oak Hill. And now, at maybe the lowest point in an unremittingly dismal life, Eddie was asking me to get him "a program" so that he could go home.


As I struggled to respond to Eddie's request, my depression turned to hopelessness. I knew that the city was throwing all kinds of resources into this case. There was money to pay the police who had arrested Eddie, money for the prosecutor who charged him, money for the expert witness who came to court and testified that Eddie's fingerprints were found in the house. There was money to pay me, the public defender. And there would be money for the state--on behalf of we the people--to incarcerate Eddie in a juvenile prison, at a cost of more than $50,000 a year.


But why was the state only intervening now? Where were we when Eddie was 8 and being abused? When he was 10, couldn't read, and began acting out? When he was 13 and all we had to offer was an alternative school that lacked safety, creativity, and quality teaching?

I had been to this so-called alternative school. The auto-body class had no car or car parts, just an outdated textbook. The only trade program with functioning equipment was the "barbering" class, an honorable profession for sure, but hardly suitable preparation for the 21st-century economy. I will never forget the day I went to the school to meet with a teacher and found the class watching a bootleg martial arts video. …

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