Breaking the Cycle of Incarcerated Latino Youth

According to a 2010 report by the National Council of La Raza, Latinos make up 19% of youth between the ages of 10 to 17, yet we account for 25% of incarcerated youth. We have a problem. We can spend all day and countless blog posts debating the reasons behind our children’s’ overrepresentation in juvenile justice facilities, and I am sure terms like “discrimination,” “personal responsibility,” “oppression” and many others will be bandied about by all sides of the debate, but that won’t resolve the issue at hand. Whatever reasons have gotten us to this point, we’re here. And pointing fingers won’t get us where we need to be. So what can we, as a community, do to help our children avoid derailing their lives before they even get started?

Latino youth looking through a fenceLet’s start with those most at risk…those kids already in the system. Sadly, many of our incarcerated youth spend more time behind bars than they should. It’s not because they receive longer sentences than others, it’s simply because they violate their probation when given another chance.Marc Nigel, one of our Latino Leadership Council board members, works closely with kids in the juvenile justice system. As he puts it, you can take something out of the mud, clean it up and make it nice and shiny. But the moment you throw it back in the mud, it will get dirty again. The system takes these kids from difficult environments, presumably reforms them, but then releases them right back into the same environment in which they were before. So nothing has changed. Is it surprising to anybody that these youth fall back into the same routines, violate their probation and end up back behind bars?

As a community, we must change that. The critical period is that set of hours after kids leave school and before the arrival of their parents at home. Understandably, many parents work long hours and multiple jobs just to meet their families’ basic needs. So many parents aren’t home to provide supervision when our youth are out of school. It’s during these unstructured and unsupervised hours that the youth begin getting back into their old routines and end up violating probation.

We must provide opportunities during these hours for youth to engage in more positive, structured activities that help keep them on the right path. For example, the Latino Leadership Council offers the Auburn Latino Teens Advancing (ALTA) program to help engage teens with afterschool and weekend activities. Engaging in a group like ALTA keeps these youth involved in more positive experiences and provides opportunities to develop more positive and constructive friendships and role models that replace the old acquaintances that fed into their downward trajectory.

Our LLC youth promotores also work closely with our youth, providing guidance, support and encouragement. The youth promotores meet with incarcerated kids and those who are on probation. They help point out the pitfalls, connect them with others going through the same issues and help them access necessary resources. And when our youth promotores see a need for the youth’s parents to receive assistance, they call in a promoter/a who can help the parent understand issues and receive parenting support. These youth can in turn become positive role models for others going through similar experiences and their parents can help other struggling parents get the help they need.

This just the beginning, and we need more. Our community must take it upon itself to look after our youth and provide positive alternatives to gangs, drugs and other pitfalls that corrupt our youth. If you belong to a church, create afterschool or weekend activities. If you’re at home while your neighbor is off working, offer to have their kids over at your house engage them in fun, constructive activities. If you’re a teenager, reach out to those you see heading in the wrong direction and incorporate them into your more positive routine. If you’re a teacher, take an extra moment to show you care. Every interaction and every opportunity counts and it’s up to us to make the change.

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