Chaka Khan's Mission to Keep Kids Out of Jail Moves Forward

The singer's "No Excuses" initiative finds incarcerated kids want a chance at something better.

Chaka Khan No Excuses Initiative

Singer Chaka Khan kicked off her No Excuses National Initiative in June at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles (Photo: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

At the risk of further trampling well-trod liberal tropes – this incarceration thing is big business. We’re the most incarceration giddy country in the developed world. Our prison population has tripled since 1970, though neither our population nor our crime rates have, and our expenditures on putting people in jail has doubled from 8 percent of public spending to 15 percent over the past 50 years.

These numbers swelled during the war on drugs and get-tough-on-crime hysteria of the past few decades. The realities of crime never really matched up with the grandstanding by politicians, the prison lobby or even the unions protecting their guards’ jobs.  In fact, crime rates across the board, and particularly violent crime rates, have been steadily declining since the crack epidemic peak of the early ’90s.

Kids have been easy targets for the get-tough crowd. Despite youth crime accounting for a small percentage of overall violent crime (11 percent in 2009) and juvenile arrests dropping by 20 percent from 2000 to 2009, juvenile court cases have declined by only 4 percent during this period, according to Campaign for Youth Justice statistics.

The juvenile detention system has in many respects become a staging ground for future lives of incarceration as the numbers of kids caught in its web have overwhelmed the capacity of the system to rehabilitate: juvenile courts nationally handle 4,600 cases per day, 1.7 million a year.

Not to mention that in an era of fiscal austerity, it costs an estimated $32 -65,000 per year to keep kids, the vast majority of whom are not violent offenders, in juvenile detention.

The trends would seem to make crime and punishment an area rife for reform. And the recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting states from giving juveniles mandatory life-without-parole sentences appears to be an outbreak of sanity from an unlikely place. After decades of visceral emotion and fear-driven policy making, perhaps the tide is shifting toward a more reasoned approach? Hopefully, the decision will spark further reforms of the absurd maximum-minimum sentencing that got us into much of this gulag mess. 

Into this milieu has charged a blonde bombshell of energy named Veronica Coffield, who recently kicked off a weeklong program of fact-finding and motivation in Los Angeles County’s juvenile facilities. She was joined by, among others, Chaka Khan, Avis Ridley-Thomas, producer Scott Budnick (The Hangover) and a host of activists, businessmen and women, and, mid-level rappers (Omar Cruz and Nipsey Hussle to name a couple).

The initiative, run by Coffield under the auspices of the Chaka Khan Foundation, is called No Excuses: Days of Dialogue and the intent, as reported here previously, was to collect data and gather input from the kids in Los Angeles County juvenile detention about their experiences and needs.

Coffield, et al., visited two juvenile detention halls, Central in Lincoln Heights, and Los Paladrinos in Downey, as well as two probation camps, Camp David Gonzales in Calabasas and Camp Scudder, a girls’ camp in Santa Clarita. All told, the No Excuses initiative interacted with 578 kids. As far as anyone can tell, it’s the most ambitious bottom-up, fact-finding mission into the juvenile detention system to date. In fact, it may be the only bottom-up fact finding mission into the juvenile detention system to date.

The program is long overdue, considering the L.A. County probation department is operating under a consent decree, and in 2011 was in danger of a federal takeover due to a history of Dickensian negligence.

Data was collected in dialogue sessions between groups of kids and facilitators and with rapid-response electronic devices that enabled kids to anonymously answer data-rich multiple-choice questions. The results are being crunched with the help of UCLA’s CRESST Center, the W. Haywood Burns Institute and other organizations.

Dr. David Campt, who designed the rapid-response questions, says the information gathered could be valuable in guiding juvenile justice reforms.

“My hope is that the people who run these facilities will look at this and take it seriously and provide better services,” Campt said. “They didn’t sign up to use this as a management tool, but it could be.”

Though the data is not ready for formal release, Campt shared a few of the preliminary findings. What’s emerging is a slightly counterintuitive picture. For example, despite being stereotyped as shiftless, irresponsible youth, the kids surveyed blamed their own bad choices for their predicaments by a wide margin over other alluring choices, such as being falsely accused or failing to cover their tracks.

Sadly, 40 percent of the kids surveyed said they feel it’s just as safe or safer inside a hall or camp than it is on their streets. “It was remarkable to me how many kids felt it was safer in there than out on the streets," Campt said.

Even so, nearly two-thirds of the juveniles felt like their experience in the system was hurting a lot more than it was helping, as they complained of disrespect, lack of fairness, impoverished facilities and little attention being paid to transitional programs.

Campt also pointed out that these aren’t a bunch of starry-eyed delusionals dreaming of some day being the next rap star. When asked what they want for themselves in five years, the number one answer was a job and a career. And what do they need to get there? The top three answers were a better education, taking responsibility for themselves and work experience.

Coffield added that while kids had the expected visceral reactions to star speakers such as Chaka Khan, Nipsey Hussel and others, she found it telling that the biggest attraction was Byron Reed, Wells Fargo’s vice president for community development.  “He was talking about the need to take care of your money. He gave a basic money management lesson,” Coffield said. “He was bombarded.”

As she waits for the data to by analyzed, Coffield says the experience of visiting the camps and halls left her even more energized. By and large, she said, the kids don’t understand their cases, their legal options or how to get out of the system. And once inside, “they are not getting serviced.” Instead, she says, they’re shuffled around with their hands behind their backs, their heads down and treated like prisoners.

“Their spirit is gone. Instead of rehabilitation they are learning how to survive in the system, how to make it through. They’re learning how to be institutionalized,” said Coffield. “Let’s get them out of here."

What advice would you give incarcerated youth? Let us know in the comments.

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