Mott Haven neighbors gather around a campfire for all the kids in jail

Ruben and officials outside the closing of Bridges Juvenile Center

Ruben Austria stands with city officials at the closing of Bridges Juvenile Center in March 2011 (Photo Courtesy of Community Connections for Youth)

More than 70 local residents gathered around a campfire in Mott Haven’s Brook Park Tuesday evening. A handful of boys and girls danced salsa-hip-hop to the beat of percussion instruments, passed around the circle. The purpose was to draw attention to the families whose kids have been swept into the juvenile justice system.

“We’re born in the ghetto, so we’re expected to do drugs, have kids in our teens, be in gangs,” said Candice Lozada, 17, one of the dancers. “We’re an example that we can live above the influence.”

“Putting kids in the justice system isn’t the way to help them, it doesn’t reform them and makes them more aggressive against authority,” said Ruben Austria, who started Community Connection for Youth in 2009, the campfire’s organizing group, to find community-based alternatives for youth detention. “This is about helping them through community, research-based intervention programs so that our kids don’t become criminalized by the system.”

Earlier this year, Austria saw his organization’s efforts come to fruition when the Bridges Juvenile Center, formerly known as Spofford, was shut down in March. Austria and his organization started an online petition in 2009 under the United to Stop Spofford Campaign. Advocates, clergy, youth and families rallied behind the cause to close the notorious juvenile center.

Jeannette Bocanegro, an organizer for the program, emphasized, “Families have ideas and solutions to fix the problems too.”

The South Bronx continues to have one of the highest levels of juvenile detention rates in New York City, with roughly 22 percent of its juveniles sentenced to jail for one year or less. Manhattan has close to none; Brooklyn and Queens have six percent, according to a 2007 report by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency.

One participant experienced what she believed was a flawed justice system unexpectedly. Kim Krocker’s phone rang during the event. It was her 18-year-old son, Anthony, who had been taken from Krocker’s mother’s apartment at 3 a.m. for unspecified “drug charges.” This was the first time his mother had spoken to him since his arrest on Sunday. She said her son was innocently swept up in a police operation in the neighborhood intended to clean up gang racketeering.

Krocker said she came despite being overwhelmed by everything going on because more people in the community needed to know about they can deal with – and help – the juvenile justice system. She said she felt helpless not knowing how the justice system worked.

“Of course this is going to have a negative impact on him,” she said. “What other alternative is anyone offering? Once a kid is institutionalized, that’s it. I have to get him out there. There are other ways to discipline these kids!”

Community Connections for Youth hopes to address concerns like Krocker’s with its collaboration with Justice for Families, a national advocacy group with similar goals. It announced yesterday its intent to conduct a survey of families affected by the juvenile justice system in the South Bronx.

So far, Bocanegro has collected more than 100 surveys from families documenting what they need the system to provide. Explanation of the court process, transportation to detention facilities, and even more than 15 minutes to talk on the phone are some of the ideas. The survey also reflects how families support using federal and state detention money for public education and after-school programs. Bocanegro said, “Give me half of the thousands you spend each year on a kid in a facility and I’ll be able to work miracles.”

The survey is being conducted by various supporters of Justice for Families, like Community Connections for Youth, in 14 other states. Justice for Families will organize the data by November and hope to send it to legislators by February of 2012.

“Families are so scared to come out and talk about it, like it’s taboo,” Bocanegro said. “But it becomes taboo if we don’t address the issue. We can’t have that.”

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