NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. If the threat of prison is supposed to deter crime, it's not working; record numbers are behind bars. And while all those bad actors off the street may contribute to lower crime rates in recent years, many believe there have to be better ways.
Today we'll focus on two ideas to offer kids and nonviolent offenders a second chance, and they're not just theories. Criminologist David Kennedy and Judge Steve Teske tried out their ideas on the streets and in the courts. Now others are trying them, too. Details in a moment, but we want to hear from those of you with experience in the criminal justice system: How did your first experience with cops and courts change your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Los Angeles Times reporter Lee Romney joins us to discuss how Occupy Oakland has changed from encampment to marches and yesterday to a general strike. If there's an occupy movement where you live, be our reporter and email us: Has it changed? The email address again is email@example.com.
But we begin with Clayton County Juvenile Judge Steve Teske, who joins us from a studio in Atlanta. Nice to have you with us today.
JUDGE STEVE TESKE: Thank you, good to be with you.
CONAN: And when you started, I understand you found your juvenile court filling up with kids under - facing minor offenses. What was the problem?
TESKE: Well, the problem was we had school resource officers, you know, after Columbine a lot of schools had police on campus to protect them from violence, and the thing is that, you know, police are trained to do their job, and you've got to be careful not to blame them. The only problem was we didn't train them. We put them on the campus, and so they did exactly what they were trained to do. They arrest everything that was a crime, including what I call soft offenses, school frights or frays, disorderly conduct, mouthing off and disrupting public school.
And so as a result, most of the cases coming in were your low-level misdemeanor offenses, and it clogged up the courts.
CONAN: So these are things that in an earlier day might have ended up at the principal's office, and these days they ended up in handcuffs.
TESKE: That's correct.
CONAN: And what did you do?
TESKE: Well, first of all, I brought everyone together, the chief of police and the school superintendent. I showed them the statistics. I showed them the research that the more you arrest, the more you suspend, your dropout rates are going to go up, and that wasn't helping at all because most of these kids were not delinquent in the first place.
I mean the fact remains is that just because you commit a delinquent act doesn't make you delinquent. I committed delinquent acts. I didn't find myself in handcuffs.
CONAN: I did, too, and neither did I. but in other words, what you were trying to do was interrupt what some have described as the school-to-prison pipeline.
TESKE: Absolutely, and so we got together. It took us nine months, and we developed a protocol to find another alternative. And what we did is that we decided not to arrest these kids and focus only on the more serious offenses. And so as a result, we had a dramatic decrease in the referrals to the juvenile court by 72 percent.
But since then, our graduation rates have gone up 24 percent, and our serious weapon charges have gone down 70 percent.
CONAN: So it seems to be working.
TESKE: It is working. It's all based on relationships because now the school police are on the campus all the time. The kids don't see them as the bad guys. And so they're building these relationships with the kids, and as a result, they're getting more information, and they're able to stop things from happening before they get on the campus.
CONAN: Stay with us, Judge, we want to hear your response to some of our callers, but there are other ways to try to keep low-level offenders out of prison. Also joining us is David Kennedy, a criminologist, author of the book "Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-city America." He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
DAVID KENNEDY: Neal, Judge.
CONAN: And I know you've been brought in to different cities, Boston and Highpoint, North Carolina, for two, to work with law enforcement. And what is the approach that you've pioneered when you're dealing with low-level drug dealers?
KENNEDY: Well, the judge said it: It's all based on relationships. And he's really exactly right. That's a wonderful story he's telling. And this stuff works not just with low-level offending but with, as it turns out, some extremely serious stuff.
And what we do with the drug dealers is recognize again what the judge just said, that in our quest to protect these institutions, his are schools and mine are these neighborhoods, we are doing tremendous unintended damage. And these are neighborhoods with open-air drug markets and crack houses and white drive-through buyers and all that kind of thing.
And most of the men can end up with criminal records, at which point they're doomed, and their community is damaged. And so what we do instead is identify the drug dealers - there are never that many, even in the most distressed neighborhood - get a case ready to go, look at whether they're violent or not. If they're violent, then they get arrested and prosecuted in a traditional way.
If they're not, rather than arresting them, we go to their parents and grandparents. We talk to everybody. We have a community meeting, and in the community meeting, the community says we need you to stop what you're doing. We are for you, but we are against a couple of things you're doing. We would like to help you. We would like you to succeed and thrive.
And the police say we don't want to ruin your life. If you stop, we will suspend this case, but we are putting you on notice that the next time you go to the corner and sell drugs, we need no more evidence, we need no new information, we open the jacket, we sign the warrant, you will go to jail, and you are now on prior notice. And nearly everybody stops.
CONAN: Nearly everybody stops.
KENNEDY: Nearly everybody stops.
CONAN: Because most of those people who are selling drugs are users, too.
KENNEDY: It's not so much that, although there's truth to that. The main thing that happens is the community norm that says we don't want this is very clear. The community and the police start seeing each other in different ways, just as the judge said happens with the police and his kids. They're not the antagonists at odds that they were before all this began.
The potential offenders know that the next time they offend, there's an almost certain likelihood that there will be a sanction, which is not the world they usually live in, and you disrupt the pattern in the neighborhood that keeps this drug market cycle going.
The guys on the corner, so the buyers come in, so the sellers go to the corner and so the buyers come in, you can break that dynamic, and the neighborhood is a different place.
CONAN: And also instead of the generalized deterrence - if you commit a crime, the police will find you and send you to jail - this is very specific. You, Mr. Jones, the next time we see you, if you're bad, you're going to jail.
KENNEDY: That's right.
CONAN: I wonder, Judge, what's your reaction to that?
TESKE: Well, I agree. In fact, I have to confess I'm familiar with David's work, and his work was cited as part of the research around the part about building relationships and trying to help the police to take a cognitive shift in looking at how to do what I call better policing.
And let me say this. You know, I agree - and this whole thing around school safety has extended beyond the scope of the schools because what's happened is that, you know, our police, our school police used to be called kiddie cops. No one calls them kiddie cops anymore.
For example, you know, we've had a couple school resource officers been named officer of the year and cited for solving more crimes in the community, including homicides, than any other police officer because the detectives know that they need the SROs because they're a rich resource because of the type of relationship-building that they have done.
I mean, think about it. Police, one of the greatest tactics for police is gathering intelligence to prevent crime and to solve crimes. You're not going to do that if you're going to distort relationships. It's like, you know, the wolves and the sheep. You don't - you know, you've got to protect the sheep but, you know, so don't go after the sheep. Don't eat them up. If you want to go after the wolves, then use the sheep, protect the sheep and build a relationship with them.
Schools are a microcosm of the community. But you know what? The kids can tell you what's going on, but they're not going to talk to you if you're beating them up.
CONAN: And that goes, I assume, David Kennedy, as I read, a lot of the evidence that you have against these street-corner drug dealers is videotape evidence. It's not necessarily snitches.
KENNEDY: That's right, but there are all kinds of clever ways, it turns out, to use very traditional legal powers in new and strategy ways and get very different results. And that's important. What's even more important is what you just heard from Judge Teske, which is that the most important force for good in a community or school or any of those places is that the people of those communities and institutions want to live in good ways.
And they need help. They need help from law enforcement. They need help from the rest of us. But no community wants to be dangerous or sick or frightened or worry about its kids dying or all of its men going to prison. Communities don't want to live like that.
And over about 30 years, this country has locked up more and more and more and more people. This is a country now where if you are a black man, you stand a one in three chance that you will go to prison during your lifetime. Those men overwhelmingly come from historically distressed minority communities, especially black communities.
And in the name of protecting them, we have been locking everybody up. We have been kicking their doors in. We have been stopping them on the street. One of my black friends says if you want to destroy a civilization, lock it up, and he's right.
And just as happened with Judge Teske's kids, we have alienated these neighborhoods. They don't want to talk to us. They don't want to talk to the cops. They see the outside as an oppressive force, and things just get worse. You can reverse that, and you can bring out the norm, the standards, the desire of any community to live well and be safe.
CONAN: Briefly, we just have a few seconds before the break, but Judge Teske, you mentioned some categories of minor crimes that this program works on in schools. Does that include drug crimes?
TESKE: Yes. I mean, the program was not initially designed for drug crimes, but the police have started to broaden it on their own. Even though the protocol is specific about these certain what we call focus acts or soft offenses, over the last several years, the police, in seeing it work, have stopped making their own arrests on those offenses not included in the written protocol, which includes possession of drugs and things of that nature.
I mean, instead of making the referral, they'll work with the kids and call it in to the court.
CONAN: Steve Teske, Clayton County Juvenile Court judge. Also with us, David Kennedy, co-chair of the National Network for Safe Communities and director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control. We're talking about ideas to keep people out of jail.
If you've had experience with the criminal justice system, what was your first experience with the cops and the courts? How did it change your life? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It costs on average over $60 a day to house someone in state prison. Budgets are tight, and many officials are looking for ways to keep people out of those prisons. According to a report in USA Today, more than a half-dozen states are reclassifying a variety of property crimes.
Instead of felonies, which often require jail time, some offenses are now considered misdemeanors: offenses like theft, criminal mischief and check-kiting, an approach that might save money but not necessarily prevent crime.
That's the goal of two programs we're talking about today. Both offer low-level offenders a second chance and help them avoid jail time in the name of safer communities. Our guests are Judge Steve Teske, a juvenile court judge in Clayton County, Georgia; and David Kennedy, who directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He's also the other of "Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner-city America."
We want to hear from those of you with experience in the criminal justice system. How did your first experience with the cops and courts change you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our first caller is Jimmy(ph), Jimmy with us from Morrison in Illinois.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air.
JIMMY: Okay. Well, yeah, I don't think it's going to do much good. When I first ran into trouble with the police when I was younger, I got arrested. It didn't change my mind at all, it just made me more angry. It didn't stop me from wanting to do things I was doing already. I didn't see where I was harming anyone.
CONAN: And was this a drug crime?
JIMMY: Yeah, it was. I got arrested for drug paraphernalia. I think... Huh?
CONAN: What was the disposition of your case? Did you do time in jail?
JIMMY: Not for that one, no. I did for another one that came later on in life.
CONAN: And so you just got angry, being given - essentially allowed to walk for the first one did not help you.
JIMMY: I didn't get to walk for the first one. I had to pay a whole lot of money out of my pocket. I was on probation for a while.
CONAN: I see, and it just irritated you?
JIMMY: Yeah, it just irritated me. I think what irritated me the most about it was that my rights were violated in the first place, for them to arrest me. I was minding my own business. They asked me for ID in a bar – I was in college. I gave them the same ID I gave the doorman, and then they said they didn't believe it was me. I explained that it was, and if they weren't happy with me being there, I'd be glad to leave. And instead, they grabbed me, drug me down a staircase and searched me.
Then they slammed my head into the side of a police car door.
CONAN: I can understand being a little irritated.
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CONAN: And later, you did time for what?
JIMMY: For drugs again. I had a terrible cocaine problem for a while. And I got away from that, but I wouldn't credit them with any bit of that. I just got in trouble. When I got out of jail from that, I was still getting in trouble, still doing things that could get me in trouble.
I ended up quitting on my own, not because of anything they did.
CONAN: Congratulations on that, Jimmy, and thanks very much for the phone call. And by illustration, David Kennedy, how does Jimmy's experience differ from the idea of a focused deterrence that you're promoting?
KENNEDY: It doesn't. So, if you will, imagine entire American communities, whole neighborhoods and blocks of neighborhoods, where everybody feels the way Jimmy feels. That it is the normal experience of men in those neighborhoods that they are treated that he just told he that he was treated, and they feel exactly the same way about it that he does.
And now it's not just one person. It is the men in the neighborhood. It is their families. It is their friends. It is how the neighborhood feels. They are angry. They feel abused. In many instances, they have been abused. They see the police as neither helping nor caring about them, nor treating them either with respect or legally.
And we should not expect communities to like being treated like that, and they don't talk to us. They don't snitch. You know, everything that people read as a natural condition of the neighborhood is, in a real way, helped along, even caused by the way we are treating them. And if we treat people differently, they respond differently.
One of the initiatives described in "Don't Shoot" is not even aimed at low-level offenders. It is aimed at the most serious gun and gang offenders in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. And it a carefully evaluated fact that sitting down with those guys as they come back into the neighborhood from actually having served prison time, and talking with them, respectfully, for an hour about what the community wants from them, what the community wants for them and having them informed in a businesslike way by law enforcement what their legal vulnerabilities are, led to an almost 40-percent reduction of homicide in that neighborhood, and the people who go through the meetings do dramatically better for years.
This is work we are learning how to do. It is very powerful.
CONAN: I wanted to ask an email question from Cooper(ph) in Toledo to Judge Teske. Two questions for the judge. Where do you actually live? Have you ever had to ask your 12-year-old to get down on the floor when shots were fired in your neighborhood? I make the assumption, in asking this question, that he does not live in a neighborhood where criminal teenagers and young adults affect him and his family directly. It's a purely academic question to him.
I live in a strong, solid, middle-class neighborhood that has been thrown to the wolves by a school system and a city administration that have made us a crossroads for criminal adolescents. We had five shots fired in the middle of trick-or-treating this week by out-of-neighborhood gangs that have been allowed free rein by politicians and judges. I have no more patience for youth crime anymore: Lock them up.
TESKE: Well, that's the frustration I hear from a number of communities. First on point, well, Clayton County, Georgia, is a suburb of Atlanta. It's the poorest county in the metro area. We have the most free lunches, the highest foreclosure rates.
Yeah, I've heard gunshots. I was a parole officer for 10 years - the streets of Atlanta, carried a gun, made many arrests myself, former peace officer. I've been there. I've been thrown through drywall, I've fallen from a ceiling. Look, I understand all that stuff.
Here's the thing, though: I think your community needs to use David's approach. You know, the thing is that we know that punishment alone only increases re-offense rates. It's treatment and a balanced approach that's going to do it.
You take Jimmy, the last caller. He brings up a very good point. The thing is, what Jimmy needed, was help. We need to be looking at alternatives to just mere punishment alone that deals with the underlying causes of why people do what they do. And that's what we'd done in our school system.
I mean, I understand you want to lock them all up, but how can I go back to locking them all up when I have a 70 percent reduction in weapons on campus? I have a decline in juvenile crime in my county. Why would I want to go back to that? Because it works. It's just not working where you are because, for whatever reason, they're not using the right strategies.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Josh(ph), Josh with us from Yukon, Oklahoma.
JOSH: Yes, how are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
JOSH: First, let me just say it's kind of ironic I'm talking to a judge and an ex-parole officer. That was one of my goals, to stay away from that.
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JOSH: I was charged with a possession of a firearm. The charge came from me actually using drugs. And I went to a one-year program that usually takes three years, and I finished it in one year. I did not completely complete the program, but it did teach me a lot of life lessons, and I'll take my comments off the air.
CONAN: Okay, a lot of life lessons, have you stopped using?
JOSH: Yes, sir. I've been clean and sober for the last eight years. I got out in - I went in in '04, and that was the last time I used. And it really did make me realize the goals I had in front of me, as well as realizing even now I'm part of other school programs. One is called DOGS, D-O-G-S, Dads of Great Students, and even though I'm a convicted felon, some of the teachers know, and I've walked in, and there's been school fights right there in the front of the school, and I'll break it up.
And principals will call me in and say hey, I've got a troubled youth. Would you mind coming in and talking to him? And I do, and I let them realize, you know, you're young. You've got your life in front of you.
CONAN: Judge Teske, and Joshua promising not to use our call identification number and forward it to anybody. So don't worry about that. We appreciate the phone call.
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CONAN: But Judge Teske, there's an experience of somebody who went to prison, and it - sometimes it works.
TESKE: Well, yeah, sometimes it does work, and it's really a matter of the personalities as well. You know, I mean, it's like the old adage, you know, you get want you, you know, you put into it. You get out of it what you put into it. And some folks, they realize it, and they get it. But statistically speaking, though, that's not the case. I mean, we have, you know, this country incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. We have the highest re-offense rates, you know, in this country.
You know, here in Georgia, we used to have boot camps for kids. We got rid of them because the re-offense rates were like 75 percent. Incarceration alone isn't going to do it. You can't just anecdotally, you know, measure things. You can't say, well, this worked for this person and say then it works for everybody. And I'm glad it worked for him, but I think it had a lot to do - I think it's to his credit, his personality, who he is and what he put into it and got out of it.
CONAN: You mentioned boot camps. The other approach that a lot of people tried was the scared straight approach. Again, good TV didn't seem to work.
TESKE: No, it didn't work. And I know there's been a recent pitch to bring it back. And I'm really saddened about that because I think it's - I can't remember who's doing that, and so I'm not going to take a chance of throwing some channels out there, you know? But the bottom line is is that it's a disservice to the public - getting - I call it politics of fear. You scare people enough, OK, into believing this whether it's for a vote to get elected or whatever the case may be.
And all we're doing is lying not only to ourselves, we're lying to the public. And we're going down a road, and we're continuing to hurt ourselves and our kids.
CONAN: You talked about politics of fear. Zero tolerance, as you suggest, came up after Columbine. It's a good slogan for somebody running for office. Are you not vulnerable to somebody saying you are coddling criminals?
TESKE: Oh, absolutely. And I get that from time to time. You know, that's one nice thing about being a judge and wearing a robe, I have absolute immunity, and I have to have a thick skin. But be that as it may, the fact of the matter is I do believe in zero tolerance. I mean, I believe we've got to get out of the semantics here, OK? It's like, you know, this word or this word, the problem with zero tolerance the way it's used is that it's zero tolerance with everything. Zero tolerance was intended only for weapons and serious drugs, OK?
What's happened since then is that it is now being used in soft crimes, soft offenses, and as a result, what we're doing - the research shows this. If you take low-level offenses, you treat them like they're hardened criminals, you will make them hardened criminals. We are doing a disservice. We are actually creating criminals with this type of politics.
CONAN: We're talking with Judge Steve Teske of Clayton County Juvenile Court in - near Atlanta, Georgia, also David Kennedy, who's co-chair of the National Network for Safe Communities. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, David Kennedy, the same question to you. For your program to work, you have to have obviously cooperation from the district attorney's office to not prosecute those cases or not pressure the police to prosecute those cases, the district attorneys tend to get elected. They like to have a lot of prosecutions.
KENNEDY: Well, the good ones want to have impact on the ground, and the good ones in a very nuts-and-bolts way would rather do what the judge is saying and focus their energies on serious offenses by serious people. They would rather differentiate. They would rather have priorities. And not all district attorneys like this idea. Some people will say straight out, you know, these people are heartless and incorrigible, and they won't change. And the fact is that they're wrong.
And the record is very, very, very clear that these approaches not only keep people out of prison, which is very important as long as the public safety is served by it, but they are also much more effective at actually changing behavior, which is the point. The point of prison and everything that leads to prison is not to get people in prison. The point is to serve the public's safety. And what the neighborhoods that I am committed to are dealing with is both far too much crime and far too much imprisonment, and they feed on each other, just as the judge has said.
CONAN: Let's get Brianna(ph) on the line. Brianna is with us from East Lansing.
BRIANNA: Hi. I was 16 when my daughter's father went to prison, and I was 15 when I had her. She was 8 months old. And he went to prison. He was in a gang locally, a small gang in Lansing, and probably committed a lot of petty crimes, drug-related crimes. He sold drugs. He finally got caught and charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery and got four to 15 years in prison at 19 years - he was 19 years old. And it, obviously, led to me raising my daughter by myself, but it also set him up for failure because he didn't have an education when he went in. And, of course, he got his GED in prison. But he didn't know how to care of himself from that point on.
He was in and out of the system - has been in and out of the system. My daughter is now 17, no relationship with her dad because she never had a chance. And it's my firm belief that had he been diverted into some kind of program like what you're talking about, you know, he could have gotten a sense of self and what his future could have been like. He could have - he grew up not seeing anything but crime.
And had he understood that people were looking out for him and invested in him, I really believe he could have invested in his community, and he would have been involved in his daughter's life. And it would have changed her life, and probably for generations would have an impact.
CONAN: And that's an illustration - Brianna, thanks very much for the story...
CONAN: ...David Kennedy, of how one arrest can change a family. Many families make up a community. Many communities make up a city.
KENNEDY: That's exactly right. And the ripple effect of mass incarceration is toxic. The ripple effect of stop and frisk is toxic. The ripple effect of locking down neighborhoods in the name of protecting them is toxic. And the people who are doing it are good people. That's not the question. They are doing what they know how to do. They are following the logic that they understand. It's not ill-intentioned. And that part of the tragedy of it is that, you know, the folks who locked up the caller's boyfriend and her daughter's father would say - and they would mean it - that they were tying to protect that community. And they do not mean to cause this damage, and we are learning that we don't have to cause it.
CONAN: David Kennedy, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, author of the book "Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America." Thanks very much for your time.
CONAN: And our thanks as well to Steve Teske, Clayton County Juvenile Court judge. Appreciate your time, Judge. Thank you.
TESKE: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.