Event effectiveness rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Write up by Elizabeth Sherwood, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
Notes from the Policy Field provides write-ups of policy-oriented events in Washington, D.C. and comments on whether the format of the event facilitated policy change or improvement. This segment visits the Urban Institute, a non-profit think tank focused on social and economic policy issues which not interprets data and research and also hosts free public events that explore the intersection of people and policy. Recently, the organization screened the documentary For Ahkeem, a first-hand account of the juvenile justice system, followed by an audience discussion. I decided to go to find out more about the policy issues, listen to personal stories and perspectives, and better understand the public’s reaction to this mixture of policy and art.
Sentenced to Education Exile
It is 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri, and Daje Shelton and her mother catch the bus to court. Daje was expelled from school after she got into a fight, but because of St. Louis schools’ zero-tolerance policy, the district pushes kids who act like Daje out of the education system entirely, rather than lifting them up.
Meanwhile, Jimmie Edwards, the judge overseeing Daje’s case, saw that perpetually removing students from schools caused kids in the juvenile justice system to grow up with no job skills. In response, Edwards started the Innovative Concept Academy (ICA), a last resort school that allows kids like Daje to continue learning skills that will help them succeed in life and stay out of prison.
Daje attends and graduates from ICA, and the film follows her throughout her tumultuous time there. She meets a young man named Antonio and becomes pregnant at the end of her junior year. The pregnancy causes her to confront the harsh reality that many of her friends, typically “black boys,” die as teenagers, and she does not want the same for her son.
In the film, Antonio pleads guilty to a drug possession charge. He currently serves a seven-year prison sentence for possessing 15 grams of marijuana. Antonio did not have advocates helping him navigate the court system, therefore he will miss spending time with his family and the cycle of incarceration may continue for his children.
For Ahkeem compelled me to reflect on the juvenile justice system’s solution to troubled adolescents. It punishes kids by restricting their access to education, which could be most beneficial to help them break out of the prison cycle. While watching the film, I nearly forgot that Daje, Antonio, and their classmates were all teenagers. When I was 16, I was given leeway to advance in maturity. The teens at ICA were not given the same space to develop.
Discussing the Failings of the Juvenile Justice System
For the discussion portion of the event, the small auditorium was filled with a diverse crowd of about 70 people. At the end of the film, three panelists moderated and facilitated commentary and discussion among the attendees. The audience raised topics ranging from the increased risk of criminal activity for students who have experienced trauma to the ethics of denying jobs to kids who have been convicted of crimes.
The final and most powerful story came from a white woman who wanted to reiterate a theme brought up throughout the evening—that black people are not at fault for the issues in the justice system. The woman disclosed that her life had been full of poor choices and crime, but the difference was that she received second chances and strong mentors. She was once pulled over by a police officer who found about the same amount of marijuana that Antonio was caught with, but instead of sentencing her to seven years in prison, the officer gave her his business card and told her to show it to anyone else that might try to pull her over. Similarly, her brother once egged a police car and instead of punishing him, the officers gave him a ride home. She concluded with a statement that garnered vocal agreement from the crowd, “If white people were policed the same way black people are policed, there would be a whole lot more people in jail.”
This timely discussion allowed the audience to unpack one of the pressing issues of our time. Racism and inequality in criminal justice are often dismissed as exaggerated ideas emerging from isolated incidents of injustice toward people of color. This woman’s story gives a face to the other side and gives evidence to unequal punishment for certain crimes.
You can stream For Ahkeem for free on the PBS website. The documentary is well produced and worth watching. There are also plenty of resources on the documentary’s website to help define the issues and find ways to join the conversation through open dialogue.