Melvin Carter Jr. On Save Our Sons, Juvenile Detention Alternatives, and Being a “Peace Officer”

melvincarterjrIn 1974, Melvin Carter Jr.’s family was hit with a double homicide. He recalls constantly replaying in his head the phone call that informed him of the horrific event. Channeling his anger and frustration into preventing other people from getting that phone call, he decided to become a police officer. Later, Carter, now a retired police sergeant, founded the organization Save Our Sons (SOS), which mentors and supports at-risk African American youth. He was also very involved in getting Ramsey County to implement the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in 2006.

Carter started SOS after reading a 1991 article that said that one in 14 black males would go to prison during their lifetime. Since then, Carter has watched the situation get worse. He says that the rate in Minnesota is currently one in three. Nationally, one in three black males born today will spend time in prison as well.

Carter blames this trend on the disproportionate over-policing and over-sentencing of black males. Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) is a term used to describe the how the criminal justice system shows bias against minorities during the points of arrest, charging, conviction, and sentencing. In the Huffington Post, law professor Bill Quigley lists 14 examples of racial bias in the criminal justice system. For example, while black and white people use and sell drugs at similar rates, 56% of people in state prisons for drug offenses are African American, though African Americans make up only 13% of the national population. In addition, statistics show that black males get harsher sentences than white males for the same crime.

Carter also blames the poverty of black communities and the drugs brought into the communities on external sources. Carter says, “We didn’t have the planes or the ocean liners to bring in drugs. They came in without the consent or knowledge of black elders.”

Save Our Sons

The first model SOS used was based on the African tradition that men bring boys into manhood. In certain African communities, men would take boys away from the tribe and mentor them. In the same vein, SOS has taken boys to different parts of the country to go camping and find themselves in the woods. Carter’s experience has shown him that many of the boys act tough in the city, but are uncomfortable in an environment they are not used to.

Carter believes that the American education system is not doing enough to help black youth. SOS teaches young men about African history, which is often neglected in American schools. Carter says, “The kids I work with don’t know anything about themselves. The minute these guys understand that they come from something greater, then it’s on.” He recounts the first time he tried booyah, a stew of European origin. While the people he was eating with had grown up eating it and enjoyed it, he thought it tasted very unpleasant. “We have a booyah curriculum in America,” Carter says, referring to the flaws in the one size fits all nature of the American education system that may be as foreign as booyah to poor urban black youth.

SOS stresses duty and responsibility. Its teaching slogan is “boys are born male but not men.” Carter explains, “When you become a man there’s issues of duty and responsibility that exist and if you ignore them, you’re just a male. When you make a baby, you need to take care of it. When you incur a debt, you have to pay it. When you make a wrong, you have to right it.”

SOS also teaches the seven principles of Kwanzaa, which are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The principle emphasized the most is self-determination. Carter believes that it’s important to think for yourself and not just blindly follow “the script the world gives you.”

There are many different programs that work with SOS, such as Dalton Outlaw’s Element boxing gym; ARTS-Us, which provides youth programs emphasizing African Diaspora arts and culture; Anika Ward’s The Gathering, which is a big dinner that takes place every Friday at the Dunning Rec Center; and Russel Balenger’s Circle of Peace, a group of concerned community members that discusses how to prevent youth violence. Carter describes SOS as a continuum. He says, “The youth’s needs outweigh the ability of any one program.”

One of SOS’s many success stories is David Martin, who received two law degrees and became a member of the board of SOS after spending five years in prison. You can read more about David Martin and Save Our Sons in an article from the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropy that aims to improve the lives of at-risk youth, advised SOS and presented Carter with an award for his work. In the early 1990s, Annie E. Casey started a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which has been used by Ramsey County since 2006. Although Carter was a leader in the movement to implement JDAI in the county, SOS is not a JDAI resource. This is because Toni Carter, Carter’s wife, is a Ramsey County Commissioner, creating a potential conflict of interest.

The goal of JDAI is to reduce the use of secure detention, which is when youth are placed in a juvenile detention facility while they await a court hearing after being arrested. From the pre-JDAI levels of 2005 to 2012, the average daily juvenile population in detention in Ramsey County fell by 68%.

JDAI provides community-based alternatives to secure detention for youth who are not a threat to public safety. The Ramsey County JDAI website says the main benefits of JDAI are that it keeps communities safe by preventing low-risk youth from experiencing detention culture and allows youth to stay in school and find positive community role models.

Carter calls the Juvenile Detention Center the “factory for gangsters.” He recalls that in 2005, Ramsey County’s Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) had an authorized capacity of 86 beds. He says, “You’d have as many as 120 kids, it smelled terrible, and they had fights in there. People were working overtime. Now, I go every Tuesday to JDC and there’s around 17 or 18 total kids.” Carter explains that prior to JDAI, Ramsey County was locking youth up for relatively insignificant crimes such as truancy, breaking curfew, and possessing marijuana. He says that secure detention resulted in them becoming “better criminals” and that JDAI reduced the amount of repeat offenders.

Data backs up this assertion; in 2013, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that, on average, JDAI programs have reduced juvenile arrests, felony petitions, and delinquency petitions by 40% or more. JDAI also reduced the number of juveniles who failed to appear for court by 44% and the number rearrested prior to adjudication by 12%.

Another benefit of JDAI is that it saves a lot of taxpayer money. Carter says that Ramsey County used to pay roughly $330 daily for every kid in secure detention. According to the Ramsey County JDAI website, secure detention generally costs three times as much as community-based alternatives:

“Model sites such as Cook County, IL (Chicago) and Multnomah County, OR (Portland) have saved $24 million by eliminating the need for a new detention facility and more than $2.6 million per year because of the closing of a 16-bed detention facility, respectively. Both sites have developed community-based alternatives to detention for youth who do not require secure detention.”

According to the Pioneer Press, three of Ramsey County’s eight JDC cellblocks have been shut down, saving the county $750,000. Overall, the spending of the county’s juvenile corrections divisions decreased from $20.4 million in 2006 to $19.3 million in 2011.

Approach to Police Work

Carter calls himself a “peace officer.” He says that becoming an officer was a calling comparable to how a priest goes into priesthood. He prefers the term “police work” to “law enforcement,” saying, “Law enforcement is a bastardization of police work. The word ‘enforcement’ implies suppression.”

Carter believes that it is important to remember that America’s police forces are based on the British Bobbies, London’s Metropolitan Police Service founded by Sir Robert Peel. Peel is associated with nine principles of policing, one of which states that “the police are the public and the public are the police.” In Carter’s view, it’s very important that the police work together with the community.

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