James is dancing along a cliff. Prison or a drawer in the county morgue is one slip away.
He is black and restless and, at 15, surprisingly without hope. He hasn’t shaved yet, but his life spirals out of control. He’s dropped out of school, dropped out of his single mother’s control.
Today, James takes up residence on a concrete bunk in the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center. The charge is assault with a deadly weapon.
“No biggie,” he says.
One more crime and the juvenile justice system will give up on this gang-connected kid. Probation officers already label him “hard core.” Translation: prison-bound.
James is part of an explosion of minority youths behind bars in Washington and across the country.
Nowhere is the trend more evident than in Spokane, where non-white juvenile offenders account for 45 percent of those under lock and key, officials say.
Five years ago, it was closer to 9 percent, roughly in line with the minority percentage of the county population.
While the juvenile system’s racial imbalance has spawned blue-ribbon studies, there have been few concrete steps to address the problem - until now.
Inspirational mentoring programs for minority kids who break the law have sprouted in Spokane, offering hope and a helping hand.
African-American men are stepping forward to fill the void of black role models. By showing they care, the volunteers open young minds to possibilities other than gangs.
A Native American group is sending young offenders to weekend retreats on reservations and other peaceful places. There, they live in tepees, beat drums and dance - rekindling ancient traditions.
Forming a thin line of defense, the programs bring teenage boys face to face with men of the same color and culture, most of whom have overcome poverty and racism.
Minority mentors are needed in every community, says Albert Black, a University of Washington sociology professor active in gang-busting efforts on the West Side.
“You’ve got a situation where African-American kids are assaulting and killing African-American kids. When kids are harming and slinging drugs to kids in their own communities, it becomes a matter of selfinterest,” he said. “We must start teaching these kids to love themselves and their kind.”
Spokane County’s 60-bed detention center now regularly holds more than 20 black youths, most accused of gang-related crimes - drug deals, robberies, drive-by shootings, bloody fights.
“It’s been a phenomenal increase,” says Tom Davis, juvenile court director.
But 14 of those juvenile offenders now are working with 10 mentors.
One teenager, a former drug dealer, has enrolled at Spokane Falls Community College - the biggest success to date.
“Our goal is to turn one kid around every so often,” says the Rev. Ezra Kinlow, a volunteer. “We don’t know what our success rate will be, but if we don’t put in an effort, we’ll never know.”
The Men’s African American Community Association, to which Kinlow belongs, was spurred into action by news of soaring numbers of black men being imprisoned nationwide, much of that due to tough antidrug laws.
“It’s a dire situation. In a few years, the black male is going to be an endangered species,” warns Kinlow.
While their hearts are in the right place, the volunteers quickly discovered they had trouble communicating with street-hardened teenagers like James.
The generation gap was so wide, the group sent itself to school - consulting with the UW’s Black to learn how to deal more effectively with today’s teens.
“They’re not going to become angels overnight,” says Mel Carter, a businessman and community leader who works with three youths.
“But most of these young men just want someone to care about them. Once they find that you do honestly care, they begin to open up,” he says.
“These kids are begging for help. They aren’t as cold-hearted as people think. They just feel society has given up on them.”
Count Anthony, who just turned 18, among them.
He doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and go to prison. He says this from his stark, concreteand-cinderblock cell inside the detention center, where he is serving time for car theft. (Like all of the youths in this story, he asked not to be identified).
But Anthony, who comes from a poor family and is out of work, knows he needs help resisting local gangs. He’s asking for a mentor.
“I need someone to talk to,” he says. “Someone who’s been through what I’ve been through.”
Other than parents, the people who make the biggest difference with young offenders aren’t judges, probation officers or police.
“It’s the informal network - somebody special who comes into a kid’s life,” says Davis.
It helps when that person is the same color. Minority youths often refuse to open up to white probation officers and counselors.
“They tend to use the minority issue to keep probation people away,” says Rand Young, detention center manager.
Juvenile court officials looked to Carter for help, offering $15,000 in state money as an incentive.
The program began a few months ago. Volunteers start by meeting the youth and his parents, reaching agreement on a mentoring “contract.”
The volunteers are a blend of small-business men, blue-collar workers, college students, clergy, retired military.
Much more than Big Brothers, they venture behind bars to talk with the boys, show up with parents at court appearances. They take needy families to Costco or Burlington Coat Factory for food, clothing and other necessities. They come up with money for college tuition, help find jobs, take boys to ballgames and museums.
Some view the program as a throwback to a more peaceful time, when neighbors got involved with troubled youths, becoming a sort of extended family. Today, neighbors call police because they are fearful of retribution.
“We’re not there to replace the parent, but we’ll do anything we can to build a safety net and help the family succeed,” Carter says.
Over time, mentors peel away the kids’ tough exteriors, building trust. That’s when untapped emotions often flow.
One teenager recently confessed to being crushed when his father never bothered to show up for his high school football games.
Another tearfully asked: “Would you please try to find my dad?”
Each time Arlan goes back to “The Res,” the weirdness continues.
His teenage friends on the Colville Indian Reservation keep pounding down the booze. So do most of his adult relatives.
Just a year ago, 18-year-old Arlan was with them - a drunken car thief.
Today, he’s a rare success story, targeted for college and touted as a potential tribal leader.
“He’s a really, really smart kid, one with leadership potential,” says Toni Lodge, who heads The NATIVE Project, based in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.
Arlan hears this and shakes his head. He knows he’s barely making it. Working a graveyard shift in a Spokane Valley factory for $5.50 an hour, he lives at home with an alcoholic mother and brother. Arlan is in alcohol treatment, trying to break free of generations of hard drinking.
He has twice gone to “leadership camps” where Indian traditions are taught and the hard knocks of the streets are forgotten, for a few days.
There, Arlan listened to his elders and vowed to change his life.
“They’ve gone through what I’m going through, and it kind of inspired me,” he says. “If they can do it, then I can, too.”
Since July 1993, Indian boys who get arrested have been sent to The NATIVE Project’s juvenile offender program, which offers 12 weeks of anger-management classes and, if needed, substance-abuse treatment. Fifty youths went through the program last year.
Counselors say restoring lost Indian pride is essential to healing. Six leadership camps are held each year, including one reserved for young criminals.
“These kids are starved,” Lodge says. “They have a hunger” to return to their roots and receive positive reinforcement.
“We were bombarded with it at camp,” says Arlan with a smile. “It gets you to the point where you don’t want to leave.”
Clint Brantley runs a one-man shipping business that keeps him running from dawn to dusk, weekends included.
But like all of the African-American mentors working with Spokane’s troubled youths, Brantley somehow finds the time.
“If nobody cares, then there’s nobody for them to turn to,” he says. “I want to tell these kids that it is still possible to make it. Life’s a struggle, but it’s not hopeless.”
Brantley, 57, grew up in the projects of Richmond, Calif., where his father worked in the shipyards before abandoning the family.
Most volunteers tell similar stories of adversity and perseverance.
They also emphasize education as a survival tool. Young men who thought higher education was out of reach are taken on tours of area colleges, where they talk to black students.
“Most of them have never been on a college campus before. You should see how their eyes brighten up,” says Carter.