Among all of the terrific presentations, posters and discussions that I had the pleasure to attend in Chicago on March 21 and 22, I just can’t stop thinking about my experiences of Friday morning. Two individuals had a tremendous influence on me that morning. My day started by listening to the presiding judge of Cook County’s criminal court, Judge Paul Biebel. Clearly a dedicated public servant, he gave an incredible speech about efforts to divert arrestees from criminal convictions via special courts designed to ensure mental health and substance abuse treatment in lieu of incarceration. The statistics he cited on Cook County were staggering: one hundred thousand gang members; five hundred murders by gunshot; and one billion in drug profits annually. Following this presentation was the plenary by Dr. Linda Teplin on the Northwestern Juvenile Project, a longitudinal descriptive cohort study tracking juvenile detainees over twelve years. The data was sobering but one slide was shocking. Columns of small text that were unreadable represented the names of 110 of the 1829 young adults, who had died, with most of these due to violent death over the course of the study and beyond. In 2005, Dr. Teplin published her data after 8 years, noting that the mortality rate for African American young men was eight times that of the general population.
You may be presuming that Judge Biebel and Dr. Teplin were the two people who influenced my thinking but that would be incorrect; they were Precious Bedell and Stephanie Collins. Precious Bedell is a Master’s trained community health worker from Rochester, NY who presented on her work in a transition clinic and a drug court in the Rochester area. Following Dr. Teplin’s presentation, she commented on her own visceral reaction to walking into a cell block full of black young people and on the traumatic impact of incarceration, reinforcing generations of oppression and the history of slavery which haunts African Americans in the United States. Stephanie Collins, my colleague at UMass also gave me pause to think when I asked her if she had listened to Dr. Teplin. Affirming that she had heard most of the talk, she noted that the information was nothing new: young black people locked up and dying and no research dollars to study the problem because the statistics describe the wrong population. Until hearing their comments, I will admit that the human impact of the data did not truly sink in.
Stephanie and Precious provided me a window into the reactions of people whose communities are affected by these outcomes. Both are African American while a large majority of the conference participants including myself are White. While moved by the inequities and tragedy described in so many conference presentations, most of us are able to return to our homes, without the fear that our children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces are disproportionately at risk to be oppressed, victimized, arrested or murdered while detached policymakers set funding priorities and research policies that turn a blind eye to a deadly epidemic. I pray that I will continue to be haunted and that it will motivate me to lead this consortium to determined action to generate new knowledge and strategies to reduce disparate outcomes experienced by our society’s most vulnerable population.