It's a familiar day for Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell. In the early morning hours of a sunny weekday, the county's leading Republican is the only Caucasian in a church meeting with an African-American congregation.
Across racial and political divides, which so regularly choke off real discussion here, everyone is in complete agreement.
The sheriff speaks with passion, calling for crime-fighting in Memphis to be more than the familiar "lock them up" strategies that parade 60,000 people through Shelby County Jail each year. He's talking about the "other two legs of the stool" for fighting crime — prevention and intervention — and calls the "third leg of the stool," suppression, the easiest to do.
Many in the audience appear surprised to hear someone from the Republican side of the political scene delivering a message that often gets short shrift even from Democrats. To Luttrell, it's more about acting humanely than politically, and he's pledging the resources of his office to any program that brings the best and brightest together to attack the root causes of crime.
"I know what to do if I find a truant, but we don't know what we can do as a community to prevent a student from becoming a truant," he said. "I don't have the answers but I'm willing to facilitate a process with the new city mayor to get the best minds to attack these huge issues, and we need the corporate community to rally around it."
His special concern lies with 575 people in Shelby County Jail — the 500 with mental-health issues and the 75 who are juveniles.
The size of both groups is growing because as usual, the buck stops with local government. As state government slashes budgets, reducing space in juvenile facilities and reducing beds in mental institutions, the cost falls to taxpayers in Shelby County because more people end up in jail. "It just isn't right to have the mentally ill in jail," he said. "If the state was upholding its end of the bargain, we wouldn't have this problem."
Defendants with mental-health issues are being held primarily for non-aggravated charges. They're there because they can't navigate the justice system, they can't make bail, and despite the best efforts of the Jericho Project — a stellar intervention program directed by public defender Steven Bush created for this purpose.
Meanwhile, juvenile court referees' hands are tied. Their options: probation or Shelby County Jail. Because of the lack of space in juvenile facilities, the referees are often left with two bad options, putting youths into an adult jail or sending them home. There's little surprise that the jail is home to a 13-year-old and a few weeks ago added two 14-year-olds.
Although the overall population of the jail is up only 4 percent over last year, the number of juveniles remanded from Juvenile Court is up 51 percent. Meanwhile, Memphis has one of the highest rates of 16- to 18-year-olds who are neither in school or working — about 5,000 of them essentially living on the streets.
"There's a tendency today to look for panaceas," Luttrell said. "Until we tackle the 'real' issues like teenage pregnancies and school dropout rates, we have a big problem and the culture of violence grows."
No one has a better seat than the sheriff to watch the consequences of the city's failure to focus on causes and not just effects. Most of the 2,700 people in Shelby County Jail are 18- to 26-year-old African-American men, products of dysfunctional homes and with fifth-grade comprehension, low IQs, and multiple juvenile offenses. "They result from years and years of conditioning and from adults failing to raise their children with care, with discipline, and a system of values," he said.
It's hard to listen to Luttrell and also not hear the voice of Dr. Hank Herrod of the Urban Child Institute. He can convince any skeptic about the neurological roots of the problems — the lack of nurturing, nutrition, and experiences that lead to healthy brain development. At birth, the brain has 100 billion nerve cells and each cell has up to 10,000 synapses. They are pruned away if not used.
He said: "It's use it or lose it. Skills beget skills. It's way too hard to fix it later on."
It's a simple premise: pay now or pay later. At Shelby County Jail, the annual cost to lock someone up is $32,850, a price made even more onerous when it only costs about $4,500 to make sure an at-risk child is hard-wired for life.