In 1997, as the youngest chief of police to be elected to the city of Westwego, La.’s municipal office, I was confident in my ability to serve and protect. My previous law enforcement training and experience taught me the value of holding citizens accountable for law violations — including adolescents. Community safety was of paramount concern and the reason I was elected.
Officers in my department were expected to swiftly and decisively handle citizens that presented public safety risks. Taking offenders off the streets was a primary method for creating peace and order. It seemed to be an effective method, at least until the offender was released from custody and returned to the streets. This was particularly evident with a relatively small group of repeat offenders who required a significant amount of law enforcement resources.
I often found myself trying to determine how these repeat offenders were released when their histories showed so much risk for community safety. I wanted to know my officers’ work was making a difference in the war on crime, but the community was not getting safer. At the time, I felt the juvenile court system was not holding youth accountable and that hindered my ability to protect my city.
For the past 12 years, I have served as the director of the Jefferson Parish (La.) Department of Juvenile Services (DJS), which includes probation, detention and treatment for juvenile offenders. I have remained focused on public safety, but expanded my knowledge about how to best achieve this goal.
It is commonly recognized that detaining youths does not reduce recidivism — just the opposite is frequently true.
So, how can we identify the most effective ways of reducing recidivism if the best option for law enforcement is jail? We need to look at the data.
In Jefferson Parish, data indicated that many of the repeat offenders did not receive services after arrest. Even placement on probation was not sufficient due to a lack of effective services to target criminogenic risk factors. Further, our lack of outcome data for probation interventions left open the question of whether our programming was doing more harm than good or if there was any impact at all.
As part of the Models for Change initiative, Jefferson Parish DJS underwent a Probation System Review* conducted by Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps. A critical benefit of this review was identifying proven practices that were empirically linked to improved client outcomes, including those related to public safety. The integration of therapeutic programming into the correctional approach was essential for building a process that recognizes and encourages positive youth outcomes rather than simplistically meeting conditions of probation. Evidence-based practices were recognized as more effective, and less costly, than time in detention.
I learned to scrutinize programs for their effectiveness rather than their popularity. Programs that are inexpensive and popular are not necessarily effective and may do more harm than good.
Boot camp programs, scared straight programs and wilderness programs have not shown any significant positive impact on youth outcomes and some have shown adverse effects. On the other hand, therapeutic programs that target identified behaviors have shown effectiveness in reducing recidivism, improving family relations and decreasing aggression.
These are the same problems I struggled with as a law enforcement officer. Use of valid and reliable screening and assessment tools are necessary mechanisms to identify targets for behavioral change. And program integrity and sustainability are needed to assure the money invested in getting the programs lasts.
Through all these initiatives, I learned that to serve and protect goes far beyond arrest and custody and that community safety is still my primary goal.
Now, I see how my department goals align with positive youth outcomes. Staff activities should focus on enhancing youth and family outcomes by using a balanced combination of rewards and sanctions; therapy and supervision; and accountability and flexibility. Lastly, in order for me to know how my department impacts the community, outcomes need to be measured, monitored and used to improve things that are not working and expand those things that do work to achieve maximum benefit to the public.
As I think about it, my mission “To serve and protect” has been the same all along. I used to think that arrest and custody were the best ways to achieve this mission. But, through my work with the Probation System Review, I have a greater understanding of how to implement proven strategies that make communities safer.
* “Probation Review Implementation: How Best Practices Meet Everyday Practices,” by Dr. John S. Ryals Jr. (RFK Children’s Actions Corps, 2013), reports on the implementation of recommendations developed during the probation review process in Jefferson Parish and serves as a companion guide to the “Probation Review Guidebook,” by Janet K. Wiig and John A. Tuell (RFK Children’s Action Corps, 2011). Both publications are available online at: http://www.rfknrcjj.org/resources/
Roy L. Juncker Jr. is the director of the Jefferson Parish Department of Juvenile Services and a member of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center’s Probation System Review Practice Network. Juncker also serves as a board member and vice chairman of the Jefferson Parish Children and Youth Planning Board, board member of the Truancy Assessment Center Advisory Board, site leader for Jefferson Parish’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and fundamentals trainer for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. In 2008 and 2012, Juncker was appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal to serve on the Louisiana State Advisory Board of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.