It can be an anxious moment when a judicial colleague retires, moves on or is transferred to another division, taking with them their support of best practices. It creates a vacuum accompanied by fear of who is going to fill this space and with what: an appreciation for the unglamorous look of best practices or the alluring sound of the appealing “get tough” rhetoric?
Even if the judge leaving was a naysayer toward best practices, it’s best not to celebrate too soon. As they say, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
The thing about life that never changes is that change is constant. It’s best for those of us invested in best practices to ready ourselves with another constant — life is unfair.
It’s been said that “If you’re in a bad situation, don’t worry it’ll change. If you’re in a good situation, don’t worry it’ll change.”
Accepting that change and unfairness are constants in life is what prepares us for the inevitable heartaches in building a best-practice juvenile justice system. The other half of the equation is how we respond to these heartaches when they do happen: Will we panic and trigger the symptoms of PTSD or stay calm and use the evidence of best practices like an antibiotic attacking intruding bacteria without destroying its host?
We must guard against what I call “runaway mind” syndrome — when we let our amygdala checkmate the frontal cortex and our mind is like a train without an engineer to slow it down. Our panic triggers the worst-case scenarios about a situation, like the new judge in town. We make it worse, assuming the newbie is a devil in a robe. Maybe he or she is the devil or maybe a sheep in wolves’ clothing — clothing our runaway mind has imagined. When this occurs, we have unwittingly created potential for disaster.
I have had to work hard at checking my amygdala at the door when confronting the unknown brought by change, whether it’s a new judge or the reactions of staff when change is introduced. I contemplate pre-emptive measures to prevent the amygdala’s alarms that cause the mind to run over the cliff and down the slippery slope.
My advice to best-practice folks is to change the culture of the community and not limit change to the juvenile justice system as we know it in the traditional sense — the court and its bureaucratic probation counterparts. Judges and agency directors come and go, and with them so does policy.
Our system of governance lends itself to what I describe as a “schizo-systemic” process of decision-making. It’s a process grounded in personality and not in culture, but the rub is making sure the culture is one of best practice before working to make it stick forever.
Despite my reputation as a reformer or, as my governor once described me, a “revolutionary jurist,” the goal of policymaking is to bring about change that is sustainable. That can’t occur if the change is solely associated with personality.
No matter how many orders I enter to make this or that happen to set off changes toward best practices, those same orders can be vacated upon my retirement, and with a new personality comes new orders — for better or for worse.
It can’t be about me, my name or my position, or the best practices of today may become the hurtful practices of tomorrow.
Despite all the years of blood, sweat and tears to reform a system, it will make little to no difference to our kids of the future if today we don’t incorporate systemic changes that lead to cultural changes that will last beyond the orders and policies of a personality.
These changes are grounded in creating a collaborative system to make decisions and includes the entire juvenile justice body, which needs to understand and accept the evidence of best practices. This “entire body” must be unorthodox in its membership — not limited to the traditional bureaucratic stakeholders.
There are three rules of law governing sustainable system change. It begins with accepting that a juvenile justice system in its truest sense is a multi-integrated system consisting of all stakeholders that can influence change in the behavior of kids. This means social services, mental health, education, law enforcement, prosecutors, defenders and so on — and not limited to the courts and probation agencies.
The second rule states that system membership is not limited to public stakeholders, but includes private stakeholders such as foundations and businesses. They too have an interest in how we effect change in kids because one day they become adults. They are the potential workforce of tomorrow and they’re the key to economic mobility. How we treat our kids will determine the interest of businesses in our workforce.
Finally, the corporate body of private and public stakeholders should be housed in an independent backbone agency with nonprofit status driven by a mission statement of best practices and bylaws governing the execution of that statement.
This last rule is the buffer against government control that seldom results in solving larger social problems. It integrates the best of public and private stakeholders toward a common agenda — keeping kids in school, out of the courts and onto a positive healthy future.
This collective system of stakeholders braiding private and public stakeholders and funding raises the agenda from a personality-based agenda to a common agenda.
When it’s my time to go, it should be our collective culture that sustains best practices.
No one should be bigger than the culture of best practices!
Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.