JDAI Helped Preserve the Massachusetts Experiment Through the ’90s

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Judge Steven Teske(Part 6)

A traveler approaching a village came upon an elderly man sitting at the base of a tree. The traveler asked, “Old man, can you tell me what kind of people live in this village?”

The old man replied with a question, “What kind of people have you encountered in your travels, sir?”

Confused by the question, the traveler said with a frustrated tone, “Listen old man, I have traveled many places far and near and I have encountered people who cheat, steal, lie and kill.”

The old man said, “Well, sir, that is who you will find in my village.”

Kicking the dirt beneath him, the traveler angrily said, “I will not visit your village.”

Later that day, another traveler approached and stopped to ask the old man the same question about the kind of people in his village, and the old man again asked, “What kind of people have you encountered in your travels?”

The traveler smiled and said, “I have encountered kind, caring, giving, loving and delightful people.”

The old man said, “Well, sir, that is who you will find in my village.”

And so the traveler answered, “I am looking forward to visiting your village.”

This West African folk tale reminds me of a British statesman named John Lubbock who stated that “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”

If we see delinquent kids as bad kids, we will treat them like bad kids, and punish their behavior.

If we see delinquent kids as good kids with bad behaviors, we will see the behavior as a symptom, and treat its cause.

I referenced Jerome Miller in my previous two articles describing trends in juvenile justice, and I will do so one more time before I move on — because his decision to close all youth facilities can never be overstated as the single most decisive act that set the stage for contemporary trends in juvenile justice.

The Massachusetts Experiment is the springboard from which reformers today find their resolve to dismantle what remains of the “Get Tough” legislation of the ’90s, or to battle the ignorant who cry for tougher penalties for kids. The ’90s taught us that Miller’s deinstitutionalization experiment transcends all else, even when eclipsed momentarily by short-term upticks in juvenile crime or shifts in political sentiments.

Miller did what he did because he saw delinquent kids with strengths who also happened to have deficits. He saw kids in pain and in need of help, not in need of more hurt.

Because Miller did what he did, today’s reformers have evidence that anchors the “what works” ship, waiting to inspire reformers to battle efforts to overincarcerate kids.

But I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) for reviving Miller’s deincarceration approach by keeping it on life support during the ’90s.

Consider that in the face of the “superpredator” scare of the ’90s, and politicians bringing down the hammer on kids, it was the Annie E. Casey Foundation that initiated an effort to combat the overincarceration of kids by introducing a model for detention reform.

Introduced in the early ’90s as JDAI in a handful of sites, today it is implemented in approximately 300 counties nationwide, and in 39 states. By 2014, these sites reduced their reliance on detention by 43 percent while simultaneously improving public safety, results that mirror the outcomes of the Massachusetts Experiment.

At a recent conference of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in New York City, Mark Soler, the executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, described JDAI during a plenary keynote as “... the largest and longest detention reform effort in the country.”

What began as an initiative is now a model grounded in eight core strategies that include collaboration, use of data, objective admission instruments, alternatives detention programming, expedited case processing, special detention cases, conditions of confinement, and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

The JDAI model revived the Massachusetts Experiment in two very significant ways: 1) It was the voice of reason among the insanity of the harsh ’90s that kept it breathing, albeit barely, so revival could occur; and 2) When the insanity subsided after the realization set in that the “superpredator” prediction was a myth, JDAI had already established itself as the leader in detention reform with a model that took us full circle back to the Massachusetts Experiment.

I point to a convening by JDAI of more than 100 of the nation’s leading experts in juvenile justice in 2011 to recall the Massachusetts Experiment and consider its application in today’s trend of deincarceration.

The JDAI folks seized the opportunity to use this symposium to create a deep-end model for the deinstitutionalization of youth to survive future upticks in crime and the shift of political sentiments toward the hammer.

Why? Because upticks in crime never last as we saw in the ’90s, and that means the winds of political thought never blow in the same direction all the time.

The legislation of the ’90s taught us a very valuable lesson about policymaking: Never formulate policy to respond to upticks in crime that is contrary to what the evidence says will work.

Bad facts make bad law, so it follows that predictions of a “superpredator” scare that never materialized makes for bad laws.

And we are still reeling from those bad laws.

No matter the future, we would do well to take a lesson from the elderly man sitting at the base of the tree: Make policy decisions in a light most favorable to our children.

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.

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