OP-ED: Book Clubs Are Next Logical Step

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New Timberlake colorLet’s start a book club!  OK, I’m not Oprah but let me explain what book clubs have to do with juvenile justice reform.

In just the last 15 years, the field of juvenile justice has exploded with knowledge gained through scientific research and the increased availability of data. Making that information more widely known can speed the pace of juvenile justice reform.

I would like to see community leaders gather monthly for conversation about research papers or chapters from books on the latest in developments in juvenile justice. Assigned reading, a regular meeting time and an exchange of views would better inform the community about prosecuting, defending and rehabilitating our youth.

You don’t have to form “book clubs” to make that happen, but the club meetings do have the added benefit of being a good excuse to dish out some dessert with the discussions.

When it comes to great works of literature, Chicago and other cities now enlist thousands of readers in the enjoyment of the same book at the same time. The cities arrange public forums, and other groups are free to discuss the book of the month in private. The same can be done, on a smaller scale, with juvenile justice writings.

These conversations would benefit the people who work in the system every day and open a line of communication between the insiders and those who are impacted by the system but never experience it firsthand.

The need for this kind of educational dialogue has become more evident to me as I travel Illinois to encourage more counties to participate in Redeploy Illinois. This state program provides money to counties to pay for locally delivered rehabilitation services in exchange for agreeing to send fewer kids to prison. Redeploy Illinois has grown from a handful of pilot sites to a total of 44 counties, but there are 58 more counties not yet participating.

Programs like Redeploy Illinois and the introduction of restorative justice principles in schools are most successful when the community understands how they work and why they are improvements. That’s where a roundtable discussion and review of juvenile justice literature is beneficial. The process of identifying a community’s needs is best accomplished by assembling an informed coalition to examine local data, resources and needs. Whether it's a book club or a county “juvenile justice council,” reform can be advanced through a coalition of well-informed stakeholders and community leaders.

To shift culture and practice of many people and organizations at the same time is a huge undertaking. That readiness is always preceded by a period of learning and debate. Those of us in the business of juvenile justice reform can’t expect people unfamiliar with the system to buy into the change without proof. But when a community is ready to change, reform can come fast.

That’s how a juvenile justice book club would be valuable. If I were to select the first book, it would be the National Academy of Sciences' “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach” and its accompanying implementation guide. Tackling one chapter a month is doable for a book club or juvenile justice council, and the chats about those chapters might even keep the local juvenile justice systems “on the same page.”

If you accept this challenge, I predict you’ll soon be debating which book to tackle next and which reforms to introduce to your community. All you’ll need is someone to bring the coffeecake.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission since January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his 2006 retirement as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.

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