OP-ED: Time to Talk to the New Politicians and Save Some Lives

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New Timberlake colorWhat do state politics have to do with juvenile justice? Just about everything.

Few political campaigns mention kids in conflict with the law, and those campaigns that make those kids an issue do it in the most negative, sensationalist terms. But the governments selected by those contests create the laws, funding and organizational structures that define the justice systems in our states and nation.

Midterm elections in a president’s last term often bring significant change, and last month’s contests were no exception. Eleven new governors were elected. The final tally for all gubernatorial seats is 31 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one Independent. Dozens of new state senators and representatives will serve, and Republican governors in 23 states will enjoy Republican control of their legislatures. Seven of the Democratic chief executives will have Democrat-controlled capitols.

Do these results bode well for system reform? If you review the scarce statements of real policy in speeches and advertising, you might become depressed. The rebound for government deficit spending after economic recovery is often a time of political and philosophical posturing around how revenue should be raised and spent. Most candidates promise lower taxes and deficits as well as a reordering of spending and an increase in budgets for new priorities.

Many candidates ran on an anti-Obamacare platform even though most national figures have changed their messages to admit that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay. Many argue that changes are necessary, and we can expect that the law will mature.

That realization is important to juvenile justice reform advocates because the services necessary to address mental health, trauma, substance abuse and other contributors to negative adolescent behaviors must be funded by some source. The Health Care Authority is the greatest opportunity for new dollars to states.

Advocates must pay attention to individual state Medicaid programs, waivers and services and communicate the need to provide for justice system-involved youth. Public safety and public health are intertwined, and we need to help governors and legislators recognize the connection between public health services to kids and the decrease in crime committed by kids.

In any state government, we can assume that funding change will occur. Reformulation of national, state and local budgets may create some anxiety for would-be budget cutters who recognize that more dollars are needed to capitalize on the research that has led to reduced crime and redirected lives. Budgetary reform can be a good thing if governments reduce funds for punitive practices and prisons as has been done in Illinois, Texas, New York, Ohio, California and many local jurisdictions.

Advocates have to communicate these messages:

First, it is possible to spend fewer dollars overall and achieve better public safety. It is better to spend taxpayers’ dollars on proven risk-based approaches to juvenile crime than to wait until those juveniles are adults. Spend when it can make the most difference in results and time instead of paying billions for jails and prisons and enduring the lifelong social costs of crime.

Second, spending on services must include frequent analysis of the results of that spending. Relevant data must be collected, and future spending must be adjusted based on careful analysis of that data.

New leadership can also learn that structures can change: Age of juvenile jurisdiction can increase; automatic transfer of kids to adult court can be rolled back or eliminated; attorneys can be provided to protect constitutional rights; redemption and recovery can be recognized by effective expungement policies. And much more can change with good results for public safety.

Juvenile justice reform advocates know this, and now many of us need to educate and persuade new elected leaders. A short moment of reflection can remind us that great progress in juvenile justice has happened in both red and blue states. No matter which party is in the majority, every government includes friends of children in conflict with the law, and there are potential new friends willing to listen to our arguments about how best to spend limited tax resources on crime reduction.

Fortunately, there is support in both major parties for juvenile justice reform. We have the data, research and fiscal analyses to prove that good juvenile justice policies protect public safety, save scarce public resources and improve outcomes for young people and families.

We must continue and increase efforts to spread the knowledge about juvenile justice reform to governments at all levels. We must tell stories of kids’ triumphs over terrible circumstances and sometimes terrible crimes. Stories of how kids fail due in part to bad system practices should be accompanied by explanations of what could have been done better. Every opportunity for media attention, every chance to speak to new governors and legislators should be taken. We have a good message, and we need to share it.

If that sounds like cheerleading, that’s because it is. We have work to do — make new friends, tell the story, explain the science, create the connections. Save some lives.

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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