Let’s face it — the practice of juvenile justice does not work for the most part. I applaud the efforts of those pushing our juvenile code rewrite here in Georgia, but will the changes produce drastic outcomes for delinquent youth? Drastic outcomes require drastic changes — I mean controversial and blasphemous changes!
To achieve drastic outcomes, we have to change the starting place. We already know — or should know — what to do with delinquent youth. The question is where do we do what with them? Despite the significant progress to develop effective community-based programs such as cognitive behavioral training, Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST), and Functional Family Therapy (FFT), they become insignificant if the costs to support them are dedicated to the brick and mortar to house youth.
This is exacerbated knowing that secure facilities have the worse recidivist rates and house mostly non-violent youth. For example, in 2007 only 12 percent of all committed youth in the United States were convicted of a violent index offense and only 10.9 percent represent assault related offenses.How do we get to a point where we incarcerate so many non-violent youth -- an overwhelming 77.1percent?
The recent Annie E. Casey publication titled "No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration" suggests--with evidentiary support -- that we incarcerate non-violent youth for one or more reasons. First, judges complain of a lack of services. When a judge knows what a kid needs and the services are not available, a judge is going to err on the side of caution -- community safety -- and commit. As former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman once observed, when judges are not afforded many options between probation and incarceration, "That's like choosing between aspirin or a lobotomy for a migraine." Our juvenile justice system is in peril because it paralyzes our youth -- we are lobotomizing them because we don't have enough aspirin.
Second, judges and probation officers are incentivized to over-commit. In most states, local courts are required to fund probation and treatment programs with no financial supplement from the state. Although community programs are cost effective, they still cost. The choice to commit becomes inviting when it does not cost the local government. For the probation officer, the incentive to commit is a smaller caseload -- "that's one less on my caseload!"
Third, with the deterioration of mental health services for youth across this country, judges have been placed in the awkward position to dump youth with mental health disorders in the juvenile justice system. This "dumping ground" effect increases in size as we widen the net.
For example, school systems and child welfare agencies have looked to the courts to address their perceived problems. We know that abused and neglected kids in foster care are more likely to be arrested as juveniles. It becomes easier for many child welfare case managers to abandon their kid to the juvenile justice system when they act out.
Zero tolerance policies in schools have led to dumping minor school related offenses in court. As the net widens, more kids are on the radar for commitment consideration. Many of the kids referred to juvenile court have emotional behavioral disorders and learning disabilities -- a difficult population that increases the risk for commitment.
Finally, there are those kids who are committed to a secure facility because they made the probation officer or judge mad. Approximately 12 percent of incarcerated kids are technical violators and status offenders and the underlying offenses for most of these kids are non-violent.
They are the P.O.A. kids -- the "Piss Off Adult" kids. They defy the technical rules of probation and it frustrates the probation officer and judge. They are committed believing their defiance is an indicator of re-offending when research shows that "institutional non-compliance is not very predictive of the risk of recidivism."
It shouldn't be a surprise to the grownups that these kids have issues underlying their defiant personalities -- drugs, neglect, abuse, family dysfunction, learning disabilities, and other trauma -- and in their neurologically-limited capacity to cope, they cry out for help using a language of anger and we respond in kind.
There are better responses to a kid’s anger that is grounded in a simple technique -- listening. Over 12 years on the bench I have heard many kids spew awful and vulgar words as the deputy stands guard with eyebrows raised waiting in anticipation for those words from my mouth -- "lock him up!" -- that never came out.
Our contempt laws oblige us to give a warning -- a second chance -- to violators before we find them in direct contempt. It’s an opportunity to listen, explain, and diffuse the emotions. It’s an opportunity for the system to act big, to provide a teaching moment.
Otherwise, what do kids learn when we respond with handcuffs? Don't be fooled -- they win. They wanted to make me mad — push my buttons, rent space in my head -- and they succeeded. Whose fault is that?
Many of these kids would do better off in the community with intensive services to equip him and the parents with the skills to overcome the underlying causes that manifests into delinquent conduct. A former warden of a youth correctional facility in Texas said, "What will make a difference for a kid is what he does in the community with the appropriate resources made available to him -- not in prison." We can’t do MST, FFT, and other much needed family based training in a prison!
Most judges I know want these tools. They cry for help but are given very few choices that include commitment. How do we get more services as an alternative to commitment if the monies to support these services are spent housing kids? I think the answer is in the question -- and it is controversial --depopulate most of the secure facilities and reinvest the monies in the community.
It comes down to math. It cost about $88,000 to house a kid for 12 months. In contrast, it cost approximately $8,539 to treat a child effectively in the community. Imagine the intensive services that could be afforded if each court had available up to $88,000 for each kid -- and that amount is overkill!
Imagine a system that can take care of its mentally ill children. No more dumping in a delinquent system.
A great juvenile justice reformer, Jerome Miller, dismantled the facilities when he was the commissioner of Massachusetts DYS. He replaced them with community based interventions — that was 1969. It was controversial.
He was not well liked—but recidivism declined. Imagine that.