A Season to Imagine a Better World

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.

6 thoughts on “A Season to Imagine a Better World

  1. I couldn’t agree more with overall point, but your opening statement that “We already know — or should know — what to do with delinquent youth.” is very much overstated. There are good programs out there to be sure. But there are also millions of dollars spent on different kinds of rehabilitation programs that have an extremely low success rate. Take a look at the success rates of the wilderness programs. Troubled kids are shipped off to some far away place, which sometimes has positive effects in the moment, but rarely translate into kids who kickstart into productive lives; this is primarily due to the fact that there is little follow up service once they leave these heavenly places. Thus, although your point about incarceration is dead on, I think you overstate how well we understand how best to help troubled, at-risk youths.

  2. Your right Marc…..my thoughts are that “we” are the few who read and understand what works, or the characteristics of effective programming, which explains why we build prisons We would be better off spending our money on research and design. As for wilderness programs, they are ineffective and again the studies show it. So why do so many state juvenile justice agencies use them? Well, as an advisor on the Georgia DJJ Board, its because most of the budget goes to brick and mortar leaving little to do for non violent kids who have been committed and don’t deserve prison. It is cheaper to remove them from the community and place in wilderness programs. After care is minimal again because the budget is greatly dedicated to secure confinement. I do understand why you got the impression that I overstated. My comment “or should know” was a poor attempt of saying that we could learn and do more and it is an untapped area because we are too focused on incarceration. The problem is, we don’t do near enough of with what we already know is effective. Will these programs rehabilitate every child-no….but we could rehabilitate more if we reconfigured our investments and moved them around to working with more kids while simultaneously improving on what we do know. Thanks for pointing this out and allowing me to agree and further explain my thoughts for which I was prohibited by my editorial word limits or by my lack of wordsmith ability.

  3. thanks for clarifying steve. i want to reiterate that i completely applaud your comment re rehabilitation vs incarceration. further, there are so many folks out there working for peanuts to help our troubled youths, and many do an amazing job. the task is exceptionally difficult because we often speak as if there was a monolithic category called “at risk youth.” but as you well know, it is highly variable and thus, requires different approaches. the wilderness programs will work for a corner of this population, but until these programs and others carry out the studies required to pinpoint the relationship between effectiveness of program and personality profile, there will be a lot of wasted funds, and heartaches for parents and children.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this and other thoughtful articles. This comes right on time for me because all this week I’ve found myself frustrated that money and time is continually being invested in programs that don’t work. In addition, it seems that no one with the power to do anything about the problem actually cares to push for solutions that work. I felt so frustrated this week that I’ve often thought about quitting just so that I’m not a part of a continually failing system. In my work as an attorney who represents children in school cases, I constantly hear some form of “that’s beyond my control. My hands are tied on this one.” I’ve sat at the table with people who hear and feel my concerns about a problem, but out of concern for keeping their jobs they aren’t able to say what they really mean or do what needs to be done. It bothers me that the folks that care the most are often caught up in politics or organizational policies that prevent them from speaking up or doing something about the issues. It seems that no one wants to take responsibility – or that no one who cares has the power to do anything. And why does it seem that grants and government funding often go toward approaches to the issue that don’t work? Who will take a stand and refuse to allow the funders to control how the work gets done?

  5. Thank you Veronica for your encouraging remarks. I am uplifted to know that my thoughts can have purpose, especially if they can uplift hard working and caring people like yourself who are in the trenches working and advocating for these kids. I do get my share of naysayers who label me a liberal or soft on crime, but there are those before me who have been saying the same thing and have acted on their thoughts-such as Jerry Miller in Massachusetts-and showed that recidivism doesn’t increase, but can decline if we take what some call a softer approach. The truth is that it’s harder, not softer-on the system and the kids. It’s a matter of perspective….if we want to be harsh because that is how we interpret “tough,” there is no stopping those people from changing their minds quite frankly. But if we want to change behaviors so that recidivism actually goes down, we must do what is harder- make kids, parents, and the system work for it. I found when I came to that age that corporal punishment was no longer serving it’s purpose, I was scared. That’s right……I’ll take the spanking, but don’t take away from favorite toys, or endure my Moms lectures, and do extra chores. Getting tough on kids is really about changing their behavior, which for most does not occur in a secure facility where you can’t engage them with their significant others. Some do require out of home therapeutic treatment because their behaviors are so extreme that monitoring in the community will not suffice, but they are a microcosm of our population. We have come to convince ourselves that most belong there because we know no other reality or existence. Unfortunately, the naysayers have this opinion that I believe that every kid will be saved if we rethink juvenile justice as I described it in the column. Nope…..I know better than that……I just know we will save more than we are now. Finally, I write to engage people’s minds and to challenge the way we think, including my own. I don’t profess to be right-only to be a nag-to provoke discussion.