It’s time to get real about kids and detention. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “All great truths begin as blasphemies.”
Well, here are my blaspheming thoughts.
I am tired of those with the “lock ‘em all up” attitudes critical of alternatives to detention. They talk off the top of their heads and spew opinionated garbage from their mouths with nothing to show in support of their “get tough” attitude but anecdotes.
Here’s an anecdote for you.
One of the biggest critics of our Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI-an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation) many years ago attempted through various measures to stop the initiative. Despite her efforts, the program continued with the implementation of a Detention Assessment Instrument to measure risk of re-offending, the creation of detention alternatives — such as electronic monitoring, GPS monitoring, after-school Evening Reporting Center — wrap-around services in the home, intensive surveillance, development of a graduated sanctions for technical violations of probation, Failure to Appear (FTA) Locators to locate youth who do not show to court in lieu of a FTA warrant, and more.
This critic made my professional life a living hell.
Despite the misery she propounded on me, I always knew her to be of great intelligence and extreme integrity. Notwithstanding the stress I endured from her attacks on my belief in JDAI, I always respected her many wonderful qualities. Ironically, it was these characteristics that led her to attempt to disprove the JDAI approach by requesting all the data about the decisions to release youth to alternatives opposed to incarceration.
She was shocked at the outcomes.
Our detention rates decreased 51 percent since starting JDAI. As we cut the use of detention in half, our re-offense rates for those placed on community alternatives were cut in half as well.
“How can this be?” she thought to herself. More are released, but fewer are re-offending.
She began her research and what she found was a plethora of studies on evidence-based practices for juvenile offenders — studies showing the negative impact of detention on youth and how it’s influence “can persist for months and even years into their future.”
She continued to read studies showing that “being held in detention is the number one predictor of recidivism — beating out other likely predictive variables such as gang membership, gun ownership, and dysfunctional family background.” Another study, reported in 2006 in the newsletter of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and conducted in New York City found the recidivism rate for kids sent to alternative programs ranged between 17-36 percent , while those incarcerated averaged 76 percent .
Other research explored the reasons for low recidivist rates of alternative detention programs. She read how behavioral scientists found that grouping delinquent kids together in a detention facility “can result in deleterious outcomes because detained juveniles receive informal peer deviancy training.”
If one stops to think about it, the studies only confirm what common sense should tells us — that detention gives first-time offenders the chance to make new criminal friends, join gangs and learn tricks. These same studies go on to show that exposure to detention creates a negative learning opportunity for kids in which the data reflects that detained kids are “more likely to commit future crimes and have difficulty adjusting to adult life.
Just as delinquent kids with less than desirable values and beliefs require cognitive restructuring to change the way they think, so do adults when we cling to a belief system grounded in anecdote or political and/or social thinking — and not objective testing.
My critic possessed the intellect and integrity to pursue an objective study — although with the motive to support her own conclusion — and instead underwent her own cognitive restructuring. Most important, she had the integrity to confess her revelation and the courage to support JDAI. She would later make public appearances — including testimony before legislative committees — supporting detention alternatives.
She learned that detention has its place in juvenile justice, but not for as many kids as she originally thought. She learned the difference between those kids that scare us and those that make us mad.
This former critic was my colleague on the bench. She is Tracy Graham-Lawson, now the district attorney where I work, in Clayton County, Georgia.
Tracy is an inspiration to me. She reminds me that one’s ideological enemies — especially those with integrity like Tracy — can change their perspective. Tracy didn’t change her mind because of me or anything I said. She changed because she pursued the truth using data and reading research based in objective testing.
Tracy faces a different task prosecuting adult offenders. She is a tough prosecutor — and rightfully so! These are adults, not children.
Since taking office, she has aggressively reduced the criminal docket. She is not afraid to try cases. She is a formidable foe in the courtroom. I would not want her on the other side.
Even still, she works hard to help kids who are arrested as adults by transferring them to juvenile court when appropriate — and she does her fair share of transfers to ensure kids get the best treatment available in a youth detention center or residential placement as opposed to an adult correctional facility grounded in punishment.
She also produced an award winning documentary that is shown in schools to educate kids about the seven deadly sins and how they can be treated as an adult as early as age 13 and exposed to the negative influences of adult prisons.
She may be prosecuting adults with zeal and passion — but Tracy is still an advocate for kids.
Those of you with the “lock-‘em up” attitude — have some integrity. Get some courage!
Use your computer, laptop, or IPad and Google. Read the research. For the sake of our kids — just read!