OP-ED: The Anatomy of Effective Reform

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Reform takes on many faces—sometimes the face of legislation, other times it smiles through a landmark court decision, but often times it’s the scowling face of grassroots advocacy tapping on our shoulder reminding us we can do better. The most successful reform typically involves a combination of these faces that come together like a perfect storm.

The civil rights movement achieved notoriety when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, leading to her arrest. It was 1955 and Dr. Martin Luther King was brand new to the scene in Montgomery.

Let’s not forget the fortuitous timing of another face of civil rights reform that made it’s debut the year before, the notorious Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. This time, the face of civil rights reform came as a surprise—from nine white men. It was a shot in the arm from an unusual suspect, a white U.S. Supreme Court.

As a former student of political science, I was influenced by Richard Schiengold’s “The Politics of Rights” and his discourse on social change. Legal rights may confer legitimacy, but grassroot advocacy can shake the conscience of society. According to Schiengold, the Supreme Court legitimated the right to integrate and very well empowered the disenfranchised African American community, but the advocacy of Dr. King and others raised the moral consciousness of society to take action resulting in civil rights legislation.

All successful reform efforts share these same faces and Georgia’s struggle to reform its juvenile justice system is no different.

Several years ago, the Younger Lawyers section of the State Bar of Georgia initiated a juvenile code re-write project and proposed a model juvenile code for Georgia. Grassroots organizations pushed the model code toward legitimacy, organizing regional community meetings and sponsoring stakeholder meetings. They raised citizen awareness of needed reform and mediated agreements and compromises to enhance the passage of the code.

After several years of sweat and tears the code passed the House unanimously, but like a thief in the night, the prize was snatched when the Governor asked the bill’s sponsor to withdraw the bill citing fiscal concerns, and the sponsor acquiesced.

It was a morphic moment, like returning to a home broken into. It was surrealism at it’s worse, daze and confusion after being T-boned in an intersection.

Our sIuggish, slowly recovering economy supported the Governor’s fiscal concerns, but I am convinced that he knew we could do better with our youth. Governor Deal is a former juvenile court judge and he understands juvenile justice.

Also, this is not the Governor’s first reform rodeo, having climbed onto the bucking bull of attempting stakeholder consensus and legislative majorities the year before to tackle adult criminal justice system reform. He established the Criminal Justice Reform Council and smartly involved the Pew Trust Center on the States to assist the Council in understanding that reform can’t happen until one knows what to reform! The recommendations, based on “data dumps” and analysis, led to sweeping legislative reforms in the adult system, and it made sense to do the same to the juvenile justice system, and so the Governor re-established the Reform Council, giving the juvenile code re-write a shot in the arm.

It was a privilege to serve on the council and take part in the reform process. Although, the data dumping resultied in more pie charts, graphs, and speadsheets seeping into my dreams and playing out surreal stories that could be titled “Steve in Wonderland.”

The data were revealing. Over 50 percent of youth committed to state custody were low risk, costing taxpayers between $55,000 and $90,000 annually depending on residential or secure confinement. Worse, up to 65 percent of youth re-offended within three years of their release. Commitment was transforming low risk youth into serious adult offenders—the system was broken.

The Council immersed itself in evidence-informed practices. The solution became simple—stop low risk commitments and re-invest the cost savings into effective community programs.

Social policies impact economic circumstances, good or bad. Social reform that enhances the economy must be grounded in what works, not what feels good!

It feels good to improve the self-esteem of a delinquent youth, but low self esteem doesn’t cause delinquency. Improving self-esteem without targeting the behaviors underlying delinquency creates a more confident delinquent. Conversely, get-tough policies make most kids worse. Both extremes—one viewed as liberal and the other conservative—are harmful to our communities. An economy is operating at it’s best when our taxes are invested in community rehabilitation programs that work—a social policy for sure, but one that over time will decrease crime and boost our economy.

When this happens, everybody stands to win, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, and all the children of the state—red and yellow, black and white.

And that brings me back to civil rights, another facet of HB 242.

Lets face it—kids of color are disproportionately represented in our facilities. The reasons are generally systemic and range from the economically disadvantaged to lack of resources. Those above the poverty line have better odds of getting their kids help and avoiding the juvenile justice system. Consequently, economically disadvantaged families, of which too many still include people of color, become “slaves” to a broken system.

The many years of living a segregated, poverty stricken, and emotionally distressing existence placed African Americans behind the eight ball. Brown and it’s progeny of cases coupled with the passage of civil rights legislation may have given legitimacy to an otherwise eternal moral truth, but changing the way people think can be generational—for people of all color.

HB 242 is tough on kids. It demands intensive programming for kids and families best described as  “brain-washing”—changing families to think differently. It’s painful and kids at first hate it, but change for most is inevitable—forever.

Georgia reform is not a hand out, it’s a helping hand!

One thought on “OP-ED: The Anatomy of Effective Reform

  1. ARISE Foundation, a nonprofit my wife and I established in 1986, develops life skills lessons specifically for at risk youth and training for the staff that work with them. I commend you on understanding the need to stop low risk commitments and reinvest the huge cost savings into effective community based programs. 25 plus years of hands on experience has shown, that when you send low risk youth to a secure facility, they all too often graduate with a PHD in crime. Yes, we absolutely need intensive programming for these young men and women and their families too in order change their mindset. They need helping hands, delivered by those who understand their needs. I was one of those tough kids who desperately needed a helping hand and never got it. Lucky for me drugs hadn’t been invented when I was young (born in 1929) and crime wasn’t an option in my family. I give thanks for this good fortune every day of my life.