ATLANTA– “There is reason to think that we may, and I emphasize may, have reached a turning point in this era,” said Bart Lubow, director of the juvenile justice strategy group at The Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.
He made the comments Wednesday at an AECF-organized three-day conference of some 800 professionals from juvenile justice and child welfare fields in Atlanta.
The U.S. Supreme Court made “an affirmation that youth are fundamentally different from adults,” said Lubow, in their June, 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama. In that case, the court struck down mandatory sentencing programs that send juveniles convicted of murder to life without a chance of parole as unconstitutional. The majority opinion mentioned psychological differences and youths’ greater capacity to reform as part of their thinking.
New York, Lubow pointed out, passed a state measure to keep youth from New York City in the city’s limited-secure and non-secure facilities, rather than shipping them far from home for detention. Connecticut has decided to spend more money on community-based and evidence-based interventions. Richard Ross’ book Juvenile In Justice, with its stark photos of youth detention centers, is showing people a picture they are deciding they do not want to see.
Georgia set up a new mandate this year to keep certain youths out of incarceration. In March, the Georgia legislature passed a 248-page reform and update of the juvenile code. Among other things, it prohibits incarcerating most under-18s for status offenses: those things that would not be a crime if committed by an adult, such as possession of tobacco.
“I can earnestly tell you, members of the legislature were hungry to do things better than we had been doing them,” in both the juvenile and adult criminal systems, said the author of the successful bill, state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.
The legislature also set aside $5 million for a pilot grant program that will pay for jurisdictions to set up alternatives to juvenile detention, such as drug treatment, after-school activities or restorative justice programs.
Detention alternatives are at the core of what AECF is helping set up in jurisdictions nationwide, through its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. By the end of 2013, JDAI programs will have been set up in nearly 200 jurisdictions nationwide.
As of 2012, by AECF’s math, existing JDAI sites had reduced their youth detention populations by an average of 43 percent.
But it is hard to confirm how much JDAI is responsible for the falls, especially given an overall downward trend in juvenile crime nationwide and tighter state budgets that cannot afford to detain young people.
There are 50 sets of U.S. state laws that govern juveniles, thus state-reported statistics are not necessarily comparable. In some, a child as young as 13 can be charged as an adult with certain crimes, whereas the neighboring state may report a 13-year-old felon as a minor. In some states, a child can decline defense counsel, in others, the child cannot.
And of those 50 states, only a handful collate data at a state level, said Barry Krisberg, director of the Warren Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and author of a 2012 evaluation of nearly 100 JDAI sites.
He admitted that his study was not and could not be completely rigorous because of incomplete data and the impossibility of designing a proper randomized experiment.
But overall, he called the data “robust” and said that overall, JDAI sites are better than non-JDAI sites in terms of speedily pushing down juvenile detention rates.
The new leader of U.S. federal government efforts to prevent and respond to juvenile delinquency praised the concept of keeping youths out of incarceration.
Young people most need three things for healthy development, said Robert Listenbee, new Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
One is a supportive adult authority figure, a second is association with pro-social peers and the third is activities that encourage autonomous decision-making.
“These three necessities are virtually non-existent in most [secure] facilities that we find,” Listenbee told the conference in a taped statement.
“An approach that emphasizes positive youth development rather than a reliance on detention, on incarceration and other harsh forms of punishment” are more conducive to his agency’s vision of children who are healthy, educated and free of violence, he continued.
Lubow at AECF stuck closely to the “cautious” in “cautious optimism” about juvenile justice trends. Some states still practice what he called the “inhuman” practice of juvenile solitary confinement. African-American children are five times as likely to be locked up as their white peers, he said. Youth locked up with adults are at higher risk of suicide. Some youth detention centers use mace. Some jailers sexually abuse their charges.
Lubow invited his audience to try the “my child” test: “does the system stand up to our expectations to how our child would be treated?” he asked.
Many systems, he said, do not pass that test.