I never thought when I took the juvenile court bench that I would be working just as hard off the bench to help kids. My county here in Georgia has certainly had its share of misery in the last decade, including a decline in graduation rates, an increase in crime rates, school board mismanagement that resulted in loss of accreditation and removal of board members that led to a mass exodus of residents.
The good news is that Clayton County, just south of Atlanta, is on the rebound with an increase in overall graduation rates and a decline in juvenile and adult crime. I have always said: so goes graduation rates, so goes the crime rate.
Our venture to turn the ship around began when we decided to confront the challenges within our juvenile justice system — soaring juvenile arrests, increasing drop-out rates, dangerous gang activity resulting in many drive-by shootings, and kids dying. I recall the convening of community forums at different high schools in response to the gang related deaths of two kids and having to address the gym-packed audience of residents crying for help.
We needed help and the traditional get tough approach was not working. I decided early on to confront this approach publicly during our community forums, telling residents and stakeholders that we must be smart in our approach and refrain from a law enforcement only approach. I stressed that it must be balanced with after school programs, reducing school arrests and school suspensions, establishing positive relationships with students to open lines of communication between students and teachers. And this, I said, included the gangbangers. Oh my — you would have thought I was a traitor fraternizing with the enemy! A state representative publicly said I was soft on crime.
I cringed when I heard his soft-on-crime label. It’s a sensitive matter for those of us in a public office dependent upon community support every four. The safe option is to shut-up by hiding out in the courthouse.
I never responded to the representative’s “soft on crime” comment. It was an attack and it placed me on the defensive and any response at that moment would have been viewed as “argumentative.” My litigation experience taught me never to argue with an ignorant man — the onlookers may not tell the difference. Sometimes it’s better to run away and come back to fight another day — the next time taking the offensive.
And so I did by creating a juvenile justice cooperative including all community leaders from the prosecutor to the social services and mental health directors to the Sheriff and police chief. The legislator’s comment was a sign that he lacked knowledge of evidence-informed programs and practices. His comment gave me pause to query if other leaders were ignorant of best practices.
Fortunately, ignorance is a curable disease. I decided to prescribe the “education pill” in regular doses using a newly established collaborative dedicated to improving juvenile justice and child welfare.
The school of hard knocks taught me many truths outside of my formal education and one proved helpful in combatting this disease: A prophet is never known in his own land. I had to remove myself from the prophet role of teaching and preaching the good news of what works in reducing delinquency. My people needed a stranger to deliver them from ignorance and deliver me from the frustration of suffering their ignorance.
So, I requested the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) to send me help. The prophets ascended upon us from Portland and Chicago teaching the good news to our leaders about objective risk assessment tools, alternatives to detention, collaborative strategies, systems of care, evening reporting centers, effective gang reduction strategies and more.
This evangelistic effort to proselytize community leaders to refrain from using get tough practices without regard to the needs of the youth was pivotal in changing the way we approach juvenile justice and consequently improving the climate of our county.
The first time I entered the world of offender rehabilitation my mind was a blank slate waiting to be filled with stuff. I was fortunate to have good teachers that filled my head with “good stuff.”
We all come into the world of juvenile justice ignorant!
Clayton County definitely hit rock bottom in the last decade making us a laughing stock. It’s hard to overcome bad press and I guess we will always have to endure it despite the progress we have made since those days.
I take comfort knowing our struggles created a paradox in which our reform efforts to reduce juvenile crime has taken us all over the country to teach the good news — although at home we are still ridiculed.
During a recent visit to our nation’s capitol, a colleague from Wichita, Kan., approached me to thank me for the work Clayton County did there a couple years ago.
Crisis gave us ridicule and it gave us opportunity. It is a paradox only if we seize the opportunity inherent in every crisis to be innovative. We still suffer ridicule, but it has become for us a term of endearment — for without it we would not be helping others to help themselves out of their own crisis.