The JJIE Interview: Bart Lubow, the Man Behind JDAI

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Maggie Lee/JJIE

Bart Lubow in February 2014 (file photo)

Maggie Lee / JJIE

More than two decades ago, when the Annie E. Casey Foundation began its groundbreaking Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), the notion that the juvenile justice system could and should reduce its reliance on detention was nothing short of revolutionary.

Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at Casey, designed and managed JDAI, which began in 1992.

Lubow is retiring as of June 30, but he will continue to work with the foundation as a consultant and says he plans to do a lot of writing and speaking.

JJIE asked Lubow, 66, to talk about his tenure and legacy at Casey, particularly JDAI, the nation’s most widely replicated juvenile reform effort, now operating at more than 250 sites in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

JJIE: What has been your most notable accomplishment in your years with Casey?

Lubow: Obviously, JDAI and the sort of resounding demonstration that jurisdictions can safely reduce their reliance on detention is, I think, the largest single accomplishment, the thing that we made our biggest bet around. That is, we made a strategic choice that both focusing on a particular aspect of the system and sticking with it over time until we got it right, the sites got it right and it got to enough places where the issue became scale rather than whether you had a feasible or a demonstrable product has been the most important accomplishment. In fact, the underlying theory [is] that if you could get sites to be more data-driven, to operate more collaboratively and to really challenge the assumptions behind the reliance on detention that it would shift their culture and stimulate a broad new array of thinking about how the business of juvenile justice would be done. JDAI would have been important in its own right if all it did was reverse the trend of ever-increasing reliance on detention. I think the fact that it has stimulated broad debate about what juvenile justice should be about and how we should think about these kids and what works and what doesn’t work is ultimately going to prove to be its most important legacy.

JJIE: How radical was JDAI when it began in 1992?

Twenty-two years ago, when we began this, this was way out of the box. We were in the middle of the “super-predator” era and, in fact, the entire enterprise that we know as juvenile justice was at risk of going over the ledge. States were passing laws that made it easier to prosecute kids as adults. The public’s concern and the politicians’ rhetoric about juvenile crime had led to the point where the very notion that kids deserved a different system of justice based on their different developmental status was going out the window. And what was happening was all of the momentum in the system was in the opposite direction: Lock up more kids, “adult-ify” the system and fail to recognize the purposes for which a juvenile justice system was established in the first instance. And so I think that JDAI became a symbol for pushing back against those trends and for challenging both the notion that nothing works, but especially the notion that the way to get the kids to behave and the way to protect public safety was in fact to replicate in juvenile justice the failed models of the adult justice system – to threaten and impose more punishment, to be more rigid in our approach to sentencing, all that kind of stuff. We entered this marketplace at a time when the rates of juvenile detention were increasing rapidly and had been for about six or seven years, and the field was largely dispirited. You couldn’t be in juvenile justice and see Congress debating legislation that explicitly referred to kids as “super-predators” and not be highly discouraged.

JJIE: What core JDAI strategies have helped reduce the number of kids confined?

Lubow: First and foremost, JDAI is an initiative that’s focused on changing the thinking and behavior of adults who work in and manage the system. So the basic notion behind JDAI was that the use of secure detention was driven not primarily by the behavior of kids in the community, but primarily by the choices that adults make relative to the system and its operation. Put another way, detention is a policy- and practice-driven phenomenon as much as it is the phenomenon driven by juvenile crime. If detention were driven by juvenile crime, we would have seen very different patterns than we did and that we continue to see. So the thing that distinguishes JDAI is that it was a system-reform initiative.

JJIE: You speak of the “my-child test” – the idea that we should treat children in the juvenile justice system as we would want our children to be treated if they got into trouble with the law. Could you elaborate on that?

Lubow: Think about it first of all from this perspective: Virtually all teenagers in our country engage in delinquent behavior. The evidence is overwhelming that nine out of 10 teenagers engage in delinquent behavior and some of them very serious delinquent behavior, and yet the vast majority of them age out of that behavior, typically with no intervention from the system at all. And if you look at who’s on juvenile court dockets and who’s in juvenile facilities, it is overwhelmingly core youth of color, so kids who come from families with resources and communities with power don’t end up in this system. Their transgressions as juveniles are handled in a different way. So my point in the my-child test is that if the people who run the system or the people who make the policies that govern the system were thinking about this right, they would minimize the number of kids who are drawn into the formal system and they would rearrange the way the system operates so that it responded as they would want it to be able to respond if their kid was involved. Most middle-class parents, most parents with any kind of resources will lay their body down before the sally ports of America’s juvenile institutions rather than have their kid go into them. And yet our approach as a system is to fling the doors wide open to let all kinds of kids in, including kids who’ve never posed a significant public safety risk. That makes no sense at all. That’s not the my-child test. That’s the oh-you’re-some-other-kind-of-kid, you’re somebody else’s kid. So if you’re a kid who needs emergency psychiatric care, we’ll put you in the juvenile detention center because we don’t have an emergency psychiatric bed available for you. If you’re a kid who needs educational help, you know you’re struggling in school, and that is the nature of your problem, if you’re a smart parent, you take advantage of special education laws. If you’re a poor parent who doesn’t know anything about what an [individualized education program] is or how to get your school district to do what the federal law obliges them to do, you end up with your kid getting thrown out of school because of predictable behavioral problems and ending up in a juvenile court and in a juvenile facility that can’t educate your kid. Why isn’t the system organized to do what it claimed it was going to do a century ago, and that was to act as a kind and just parent? It’s not a kind and just parent. It’s, in fact, a system of retribution and deterrence based on punishment that results in adults bullying children. That’s not a good approach to parenting. Bullying kids is not a good approach to parenting.

JJIE: How does emphasizing detention of juveniles square with what should be the rehabilitative focus of the juvenile justice system?

Lubow:  Our basic notion is you can’t be very effective in your rehabilitative function if you are a., using punishment to achieve it and, b., throwing all your money down the incarceration drain hole. So any aspirations for this system to be more preventive, to engage in more early intervention, to be able to focus its resources more on addressing the challenges that a lot of these youth pose really is going to be stuck if we don’t break the current status quo around incarceration. And I believe that our ability to come up with rehabilitative innovations, with things that make a difference for kids and families and communities depends directly on our ability to break our addiction to incarceration. As long as incarceration remains a safety net for system personnel, we won’t get to the my-child test. I mean if you’re a parent, incarceration isn’t an option in your tool bag. If you’re a probation officer, incarceration is an option in your tool bag, and you use it far more often and far more quickly than you would if the option were deeply restricted. The system’s failure to be accountable for the well-being of its wards is directly related to its reliance on incarceration, and until it sheds its current reliance on incarceration, it will neither have the will to figure out how to do better with kids without confining them or the resources. Let me put it another way: If this system is to do better, it’s got to start by doing less harm.

JJIE: Could you talk about how your work at the New York City Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division and as director of Alternatives to Incarceration for New York state prepared you for your work at Casey?

Lubow: The Casey Foundation recruited me from my job in New York state government because they were looking for someone whose specialty was safely reducing reliance on incarceration. And that’s what I had done for 20 years in a variety of contexts. I had very limited background in the juvenile justice system when I came to the Casey Foundation. But the technology of correctional population management – how do you safely reduce reliance on confinement? – is basically the same from system to system. So I was recruited by Casey because that was my business, and the truth is unfortunately, and especially at that time, there was a fairly limited number of people who were involved in that kind of work, in trying to design approaches that sought to teach jurisdictions how to change so that they would reduce reliance on confinement.

JJIE: What are some of the priorities of the Casey Foundation/JDAI from now through June 30 and thereafter?

Lubow: The priorities for the foundation are to continue to deepen and expand JDAI and to build this whole new body of work, which we refer to as expanding the focus of JDAI sites to the deep end of the system, or to the dispositional end of the system. It’s really about reducing the number of kids who are committed or placed at disposition. This really focuses on the kids being sent to state facilities or to longer-term placements people refer to by a variety of euphemisms – residential treatment centers, group homes or whatever that represents some form of court-imposed confinement that’s for the long term and is ineffective, extremely costly, often scandal-plagued and completely inconsistent with what the current state of knowledge says we ought to be doing.

One thought on “The JJIE Interview: Bart Lubow, the Man Behind JDAI

  1. Three cheers for Mr. Lubow and the JDAI. In my 35 years in juvenile justice, this is the most effective, progressive and caring direction we have taken. Congratulations on the success of JDAI.