The process of reforming systems is replete with metaphorical paradoxes, and juvenile justice as a system is not exempt. It generally begins with those who are “blind as a bat” and can’t get to the “city on the hill” — a reduction in delinquency. They are blind not because they can’t see the city, but because they’re at the “fork in the road” and can’t figure out which fork to take to get to the city.
Everyone desires less crime, but not everyone agrees on how to make that happen. The greatest obstacle for those of us versed in the vast literature of what works in community corrections remains the still popular view that “getting tough,” whether by use of detention or commitment to secure and residential facilities, is the “cure all” to reduce delinquency. The proponents of the heavy-handed use of detention in situations that don’t require a “hammer to kill a fly” or a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” have no clue that they are advocating a “bucket brigade” to put out a fire that will eventually consume them because they are “judging the book by its cover” and refuse to read the contents that can save them — overuse of detention increases delinquency.
Their “tunnel vision” blinds them like a bat from seeing the “elephant in the room” — the truth that what looks like “soft on crime” is instead a “blessing in disguise.”
Many jurisdictions across this country participating in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation have reduced detention rates significantly without compromising public safety, and in fact many have reduced juvenile crime in their communities. My county is one of those many, and by as much as 60 percent since bringing detention reform to Clayton in 2003.
It is time to counter this “Ostrich Effect” and “pull their heads out of the sand” and “show them the ropes.” We learned in Georgia through our juvenile justice reform efforts that of the kids we send to non-secure and secure facilities, 50 percent and 40 percent are low risk respectively, but cost the taxpayer $54,000 and $90,000 per youth respectively producing a 65 percent recidivist rate.
We must stop the ostriches in our respective communities to stop treating those of us seeking effective change as “whipping boys” when it’s the ostriches who for years have pushed us down that “slippery slope” creating a “chain reaction” of pro-detention policies resulting in a “snowball effect” including automatic transfer laws to adult court, institutionalization of status offenders and zero tolerance policies, to name a few.
In a “nutshell” these punitive policies ignore what we have known since the creation of the first juvenile court in 1899 and before — kids are neurologically immature. We don’t let them drink until 21. They can’t buy and sell real and personal property. Parents must be responsible for their necessities until age 18. It is one thing to jail adults for their immaturity, it’s an entirely different thing to jail kids for immature conduct. It’s bad enough that immature adults neglect and abuse kids in their homes creating a pathway to delinquency, its worse when professionals promulgate punitive policies that create an “albatross around the neck” of kids that also takes them down the same pathway.
The difference? Professionals should know better!
Our society has created a paradox by giving “lip service” to treating our kids as a “vulnerable population” and protecting them like the butterflies we “ooh and aah,” but “in the same breath” we treat them like adults when they make us mad. It begs the question: What civilized society “breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”
Those with their “heads still stuck in the sand” can’t have their “cake and eat it too.” Butterflies are senselessly crushed by ostriches preaching their “get tough” policies while believing the false assumption that public safety is enhanced.
The ostriches want public safety but their approach in crushing butterflies creates a “no win situation” in which we are left with no butterflies and less safety. Their belief in “living by the sword” places all of us in a community at risk of “dying by the sword.”
Paradoxically, the rest of us “left high and dry” must rescue the butterflies by taking a “different tack” using collaborative efforts to create a “Butterfly Effect” that breaks the “Ostrich Effect” upon the wheel.
Although the “devil is in the details,” true reform that brings positive development for youth will not begin until each community comes together with every available resource that collectively impacts each and every youth and their “protective buffers”—education, family, job readiness, physical, emotional, and mental health, and more.
It is time to “fish or cut bait” or we will find ourselves sleeping in the same bed made by the ostriches.