The JJIE Interview: Nate Balis Steps up at Annie E. Casey

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Nate Balis acknowledges he has big shoes to fill. After all, he’s succeeding Bart Lubow as director of the Juvenile Justice Strategies Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Lubow designed and managed the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which began in 1992, and he is something of a legend in juvenile justice circles. JDAI is the nation’s most widely replicated juvenile reform effort, now operating at more than 250 sites in 39 states and the District of Columbia.

“Bart is one of my mentors; he’s one of my heroes in the field,” Balis told JJIE. “He’s someone who’s spoken honestly about the conditions in juvenile justice — [including] terrible racial disparities, the conditions of our facilities, and he’s pushed the system that we work with to change and has raised the bar, frankly, for the Casey Foundation as an organization and the field.

“So stepping into Bart’s shoes is going to be a huge honor for me personally but also, I think, a huge opportunity because of the successes of the foundation over the last 20 years and the partnerships we have in the field with great jurisdictions, passionate people on the state and local level who work with our most vulnerable young kids every day and care and want to make a difference and are open to change.”

Lubow is retiring July 1, when Balis will succeed him.

Since 2007, Balis, 37, has served as a senior associate focusing on juvenile justice reform at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Nate Balis, director of Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group (JJSG)


Nate Balis, director of Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group (JJSG)

He led efforts in Alabama and New York City designed to safely reduce incarceration and expand community-based alternatives. The number of youths in residential placement in New York City declined by more than a third since the foundation began working with city leaders in 2010. In Alabama, commitments to state confinement dropped by more than 50 percent since Casey began working with the state in 2007.

Before coming to Casey, Balis had worked from 2001 until 2007 at the District of Columbia Department of Youth Services (now the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services), where he helped manage the District’s participation in JDAI, instituted a system to track performance measures and recommended ways to implement juvenile justice reforms.

He had also served as a District of Columbia Government Capital City Fellow and in that role developed recommendations to help child welfare, juvenile justice and public school systems prevent child deaths. Balis began his career as a research associate developing and analyzing surveys on social policy for non-profits, corporations and the public sector.

JJIE asked Balis to talk about his experience and his goals in the new role at Casey. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

JJIE: As you prepare for your new role, what are some key goals for JDAI?

Balis: In JDAI, I think our focus is on both going deeper — which means focused on really going deeper into the system by working with a handful of jurisdictions, and more to come, and expanding the focus to the dispositional end of the system to work on reducing incarceration and other out-of-home placement as a result of disposition — and then going wider. JDAI has obviously had a pretty large expansion over the years and for the most part, what that’s meant in recent years and will continue to mean in the future is scaling up the uptake of JDAI within states. At this point, there are not that many more states to expand to, but there are lots of counties to expand to within states, and so one of the big challenges over time has been how do states, which have traditionally not played a prominent role in detention, which is largely a local function, help influence and spread detention reform throughout their counties?

Taking it a step further, one of our areas of focus in recent years — especially as we talk about the ambition to expand the focus of JDAI to what we call the deep end of the system, out-of-home placements, post-adjudication — has been not merely to focus on reducing the use of incarceration but to also dismantle the current training school or youth prison model. The country’s had a very large decline in recent years in the use of incarceration for kids, to the point where the decline now has largely tracked the decrease in crime among young people, though that’s not to say that there still aren’t lots of young people locked up every night in places that are really, really bad, that get poor outcomes, that are oftentimes abusive, that are wildly expensive. And some of the kids are still there for reasons that they ought not be. They might not be public safety threats at all, but they’re there more because they frustrate us and they scare us. One of the ambitions of the Casey Foundation is to move away from the model of large youth prisons and move to a system of residential [facilities] for the people who actually need them, who do pose a public safety threat and should be removed from their communities into a more humane model that can actually produce positive outcomes for kids.

JJIE: Talk about Casey’s “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.

Balis:  Oftentimes at the Annie Casey Foundation, we will talk about the my-child test. We see our own kids with limitless potential, and we would always see them that way, no matter what they did, no matter how bad they were on a given day, no matter what mistakes they make because we love them, we care about them. And public systems react to the children they see every day in a very different way, and it’s not because the individuals in these systems don’t care about the kids. I think actually they genuinely do care about them, but I think the practices and restraints that the system has on itself create an environment that is mostly focused on sort of technical aspects of following the rules on probation, not on the big picture of how if this were our own kid, we would really help them grow and help them achieve and not just do less bad. When we look at other people’s kids — and other people’s kids who are kids of color, from the wrong neighborhood, from the families we don’t like — we think very, very differently about them. And I think working at the Casey Foundation, our juvenile justice portfolio or any other piece of what we do here requires that we think differently and that we look at other people’s kids the same way as we look at the ones who matter in our lives.

JJIE: What were some of the factors that led to reductions in incarceration and residential placements and an expansion of community-based alternatives in Alabama and New York City?

Balis: Alabama was a system that the Casey Foundation entered in two ways [in 2007]. We started with four JDAI sites in four of the biggest jurisdictions in Alabama while at the same time we began working at the state level with Department of Youth Services on reducing incarceration, reducing commitment to the state of Alabama. We were really working with two branches — the executive branch on the state side and locally with courts on the judicial side. Alabama was a place where by 2007, crime had been dropping year after year, and the number of kids committed to the state had been going up year after year. You could imagine a graph charting the two things showing a picture that’s not making a lot of sense. It seems to be a place where they should be having a reduction in the use of confinement and instead, it’s going up year after year.

So what we worked on was both at the state level and at the local level, introducing new alternatives to confinement, expanding the array of services that they use in the state, but really, a primary way, especially at the state level, was changing the incentives to keep young people out of custody. So we worked with the state to establish a grant program whereby local jurisdictions had to actually use data to apply for getting a grant from the system, so rather than simply receiving grant funding year after year from the state for an alternative school, you had to use data to show who were the kids who would be accessing that school. Were they kids who were actually otherwise going to be committed in state facilities? What we saw was a whole bunch of kids in state-funded programs who never should have gone near a residential facility. They were low-risk kids with minor offenses. When we looked at the number of kids in custody overall in Alabama, we saw over 40 percent of kids were there for status offenses or for violations of probation.

JDAI itself — as we’ve seen in a lot of other places in the jurisdictions taking on JDAI — just by having this intentional focus on the front end of the system, on the number of kids coming into detention had an immediate reduction in the number of kids who were committed to DYS. In fact, if we look at our data nationally on JDAI, we find even though our sites are not necessarily focusing intentionally on the dispositional end of the system, JDAI got a similar reduction in commitments, which shouldn’t surprise us because from the outset we’ve seen JDAI is an entry-point strategy. In the simplest terms, imagine two kids entering the courtroom at disposition — one in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit and the other walking into court with his family. Which kid, all things being equal, is most likely to get committed to DYS? So interestingly, even from the outset in Alabama, those four jurisdictions saw large reductions in commitments right off the bat even while the rest of the state overall had seen no decline. And what happened in the years that followed was that the other counties followed. We’re at a place now where not only is incarceration down by more than half compared to 2006, but virtually every county has had reductions in the number of commitments.

By the time we went into New York City [in 2010], it had already reduced the number of placements substantially. But while there were fewer kids going to the state and more kids accessing evidence-based programs as alternatives, the costs of sending kids to the state were continuing to go up. So there was a big push within New York City to bring kids home, and that’s really where “Close to Home” came from. [Close to Home is a program in which youths are placed by the New York City Family Court in or close to their communities in the city.] The kids could do better closer to their communities in residential programs that the city itself would monitor, and really our biggest role was to help facilitate the creation of new alternatives. So since we came, they’ve added new programs like a youth advocate model and a probation program that’s really a youth-development program for kids on probation, bringing accountability and youth employment for those young people. We focused much of our attention on helping the city create a structured decision-making system, a dispositional matrix that was really to help guide probation’s recommendations, and we worked with them to do that in a collaborative way.

JJIE: You say it’s vital to help systems see children in their custody as distinctly different than adults. In what ways?

Balis: I take a youth-development approach, that these kids are still learning, are still developing. The adolescent brain research that our colleagues have done has been fantastic and has led to new insights about kids and even kids who are not in the juvenile justice system. Teenagers are the most difficult population. We have to remember that these are just kids who are going through a developmental phase that for the most part, kids will grow out of, and the idea of misbehavior boundaries as being normative behavior, as things that all kids do. The patience and understanding that kids think differently, that they respond differently is something that our systems have to get better at, and I think the good thing is there’s a real openness to that in systems. I think they talk about brain development. It’s not something that’s foreign to them and it’s not something that they reject.

I think the whole idea of the Casey Foundation across all of our work is to see children as children, as in this developmental stage where they’re constantly changing and where just because someone has committed potentially a really terrible crime doesn’t mean that that’s what should define them, that all kids are capable of changing and that all kids do change one way or another and that we all change through our lives and we’re all very different people than we were at 16.

JJIE: Why is it so important to get youths’ families involved in the juvenile justice system and how can we increase family involvement?

Balis: Family involvement has increasingly been a priority for us over the years and it is going to be a major effort of the Casey Foundation in the years going forward. This is an area where the jurisdictions we work with are very hungry. There’s a recognition that families are quite often seen as part of the problem and that it’s much, much harder for systems to genuinely embrace or at least operationalize families as part of the solution in spite of what we know about all the programmatic models that start with the family. A key variable on a risk-assessment instrument has to do with strong relationships with adults for kids. And it really comes back to the idea that families matter. The struggle is oftentimes, how do you create a system that genuinely represents that, that actually involves family voice both at the policy level — both when you talk about in JDAI having a steering committee and not simply having a parent on that committee, but having a parent or parents be active voices and genuinely drive policy, that inform the programs, that inform the practices of everything from judges to probation staff to intake staff to prosecutors to police — and then at the case level too. When we talk to probation officers and we survey probation officers and ask them questions like what is most important to ensure that a young person will succeed on probation, oftentimes the response is their families. The struggle often is actually what to do, how to leverage families as a resource, how to create a strong relationship with probation, how to recognize the barriers that make the probation experience or just the juvenile justice experience for a family one that’s intimidating, one that is difficult, one that is everything from logistical — how are they going to get to the court and get to all these meetings when they have a job and they have other kids? — to one where the power dynamic is one that would make anyone feel intimidated when held over a family’s head: the idea that their child could be taken away, could be sent to detention, could be violated on probation, could be committed. I don’t think systems are always consciously doing that but how that feels from the family’s side is something that I don’t think has been explored nearly enough. And I think our work in recent years with Justice for Families and the Campaign for Youth Justice is really starting to build a hunger for that change, and I think it’s one of the areas that I really imagine our Juvenile Justice Strategy Group taking further in the further.

JJIE: You have said it will be a priority to reduce confinement of youths of color. Could you elaborate?

Balis: It’s hard — or I would even say it’s impossible — to talk about juvenile justice without talking about race. Racial disparities are what define juvenile justice. You don’t need to read “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” — although everyone should read “The New Jim Crow” — to know that. You only need to look. For most of my years within the Department of Youth Services [in Washington], we had 100 percent minority confinement. Every young person being detained or committed was black or Latino. And you only need to walk around the city to know that that’s not reflective of the population of the District of Columbia. And I think much of where we’ve gone in our work in places like Alabama and in places like New York and now in the sites that are taking up on the dispositional end of the system through JDAI is really on how can you use objective decision-making throughout the system to treat kids with similar characteristics in the same way? So if two kids come in with a similar likelihood to reoffend based on what we know and similar offenses, how do we focus on that in making our dispositional decision-making and not all the other things that intentionally or unintentionally create biases within the system actors? And I think that’s something that we’ve worked on in lots of places and will continue to work on.

[Recent research shows] that at least in a sample of jurisdictions, confinement has dropped considerably, but it didn’t do so in an equitable way, that a disproportionate amount of the drop in the population was among white kids. And my sense is that you have to be intentional about constantly scrutinizing that data and constantly trying to understand what is behind that data. What are the reasons for [bias]? What are the places that it’s happening? Is it happening at the street level? In arrests or how kids come into the system through school? Is it happening in dispositional recommendations or decisions or diversion decisions? Is it happening in things like violations of probation? It’s really easy to see how decisions on something like a young person on probation who is being violated — and the probation officer is looking at the young person’s life, looking at what’s going on with the family, looking at the school that the kid’s involved with, looking at peers — how racial disparities can kind of crop up and end up really informing the judgment, intentionally or not. I would say almost always unintentionally. So I think our fear is that unless we’re always intentional about looking at race and not just race, but looking at geography, looking at gender, but race as the real driving force, if we’re not intentional about looking at race, we can achieve a whole lot of good in juvenile justice and only reinforce the racial disparities that already existed in the system.

JJIE: Why do you believe now’s an opportune time for reform of the juvenile justice system?

Balis: It seems like in many ways the stars are aligned, and the juvenile justice system just in the most general sense is much smaller than it was even five years ago, let alone 15 or 20 years ago. In many systems, probation cases have shrunk considerably over time, whereas perhaps 10 years ago, probation officers were throwing their hands in the air and saying, “What can I do? I’ve got 75 kids on my caseload. Other than checking in on them once a month, what am I going to do?” But now when you have 20 on your caseload, doesn’t that significantly change the game on what that whole experience can be?

Justice reform overall — both criminal justice and juvenile justice — seems to be one of the few areas that has political cooperation across the aisle. Juvenile justice reform and criminal justice reform are not merely a liberal cause but one that has support across the political spectrum, and I think that’s because in part it’s made a whole lot of good sense that if your focus is on public safety, then you should be anti-incarceration for most people. We see the results. We know what happens to kids who get locked up, that everything we see tells us that, all things being held constant, kids who get incarcerated do worse than kids who don’t. Most importantly, from a public safety perspective, they’re more likely to get re-arrested, so knowing that, knowing that you have a political environment that supports [reform] and that there are these huge expenditures on facilities that are for the smallest number of the kids in the system, are not getting good outcomes and are for kids who don’t necessarily pose a public safety threat provides a lot of support for doing something different. And we know more and more about not only the brain research for kids but we know more about the interventions out there that can do some good.

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One thought on “The JJIE Interview: Nate Balis Steps up at Annie E. Casey

  1. I have followed JJIE’s work for a number of years. They are doing amazing work in collaboration with state and local authorities. A similar model is desperately needed in other countries around the world. My work in Mexico shows that an JJIE-like model could be remarkably successful.