PHILADELPHIA — Back in 1992, when the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative formed, it seemed unthinkable that JDIA would grow into the enormously influential juvenile justice reform effort it has become.
Bart Lubow, delivering his final “state-of-the-initiative” speech at the JDAI Inter-Site Conference here Tuesday, recalled that the “super-predator” myth had taken hold by the early 1990s.
“That period’s spike in violent juvenile crime triggered an appetite for retribution against teenagers that was universal across the political spectrum,” Lubow said. “It would have been preposterously optimistic [then] to imagine the current state of this work.”
Lubow, who is retiring after 22 years as director of Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, recalled the first JDAI Inter-Site Conference in Greenwich, Conn., in 1992, with 30 representatives from five participating sites, some technical assistance experts and Casey Foundation staff.
“No one at that December 1992 gathering would have dared predict a juvenile justice improvement of such breadth and influence” as today’s JDAI, Lubow told about 800 juvenile justice leaders. “When we began JDAI more than two decades ago, juvenile justice was under attack, and the very notion of a separate system of justice for children and youth was at risk.”
Today, JDAI operates in more than 280 sites in 39 states and the District of Columbia, and new sites continue to express interest in replicating JDAI’s work, Lubow noted.
“In a word, I would say the state of the initiative is ‘robust.’ It is big and still growing. It’s accomplished though not yet necessarily fulfilled. And it is influential but still challenging some of the persistent myths about crime and punishment,” Lubow said.
“What explains this growth across the country? I think clearly, it is results.”
At JDAI sites, Lubow said, reliance on secure detention has declined 44 percent since the initiative began. That translates to almost 4,000 fewer children in detention centers on a given day at JDAI sites.
Put another way, the decline means JDAI sites have spared kids 1.3 million days of detention thus far.
At the same time, Lubow said, the initiative has helped reduce racial and ethnic disparities in local juvenile detention facilities
But despite progress, he said, wide disparities remain.
“If you hear nothing more from me in these comments today, hear this: Despite JDAI’s many successes, we have a long way to go to achieve an equitable system,” Lubow said.
He said the reductions in juvenile confinement came without sacrificing public safety: Virtually across the board, the sites report lower levels of juvenile crime than before JDAI reforms. Thus, a “major myth” — that reducing juvenile detention would jeopardize public safety — has been “blown away by the results your sites have achieved.”
JDAI sites have also significantly reduced the number of kids committed to state institutions, reflecting what research on adults has shown: that the likelihood of sentences of incarceration is higher among those detained pre-trial than for those released on bail or personal recognizance.
Lubow also expressed optimism about JDAI’s recent move to focus on the “deep end,” or dispositional end of the system, pointing to promising decreases in commitments in St. Louis, Mo., after its focus on the deep end in 2013.
He pointed out the nation has slashed juvenile incarceration by almost half since 1995, and the rate of decline has increased dramatically in the past few years, putting the juvenile system at the “forefront of justice system reform,” Lubow said.
“Hopefully,” he added, “these reductions are a welcome harbinger that the era of mass incarceration is coming to an end,” he said in the 27-minute address, which was interrupted several times by applause.
Lubow pointed to the breadth of the three-day conference’s packed agenda as a measure of how far the initiative has come.
Topics among the more than 40 workshops: families that have taken judicial authorities to task over treatment of their children and demanded they be included in the process; schools that have abandoned “zero-tolerance” policies; police departments that have received training on adolescent development and its implications for law enforcement; new JDAI detention standards that call for a ban on the psychological torture that is solitary confinement; and “Positive Youth Justice,” which Lubow called a “radical departure” from the notion that the best way to change adolescents’ behavior is largely through “punishment or treating pathologies.”
Lubow also took the opportunity to give a nod to award-winning author Nell Bernstein for her riveting book “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison,” a clarion call to abolish juvenile prisons in America.
But Lubow tempered his optimism with sobering realities.
“At its best, and in my most optimistic moments, I see in our detention-reform movement as one manifestation, just one, but an important one of the much-needed effort to reconcile our nation’s long-stated commitment to freedom and liberty with our tragic history of racial injustice and oppression,” he said.
“Does that notion that what we do may somehow contribute to this centuries-old struggle for equality and freedom in our country seem too lofty an ambition for something like JDAI or for any other similar system-improvement initiative? Perhaps. But for me, ultimately, this is why we do this work.”
That work, Lubow said, goes beyond reducing unnecessary or inappropriate detention; decreasing delays that have extended lengths of stay for incarcerated youth; and improving failure-to-appear and re-arrest rates — though all those goals are important.
“Ultimately,” he said, “we do this because safe and peaceful communities and the well-being of our most disadvantaged youth can only be achieved through newly forged relationships that are grounded in respect and equality.
“And those new relationships are unlikely to be enduringly built at the … walls currently separating the impoverished and the privileged or the incarcerated from their keepers. They can be built, however, through the daily pursuits of a vision for the future, one that’s more restorative and less retributive, one that is more forgiving of typical adolescent transgressions while also more demanding of our collective responsibility.”
Lubow called on his JDAI colleagues to hold tightly to big aspirations and motivations and reminded them of his “my-child test” — the idea that we should treat children in the juvenile justice system the way we would want our own children treated if they got into trouble with the law.
“If we don’t dream big, if we’re unwilling to aspire to real justice in our own time, it will likely be our lack of vision first and foremost that’s to blame for our failure to achieve a juvenile justice system that can pass the ‘my-child test,’” he said.
“Change will not be quick, which is why none of us should ever lose our sense of urgency for the work, nor simple. … Now that we have confidence that comes from knowing that we can at least minimize the harm that public systems often do to kids, I think it’s time that we get about the business of retooling our systems so that they actually can do some good. That’s a big aspiration. I hope you’ll embrace it.”
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