OP-ED: Reformers Must Be As Militant As the Purposely Ignorant

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Judge Steven Teske

StevenTeske-edit“Life is difficult,” wrote Dr. M. Scott Peck in his best-seller “The Road Less Traveled.”

So is rehabilitation.

Not only because it’s difficult to do, but because of the militantly ignorant who make it difficult for the rest of us trying to make it work.

They’re the ones who are quick to point to the kid who committed a heinous crime as an example of how alternatives to incarceration are not effective — that perfection is incarceration because crimes don’t occur when the kids are locked up.

Their attitude is militant because they choose to ignore the flip side — the many rehabilitated because they didn’t go to prison. It is a character disorder that blinds them to the truth that most of the kids we incarcerate return home in worse shape.

There are no perfect practices. As much as we want to, and as hard as we try, we can’t fix every kid.

Rehabilitation is like fighting cancer — we know the best treatments to improve the chance of recovery, but the best will not save every afflicted person.

It comes down to perfecting how we do an imperfect practice. It’s not good enough to say we are doing best practices, we must be perfecting how we do what’s best.

Communities that have turned to alternatives to incarceration and replaced them with best practices have experienced an improvement in the quality of life.

My community, for example, experienced a dramatic increase in crime in the last decade with heightened gang violence resulting in kids dying, homes invaded and cars stolen. Graduation rates hit an all-time low of 58 percent.

It was time for our community to rethink the way we addressed crime. “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” said our police chief.

The incident-driven approach was easy — “cleared by arrest.” It had to be replaced by something not so easy — something controversial.

If incarceration wasn’t working, why not do the opposite? This wasn’t thinking outside the box — it was thinking outside the room the box was in.

It’s said that desperate people try desperate things. Kids were dying in gun battles and drivebys. We made the local news almost daily. People were moving away and folks in neighboring counties drove around us.

I seized the moment of desperation and introduced a controversial approach at a community forum — Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). They embraced it, and why not?

JDAI became the foundation upon which we built our house of best practices. It begins with engaging kids in a positive way. How we treat kids in schools and courts can decide the who, what and where of their future. What we do to them today decides what they become tomorrow.

The paradigm shifted from incident-driven policing in schools and on the streets to problem-oriented policing.

The country’s first school-justice agreement reduced school arrests by 83 percent. A multidisciplinary panel was created to help students with disruptive behavior caused largely by trauma associated with poverty.

Instead of engaging in war on the poor, we decided to engage in war on poverty. Instead of incarcerating the sheep, we targeted the wolves using best practice interventions including cognitive restructuring, multisystemic therapy, functional family therapy and others.

We implemented an objective detention admission tool to separate those who make us mad from those who scare us. Our average daily incarceration rate fell from 72 to 10.1.

We developed a risk and needs tool to help us decide who was salvageable. Our commitments to state custody fell 77 percent.

By keeping kids in school, out of the courts and involved in best practices in the homes, schools and the community with their families involved, our juvenile filings fell 62 percent.

Our graduation rates have been steadily increasing ever since. How goes graduation, so goes crime. Our police chief recently revealed that crime in our county is down — how go our kids today, so go our adults tomorrow.

But no matter how perfected the best practice, some kids will do bad things.

When this occurs, we can’t let our frustration over what should have worked but didn’t cause us to overlook the best practice differential — the greater number rehabilitated in a best practice system compared to a system that enjoys handcuffs.

Our level of frustration is directly proportional to our appreciation of this best practice differential — the more we appreciate that best practices is better than incarceration in most cases, the less frustration we experience when the worst occurs.

But, like the nonresponsive kids, there will always be nonresponsive adults who reject the best practices approach.

I was counseled in this truism by Dr. Peck — in person. It was 1992 when I met him in my search of best practices to take back to the Georgia Parole Board.

He counseled me to be cautious about those described in his second book, “The People of the Lie”: the few among the naysayers of reform who refuse to acknowledge their own ignorance of what is best.

“It is one thing to be ignorant for lack of information,” he told me, “the truth can fix ignorance. But there are some who walk among us who cannot be fixed by the truth.” They suffer from “militant ignorance,” or a conscious disregard of the truth to avoid a universal truth — that everyone sins.

To acknowledge this truth is to acknowledge their own imperfection.

They can’t process the “My Child Test” — how would you want your child to be treated if arrested?

“My child would never get arrested,” they would proclaim. They possess no empathy unless it suits their objective.

My advice in dealing with the militantly ignorant is to be a militant reformer.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

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