A More Perfect Justice System for Our Youth Is Coming — But Slowly

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Judge Steven Teske(Part 5)

What is right will always overcome wrong, even when what is wrong is believed to be right.

It may take years or even centuries, but in time we eventually get it right.

And that has been our journey in juvenile justice, on a road still under construction, trying to get it right.

Consider the wrongness of slavery despite the many who believed it just and moral. It almost kept us from uniting 13 colonies to forge “a more perfect union.” We created a union, but only “more perfect” if you were not a slave.

Inherent in the belief that our nation was created in order to be “a more perfect union” is the idea that change will happen if perfection is to be achieved.

But change has many faces. It can be peaceful through legislative reforms, court litigation or exercising the right of free speech to protest on the streets, or it can be ugly.

Despite the loss of 620,000 souls during our Civil War, and the end of legal slavery, we still didn’t get it right.

The wrong believed to be right took another form — segregation, a watered-down version of slavery, but just as harmful.

The trauma of living a separate and unequal existence can kill. Consider the 3,959 black men, women and children lynched after the Civil War.

Their deaths a tragedy, but in tragedy comes more change with different faces. A new face called civil disobedience was introduced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although the form of disobedience was peaceful, the response from segregationists was anything but peaceful. Civil rights workers were lynched and shot, black churches bombed, marchers and boycotters hosed down and beaten, which influenced other faces to enter the fray of change. With the help of the courts, Congress and presidents came the end of legal segregation and the passage of civil and voting rights acts.

Although these changes have moved us closer to a more perfect union, racial strife continues around us that is symptomatic of a derivative strain of discrimination called implicit bias.

And so the journey toward a perfect union continues.

Finding a more perfect anything is an evolving process and juvenile justice is no exception.

After Jerome Miller pulled the (metaphoric) trigger in 1972 and shuttered the youth facilities in Massachusetts, his shot heard around the world began a revolutionary trend to do the counterintuitive in juvenile justice.

Miller knew his tactics were rebellious, and this was intentional. Had he employed orthodox planning to close the facilities, the mission would have been doomed before it began.

If you’re trying to change a system not wanting change, you’re better off manipulating the system using legitimate means at your disposal, which is akin to the civil disobedience tactics employed to combat the evils of segregation.

Miller would later describe his “Massachusetts Experiment” as “a human passage” that was “raucous, fitful, threatening, exhilarating, at times impulsive, often unpredictable, changing direction as we took advantage of unexpected opportunities — and always difficult. We lived for a time on the edge of bureaucracy, professional ethics, legality and politics.”

Ironically, today’s statewide reforms resemble Miller’s revolutionary experiment in substance though different in form.

Miller showed us how to increase public safety at a lower price tag, and that is attractive to most of us regardless of which side of the political aisle we sit.

By targeting the fewer high-risk offenders for state custody, the need for bed space disappears. When beds disappear, the costs for beds disappear, except today we call it reinvestment.

It was Miller who said, “the test for successful deinstitutionalization is that every dollar attached to an inmate should follow that inmate into the community for at least as long as he or she would have been institutionalized.”  

It took Miller’s rebellious tactics to show us that targeting the fewer high-risk inmates for state custody and diverting the rest to community-based programs supported by the cost savings will improve community safety. But once this breakthrough was made, the outcomes dictated that the means to the end would be replicated elsewhere, as in Georgia and Texas, Florida, Kentucky, Hawaii and this year Utah.

Just as it took rebellious colonies to form “a more perfect union,” it took a rebellious juvenile justice practitioner to show us that there can exist a more perfect system for our youth.

Deinstitutionalization today is led by governors from both sides of the political aisle using interbranch committees guided by data and evidence-based studies.

Unorthodox measures gave us the outcomes and today those outcomes drive the process.

Georgia is among these reforming states that in the ’90s believed what was wrong was right. We jumped on the “superpredator” bandwagon and passed tougher laws for kids. The scare turned out to be a myth, but the damage was done

Our data in Georgia in 2012 revealed that nearly 40 percent of incarcerated youth were low-risk offenders and had no business behind razor-wire fencing, and at a cost of $90,000 annually for each youth. Worse was discovering that 65 percent of these youth reoffended within three years of their release.

It became clear to Republicans and Democrats that the taxpayer was getting the worse end of the stick. This became painfully obvious when the research was clear that low-risk youth would do better in a community-based program at a cost of $8,000 per youth.

We had to put some bang in the taxpayer buck.

So the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2012 to reform the state juvenile justice system limited judicial discretion by barring judges from placing low-risk kids in state custody. This resulted in two youth prisons online for construction removed from the budget and the subsequent closure of two more facilities.

Today’s trends are grounded in doing what is right for kids by exposing what is wrong for them.

And so the journey toward a more perfect juvenile justice system continues.

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.

One thought on “A More Perfect Justice System for Our Youth Is Coming — But Slowly

  1. More money should be spent on preventing these children from going wrong. Early intervention, before they get to school, elementary and middle school. By the time they get to high school it is to late. Compare the price tag, early intervention v trying to fix a broken child ( court, probation, child protection agencies, police, mental health institutions, jails).