Tight Budgets Accomplish for Juvenile Justice What Fighting Fear Could Not

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(Part 7)

Fear begets lies that suppress truth.

We Americans take pride in our democracy. Abraham Lincoln aptly described it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

At the core of democracy is the power of persuasion, the ability to forge a majority to take a position. But it was also Lincoln who warned us to guard against the dark side of democracy, or what he referred to in his speech on “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions” as “mob law.”

Our democracy is most at risk not from those outside our boundaries, but from those within who take liberty with our fundamental right of free speech to arouse the passions of people against the minority.

These passions are often aroused by distorting facts and casting aspersions upon those who look different or believe differently. Too many times this tactic sways a majority to tyrannize a minority.

The subject of Lincoln’s speech was a black man chained to a tree by a mob whipped up to anger by a few white men and set on fire to die, all because those few didn’t like that he had become a freeman.

Stories abound of abuse directed at people of color and those of differing religious views at the hands of a majority who are following mob law. However, we tend to overlook that we have done the same to another minority, our children.

When juvenile crime spiked in the ’90s and reputable folks were predicting a new generation of superpredator kids pillaging and killing indiscriminately, it is no wonder why so many politicians raced to their legislative chambers to pass laws to lock up more kids.

And it is no wonder that the positive outcomes of the “Massachusetts Experiment” of the ’70s got buried in the avalanche of these fear-mongering demagogues of the ’90s.

During the ’80s, it appeared that the Massachusetts Experiment was forging a new trend as several states were following Massachusetts’ lead and closing facilities. In 1980, for example, the Utah governor created a task force to reform juvenile justice modeled after the Massachusetts Experiment. This resulted in the closure of its 450-bed training school, replaced by two 30-bed secure facilities and the funding redirected to a system of community-based alternatives. Just as they found in Massachusetts, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency also reported a substantial reduction in reoffending among the youth treated in the community.

Thanks to the courage of Jerome Miller, we discovered a new movement in juvenile justice that I have labeled “Prevention, not detention.” It was the movement I introduced to my community when I took the bench in the late ’90s when the mantra was “Detention, not prevention.”

The Massachusetts Experiment was poised as the trend-setter, but the premature clamor over the prediction of superpredator kids taking over the streets and wreaking mayhem created fear that buried prevention and resurrected detention.

Fear is a formidable weapon against what works to prevent delinquency and reduce reoffending. This is especially true when the masses are not informed of what works. This is compounded by the fact that what does work in juvenile justice is counter-intuitive and the unfamiliar can be frightening.

Change attracts fear. What we don’t know is scary, and so we want to cling to what we do know. Those who peddle fear know this all too well.

I need only point to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who used the politics of fear when he led the Committee on Un-American Activities in the ’50s. He wielded the sword of fear so fiercely that the term “McCarthyism” was coined to describe “demagogic, reckless, and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.”

Today’s reformers have taken a different approach to defend against those who use fear as a political tool to quash the trend of de-incarceration.

Vincent Schiraldi, who began his career as a reformer with Miller at the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives in the ’80s, described it best, saying “We got clobbered in the 1990s.”

Heeding this, today’s reformers are creating a network of reforms that are so intertwined they can withstand getting “clobbered” again.

Our exit from the ’90s was our return to the Massachusetts Experiment of de-incarceration. That was galvanized by numerous factors, beginning with the declining crime rates, belying the “superpredator” scare.

Not only did declining crime rates remove the justification to incarcerate more kids, but the opposing trend to de-incarcerate was boosted by a detention reform movement spearheaded by Annie E. Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative. It was created in the early ’90s and grew astronomically into this decade.

This resurrection was also boosted by other factors, the most influential being the discovery made in the late ’90s by Dr. Jay Giedd and his colleagues using Magnetic Resonance Imaging that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which translates emotion into logic, is not developed until age 25.

When we least expected it, but when most needed, the justification for juvenile courts got a big boost from unlikely heroes in the medical field — physicians.

The strength of this medical evidence can’t be overstated, as it is the cornerstone of landmark Supreme Court decisions banning the use of execution and life without parole for juveniles. Teenagers are under neurological construction, and despite their creative and intellectual capacities to do great and wonderful things, they are still wired to do stupid things.

And regardless how derogatory that may sound, let us not forget that it is their proneness to do the stupid that is saving them from death row and life in prison — literally.

Another factor promoting the de-incarceration trend is the research showing that incarceration doesn’t reduce reoffending after release. In fact, there are studies showing it increases the risk to reoffend.

Also fanning the fuel for de-incarceration are the many scandals of abuse in youth correctional facilities. It shocks the conscience of most people to hear stories on the news of kids hanging themselves and being raped and beaten to death by the adults over them.

And who would have thought that the Great Recession would cause folks to turn their attention to juvenile justice reforms, cutting budgets by reducing reliance on youth prisons and turning to the less expensive community-based programs?

Suddenly, the politicians with the punitive bent acknowledged what the rest of us learned years ago from Miller — that kids fare better in the community using effective programming.

For some, money has a way to open eyes that were once wide shut.

We have learned in this business of doing what works to accept whatever it takes to get what works, and to have the courage to know what not to fear.

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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