As someone who has worked, lived and breathed our mission statement: “Treat all youths in custody as one of our own,” I was ecstatic when the research on the teenage brain and adolescent development made its way into juvenile justice. The 2013 publication of the National Academy of Science’s “Reforming Juvenile Justice, A Developmental Approach” in particular launched new reforms and accelerated existing ones in the facilities and community programs we work with at Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS). I thank the John D. MacArthur Foundation and Laurie Garduque in particular for supporting the research over much of the last two decades that created the so-called Fourth Wave of Reform.
Conversations among corrections and detention leaders and professionals, locally and nationally, changed from how to reduce punishment to how to catch youths doing things right — because that’s what the research says works best. Now standing on solid ground with the adolescent development research, deep-end reformers expanded daily programming to include more time with families, sought out and secured opportunities for youths to work and make connections in the community and trained staff to build healthy, nurturing relationships with youths. Youth councils became more the rule than the exception. At PbS, we created the Kids Got Talent Contest and host the winner each year to travel and perform live as the feature act of our national awards night. I worried the first year we might not get any or only a few submissions but the contest was embraced. Youths and staff were excited to share their talents and the competition has grown each year.
It seems the wave is on a roll.
But, as is so well written and thoughtfully presented in the recent publication “Assuring the Future of Developmental Reform in Juvenile Justice” (I was a member of the panel that identified the threats to the reforms; that became the report), there are challenges to sustaining the reforms and even threats to the long-range objectives because of the reform movement itself. There are many vulnerabilities that put the good work at risk, especially at the deep end of juvenile justice.
To be very clear: My passion is the youths who are in custody. They are the reason I get up and go to work. I don’t want them to be locked up or caught in the web of the juvenile justice system at all. I know the research on the effectiveness of community-based programs and promote diversion. I want juvenile justice reform to do all that’s possible to reduce the use of secure facilities and avoid placing any youths in secure programs when they don’t need them. But if they are, we are morally obligated to provide them with the best services and opportunities we can, to bring the research into practice and keep them on the path to maturing to be healthy, productive and fulfilled adults.
What I fear threatens the powerful reforms sweeping state, county and community residential facilities is using the developmental approach as evidence that all secure facilities must be closed because all facilities are “bad.”
Here’s why: First, as unpopular as it is to say, secure placement is the right place for a very few youths who are dangerous and have developmental needs for interventions that can only be managed in secure settings: serious offenders, repeat offenders and youths who need more structured treatment to prepare them for reentry than a community program can provide. I interviewed a youth in a secure facility who had been playing Russian roulette with his best friend. He pointed the gun to his temple, nothing happened. He pointed at his friend’s temple, it fired, his friend died. He needed intensive treatment and 24-hour supervision. It was the best place for him. He felt safe and cared for and was afraid to return to the community.
Our justice system relies on incarceration. Without secure facilities for young offenders, judges are most likely to send a youth charged with murder or rape to an adult prison rather than to the community. Informally and formally, the system will be restructured to transfer those youths to adult prisons, the opposite result intended by the developmentally based reform efforts to keep youths out of adult prisons. Juvenile justice essentially becomes eliminated as an option, the opposite intention of reform efforts to ensure youths are recognized by our justice system as developmentally different from adults.
Second, the drive to close all juvenile secure facilities infers that all facilities are bad when there is evidence that they are not. Labeling facilities as bad has the same effect as it does when we label youths as bad: They lose motivation to change. It is a quick way to discourage the staff working with the youths every day. Another youth I interviewed in a facility summed it up: “When people tell me I’m bad, it don’t make it easy to be good.”
There are some very good secure treatment facilities across the country.
They don’t get a lot of positive attention in the reform movement but they are having the impact the Fourth Wave intends. Agency directors, facility administrators and line staff who treat youths like they are their own children, create nurturing relationships, partner with parents, create hope for youths and promote their self-confidence and self-awareness. Their data shows youths and staff are safe, and developmentally appropriate programming prepares the youths for reentry.
PbS is the only entity that surveys youths, staff and families twice a year to hear what they have to say about safety, services, relationships, quality of life and culture. I share some of the responses from April 2017 with the full understanding that the information indicates the work ahead as well as the work to date:
- When asked “What is the best thing this facility did to get you ready to move to your next placement or to go home?” the top three responses were: Learn to make better choices (67 percent), Improve my attitude (61 percent) and Be accountable for my actions (59 percent);
- Most said their family felt welcome at the facility (70 percent) and that their family and staff generally got along with each other (72 percent);
- When asked about fairness, 83 percent said staff are fair applying rules about phone calls, 72 percent said staff are fair about discipline issues and 60 percent said the rules are fair.
- Additionally, 75 percent said staff seemed to genuinely care about them and 68 percent said overall they trust staff.
I was extremely fortunate to be a member of the Forecasting Project working to identify the challenges the reform would face and strategies to ensure the changes were sustained. It was the most remarkable process and thorough examination by the most dedicated and knowledgeable group of individuals I’ve ever experienced. They did not recommend the closing of youth secure facilities.
To move forward, the group recommends that the organizations and individuals promoting reform collaborate and be aware of causing unintended negative consequences. There are more than 50,000 youths in custody, and they need the wave of the adolescent development reform to include them, not wash over them.
Kim Godfrey serves as executive director of the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS), a national nonprofit dedicated to treating all youths in custody as one of our own. Kim has worked since 1995 developing and directing PbS, a data-driven improvement model that holds juvenile justice agencies to the highest standards of quality of life, programs and services.