Reliance on Detention for Juvenile Justice a Lazy, Uninformed Habit That Must Be Broken

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Bill SiffermannIn a recent trip to my cardiologist’s office, the hazards of one’s (my) choice of double cheeseburgers as a regular dietary mainstay was called into question as a primary health risk affecting several organs and overall life expectancy. An immediate dietary adjustment was ordered.

What? Yes. A comfortable and tasty habit needed to be broken and substituted with a healthier alternative for the good of my entire system. Data showing the efficacy of healthier eating habits and lifestyles provided sufficient motivation. Easier said than done. But firm resolve, revised dietary practices, healthy alternative food selections and vigilant attention to the task at hand served as the formula for success.

Such a case can be made when examining the juvenile justice system’s over-reliance on secure juvenile detention as the only way to satisfy one’s hunger for juvenile justice.

Premise 1: Juvenile detention satisfies the undisciplined, unchallenged and unfettered collective hunger of system stakeholders for what they individually perceive as “juvenile justice.”

Most juvenile justice experts can agree on the measured need for safe and secure juvenile detention facilities, when reserved solely for those youth who present significant risk to public safety, when used on a short-term basis and only while cases proceed through adjudication to disposition (sentencing). However, it is the system practitioners’ cumulative use of this most costly resource that provokes the need for system reform and for an institutionalized scrutiny of every admission. Its focus should include the “mover” of detention (the practitioner recommending detention), the reason for detention, current and projected length of stay, and an expedited release plan.

Since the probation department’s per diem cost of secure custody is three to four times the daily cost of a detention alternative, such as electronic monitoring or a community-based evening reporting center, it is incumbent upon probation to undertake this custodial review responsibility to minimize detention costs. Many juvenile probation departments have established regular reviews of the detained population. They have also prioritized the use of secure custody for only those posing the greatest risk of flight or committing subsequent criminal acts while their initial cases are pending.

Yet analyses of detained populations on any given day will find that the majority of the residents are detained for technical probation violations, misdemeanors and out-of-home placements. Other major reasons for detainment: Attorneys will sometimes enter into agreements that will keep a youth in detention for long periods of time to delay adjudication or avoid sending the youth to a state correctional facility. Detention centers are not suited for long-term commitments pending a final dispositional order (sentence). They generally do not have the programming capacity.

Premise 2: Detention appetites are too easily satisfied by habits that favor personal preference, professional convenience, past practice or situational comfort.

Police, probation officers, prosecutors, public and private defense attorneys and judges have all, at various times and for a variety of reasons, begun discussions during the intake process or in court that placed youth in secure detention when the availability of less costly alternative supervision plans designed to produce even better outcomes were never even considered or were outright eschewed. In many instances, the well-documented negative outcomes impacting detained youth are overlooked or simply ignored. The pursuit of an order of detention is often the easiest and most expedient route taken.

To defeat the routine use of this default disposition, regularly updated outcome data assembled on youth placed into detention alternative programming should be placed into the hands of all practitioners. Juveniles who were charged with felonies and released into community-based detention alternative programming (I witnessed this first-hand in Cook County, Illinois, in San Francisco and other jurisdictions practicing detention reform initiatives promoted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation) have a recurring success rate exceeding 90 percent, with success being measured as returning to court for all later hearings arrest-free before disposition.

Public safety achieved at reduced costs is not only fiscally prudent in the short term, but the added value of detention alternatives comes in the form of a pre-established community resource that will assist the youth during any term of supervision or probation entered by the court in the long term. Community agencies introduced to the youth and family during the initial juvenile justice episode will remain available to them long after the matter concludes, and long after the juvenile justice practitioners’ business ends.

Premise 3: Detention gluttony (excessive use of secure detention) occurs when the volume of admissions exceeds the institution’s maximum capacity to deliver comprehensive services in fulfillment of its mission and in accordance with its statutory obligations.

Multiple studies conclude that overcrowded and overutilized juvenile detention centers are unsafe and often contribute to future delinquent and criminal behaviors when the custodial, educational, recreational and health-related responsibilities are provided to a census beyond the facility’s and staff’s capacity. Under these circumstances detained youth tend to spend more time sequestered in their rooms, reducing the opportunities to establish meaningful connections with community-based providers standing ready to develop and execute safe and comprehensive release plans in concert with the probation officers. While secure detention is believed to produce 100 percent rates of arrest-free appearances at later court hearings, the fact is, incidents of youth vs. youth and youth vs. staff violence incubated in these close quarters often generate new delinquency charges, projecting extended bed days in secure custody.

Premise 4: Juvenile justice system practitioners’ appetite for justice (and the long-term success rate for juvenile court wards) can be better satisfied by faithful adherence to revised detention admission policies, subscription to new case processing and review practices and comprehensive use of community-based detention alternative programs.

I offer first-hand witness accounts of the significant reductions in the use of secure detention in Cook County (Chicago) and San Francisco over the past 15 years based on the comprehensive detention reform plans developed by each of these two juvenile probation departments. Detention admission criteria and screening procedures vetted among all system stakeholders reduced the number of front-door admissions when expedited out-of-custody arraignment hearings were introduced.

Community-based shelters were created to accept youth in detention who were released by the court but pending parental pick-up and those youth awaiting long-term residential placements. Per diem shelter costs were a fraction of detention bed days. Evening reporting centers were developed for youth pending adjudication or a violation of probation hearings, who previously were held in secure detention. Community-based social services agencies were assembled to learn what features the judges believed to be important components of these centers. Direct supervision of the youth during the hours of 3:30-9 p.m. in the confines of a safe educational venue that provides social, educational and nutritional programming, would, in their opinion, mitigate the need for detention if the probation officer confirmed eligibility. The programs were established in the neighborhoods where the homes of the detained existed.

Probation officers were charged with the responsibility to monitor the use of these detention alternatives along with the supervision of youth placed on home confinement or electronic monitoring (instead of detention). In San Francisco, the chief probation officer convened weekly detention review meetings with supervising probation officers to question the reason for detention and the release plan in place. Supervisors were charged with the responsibility to review and approve any/all detention recommendations made by subordinate probation officers.

Functional Family Therapy programs were created for families in crisis due to the onset of the pending delinquency matter. This resource diverted youth out of detention. These new policies and administrative practices not only produced a dramatic decline in the numbers of youth detained but also contributed to the decline in out-of-home residential placements and commitments to state correctional facilities.

Premise 5: The overall health of the juvenile justice system relies upon the prudent use of resources devoted to the protection of public safety in the short term by ensuring the appropriate use of secure detention and in the long term through the use of community-based programs designed to enhance personal competencies directed toward productive lifestyles.

There’s no “magic” contained only in the beds of a juvenile detention center that can transform an adolescent’s life before criminal behavior moves in. Juvenile justice only occurs within the supportive home and community that sponsors his/her return with open arms, open minds and open hearts.

The future success of the juvenile justice system will rely upon its ability to reimagine itself and safely adjust its secure detention use and practices in ways that reduce unnecessary admissions and lengths of stays. Bed day dollars saved are better invested in community programming, which has greater promise of long-term dividends.

Bill Siffermann is a retired chief juvenile probation officer from San Francisco. His career as a juvenile probation officer began in 1970 in Cook County (Chicago), where he spent 34 years in progressively responsible positions overseeing delinquency caseloads, preadjudicatory diversion, intensive supervision programs and, as deputy director, co-led Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), which was later selected as one of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s National Model Sites. In 2005 he was selected as San Francisco’s chief juvenile probation officer, where he continued to advance the principles of detention reform. Retiring in 2013, his work in juvenile justice continues as a consultant.

6 thoughts on “Reliance on Detention for Juvenile Justice a Lazy, Uninformed Habit That Must Be Broken

  1. Wrong. Fact based studies obtain information from the facilties housing the offenders. I have personally witnessed.the info provided to organizations purposely altered and manipulated, on a regular basis, to obtain the “needed” results. For example if an org is studying the effects of reduced confinement proceedures the negative effect of this is it does dramatically increase violence against other youth and employees. The assaults and fighting are now suddenly “classified” as insolent behavior. Thus the info provided by the facilties to these org will show no increase in violance. Don’t be deceived by advocates agendas. The supervisor from the juvenile facilities provide info to make themselves look good. Talk to long term, non managerial employee and the truth will be told. Be careful as often times management will select the employees to be interviewed. I have 20+ years working inside a juvenile facility. And I have witness the attempts of numerous changes. I seen one huge improvement 10 yrs ago and it was ended by management as it was not supported by the advocates.

  2. Insane. These youths do not want help. They do not go to these institutions for petty little crimes. They go for heinous acts, or as a last resort after being arrested a hundred times. These are the youths that don’t want to change and will flat out tell you they intend on living a life of crime. So yes, I would like them locked up so that they cannot kill one of my loved ones. I don’t feel that’s “lazy”.

  3. Always enjoy Bill’s analysis and use of humor to frame his insights and thoughtful recommendations! Mike Rohan