In 2008, Wendy Jones’ teenage son, Corby, began getting into trouble with the law: skipping school, doing drugs, stealing. His behavior soon landed him in Benton County, Arkansas, juvenile court, followed by a stay in the local juvenile detention center, or JDC, a 36-bed, jail-like facility in Bentonville, not far from the home offices of Walmart.
In April, a 15-year-old boy housed at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center spent the entire day alone in a small cell. Michael (the names of juveniles in this story have been changed to protect their anonymity) was put in a hold by a guard and taken out of his classroom at the facility’s school. As he repeatedly said, “I am not resisting” and “no aggression” — a phrase used at AJATC to indicate compliance — Michael was brought across campus to Building 19.
During my testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights last month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman and majority whip, asked me if I am in favor of police on school campuses. To the dismay of some of my friends who stand by my side in this fight to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline,” I answered a qualified yes. Police on campus, I explained, must be specially trained in adolescent development, crisis intervention and fostering positive relationships with students. Two days later, a deranged shooter entered the campus of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. killing 20 children and six adults.
In a state regularly beset by lawsuits about conditions at some of its juvenile detention centers, an official Mississippi task force is starting work on diversion and setting higher standards. “This lack of sufficient staff has caused the facility to practice imminent and deliberate harm to youth … the facility is forced to place the kids on lockdown most of the day; not because they want to, but because it’s the only way to maintain any type of control,” reads a court-appointed inspector’s report on the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in Hinds County, Mississippi. “This lack of appropriate staffing dictates the level of violence that is experienced in the facility.”
The lockup for up to 84 youth is unclean and “has a dungeon-like feeling.” Two juveniles admitted to the facility were allowed no phone call or shower. While there’s some limited recreational programming for boys, there’s none apparent for girls. That July 2012 report is a recent, but not unique, verdict on some of Mississippi’s juvenile detention centers.
Bart Lubow, who has been working for more than 20 years to reduce the number of youth being sent to detention centers, told a gathering of approximately 700 conference attendees this morning that now “may prove to be a unique moment in juvenile justice history, a time when, as a nation, we shed some of the system’s worst baggage—including our unnecessary and often inappropriate reliance on secure confinement” of youth. The conference attendees are in Houston for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative conference, which as its name implies is working to reduce the number of youth sent into detention and instead aims to provide community-centered alternatives. The conference is hosted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Apparently the 19-year quest is working. Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Casey Foundation, told the gathering that “JDAI sites have reduced reliance on secure detention overall by 42 percent, with numerous jurisdictions posting reductions in excess of 50 percent.” All of this happening without compromising public safety, he said.
Texas State Senator John Whitmire came to the podium last night at the opening of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) conference in Houston and got right to the core work of the JDAI. Five years ago, he said, 5,000 youth in Texas were incarcerated at any one time. Today the number is down to 1,500. It has happened, he said, without compromising public safety. The JDAI is an initiative backed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and according to its press release, “In 2010, JDAI sites detained 42 percent fewer youth — approximately 2,400 — on an average day than they had prior to implementing approaches that include electronic monitoring, community monitoring, and day or evening reporting centers.”
Bart Lubow is the designer and manager of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. The JDIA focuses on reducing unnecessary detention of juveniles in the nation. With a track record of reducing detention by more than 40 percent, JDAI is the nation’s most widely replicated juvenile justice system reform project. He recently spoke to Reclaiming Futures’ Liz Wu about the program’s successes.