The Unlikely Reason Arkansas’ Juvenile Justice System Is Behind the Times


Over the past two years, Arkansas’ juvenile justice system has burst into the news repeatedly — and for all the wrong reasons. In August 2014, the Disability Rights Center documented alarming conditions in the state’s largest juvenile correctional facility. In 2015, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette documented the state’s continuing penchant for jailing children brought to court for status offenses — misbehaviors like skipping school or running away from home that are not illegal for adults — contradicting an overwhelming consensus in the field.

This year, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has made news by single-handedly derailing reauthorization of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in protest against legislative language that would tighten the federal government’s prohibition on confining status offenders.

Meanwhile, even as juvenile incarceration has been plummeting nationwide, Arkansas has increased the number of youth committed to state custody for two straight years despite a continuing drop in their arrests.

Why is Arkansas apparently moving backwards when many of its peers, including several deep red Southern states, have turned a corner by embracing more humane and evidence-based approaches to juvenile justice?

The problem stems largely from the outsized influence of Arkansas’ unique network of service provider agencies, experts and advocates told me.

These agencies are not the kinds of scandal-plagued for-profit prison corporations often (and rightfully) pilloried in the press. Rather, they are nonprofit, community-based and widely respected, with a long history of caring for troubled children.

Most were created in the 1970s after passage of the Runaway Youth Act made federal funds available for programs to assist wayward youth. Initially, the organizations struggled. But that began changing in the late 1970s and early ‘80s after they undertook training on how they could band together and expand their influence.

In later years, the providers put politically connected leaders on their boards and branched out to serve youth in the delinquency system. After forming the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association, they negotiated standard contracts with the Division of Youth Services (DYS) to pay them for community-based services, and some opened residential facilities as well. Rather than fight each other for funding, the 13 providers agreed to carve the state into pieces, and each became the sole recipient of DYS contracts in its given territory.

Though no one I spoke with accused the providers of corruption, or even bad will, several observers described them as obstacles to reform. “The providers have become very entrenched,” explained Paul Kelly, who once ran a provider agency and served as the first director of the providers association.

“They very seldom have anyone competing with them,” said Kelly, who now works at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. The providers have fought “any really meaningful accountability for the impact of their services,” he added.

Mickey Yeager, a data analyst at DYS from 2009 to 2014, was more blunt: “The providers in Arkansas are very powerful. They basically do what they want.”

Ron Angel, who served as DYS director from 2007 to 2013, recalls his first meeting with the providers. “They told me: They have been here for 30 years … They knew what was needed, and there was nothing that could be brought in that would work any better than what they were doing at the time.”


The message was jarring, because DYS was then facing a lawsuit over abusive conditions in its main juvenile facility, and because just 15 percent of the youth committed to state custody in 2007 had committed a serious violent felony, while 42 percent had committed only misdemeanors.

At DYS, Angel overhauled the state’s largest facility, and sought to reduce the number of low-risk youth in residential custody while expanding and improving community programs. He set a goal for each judicial district in the state to reduce commitments by at least 10 percent per year, and he created an incentive fund to support new programming in the districts where commitments declined 20 percent.

The changes made a difference. From 2007 to 2012, the number of youth committed to state custody fell. So did the average population in state youth facilities and the share of committed youth who had been adjudicated for misdemeanors. But the improvements were modest.

In early 2013, Angel and his allies crafted a legislative proposal to create local Community Youth Services Boards and engage entire communities, not just service providers, in determining the right mix of programs for court-involved youth.

The bill was throttled, however, when providers worked their contacts in the Legislature and mounted a lobbying campaign against it.

John Furness, executive director of Comprehensive Juvenile Services in Fort Smith, Arkansas, is unapologetic about killing Angel’s proposal. “I saw that as a complete dismantling of the very established provider network that has been in place for many years and does good work,” Furness told me. “I thought it was a bad bill, and we spoke out against it.”

Within weeks, Angel tendered his resignation and retired.

The provider association’s fingerprints can also be seen in the dearth of meaningful data analysis in Arkansas’ juvenile system and the frequent leadership turnover at DYS.

Before 2007, DYS made little effort to analyze its population, or determine what worked and didn’t work. “The data was there. You just had to pull it,” recalled Yeager, the data specialist. “But no one was digging through it.”

When Angel tried to make service providers report details on the services they offered and their results, “you would have thought we had asked for their firstborn child,” Angel recalled. “How can you base your treatment if you don’t have standards where you can measure what’s being successful and what’s not?”

The providers “fought us every step of the way,” Yeager added. “Ron was called to the capital several times …  because he was trying to track the performance of the providers.”

That dynamic wasn’t new, Kelly said: “I have sat back and watched [the providers] make life miserable for one DYS director after another, just because they propose a different way of doing things or make life in any way uncomfortable.”

Angel’s greatest accomplishment at DYS may have been simply lasting for six years. He arrived as the agency’s ninth new director in 12 years. Since his retirement, DYS has cycled through two more directors. In April, the latest one abruptly resigned and the agency is now led by an interim appointee.

Despite these impediments, momentum for reform is once again building in Arkansas. Promising models for enhanced risk and need assessments, detention reform and improved juvenile probation practice are being tested around the state. The state’s court system is improving juvenile data collection and has established an active juvenile justice reform subcommittee.

Plus, a youth justice reform board appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchison appears ready to support a multimillion-dollar incentive fund to reduce the number of kids sentenced to state custody, reviving Angel’s strategy. Meanwhile, many of the state’s juvenile judges are abandoning old-school, law-and-order orthodoxy and embracing more therapeutic and targeted approaches.

Across Arkansas, judges and other local leaders are growing more and more familiar with the dramatic advances the juvenile justice field has made in recent years, more and more eager to embrace what works — as their peers have done in other states.

Amid this groundswell, providers will face increasing pressure to adapt new practices, collect better data and measure performance. If they continue to resist, the providers will likely squander their credibility and lose their cherished place at the heart of the Arkansas system.

The pull of progress is simply too strong.

Dick Mendel is an independent writer and editor on juvenile justice and other youth, poverty and community development issues. He has written nationally disseminated reports for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others and has also written articles for The Atlantic, Washington Monthly, Legal Times, Raleigh News and Observer and Baltimore Sun.

Analysis: What’s the Matter With Arkansas?

Hard work.The person rolls the rock on mountain

A dozen years ago, former Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank wrote an unlikely best-seller, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” It examined why that state’s once moderate voters had swung hard right in their political leanings, and why less affluent Kansans were consistently voting for ultraconservatives advocating sweeping policy changes that conflicted with these voters’ economic interests.

Frank’s book did not focus on juvenile justice. But while Kansas politics have continued to lurch ever rightward, the state has made encouraging strides in reforming its juvenile justice system. In April, Kansas enacted an ambitious new law sharply restricting the use of incarceration for youth, shortening lengths of stay, limiting confinement for violations of probation and expanding evidence-based community treatment programs.

And it’s not just Kansas. Many other states, including several in the South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia), have also embraced the evidence showing that family-focused and community-based interventions work better than confinement to combat delinquency — and have implemented sweeping reforms to put these ideas into practice.

But then there’s Arkansas.

Over the last two years, Arkansas’ juvenile justice system has burst onto the scene repeatedly … and for all the wrong reasons. In August 2014, the Disability Rights Center released a report documenting alarming conditions in the state’s largest juvenile correctional facility. While juvenile incarceration rates nationwide have been plummeting, Arkansas has actually increased the number of commitments in each of the past two years despite a continuing drop in juvenile arrests statewide.

Arkansas has also been in the national news spotlight because one of its U.S. senators, Tom Cotton, has single-handedly derailed reauthorization of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. His stance reflects the position of numerous juvenile judges in Arkansas who, despite an overwhelming consensus in the field, oppose plans to close a longstanding loophole in the federal government’s prohibition on confining status offenders.

In 2015, a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a series of investigative stories documenting the state’s continuing penchant for jailing children brought to court for skipping school, running away from home, disobeying their parents, drinking alcohol or breaking other rules aimed only at children. The reporter, Chad Day, told of a 10-year-old girl who spent a week behind bars for violating a judge’s order, and a 12-year-old boy who likewise committed no crime, but was nonetheless locked up for a month in detention alongside older boys accused of rape, first-degree battery and other felonies.

Then this April, the state’s juvenile corrections director abruptly resigned just days after getting blasted in the press for suggesting the state should limit commitments to youth adjudicated for felonies, as they do in Texas, California, Virginia, Ohio and other states. The details on this resignation are murky — the official reportedly owed a vast sum in back taxes, and he was not highly regarded by many in the juvenile justice community. But his departure — the latest in the longstanding revolving door at the top of Arkansas’ Division of Youth Services — has left the state’s already troubled youth corrections agency more rudderless than ever.

The flurry of negative news is all the more striking because, just a few years ago, Arkansas seemed on the road to reforming its system. The state published a strategic plan in 2009 committing itself to a fundamental shift away from excessive confinement and toward greater use of effective community-based services for court-involved youth. For several years the state was implementing that plan and was reportedly making tangible progress — enough to convince a JJIE reporter to write an article in April 2012 asking the question: “Arkansas Juvenile Justice Reform: A Blueprint for National Success?

Not so much, it turns out.

But what lies behind all the recent bad news in Arkansas? And what does the state’s predicament suggest for the national movement to discard jingoistic get-tough orthodoxy, adapt practices in light of brain science and other new evidence, and embrace new and more humane approaches to adolescent misbehavior?

Dick Mendel

Recently I set out to study those questions. I read everything I could find about the Arkansas juvenile justice system, and I reached out to several juvenile justice officials and advocates in Arkansas — and to outside experts with close ties to the state. No simple answers emerged from my inquiry. But I walked away with five conclusions.


  1. First, Arkansas’ backsliding on juvenile justice wasn’t inevitable: In fact, the state really was making impressive strides toward reform for several years.
  2. This reform movement ran aground in 2013, thwarted by an idiosyncratic feature of Arkansas’ system — a politically powerful cabal of nonprofit service providers that has acquired monopoly over juvenile services statewide.
  3. This cabal has also helped perpetuate two signature weaknesses in the state’s juvenile system — a striking dearth of data collection and analysis, and an ongoing leadership gap at the state’s juvenile corrections agency.
  4. Despite these deep and continuing problems, momentum toward reform is once again mounting in Arkansas — much of it coming from the bottom up.
  5. As best as I can tell, the irresistible logic of reform and the good will of hardworking leaders in the state — especially judges — are likely to begin winning the day sometime in the not too distant future.

An overdue period of progress 2007-13

As incoming Gov. Mike Beebe assumed office in 2007, the Arkansas Division of Youth Services, the state’s youth corrections agency, could only be described as a train wreck.

Nine years earlier, the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette ran a five-part series revealing that youth in the state’s juvenile facilities were “routinely degraded; verbally, physically and sexually abused; hogtied; forced to sleep outside in freezing weather.” In 2002, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Arkansas’s largest youth prison, the Alexander Youth Services Center, found that while violent abuses had abated, the facility still failed to provide constitutionally required safety and rehabilitative care, mental health and educational services, suicide prevention, fire safety or religious freedom.

In 2006, the state’s Health and Human Services Department revealed that staff at Alexander “were drugging youths to control unruly behavior — in many cases without doctors’ orders.” Then in 2007, Arkansas’ Disability Rights Center and the National Center for Youth Law reported that facility staff were placing youth in solitary confinement arbitrarily, without protecting their due process rights or ensuring their safety.

Doubly troubling was the fact that the vast majority of youth confined in Arkansas facilities and subjected to these abusive conditions were not serious or violent offenders. In 2007, just 15 percent of the youth committed to state custody had committed a serious violent felony, while 42 percent had committed only misdemeanors.

Patricia Arthur
Patricia Arthur

Patricia Arthur, then an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, was preparing a lawsuit to challenge the persistent unconstitutional conditions at Alexander. The lawsuit threatened to embroil the state in years of costly and cumbersome litigation.

After 20 years in the Arkansas legislature and four years as attorney general, Beebe understood the juvenile justice challenge, and he decided quickly to improve the state’s youth corrections system rather than fight a legal battle. The governor invited Arthur to work with his administration to develop a comprehensive statewide juvenile justice reform plan.

Beebe’s choice to lead the Division of Youth Services (DYS), Ron Angel, brought no academic training or experience in juvenile justice or youth development. He had spent his entire career working for the Veterans Administration. But Angel proved to be a skilled administrator and a determined reformer. He quickly took charge of a 50-member reform task force and forged a close partnership with Arthur. In June 2009, Angel released a five-year strategic plan designed to “revolutionize the juvenile justice system in Arkansas.”

In addition to overhauling the education program and improving conditions inside the Alexander facility, the plan’s main goals were to reduce the number of low-risk youth committed to state-funded residential facilities and expand the scope and quality of community programs.

So DYS began releasing data showing the commitment numbers for each judicial district, which Angel says sparked conversations among judges and even a little bit of competition among judges. He set a goal for each judicial district to reduce commitments by 20 percent per year. DYS revamped its contracts with private provider agencies and created an incentive fund to reward providers that worked with judges in their districts and met the commitment reduction goals.

hub_arrow_2-01DYS also began funding local providers to begin delivering best-practice treatment models like the Youth Advocate Program and Multisystemic Therapy. It began tapping the state’s database to conduct meaningful data analysis and determine characteristics and treatment needs of its client population. Angel convinced the Annie E. Casey Foundation to bring the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) to two pilot counties in Arkansas, Finally, despite considerable resistance, Angel asked provider agencies to begin submitting detailed records on their clients and services.

These efforts made a difference. From 2007 to 2012, the number of youth committed to state custody fell from 622 to 496, a drop of 20 percent.

A provider buzzsaw

Improvements were also recorded on other key indicators, but the pace of progress was modest: Compared with fiscal year 2007, five years later the average population in state youth facilities was down — but only by 12 percent. The share of committed youth adjudicated for misdemeanor offenses was down, but still comprised 35 percent of all commitments. Angel had closed 43 beds at the state’s Alexander facility (a 30 percent drop), but had not been able to close or reduce capacity at any of the seven smaller youth corrections facilities funded by DYS around the state.

Eager to accelerate progress, Angel and his allies crafted a new reform bill before the 2013 session of the state legislature. Called the Close to Home Act, the bill sought to engage entire communities, not just the service providers, in determining the right mix of programs and services for court-involved youth. Specifically, the bill called for the creation of local Community Youth Services Boards that would be responsible for cataloguing currently available services, identifying additional services to address unmet needs and allocating state funds to optimize services and minimize correctional placements.

Angel expected the legislation to pass. First, because he considered the proposal quite modest: The legislation called for community boards to be created in only five pilot jurisdictions. So if the new approach didn’t work, it could easily be scrapped before going statewide. Second, because Angel had the support of most juvenile judges in the state and the governor, whose party controlled a majority in both chambers of the state legislature.

But Angel’s optimism proved unfounded. Within weeks, the plan lay stillborn on the statehouse floor, throttled by a key sector of the system — its network of local private provider agencies.

Most of these provider agencies were created in the 1970s, sparked by the passage of the Runaway Youth Act in 1974 , which began making federal funds available for programs to assist homeless and runaway youth. Initially, these organizations struggled. But that began to change in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when the providers got training on how their organizations could band together to expand their influence with state government.

In retrospect, the training worked too well. The provider agencies built strong boards, populating them with politically connected leaders in their communities, and they branched out to serve youth in the delinquency system in addition to homeless and runaway youth. The providers formed a new organization, the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association, through which they gradually secured stable funding.

Rather than fight each other for contracts, the 13 participating providers agreed to carve up the state. Over time, each became the sole recipient of contracts with DYS to work with court-involved youth in its given territory. Through their association, the providers negotiated standard contracts with DYS to pay them for community-based services they provided. Some of the providers received multimillion-dollar contracts to operate residential corrections facilities as well.

Paul Kelly

Though no one I spoke with accused the provider group of corruption, or even bad will, several observers noted that the provider group has become a major impediment roadblock to reform in Arkansas. “The providers have become very entrenched in their position in the state,” explained Paul Kelly, who once ran a provider agency and served as the first director of the providers association. They very seldom have anyone competing with them for contracts, he added.

“They’ve learned to use their political influence and their relationships with community leaders to exert pressure on DYS to fix things they want fixed,” added Kelly, who now works at the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. The providers grew to fiercely oppose “any really meaningful accountability for the impact of their services,” he said.

Mickey Yeager, who spent five years as a data analyst at DYS before leaving in 2014, put it even more starkly: “The providers in Arkansas are very powerful. They basically do what they want.”

And in 2013, the providers wanted badly to kill Angel’s Close to Home Act. So they did. They worked their contacts in the legislature, mounted a fierce lobbying campaign and vanquished the bill.

The director of one provider organization, John Furness of Comprehensive Juvenile Services in Fort Smith, is unapologetic about the 2013 legislative battle. “I saw that as a complete dismantling of the very established provider network that has been in place for many years and does good work,” Furness told me. “I thought it was a bad bill, and we spoke out against it. And it didn’t pass.”

Within weeks, the 66-year-old Angel tendered his resignation and retired.

Perpetuating problems


The providers’ role in killing the 2013 reform legislation was exceptional — a high-stakes, in-your-face power struggle. But as several observers pointed out to me, the outsized influence of the provider association also shows up in more subtle ways, with pernicious and lasting effects.

When you look closely at the long arc of juvenile justice in Arkansas, two weaknesses emerge front and center: a striking dearth of accurate data and meaningful data analysis; and continuing turnover in the leadership of DYS. In both cases, the providers’ fingerprints are hard to miss.

Probably the most glaring illustration of such data deficiencies comes from Chad Day, the reporter. DYS data indicated that 1,078 status offenders were detained in Arkansas in 2014, among the highest totals in the nation.

But when Day began interviewing local officials, he discovered this figure was wildly off-base. Even after personally examining the logs of all 14 detention centers statewide, he could not say precisely how many status offenders were detained — concluding only that “status offenders entered youth lockups more than 500 times” during the year.

When Judge Leigh Zuerker took over as Sebastian County’s juvenile court judge in early 2015, she said DYS figures that indicated status offenders were detained 449 times during 2014 were bogus. She personally reviewed the county’s detention records, she said, and found that the true number of status offenders detained in 2014 was 78 — less than one-fifth the reported total.

DYS’ failure to compile reliable detention data is perhaps understandable given its lack of direct authority over the detention centers, which are county-run. But the agency also lacks information about and analysis of its own programs. Here, the providers have played a decisive role.

Prior to 2007, DYS made little effort to analyze its population, assess their needs, determine what worked and what didn’t, measure recidivism in any meaningful way or identify the factors that led some youth to succeed in rehabilitation while others failed. The state did collect data on young people’s backgrounds, Angel told me, and the information was available in the state’s computer database.

“I had two staff members who did nothing but mine that data.” he said. But historically, he explained, “there’s hasn’t been enough mining into the data internally to pull those numbers out to use on behalf of improvement in the state.”

Angel had tried to expand the available data by requiring service providers to start reporting details on the services they provided, and their results during his tenure. “We tried to implement performance [measures],” he recalled, “and you would have thought we had asked for their first-born child.


“They said they didn’t have time, they didn’t get paid enough. There were a lot of reasons why they didn’t want to do it,” Angel said. “How can you base your treatment if you don’t have standards where you can measure what’s being successful and what’s not?”

Mickey Yeager, the data and quality assurance specialist, told me that “Before I came in, no one was looking at the data. The data was there, you just had to pull it. But no one was digging through it.” As Angel began pushing for more data, Yeager said, the providers “fought us every step of the way.”

And they had powerful friends in the legislature, Yeager recalled: “Ron was called to the capital several times ... because he was trying to track the performance of the providers, and they really didn’t like that.”

This dynamic is anything but new, said Paul Kelly, the first provider association director, and it helps explain the almost continuous turnover at DYS over the past two decades. “I have sat back and watched [the providers] make life miserable for one DYS director after another, just because they propose a different way of doing things or make life in any way uncomfortable,” he said.

Indeed, looking back on Angel’s tenure, perhaps his most striking accomplishment is that he lasted six years. When Angel was hired, he came as the agency’s ninth new director in 12 years. In the three years since his retirement, DYS has cycled through two more directors, with a third — an interim hire — named in mid-July.

“[The providers] have been in large part responsible for the turnover in DYS directors,” Kelly said. “They have that capacity.”

Renewed momentum

Despite these continuing problems, a scan of the state today reveals that momentum for reform seems to be building once again. This time, however, it is not being led by a singular leader like Ron Angel and it does not involve any coordinated statewide plan. Rather, the momentum represents the confluence of several promising developments, many of them taking place at the local level.

For instance, both of the state’s two pilot JDAI sites — Benton County and Washington County — reduced detention admissions by 30 percent in their first year, and both reduced total detention days by a similar margin. As part of JDAI, both counties introduced risk assessment instruments to guide detention admissions, and both expanded alternative to detention programs. In addition, Washington County embraced new probation practices to better engage with young people’s families and to reduce unnecessary confinement due to probation violations.

Gina Vincent
Gina Vincent

Meanwhile, four other counties have joined an initiative to introduce and make use of state-of-the-art risk and needs assessments for court-involved youth. Gina Vincent, the University of Massachusetts expert who directs the project, reports that the counties are making progress, and that “there’s been very good buy-in” from judges. As part of the effort, Vincent and her team are helping the counties develop a continuum of services to address needs identified in the assessment, relying on resources throughout the participating jurisdictions — not just the designated DYS service providers. The state’s Administrative Office of the Courts is playing a central role in the project, and has identified eight additional counties that will join the project later in 2016, with plans for even more counties next year.

Helping fill the leadership void at DYS, the Administrative Office of the Courts is also taking a lead role in efforts to improve data collection in the juvenile system, and is participating in an active new juvenile justice reform subcommittee sponsored by the Arkansas Supreme Court.  That committee has also reached agreement with the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice to review the probation systems in two urban counties and a rural judicial district.

Meanwhile, a youth justice reform board appointed last year by Gov. Asa Hutchison has been deliberating, and it appears ready to advocate a multimillion-dollar confinement reduction fund, reviving Ron Angel’s reform strategy, as well as an expansion of JDAI, consistent use of objective risk and needs assessments, and stronger data collection and dissemination.

But maybe the most encouraging trend can be seen among the state’s juvenile judges. Historically, many judges have maintained an old-school, law-and-order approach toward youth in the justice system — clinging to their prerogatives to jail low-risk youth, even status offenders, who defy their orders. Arkansas judges have also retained the right to place court-involved youth into detention for up to 90 days — even status offenders. And some Arkansas juvenile judges still believe they should retain these rights.

Yet, more and more judges are shifting away from this orthodoxy, embracing more therapeutic and targeted intervention strategies. For instance, when he first came to the bench, Judge Wiley Branton in Pulaski County (Little Rock) regularly sent low-level youth offenders to detention. But Branton last year told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he hadn’t detained a status offender in at least five years. “I’ve gotten over myself as a judge, which is a hard thing to do sometimes,” he said. “So I can now accept the fact that a kid might willfully disobey my order, and it won’t necessarily get me bent out of shape. If it’s [a status offender], I’m not going to open up my detention facility.”

Judge Stacey Zimmerman
Judge Stacey Zimmerman

Judge Stacey Zimmerman has spent nearly two decades on the juvenile bench in Washington County, and until recently she didn’t hesitate to throw young people into detention for defying her authority. Chad Day reported that Zimmerman detained 51 status offenders in 2014, but only six during the first six months of 2015. In a phone call, she described having a “light bulb moment” while visiting a model JDAI site in Santa Cruz, California.

“When I went to those programs, and talked with the people in the trenches, I really bought in,” the judge recalled. “I am still all for consequences, it’s just that I’m learning to be more creative and finding ways to give consequences without putting Junior into lock-up.”

Before he retired at the end of 2014 after nearly 30 years as the juvenile judge in Sebastian County, Chad Day reported, Judge Mark Hewett “used his contempt power to detain hundreds of children for not following his orders to attend school.” Hewett was succeeded last year by former public defender Leigh Zuerker.

In a phone interview, Zuerker declined to criticize Hewett, but she did say she has worked to reduce status offender detentions, and reported that she had in fact cut the number of status offenders detained in the county from 78 in 2014 to 38 in 2015. Under Zuerker, Sebastian County has also introduced a new trauma-informed counseling program to assist court-involved youth and their families.

Zuerker also reported that she is not alone in seeking to cut the number of status offenders locked in detention. She has spoken several times with judges in two other counties where status offenders are reportedly still detained in high numbers. “I know they are doing everything they can to bring those numbers down,” she said. “We’ve talked about it and brainstormed.”

An optimistic forecast

During our recent phone call, Angel recalled the very clear message he received at the outset of his tenure at DYS in conversations with the provider group. “They told me: They have been here for 30 years, the same provider group, and they knew what was needed, and there was nothing that could be brought in that would work any better than what they were doing at the time.”

The providers stuck to that sentiment throughout Angel’s tenure, and ultimately managed to defeat him.

Yet, it is difficult to imagine this line will hold much longer in Arkansas, given the breadth of reform efforts now underway in the state’s juvenile court system and the noticeable shift in judicial philosophy taking root across the state.

The juvenile justice field has made dramatic advances in recent times, both in research and practice, and a wealth of data has emerged demonstrating that research-informed community-based programming yields far better results than the confinement-heavy, seat-of-the-pants approach of yesteryear.

Across the state, judges and other local leaders are growing more and more familiar with, more and more comfortable with, more and more eager to embrace what works — as their peers have done in states throughout the nation.

In the face of this groundswell, the providers will face increasing pressure to adapt new practices, to begin collecting and reporting data, and measuring their impact. If they continue to resist — if providers maintain their insistence on standing still, and that that they know best, and that the old ways are still best — they will likely squander their remaining credibility and lose their cherished place at the heart of the Arkansas system.

The pull of progress is simply too strong.

This story has been updated.

Case Now Strong for Ending Probation’s Place As Default Disposition in Juvenile Justice


Forty-plus years after sociologist Robert Martinson rocked the worlds of juvenile and criminal justice by declaring that “nothing works” in offender rehabilitation, Jens Ludwig and his colleagues at the Chicago Crime Lab have gone on a remarkable roll.

hub_arrow_2-01In a series of carefully controlled studies since 2012 testing a variety of strategies to prevent delinquency or reverse behavior problems of already adjudicated youth, Ludwig and his team have documented dramatic positive impacts on violent offending, other offending and the closely linked domain of academic success.

  • One study examined the impact of an inexpensive, light-touch intervention program called “Becoming A Man” (or BAM) on seventh- to 10th-graders in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. In BAM, trained counselors employ cognitive-behavioral techniques to teach groups of high-risk students to “stop, look, and listen” in emotionally charged situations where poor decisions can lead to severe consequences. Students assigned to BAM (plus an after-school sports program) had 44 percent fewer violent crime arrests during the program period and 38 percent fewer arrests for other offenses than a randomly assigned control group. The intervention, which also yielded long-term gains in academic achievement, cost only $1,100 per participant.
  • In a random assignment study with high-risk ninth- and 10th- graders in Chicago, some students were selected to participate in the same Becoming A Man program, others in BAM plus intensive math tutoring, while a control group received no special services. Again the results were remarkable. Students in either of the treatment groups (BAM, or BAM plus tutoring) proved 66 percent less likely to fail a class than control group youth. Also, they made dramatic gains in math achievement, had 25 percent fewer absences and showed behavioral improvements consistent with a 26 percent reduction in future violent crime arrests.
  • A third study tested the impact of a BAM-like cognitive-behavioral program inside the Cook County Temporary Detention Center, where facility administrators were seeking to improve the quality of care in the facility one unit at a time. From November 2009 to March 2011, youth were randomly assigned either to treatment-as-usual units or to units incorporating the CBT training along with increased educational requirements for staff and a new “token economy” to reward positive behavior. Youth in the reformed units returned to detention 21 percent less often following release, and they were 10 percent less likely to be involved serious disciplinary infractions while in the facility.

Standing on the shoulders of recent research documenting the effectiveness of other adolescent intervention models, these studies leave no doubt that our society has amassed a wealth of new practical knowledge on how to reduce delinquency. Combined with revolutionary advances in brain science and adolescent development research, the Chicago Crime Lab studies help to clarify the dimensions of a more targeted approach for combating delinquency and improving outcomes for high-risk youth generally.

If only our nation’s juvenile justice systems took proper notice.

Evidence against probation’s effectiveness

Think about it: Well over half of all youth adjudicated delinquent in U.S. juvenile courts each year are sentenced to probation. Even many youth referred to juvenile court but not adjudicated (24 percent in 2013) are placed on informal probation.

Yet there is virtually no evidence that probation as commonly practiced reduces the reoffending rates of youth. Quite the contrary. As I’ll detail below, what research exists on the impact of standard-issue probation suggests that, on balance, it does nothing, or next to nothing, to reduce offending. Nonetheless, probation has remained largely unchanged in recent decades, and it remains the disposition of choice for system-involved youth.

This arrangement may have been defensible in previous eras, when we lacked solid research to understand the dynamics of delinquency, the factors that propel adolescents toward lawbreaking and the characteristics of effective interventions. But that day has passed.

What should we do instead of probation? Well, there are lots of alternatives, and much more experimentation and learning to be done. But based on the Chicago Crime Lab studies and other research I suggest we begin with a pair of three-letter answers, BAM and YAP, plus two more options — citations and intensive tutoring — that lack acronyms but also make tons more sense than standard supervision for many or most youth currently enmeshed in probation.

Before talking about these alternatives, though, let me explain three reasons why probation’s central place in the juvenile justice system is so problematic.

  • The available evidence shows that probation doesn’t work.

In a 2008 review of research on probation (aka community supervision), a team of scholars led by James Bonta reported that, on average, probation was associated with just a 2 percent decrease in recidivism for both youth and adult offenders, and had no impact at all on violent offending. “On the whole,” the study authors reported, “community supervision does not appear to work very well.” Likewise, a 2012 article in the Journal of Crime and Justice reviewed the available research literature and declared that “the impact of community supervision is at best limited and at worst leaves clients more likely to recidivate.” And in 2013, a paper by Ed Latessa and his colleagues at the University of Cincinnati came to a similar conclusion: “traditional community supervision — both as an alternative to residential supervision (probation) and as a means to continue supervision after release from a correctional institution (parole) — is ineffective.”

Most recently, an updated evaluation of Ohio’s RECLAIM programs, published in 2014, found that low-risk youth referred to probation had “a 3 percent greater likelihood of reoffending compared to youth who participated in any other programs.” At every risk level, the RECLAIM study found, youth placed on probation experienced significantly higher reoffending rates than comparable youth whose cases were not processed in juvenile court and were instead placed in diversion programs.

  • New research into brain science and adolescent development makes clear that traditional probation is fundamentally ill-suited to the challenges of reversing behavior problems and fostering success among high-risk youth.

While probation practices vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, even officer to officer, the core of the juvenile probation model involves a judge imposing a list (often a long one) of rules and requirements the young person must follow, and then a probation officer keeping tabs on the young person and sometimes referring him or her to counseling or treatment services. Whenever youth formally sentenced to probation break these rules — skipping school, failing a drug test, falling behind on restitution payments, missing a required check-in with the probation officer — they are in violation of their probation and may be punished accordingly, up to and including incarceration in state or local correctional institutions. Indeed, a substantial share of youth committed to juvenile corrections facilities each year are sentenced not for committing new crimes but for violating probation rules.

Given what we know about delinquency and adolescent development, probation’s emphasis on surveillance and rule-following makes no sense. Here’s why.

Thanks to new brain imaging technologies developed over the past quarter-century, we now know that the human brain does not fully mature until age 25 or later. The last section of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for controlling impulses, weighing consequences and regulating emotions. Meanwhile, the part of the brain focused on sensation-seeking and risk taking (the limbic system) is unusually active during adolescence.

As a result, law-breaking and other risky behaviors are common, even normal, during adolescence. But in the vast majority of cases, youth grow out of their lawbreaking even without any intervention from the justice or mental health systems. What sense does it make, then, to impose additional rules on already troubled youth, heighten scrutiny of their behaviors and then punish them for entirely predictable transgressions when most would likely desist from delinquency on their own?

Increasingly, scholars have determined that the key difference distinguishing youth who desist from delinquency and those who become chronic offenders is “psychosocial maturity” — the abilities to control impulses, consider the implications of their actions, delay gratification and resist peer pressure — all of which enable the young person to assume adult roles in society (employment, marriage, parenting). As Temple University adolescence scholar Laurence Steinberg and two colleagues explained in a 2015 essay, “Just as immaturity is an important contributor to the emergence of much adolescent misbehavior, maturity is an important contributor to its cessation.”

Meanwhile, another powerful strand of recent research has found that chronic offending is tightly linked to extensive and wide-ranging exposure to trauma in childhood. And delinquency scholars have long recognized the close connection between academic failure and delinquency.

Yet, rather than concentrating first and foremost on helping court-involved young people accelerate their maturation, rather than address the traumas they have experienced or overcome their academic deficits, probation instead imposes additional rules and punishes those who — like most adolescents — are unable or unwilling to follow them.

    • Emerging “what works” research offers a valuable yardstick for determining which types of interventions effectively foster adolescent behavior change.

The juvenile justice field has also been blessed in recent decades with a wealth of new research on what works and doesn’t work in preventing and reversing delinquency. Using meta-analysis, a technique for aggregating the results of many studies to identify cross-cutting findings from an entire body of research, scholars have gleaned several clear lessons.

The first is that some types of interventions work much better than others with delinquent youth. Specifically, programs aimed at deterrence and discipline (Scared Straight, boot camps) tend to actually worsen recidivism. Programs geared toward surveillance (i.e., probation) tend to have little or no effect on recidivism. But therapeutic programs aimed at helping youth accelerate their psychosocial maturation consistently reduce recidivism rates — and by a considerable margin. These counseling and skill-building models include cognitive-behavioral therapy to help youth address anti-social attitudes and learn problem-solving and perspective-taking skills, as well as family counseling and mentoring by volunteers or youth workers in the community.

Second, correctional interventions work best when they target youth at high risk to reoffend. Mark Lipsey of Vanderbilt University has found that delinquency risk is the variable with “the largest relationship by far” with success in juvenile justice intervention programs, and that “larger effect sizes (greater recidivism reductions) [are] associated with higher risk juveniles.” The crucial corollary to this finding is that intervention programs targeting lower-risk youth are far less effective — and can even worsen outcomes.

A third lesson is that close relationships with caring and responsible adults are a key to adolescent behavior change. Canadian scholars Craig Dowden and Donald Andrews have identified relationship-building — the ability to foster open, warm and enthusiastic communication — as “arguably the most important” of the five “core correctional practices” that have consistently proven effective in improving recidivism outcomes.

How to implement reform

Taken together, the research leaves little doubt that continued heavy reliance on surveillance-oriented probation is a flawed strategy, and it is especially problematic when applied to lower-risk youth who are likely to desist from delinquency on their own.

How should the juvenile justice field correct this imbalance?

One option is to fundamentally reorient probation to do what works. This past week, I attended a probation system reform symposium organized by the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. Led by former probation officer John Tuell, the probation reform unit at the RFK Center has developed a rigorous system review process for juvenile probation offices, and it has provided extensive assistance over the past decade to shepherd just over a dozen probation agencies through that process.

Results to date are encouraging. Through the RFK process, juvenile probation agencies are rethinking their mission, improving their screening and assessment processes, crafting new response grids, retraining their officers and expanding the range and quality of their intervention programs. At least in some cases, sites are shifting lower-risk youth away from probation supervision and into diversion programs. Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, for instance, has reduced its probation population by 48 percent since 2011, more than doubled the number of youth diverted from court and developed an array of evidence-based interventions to meet the needs of diverted youth without the stigma of court supervision.

Though some RFK sites are not as focused on reducing probation caseloads or increasing the use of diversion, Tuell described trimming the probation population as “one of the primary goals of system reform.”

“We need to make sure that kids who do not need to be involved do indeed stay out of the justice system,” Tuell added. “And at the same time we still need to be able to address the needs those young people are facing” through effective alternative responses and diversion programs.

However, the RFK Center’s reform model is time-consuming and labor-intensive.  The review process itself takes 10-12 months, followed by an implementation phase that can last a year or longer.  And like any ambitious system reform aiming to shift the culture of entrenched organizations, success depends heavily on motivated participation from administrators and line staff within the local probation agency. With more than 2,000 juvenile probation offices coast to coast, the RFK approach will be difficult to replicate effectively at scale.

That’s why I believe the first step in probation reform should be shrinkage. Many or most of the young people currently assigned to supervision (which, again, doesn’t reduce reoffending) should instead be steered toward interventions with proven power to lower their likelihood of reoffending — or diverted from the juvenile court system entirely and left to mature on their own.

At a minimum, courts should refrain from employing probation to supervise young people whose cases are diverted from court and those who are referred to court but never adjudicated. And even among youth who are adjudicated, formal probation should not be imposed on youth with limited prior offending and low risk to reoffend.

Instead of probation, young people should be steered to effective intervention programs like BAM that employ cognitive behavioral therapy delivered by skilled and personable counselors to help young people learn to resist peer pressure, control their impulses, and apply restraint and forethought in heated situations.

Or they should be assigned mentors in the community who offer coaching, encouragement and support to help youth avoid lapsing back into problematic behavior patterns. For 40 years, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (or YAP) has been assigning trained advocates to work with court-involved youth as an alternative to incarceration. These advocates, who hail from the same communities as the youth they serve, form close trusting relationships with the youth and help the young people complete individualized service plans developed in partnership with their families.

A recent analysis found that 86 percent of participating youth in multiple YAP sites nationwide were not arrested while participating in the program, which typically lasts four months, and 93 percent were still living at home when the program completed. (Similar programs not affiliated with YAP operate in Maryland, and in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.)

Or, given the powerful impacts documented in Chicago, diverted youth should receive intensive math tutoring to help them bridge academic learning gaps that commonly frustrate youth and cause them to drop out of school, greatly exacerbating their risk for delinquency.

Finally, for those youth whose offenses are minor and who show limited risk for future offending, the juvenile court should avoid any action beyond a warning. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis by Canadian scholars Holly Wilson and Robert Hague found that diversion from court is more effective in reducing recidivism than the traditional justice system. Diversion was superior to court processing, whether diverted youth received only a caution or were referred to a counseling or intervention program. In fact, low-risk youth receiving only a caution fared better than those referred to a diversion intervention.

In recent years, Florida has steadily expanded the use of “civil citations” in lieu of arrest and court processing for first-time misdemeanor offenders. In 2014-15, nearly 12,000 young people received these citations.  State recidivism data show that only 4 percent of citation youth reoffended, as compared to 13 percent of youth placed in court-supervised diversion programs and 17 percent for youth placed on probation.

There are, of course, many probation officers, and even some whole probation agencies, who are doing their best to heed the research, divert youth whenever possible and provide the most promising, evidence-based care for youth with more serious offending behaviors who really do require supervision.
But for the hundreds of thousands of youth nationwide who are guilty of minor misbehavior typical for adolescence, the lesson is clear: When it comes to probation, less is more.

This story has been updated.

Analysis: A Battle for the Soul of Juvenile Corrections Shapes Up in Connecticut

The Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS)

At the end of a grueling three-hour hearing on Aug. 21, state Rep. Toni Walker, chair of Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, laid the issue on the table.

Referring to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, Connecticut’s only state-run youth corrections facility for boys, she asked, “The real question is, does Connecticut need CJTS? [Does the facility provide] the level of care that we really require in this state? Is CJTS the best method of delivering the needs for that population?”

These questions are being hotly debated in Connecticut thanks to new revelations of a rash of suicide attempts and pervasive use of physical restraints and seclusion, both at CJTS and in the small Pueblo unit that opened nearby last year to serve troubled girls.

The controversy has pitted advocates and some legislators who believe the training school and Pueblo unit should be shuttered against the state’s Department of Children and Families, which operates the facilities and argues that the problems are being addressed and that the facilities offer state-of-the-art therapeutic care.

This conflict is playing out amid an escalating national debate over both the proper role for incarceration in an enlightened and effective juvenile justice system, and the increasingly fraught question of how best to ensure safety and maximize the effectiveness of facilities that confine and seek to rehabilitate serious youth offenders.

As a result, Connecticut is shaping up as a pivotal test case to gauge whether the current momentum for change will trigger a fundamental pivot in the U.S. approach to juvenile justice — a shift away from incarceration as the system’s signature feature — or if states will instead kick the can down the road and settle for more modest (and likely short-lived) reforms while retaining their century-old affinity for locking kids up in penal institutions.

Growing momentum to scrap ‘juvenile prisons’

In a TED talk two months ago, Annie E. Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy threw a rhetorical grenade into the nation’s juvenile justice policy debate, calling for the closure of all large conventional juvenile corrections institutions or, as McCarthy called them, “youth prisons.”

McCarthy, who headed Delaware’s juvenile corrections agency two decades ago, cited the terrible track record of traditional youth corrections facilities before and since. He labeled these institutions “factories of failure.”

On the day of McCarthy’s TED talk, the Casey Foundation released a report documenting the continuing epidemic of abuse and maltreatment in state juvenile corrections facilities nationwide. The report, which I wrote, followed up on a 2011 study, “No Place for Kids,” which laid out the voluminous evidence showing that the United States’ continued heavy reliance on juvenile prisons — unique in the advanced world — is a losing strategy. “No Place for Kids” found that these facilities are dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful and inadequate.

The new publication, “Maltreatment of Youth in U.S. Juvenile Correctional Facilities: An Update,” looked only at the first of these problems — the dangers faced by incarcerated youth — and the findings were stark. Whereas “No Place for Kids” documented chronic violence, excessive use of isolation and/or restraints, or rampant sexual abuse in 22 states from 2000 to 2011, the new study identified these types of “systemic or recurring maltreatment” in seven more states from 2011 to 2015. The new report also identified continuing or renewed maltreatment in many of the states where problems had already been documented as of 2011, and it found suggestive evidence but no proof of pervasive maltreatment in several more states.

A continuing stream of maltreatment revelations

Since the maltreatment report came out, the drumbeat of maltreatment revelations has continued.

In Nebraska, new data showed continuing overuse of solitary confinement. In Florida, new allegations of riots and abuses have emerged about two state-funded facilities, continuing a torrent of abuse reports that have plagued Florida’s juvenile corrections facilities for more than a century. (See here, here and here for details.) In Arkansas, news reports revealed that more than 800 violent incidents occurred last year in the state’s largest youth corrections facility, which houses about 100 youth, and 176 instances of attempted suicide or self-harm in the first six months of 2015.

hub_arrow_2-01But the most eye-opening revelations have come from Connecticut. On July 22, Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate released the findings of an 18-month investigation of CTJS and the Pueblo unit, identifying “urgent safety problems for youth.” Specifically, the Child Advocate discovered at least two dozen acts of attempted suicide or self-injury at CTJS and Pueblo from June 2014 to February 2015. Youth in the facilities were physically restrained 532 times from July 2014 through June 2015, and were placed in shackles or handcuffs 134 times, the Child Advocate also found. Each month, about 30 percent of confined youth were subjected to a physical or mechanical restraint, and about the same number were placed in seclusion (often in a padded isolation cell), the Child Advocate found.

[Related: Juvenile Detention Centers: On the Other Side of ‘Lock ‘Em Up,’ but Not Quite Trauma-Informed]

Based on videotape evidence, the Child Advocate reported that facility staff often employ punitive practices inappropriately: violent take-downs of youth who pose no physical threat; mentally ill youth isolated in padded cells; and youth disciplined rather than counseled for self-harm behaviors. The Child Advocate also reported that youth are often secluded for hours at time despite state law permitting restraints and seclusion only to “prevent immediate or imminent injury.”

Nine days before the Child Advocate report, the Department of Children and Families released another study of its juvenile facilities — this one written by Dr. Robert Kinscherff of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice. Kinscherff’s study differed with the Child Advocate’s findings on some issues. Yet even though Kinscherff wrote as a paid consultant to DCF, his report broadly concurred with the Child Advocate and called on DCF to address problems with suicide prevention, use of isolation and restraints, oversight of psychotropic medications and staff responses to misbehaviors by youth with serious mental health problems and/or histories of trauma.

Connecticut seals the case against training schools

Of the many maltreatment scandals to emerge in recent times, Connecticut’s offers perhaps the most compelling evidence that incarcerating youth in large conventional juvenile correctional facilities just isn’t safe. Why? Three reasons.

First, if Connecticut can’t keep juvenile corrections facilities safe, who can? Connecticut is widely regarded as a national leader — perhaps the leader — in effective, caring, progressive and research-driven practice in juvenile justice. As I learned in preparing a 2013 report about Connecticut’s juvenile justice system for the Justice Policy Institute, that reputation is richly deserved.

In a June 2013 study, the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform concurred, describing Connecticut as “a leader in implementing innovative approaches to juvenile justice.” (Much of that reputation has been earned by the state’s judicial branch, which oversees detention, diversion and juvenile probation operations statewide, whereas DCF handles juvenile correctional facilities and juvenile parole.)

Second, Connecticut has seen this problem before — and not just once. In 1998, following the suicide of a 16-year-old girl at the Long Lane School, Connecticut’s century-old reformatory for delinquent youth, a fatality review panel found “grossly inadequate” staffing, deficient mental health care, flawed suicide prevention, widespread overreliance on seclusion, physical takedowns and mechanical restraint chairs, and the lack of any grievance process to investigate possible abuses.

Then in 2002, a year after the state opened the Connecticut Juvenile Training School to replace Long Lane, Connecticut’s Attorney General and Child Advocate issued a report condemning the new facility as “a dismal failure.” “Suicidal children go unsupervised,” the report found, “and young boys are illegally restrained for days on end.” Two years later, a weekend of violence resulted in 21 youth being restrained and eight staff being hospitalized with injuries. Also, a 2004 public report revealed 119 suicide attempts in the prior year.

By 2012, when I began researching Connecticut’s progress in juvenile justice reform for the Justice Policy Institute, DCF had stabilized the situation in CTJS — or at least the remaining problems inside the facility had escaped notice by outside monitors. The rapid re-emergence of serious maltreatment only adds to the already overwhelming evidence that facilities like CJTS — hardware-secure penal institutions for youth — are inherently prone to abuse.

Third, Connecticut has undertaken herculean efforts, at enormous expense, to make CJTS and the Pueblo facility therapeutic. CTJS clinical director Debra Bond testified that DCF currently employs 25 licensed clinicians at the training school and Pueblo unit to serve a population of less than 80 youth. Within their first hour of arriving at CJTS, youth are screened for suicide risk, trauma and substance abuse, and incoming youth undergo a full psychosocial assessment within 30 days.

CJTS trains its staff in evidence-based models for suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma-informed care and methods for de-escalating tense situations to minimize restraints and isolation. CJTS also offers vocational training for careers in computer graphics, culinary arts, building trades and print production technology. It houses its own Boys and Girls Club, as well as a football team, soccer club, basketball league and opportunities for swimming, weight lifting, cooking and baking, and music and art therapy.

But despite all these investments, the DCF facilities remain manifestly unsafe. At the recent oversight hearing, officials revealed that DCF has had to place incarcerated youth on suicide watch at least 70 times since January.

Resisting calls for a new approach

Given the alarming current conditions, and the troubling history, it’s no surprise that advocates are pushing for the closure of CJTS and the Pueblo unit. Some are reviving a call — embraced by then-Gov. Jodi Rell from 2005 to 2008 — to replicate the reform approach pioneered by Missouri, which involves replacing large training schools with a network of smaller facilities around the state.

The Missouri model relies on relationships and eyes-on supervision to maintain safety, rather than isolation, restraints and correctional hardware. Through this model Missouri has achieved a far better record than other states both in keeping youth safe — less violence than other states, far less use of isolation and restraints and not a single suicide in 30 years — and in controlling recidivism.

But DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has sternly opposed proposals to close CJTS and Pueblo, and has instead crafted an elaborate corrective action plan to improve operations at the existing facilities. The DCF plan includes dozens of action steps, some of which have been implemented already: prohibiting prone restraints, expanding hours for clinical staff, ensuring clinician input into decisions over use of isolation/restraints and more. These steps come on top of recent reforms initiated by DCF to shorten lengths of stay at CJTS and expand state investments in aftercare and community treatment.

[Related: Georgia Detention Center Where Teen Killed Himself Was Understaffed, Report Finds]

At both the juvenile justice oversight panel and at an Aug. 12 legislative hearing, Katz went out of her way (and employed questionable arguments) to discredit the calls for replacing CJTS and Pueblo with a network of smaller facilities.

Kinscherff, the independent consultant hired by DCF, also threw cold water on the proposal to close CJTS. At the Aug. 12 hearing, he argued that Connecticut has designed “something of a grand experiment” in its plan to transform CJTS from a traditional correctional facility to a new model that combines short periods of incarceration with intensive clinical treatment and other services, followed by a rich array of resources and supports for youth in the community after release.

“I would want to know whether or not this works,” Kinscherff said.

His argument is riddled with holes, however. First, there is little reason to believe that DCF’s new improvement plans for CJTS and Pueblo will make a substantial difference. After all, DCF already provides an extraordinary amalgam of therapeutic services and has for many years. The new changes only tinker at the edges of a rehabilitative scheme that has proven impotent to protect youth from harm or to prevent youth from routinely lapsing into despair so deep that they resort to harming themselves.

“We’ve heard this story before,” says veteran juvenile justice consultant Paul DeMuro, who has been a court expert or facility monitor in dozens of conditions of confinement cases in recent decades. “‘Just give us the time and the resources, and we’ll fix it.’ Only, these large facilities rarely end up getting fixed — and even when they do the improvements are most often temporary.”

DeMuro also questions Connecticut’s faith in mental health treatment as the key to ensuring safety and improving youth outcomes. “I think mental health is important, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing in a facility at all,” he says. “I’m skeptical of the medicalization of delinquency.”

More important than mental health care, Demuro says, is creating a positive culture in the institution, forging warm and trusting relationships between young people and the staff who work with and supervise them day in and day out, and engaging families to craft concrete individualized plans for the aftercare transition. At most, young people spend an hour a day in clinical treatment with a therapist, DeMuro says. “What about the other 23 hours?”

Of course, it remains possible that the DCF plan – the “grand experiment” Kinscherff described – could lead to better results for youth and lower recidivism. The problem is, evaluating that success would require DCF to carefully measure outcomes over time and document progress.

Unfortunately, the agency remains hopelessly ill-prepared to collect these data. Unlike most states, and unlike Connecticut’s Judicial Branch (which oversees youth in probation), DCF lacks any information on the long-term recidivism rates of youth released from its programs and facilities. Indeed, in its otherwise laudatory assessment report on Connecticut in 2013, Georgetown’s Juvenile Justice Reform Center noted that DCF was “able to provide only the most elementary data” and that it “took substantial time and effort to assemble even the most basic information” from DCF. At the recent hearings, DCF staff reported that they were only now beginning to work with other state agencies to forge the data-sharing agreements necessary to track long-term recidivism.

A worrisome tolerance for continued maltreatment

Even if DCF had the capacity to track results, Kinscherff’s suggested approach reflects a worrisome tolerance for continued mistreatment of Connecticut youth. Testing the success of Connecticut’s new model will take “three, five, maybe even 10 years,” Kinscherff said. “Sometimes getting it right beats getting it fast,” he argued.

But youth confined in CTJS and Pueblo are are being subjected to restraints at alarming rates right now, thrown frequently into isolation cells, voicing (and too often acting on) a desire to harm themselves. Can we really afford to wait while DCF undertakes one more effort to prove that a maximum-security facility like CJTS can be reformed?

To be sure, advocates (like me) have not yet spelled out what should take the place of CJTS — and the juvenile training schools and youth prisons operating in other states. And we have not delineated a clear process for how states should go about building safer facilities for their most troubled and dangerous young people.

It is not enough to simply say that facilities should be smaller, or that states should replicate the Missouri model. After all, the Pueblo unit only has 12 beds. And Missouri’s model is idiosyncratic in many respects — not readily transportable to other states.

Yet, given the terrible conditions currently prevailing at CJTS and Pueblo, and given the overwhelming evidence that facilities like them are prone to maltreatment and wholly ineffective, the time has come for juvenile justice leaders in Connecticut and throughout the country to turn a page.

The benefit of the doubt should no longer be granted to correctional agencies like DCF that seek more time and more resources to fix their broken youth prisons. The burden of proof should no longer be on advocates and reformers arguing for closure of abusive facilities and experimentation with new approaches.

As DeMuro sees it, if DCF succeeds in convincing Connecticut’s legislature to keep its facilities open and add even more resources to its already gold-plated youth prison, other states will take notice. “It will quite probably be used as an excuse to hold onto centralized facilities,” he says, “and that concerns me.”

It should concern you, too.

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OP-ED: Glaring Flaws and Brazen Biases Riddle Oregon JJ Study

Earlier this month, JJIE columnist John Lash devoted a long commentary to a controversial new study that is currently making waves throughout the Oregon juvenile justice system.

Written by Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote and retired Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Charles French, the study concluded that, because the state adopted a “reformist” agenda promoted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Oregon has suffered with “significantly worse juvenile crime results” than the rest of the nation. In the realm of adolescent drug abuse, the new study asserted, “Oregon’s performance in the Casey Foundation era borders on catastrophic.”

In his column, Lash concedes he “is not enough of a statistician or researcher” to assess the assertions made in the report, but he warned that its findings should not be dismissed out of hand.

“It is our nature to ignore contrary evidence,” Lash cautioned, “especially when it goes against not only our philosophical position but is contrary to our livelihood as well.”

I agree. I do not dismiss the report out of hand. But unlike Lash, I do know my way around the data. So last week I took time to review the report, assess its claims and scrutinize the analysis beneath them.

I quickly found that the report is riddled with logical fallacies, ungrounded assumptions, deceptive analyses and blatant cherry picking of data points to justify its anti-reformist conclusions.

Now, I do not claim to be a neutral observer. While I am not a Casey Foundation employee, I have done extensive paid work for the Foundation and written many of its publications on juvenile justice. So my objectivity might be questioned.

But when it comes to the Foote/French report, my objectivity is beside the point. The flaws in the publication are glaring, the biases brazen. Simply put, this is not a piece of serious scholarship.

(To be clear, the Casey Foundation did not pay me to write this column, and no one at the Foundation encouraged me to write it or influenced its conclusions.)

A false and misleading dichotomy

The problems with the Foote/French report begin at the beginning.

The preface quickly establishes the central dichotomy of the report. The very first paragraph extols the state’s juvenile justice statute, a 1995 package known as Senate Bill 1, and lauds the law’s emphasis on “early and certain intervention and sanctions” as the most effective way to hold juveniles accountable for their criminal behavior. The second paragraph laments that “many of Oregon’s juvenile departments have abandoned the principles of Senate Bill 1 through the influence of a large out of state private non-profit organization called the Annie E. Casey Foundation.”

Foote and French then go about building their case that juvenile justice outcomes in Oregon have been seriously damaged by the state’s embrace of reform strategies advocated by the Casey Foundation.

Throughout the report, they assign credit (or rather blame) to the Casey reform agenda for all juvenile justice outcomes throughout the state of Oregon.

Yet, the Casey Foundation has never been active in most of the state. Rather, beginning in the early 1990s, Multnomah, Oregon’s largest county at 19 percent of the state population, became a pilot site in Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). In 2005, a coalition of 10 rural counties with a combined population of just 181,000 — less than 5 percent of the state population — also signed on as JDAI sites.

Oregon’s other 25 counties, home to 76 percent of the state population, never adopted the JDAI model, and unlike many other states, Oregon’s state government never signed on as a partner or committed itself to supporting JDAI replication statewide. Yet the entire Foote/ French analysis is based upon the dubious notion that Casey has co-opted the Oregon juvenile justice system in its entirety.

A rotten core

The core of the Foote/French argument rests upon the contention that — due to JDAI and other Casey-inspired practices — Oregon has suffered troubling juvenile crime outcomes. But this premise is plainly false. Particularly in Multnomah County, juvenile arrests rates have fallen dramatically since JDAI was introduced in the mid-1990s.

Chart 1

Since 1995, the total juvenile arrest rate in Multnomah is down 72 percent, and the juvenile arrest rates for violent index crimes, property index crimes and non-index offenses are down by 80 percent, 72 percent and 71 percent respectively. All these declines far surpass the statewide average in Oregon, which in turn surpass the national averages (See chart 1.)

Without explanation, the Foote/ French report examines data only from the period of 2001 to 2011, excluding arrest trends during JDAI’s first six years in Multnomah (1995 to 2001). (See chart 2.) Yet during this six-year period the juvenile arrest rate for violent index crimes in Multnomah fell a whopping 62 percent, and the rate for property index crimes fell 58 percent. Again, these results far surpassed the progress statewide in Oregon, which in turn surpassed the progress nationwide.

Employing a nifty rhetorical trick, Foote and French refuse to grant JDAI any credit for the impressive declines in juvenile arrest rates for violent offenses. Instead, they attribute all progress against juvenile violence to a punitive state law (Measure 11) that mandates that youth accused of serious violent offenses be tried and punished as adults. This claim runs contrary to all research evidence and to the actual experience in Oregon.


As JJIE readers are likely aware, the available research consistently finds that transferring youth to adult courts and corrections systems leads to more crime, not less. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have reviewed the research and concluded that youth transferred to adult courts recidivate at higher rates than youth who are adjudicated, sanctioned and treated in the juvenile system.

Moreover, carefully controlled research studies have showed that aggressive transfer laws are not associated with lower juvenile crime rates. In other words, these laws don't work as a vehicle for general deterrence (where kids offend less often based on fear of punishment). Rather, studies find that jurisdictions enacting aggressive transfer laws (like Measure 11) have not seen any improvement in juvenile offending when compared with similar nearby jurisdictions where juvenile courts retain jurisdiction over comparable cases.

For instance, after Idaho passed a law in 1981 requiring transfers for all youth accused of violent crimes, its youth violence rate increased while the rates fell in neighboring Montana and Wyoming, where transfers were not mandated. Likewise, a 1997 New York law lowering the age at which youth could be transferred to adult court had no deterrent effect.

Within Oregon, a 2011 study ("Misguided Measures" by the Campaign for Youth Justice and Partnership for Safety and Justice), found that the counties that relied heavily on Measure 11 to charge and prosecute youth as adults had no more success than other counties in lowering their rates of juvenile crime and violence. And again, the data from Multnomah County show that violent index arrests fell precipitously when JDAI was introduced, far more than in other Oregon jurisdictions, even though Measure 11 was enacted statewide.

Foote and French then move on to other offending categories. Ominously, they warn that “as its juvenile justice system has increasingly adopted Casey practices over the past decade, the state has continued to produce significantly worse juvenile crime results than mainstream systems in all areas of non-violent crime.”

Yet, as the Foote/ French report itself shows, Oregon’s juvenile arrest rate for serious property crimes fell 34.7 percent over the 10 years they studied (2001 to 2011), whereas the national rate declined 32.2 percent. Foote and French lament that Oregon’s juvenile property crime arrest rate is “among the worst in the nation.” Yet they omit to mention that Oregon’s juvenile property crime arrest rate has long exceeded the national rate, and that the gap has been shrinking steadily throughout the years that Casey and JDAI have been active in parts of Oregon.

In further criticizing the Oregon juvenile justice system's public safety performance, Foote and French place great emphasis on rising juvenile drug arrest rates and negative juvenile drug abuse trends in the state. Yet, they significantly overstate the problem, and their claim that JDAI and the Casey Foundation are the primary cause of rising adolescent substance abuse in Oregon has no basis.

Adolescent substance abuse is a complex phenomenon affected by a wide range of social, cultural, personal and economic forces. I am aware of no evidence — and Foote and French provide none — indicating that juvenile justice policies are a pivotal factor in the equation. Attributing statewide adolescent drug abuse trends entirely to JDAI, which operates only in Multnomah and 10 small central Oregon counties, is even more of a stretch.

Meanwhile, the very data set Foote and French rely upon to show that adolescent drug abuse has worsened in Oregon over the last decade — the National Survey on Drug Use and Health— reveals that drug abuse has been increasing far more rapidly among Oregon’s adult population, including both young adults (18 to 25) and older adults (26-plus).

On a wide variety of measures, Oregon adults have seen major increases in drug abuse over the past decade — far greater than the increases among Oregon adolescents, and far greater than the trend for adults in other states. Indeed, Oregonians aged 26 or older now have the highest rates of drug dependence in the nation. Clearly, this is not a function of JDAI. Rather, Oregon is suffering a public health crisis with respect to drug abuse.

Foote and French are correct that the juvenile arrest rate for drug offenses has risen lately, but they then make the groundless claim that “Higher juvenile drug arrest rates in Oregon are not the result of enforcement policy … High juvenile drug arrest rates are the product of high juvenile drug use.”

To support this contention, they cite data showing that Oregon youth had high rates of overall drug abuse, cocaine use and marijuana use in 2011 — ranking among the top 12 states in each category. What they don’t mention is that Oregon youth also had higher than average rates in earlier years, meaning that juvenile drug abuse in Oregon has increased only modestly in recent times. The share of Oregon adolescents using drugs in the past month increased just 3 percent between 2002-03 and 2010-11 (versus a 28 percent rise for Oregon adults), whereas juvenile drug arrests rose by 46 percent over a similar period. In short, the trend toward rising drug arrests is due almost entirely to more aggressive policing.

Redefining the meaning of ‘mainstream’

Using a similar mix of sophistry and deception, Foote and French also attempt to show that the Oregon juvenile justice system has grown financially wasteful under the Casey Foundation’s influence, that juvenile recidivism rates are unusually high in Oregon (especially in JDAI counties), and that JDAI sites nationwide have suffered poor public safety outcomes. Their arguments are again unpersuasive.

Far more insidious are sections of the report that strive to frame the larger discussion. Foote and French repeatedly bemoan what they term a “reformist” trend in juvenile justice “that seeks to drastically alter the practices of juvenile justice policy.”

They present a series of charts showing that compared with most other states, Oregon closes a much larger share of juvenile cases at intake (imposing no sanction), formally petitions a far lower share of juvenile cases, confines youth far less frequently in pretrial detention and places fewer youth into detention based on probation violations.

Time and again, Foote and French attribute these practices to the influence of the Casey Foundation and characterize them as a drastic turn away from “mainstream” approaches to juvenile justice. (The word “mainstream” appears 12 times in the report, always in contrast to the reform agenda being denigrated.)

Indeed, the policies favored by Foote and French — widespread transfers to adult court, heavy use of confinement, aggressive prosecution, minimal use of diversion — were in the mainstream of juvenile justice practices 20 years ago when Oregon, like so many other states, enacted get-tough legislation in the midst of a nationwide juvenile crime panic.

Since then, and with increasing speed, juvenile justice systems coast to coast have been reversing course. Twenty years ago Multnomah County was one of five jurisdictions in the nation active in JDAI. Now more than 300 jurisdictions in 40 states are replicating the model. In the 1990s, 44 states enacted laws to increase the number of youth transferred to the adult justice system. More recently, a wave of states have been raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction and making other changes to reduce transfers.

Meanwhile, a growing number of states, several with support from the Pew Trusts, are enacting far-reaching juvenile reform laws designed to divert more youth away from the juvenile courts and to expand community treatment and reduce the use of confinement for youth whose cases are adjudicated. These include both some of the nation’s most conservative law-and-order states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska and Texas — as well as blue and purple states like California, Hawaii, New York and Ohio.

These changes are coming thanks to the growing evidence that data-driven and treatment-oriented juvenile justice strategies typically produce lower recidivism and better long-term outcomes at lower cost. The evidence was neatly summarized last year by the National Academies of Science last year in its report, Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach, which declared that “there is no evidence that more severe punishments reduce the likelihood of future offending.”

My point is not that Foote and French are wrong to examine the impact and effectiveness of JDAI, or to question the wisdom of reform strategies being pursued in Oregon (or anywhere else). There remain many unanswered questions regarding what works and doesn’t in combatting delinquency and many legitimate questions to be raised about how well many popular juvenile justice reform ideas work in actual practice. (For examples, see my recent JJIE column questioning the evidence behind leading evidence-based prevention and treatment models.)

Skeptical inquiry is exactly what the juvenile justice field needs. But questioning and criticism is useful only to the extent that it is conducted objectively and presented with intellectual integrity.

Unfortunately, Foote and French fail that test. Employing unsound logic and disingenuous analyses, their report represents a last-gasp effort to tune out the evidence and turn back the clock. It espouses the return to a wrong-headed, counterproductive and often cruel vision of juvenile justice that’s thankfully dying out not only in Oregon, but nationwide — and for good reason.

Dick Mendel is an independent writer and editor on juvenile justice and other youth, poverty and community development issues. He has written nationally disseminated reports for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, American Youth Policy Forum and Justice Policy Institute, among others. 

Analysis: Holes in the Evidence for Evidence-Based


ebp_dick_mendelFourteen years ago, I authored my first major report on juvenile justice, “Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime, What Works – And What Doesn’t,” marking an exciting milestone in my career.

The report was released at a full-bore press conference at the National Press Club, where I got to present my findings, and it generated a modest swirl of news stories across the country. Better yet, it earned me my first and only interview on national television. Well, kinda sorta national television — MSNBC.

But looking back at the report today, re-reading the first few pages, I feel as much sheepish as proud.

EBPgraphic2-01I feel sheepish because the report opens with what, in the cold sobriety of hindsight, I can only describe as a naïve, hyperbolic tale about the wondrous transformation available to our nation’s juvenile justice systems if only they would adopt the handful of so-called evidence-based treatment models. (Read the opening passages of “Less Hype, More Help.”)

I was reminded of “Less Hype, More Help” this month by the rollout of a JJIE’s new online Resource Hub on evidence-based programs and practices, and by Gary Gately’s feature story JJIE published Wednesday about evidence-based programming. Both are well-written and packed with information — well worth your time.

But reading them only heightened my sense that discussions of evidence-based juvenile justice remain, well, naïve and hyperbolic, just as I was in 2000. I know better now, and in this column I want explain why my unqualified praise for these gold-standard models was misplaced.

Don’t get me wrong. There is an important place in juvenile justice reform for carefully crafted treatment models with hard evidence from randomized trials. And there’s an even more important place for rigorous outcomes measurement and data-driven decision making. But my suggestion that we can revolutionize juvenile justice in this country by replacing the current system with plug-and-play programs was a fantasy back in 2000. And it remains a fantasy today.

This is true for several reasons.

graphic2_EBP-01First, no effort to reform juvenile justice should begin with a treatment program, evidence-based or otherwise. That’s putting the cart before the horse, a loser’s bet. Juvenile justice operates as a system, not a collection of programs. While programs are important, even the best program models will come to no avail if they are embedded within dysfunctional systems prone to making bad decisions in untimely ways about how to serve and sanction court-involved young people.

The second problem is definitional: Who decides what is or isn’t evidence-based, and using what criteria? Lists identifying effective, proven or promising adolescent prevention and treatment models have proliferated rapidly in recent years, but — due to the lack of any consensus in the field on how to define “evidence-based” — they vary widely in their criteria for inclusion. Some set the standards of proof so low that many recommended models lack any reliable evidence of effectiveness.

Third, rules requiring exclusive or heavy reliance on evidence-based models necessarily exclude many home-grown or idiosyncratic strategies that are rooted in communities but lack the pedigree of a rigorous, carefully controlled evaluation study. That kind of research is expensive, beyond the means of many community agencies and grassroots organizations that have a keen interest in — and untapped capacity to support — youth in high poverty neighborhoods where most juvenile court cases arise. Such rules can also stifle innovation, which is critically needed given the still-small array of interventions with powerful evidence of effectiveness and our still-limited scope of knowledge of what work best for youth facing different types of risks and needs.

All of these issues pose vexing challenges to the evidence-based movement in juvenile justice. In this column, I want to focus attention on another, less appreciated problem facing the evidence-based programs movement. That is the seldom discussed fact that the research behind even the most highly-regarded intervention models isn’t nearly as strong as many assume (or allege).

Unconvincing Evidence for Prevention Models

In 2006, the editors of Youth Today (a bi-monthly newspaper on youth development now published by the Center for Sustainable Journalism, the same organization that publishes JJIE) sent me to cover a national conference about evidence-based models for reducing delinquency and adolescent substance abuse. Three years later, Youth Today hired me to write a series of columns featuring new research on what works and doesn’t work in youth development.

These assignments gave me a chance to examine the evidence on model programs more closely, not just on juvenile justice interventions but also delinquency prevention, child welfare and other children and youth programs. The more I looked, the more concerned I grew.

For instance, one of my Youth Today columns in 2010 touted a highly-regarded Australian model called “Positive Parenting Program,” or Triple P, a community-wide strategy for reducing child abuse. Unlike other community-wide approaches to reducing child abuse, which yielded “limited or no evidence of effectiveness,” Triple P showed encouraging results in a host of overseas research studies. And a 2009 evaluation in South Carolina found that counties that implemented Triple P had far better results than non-participating counties in terms of overall maltreatment rates, foster care placements and emergency room visits stemming from child maltreatment.

Swayed by these studies, I informed Youth Today readers that the Triple P model “can make a dramatic and cost-effective difference.”

Not so much, it turns out.

In 2012, an independent review of the available research found “no convincing evidence that Triple P interventions work across the whole population or that any benefits are long-term.” In most cases, the available studies were methodologically weak and involved very small samples. And all but one was authored by personnel affiliated with the Triple P model.

Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubThen this spring, University of Cambridge criminologist Manuel Eisner published a working paper delineating “Seven Reasons to Be Skeptical” about the about Triple P study in South Carolina. In 2007, two years before releasing their results, scholars working on the South Carolina evaluation publicly detailed their study design, including the sample to be studied, research protocols and outcome measures. Yet when their final paper appeared, many of these parameters had changed without explanation: a different age range of children, a different time period for comparison, a different unit of analysis. Worse yet, the final study reported on just three of the 11 outcome measures identified in the research plan, and it added a new measure that wasn’t included in the initial research plan.

These kinds of “post-hoc” changes are telltale warning signs in evaluation research, offering easy opportunity for researchers to cherry-pick the data they choose to report. Meanwhile, the Triple P study did not acknowledge any conflicts of interest, as required, even though the study’s first author was a Triple P consultant and the second author was the founder of Triple P and director of a thriving for-profit business dedicated to replicating the model internationally.

Sadly, problems with post-hoc changes, data cherry-picking and conflicts of interest are not limited to Triple P or to child abuse prevention. Over the past dozen years, serious critiques have also been published questioning the research behind several of the most widely touted school-based models for preventing delinquency, substance abuse and/or smoking.

These critiques find that scholarly papers evaluating model prevention programs — typically written by the developers and promoters of the models — have frequently employed dubious methods and selective reporting to justify positive findings.

Among the models whose research has been subjected to sharp criticism are Life Skills Training, the Seattle Social Development Model, Project Alert and the Midwest Prevention Project, all of which have been touted as proven or effective on lists of evidence-based practices maintained by Blueprints for Violence Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, National Institutes of Drug Abuse,and/or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The model developers have ardently defended their research, of course, and raised some persuasive points. Yet, to an informed lay observer like me, the critics have the better of the argument: Troublesome methodological anomalies do seem pervasive in the research behind a number of prevention models widely recognized as evidence-based. While these kinds of anomalies do not prove intentional misconduct — unconscious bias is far more likely — the result nonetheless is research that tips the scales in favor of the models being studied and presents an unrealistic and inflated portrait of their impact. (Some of the models have since been downgraded or removed from some lists.)

Dennis Gorman, a scholar at Texas A&M who has written many studies critiquing the research on evidence-based prevention models, concludes that “Much of what goes on in the analysis of these school-based prevention programs is simply not consistent with the type of rigorous hypothesis testing that one associates with the term ‘science.’”

In fact, a few years ago, Gorman and a colleague published a paper about Drug Abuse Resistance Education (or DARE), one of the few models that has been found to be ineffective based on evaluation research. The paper found that, using statistical techniques commonly employed in studies supporting many other models, they could show that DARE, too, was evidence-based — even though any objective reading of the evidence finds that the DARE model has little or no effect on participating youth.

Questions About MST Research

Not surprisingly, questions have also been raised about the research into model programs aimed at reducing crime and delinquency among those already involved in lawbreaking behavior.

In 2005, veteran social research scholars Anthony Petrosino and Haluk Soydan examined 300 evaluation studies of intervention programs designed to reduce criminal behavior. They found that studies conducted by the developer of the model being examined showed large reductions in recidivism (average effect size of nearly one-half a standard deviation), while studies conducted by independent evaluators found an average effect size of exactly zero.

As Eisner puts it, “There is evidence of a worrying pattern in criminological evaluation research and that systematic bias is one possible explanation that we can’t afford to ignore.”

To date, there has been less scrutiny of the research behind the two types of models that have produced strong results in reversing delinquency and other problem behaviors among troubled adolescents: cognitive-behavioral therapy, and family-focused treatment approaches such as FFT, MTFC and MST.

So far as I’m aware, the research behind the leading cognitive behavioral therapy models has not been subjected to an exacting review regarding research methodology or potential bias introduced by model developers evaluating their own models. (As with the prevention models, developers have conducted much or most of the experimental research for several of the leading CBT models.) Likewise, I have not seen any serious methodological critiques of Functional Family Therapy or Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care.

However, Multisystemic Therapy (MST) was examined in a 2005 study by a research team lead by Julia Littell, a social work scholar at Bryn Mawr College. Littell identified a number of weaknesses in the MST research, and after employing a statistical technique called meta-analysis to synthesize the results from multiple studies, she characterized the research on MST as “inconclusive.” The available evidence, she found, “does not support the hypothesis that MST is consistently more effective than usual services or other interventions for youth with social, emotional, or behavioral problems.”

MST developer Scott Henggeler and other scholars affiliated with MST authored a sharp rebuttal, questioning Littell’s analysis and citing their own research showing that weak results in MST are typically tied to lack of fidelity to the MST model, rather than weakness in the model itself. Indeed, studies by MST-affiliated researchers consistently show that results are far better in MST programs with high adherence to the MST model than those with lower adherence, and MST’s sponsors have developed elaborate processes to promote adherence in MST replication sites.

However, Littell remained unbowed in her criticism, countering in a follow-up essay that the treatment adherence measure employed by MST researchers to measure fidelity was ill-defined, and that the other criticisms of her study were replete with “logical and factual errors.”

Littell also noted that Henggeler and his colleagues face an enormous conflict of interest as both the promoters and evaluators of their own model. Citing publicly available data, Littell reported that MST had reaped $55 million in research grants through 2004, and that MST Services Inc., the for-profit enterprise established by Henggeler and his team to support MST replication, collected $400 to $550 in licensing, training and consulting fees for each of the 10,000 families then served by MST each year.

Time for Higher Research Standards

Lacking advanced statistical training, I am not qualified to score the debate between Littell and the MST promoters. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that if implemented carefully and targeted to youth fitting the profile for which it is intended, MST is most likely a highly-effective intervention. I’d be less confident to bet that MST would outperform similar interventions without the brand name (or evidence-based) imprimatur.

Indeed, a comprehensive analysis commissioned by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform in 2010 found that MST and Functional Family Therapy "fall well within the range of other family programs” and that “some no-name programs produced effects even larger than those found for the model programs.”

The point is not that we should abandon or turn away from the movement toward evidence-based models like MST. That would be foolhardy. The rapid proliferation of empirical evidence about what works and doesn’t in addressing delinquent behavior has been one of the most important and promising developments in juvenile justice in recent times, and the emergence and spread of carefully crafted intervention models backed by scholarly research is an entirely welcome development. Indeed, several states (like Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana and Ohio) have made achieved impressive results by replicating evidence-based models on a large scale — improving youth outcomes, reducing recidivism and saving taxpayers’ money.

But continuing to ignore the valid empirical questions being raised about the research supporting these models would be equally foolhardy. To employ a baseball analogy, we’ve only reached first base in our research about evidence-based juvenile justice. We need many more models, and we need to develop a much deeper understanding of what works, when, for which youth and under what circumstances.

And, critically, we need higher standards for research. We need more transparency.

Fourteen years ago the emergence of models with any evidence of effectiveness was newsworthy, and the spread of such models was paltry. Today, these program models are household names in our field. Together, they have become a growth industry in the field, and they now consume hundreds of millions of dollars per year in state and local funds.

This isn’t little league any more.

A Love Letter to Evidence-Based Practices for Combating Juvenile Crime

(The opening passage of "Less Hype, More Help")

Today, several of the models touted in “Less Hype, More Help” are widely known, such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST), Functional Family Therapy (FFT) and Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC). But back then few people had heard of these approaches. Hence my temptation to trumpet them so boldly.

Or part of my temptation. I was also seduced, like many others since, by the aura of precision and certainty these evidence-based models inject into discussions of juvenile justice. My opening passage oozed with the smug certitude often bred by the imprimatur of peer-reviewed science.

I started with a question:

“What if we could take a chronic juvenile delinquent, a kid who has been arrested five, six, 10 times, and instead of sending him away for a year to juvenile prison for $40,000 or $50,000 (only to come home with a 50 to 70 percent chance of re-offending) ... what if instead of that we could keep him at home, spend less than $5,000 working with him and his family over four or five months and cut the likelihood that he’ll re-offend in half?”

And then another:

“What if, for a chronic delinquent who is just too unruly to stay with her parents, instead of sending her to a group home or youth prison we could spend just a little more to place her into a specialized foster home for six to nine months, work with the child and coach her parents and reduce the amount of time she can expect to be incarcerated by 75 days over the next two years?”

And then a third:

“What if, for chronically disobedient elementary school children, we could spend just $1,500 for a two-pronged program — video-based parenting skills training and classroom-based social competence training for the child — and reduce problem behaviors dramatically (by 30 percent or better) in 95 percent of all cases, significantly reducing the number who will be arrested later as juveniles?”

Then came the punchline:

“Well, you can stop asking, ‘What if?’ We can. We can. And we can.”

If only it were that simple.



Analysis: Is Lead Exposure the Secret to the Rapid Rise and Fantastic Fall of the Juvenile Crime Rate?

car-pollutionFor the juvenile justice field, there is no larger question. It’s the elephant in the room, the great mystery, the trend that has changed everything — and seemingly without explanation. Why have juvenile crime rates, once predicted to rise inexorably, instead been falling for two decades? Falling... and falling... and falling.

What if the answer was readily available? What if it mostly boiled down to a single element, hiding in plain sight, and we just refused to notice?

Well, compelling evidence suggests that much or most of the fluctuation in juvenile crime rates does boil down to a single element — a chemical element.

The element is lead, and a powerful body of research indicates that the recent declines in juvenile offending rates, like the rise in juvenile crime rates that preceded them, stem in large part from changes in children’s exposure to lead paint and exhaust from leaded gasoline.

The idea may sound crazy, “like a bad science fiction plot,” quips Rick Nevin, one of the leading researchers documenting the link between lead exposure and crime. But the data don’t lie and here’s what they say.

For centuries it has been clear that lead is a potent poison. At extreme concentrations, lead poisoning causes anemia, blindness, renal failure, convulsions, abdominal spasms, insomnia, hallucinations, chronic fatigue and, ultimately, death. But only in the past four decades have researchers learned that lead exposure can severely damage the cognitive development of children, even at modest levels that produce no physical symptoms. And only through modern scanning technology have we learned that the lead molecule is perfectly designed to cripple young minds in ways that not only lower IQ, but also damage the very parts of the brain that oversee aggression, self-regulation, attention and impulse control.

As Kim Cecil, director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, recently explained to the Chemical & Engineering News, “These are the parts of the brain that say, ‘Ooh, I’ve learned from before that I shouldn’t steal that, or if I do this, then the consequences are that.’”

Even moderate levels of lead in the bloodstream of an infant or toddler significantly increase the odds that he will suffer behavioral disorders in childhood, and will engage in delinquency and criminal behavior later on. (Lead seems to affect boys more than girls.) A study published in 2008 tracked 250 children born in low-income Cincinnati neighborhoods between 1979 and 2004. It found that children with elevated levels of lead exposure (either in utero, or in early childhood) were significantly more likely to be arrested for both violent and nonviolent crimes than children with lower lead exposure. Earlier studies in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh also found a significant correlation between early childhood lead exposure and later conduct problems.

What makes this story important is that children in the United States and worldwide were exposed to massive concentrations of lead throughout much of the 20th century. Because leaded paint dries faster and is more durable, virtually all paint sold in the nation in the first half of the century contained lead. Some nations outlawed leaded paint as early as 1909, but the United States didn’t prohibit the use of lead in interior paints until 1950 and didn’t ban lead paint entirely until 1978.

In 1921, General Motors chemists discovered that tetraethyl lead vastly improved the efficiency of internal combustion engines. By the 1930s, lead additives were included in virtually all gasoline sold in the nation. Faced with increasing evidence about health hazards associated with lead, the Environmental Protection Agency began phasing out the use of leaded gasoline in the 1970s, and banned it entirely as of 1995.

This heavy use of lead in paints and gasoline dramatically increased the amount of lead in children’s bloodstreams. The average among preschool children nationwide rose from less than 5 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood through the end of World War II to more than 15 ug/dL by the mid-1950s. Then, after a brief pause, average blood lead levels among U.S. preschoolers surpassed 20 ug/dL during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The latest studies show that lead can cause permanent cognitive damage at 2.5 ug/dL (or possibly even lower).

Lead levels were especially high for inner-city black children due to both lead paint chips from older, dilapidated housing and high volumes of exhaust from urban roadways. Data from 1976-1980 show that 63 percent of black children 5 and under in central cities had blood lead levels of 20 ug/dL or higher, and 18.6 percent had levels above 30 ug/dL — a rate nearly five times the national average.

Then, in the 1970s, regulations were issued to limit and prohibit lead, and lead levels began falling for children of all races. They continue to fall until the present day, though racial disparities persist.

The full ramifications of this massive lead exposure began coming into view in the mid-1990s when Rick Nevin, a senior economist with ICF International, undertook a study for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development examining the costs and benefits of removing lead from older homes in U.S. cities. For the study, Nevin dug up several decades of data on gasoline lead emissions and compared them with violent crime rates years later. The correlations were striking.  For every type of violent offense, as lead emissions rose or fell there was a nearly identical change in the offense rate two decades later. Unwed teen pregnancies followed a similar pattern, Nevin found.

This chart, from Rick Nevin’s first academic paper, documents the striking correlation over time between lead emissions and violent crime (with a 23 year lag).
This chart, from Rick Nevin’s first academic paper, documents the striking correlation over time between lead emissions and violent crime (with a 23 year lag).

In 2000, Nevin pulled his data together into an article for a respected academic journal, Environmental Research. Seven years later, Nevin published a second article demonstrating that the lagged connection between early childhood lead exposure and subsequent criminality held true in a number of other nations as well. Changes in lead exposure, Nevin found, explained at least 63 percent of the variation in crime rates over time for each of nine nations studied. Meanwhile, another 2007 study showed this same correlation at the state-level within the nation, as states with sharper or earlier reductions in lead emissions demonstrated sharper and earlier drops in crime.  Subsequent studies have found that the correlation also holds at the neighborhood level within cities.

Could these striking correlations between lead exposure and crime rates be coincidence? That’s always a possibility, particularly in situations where the gold standard for scientific inquiry — a randomized trial — is unavailable. (Subjecting a random sample of infants to lead is obviously out-of-bounds.) Yet the strength and consistency of the findings linking lead exposure and crime trends, plus the wealth of corroborating evidence from other disciplines (such as brain imaging studies and longitudinal studies of small population samples in selected cities) creates what Kevin Drum, a widely-cited blogger and journalist who has written extensively on the lead-crime connection, calls “an astonishing body of evidence.”


The above two charts show the differential trends in offending (as measured by arrest and incarceration rates) for successive generations.  Both show gradually decreasing criminal involvement for successive youth cohorts (with lower and lower early childhood lead exposure), combined with flat or increasing criminal involvement for older adults who had heavier exposure to lead in early childhood).
The above two charts show the differential trends in offending (as measured by arrest and incarceration rates) for successive generations. Both show gradually decreasing criminal involvement for successive youth cohorts (with lower and lower early childhood lead exposure), combined with flat or increasing criminal involvement for older adults who had heavier exposure to lead in early childhood).

“We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level,” writes Drum. “Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.”

By this point, readers of this column may be wondering: If the evidence linking lead exposure and crime is so strong, why haven’t we heard more about it? The primary reason is that the research has been largely ignored by academics. In 2008, a 250-page report on U.S. crime trends by the National Academies of Science included only one paragraph about lead exposure, drawing no conclusions. Late last year, a National Academies roundtable on crime trends did hold a session on lead exposure.

This chart shows how dramatically the early childhood lead levels have continued to decline in recent times, including a drop in cohorts that have yet to reach juvenile age. If the lead-crime connection is real, this suggests that delinquency rates are likely to continue falling in the coming years.
This chart shows how dramatically the early childhood lead levels have continued to decline in recent times, including a drop in cohorts that have yet to reach juvenile age. If the lead-crime connection is real, this suggests that delinquency rates are likely to continue falling in the coming years.

But even in that day’s session, the opening presentation — delivered by the renowned British criminologist, David Farrington — did not include a word about lead exposure. His talk on “Individual Differences in Antisocial Behavior, Delinquency, and Crime” discussed unemployment, parenting, poverty, family size, peer influences, substance abuse, and even an individual’s resting heart rate — none of which has seen changes in recent times consistent with the larger rise and fall in crime rates. Farrington said nothing about the introduction and subsequent removal of massive amounts of a toxic substance with a powerful known link to subsequent delinquency and criminality.

Drum suggests that the lack of attention to lead exposure is natural, given that the theory is new and unproven. Indeed, some critics have raised legitimate questions about the research — citing the small number of studies, questioning methodology and suggesting that other factors beyond lead (such as demographics, shifting drug markets and more) may also play an important role in determining crime rates over time.

The above chart shows a trend toward lower and lower juvenile offending in recent times among each age cohort of youth.
The above chart shows a trend toward lower and lower juvenile offending in recent times among each age cohort of youth.

For instance, Florida State University criminologist Eric Baumer, the designated discussant at the recent National Academies roundtable, noted that crime declined significantly in the 1990s among all age cohorts, not just youth and younger adults with reduced lead exposure. Baumer also noted that the share of youth and young adults in the population has been declining in most industrial nations since the 1980s, perhaps fueling the steady drop in crime rates. And he pointed to the fact that, although statistically significant, the increases in criminality associated with early childhood lead exposure were fairly modest in the Cincinnati youth study. Although Baumer accepted that the evidence yields a “persuasive case for a significant association” between lead exposure and crime rates, he raised the possibility that the connection might be “spurious,” and he questioned whether the lead effect — even if real — would be sufficient to explain large aggregate reductions in crime rates. Even with these caveats, however, Baumer described the lead research as “provocative and plausible.”

(Rick Nevin roundly rejects Baumer’s critique of the lead research, noting that Baumer ignores some of the strongest evidence of the lead exposure hypothesis and uses inappropriate data to support his other criticisms.  Bottom line, says Nevin: no other theory “has demonstrated any comparable predictive accuracy in forecasting ongoing international crime trends.”  Click here for Baumer’s presentation, and here for Nevin’s rebuttal.)

The above Bureau of Justice Statistics chart shows how big cities, which suffered the worst lead exposure in the post-war years and have benefitted the most from lead abatement efforts and the ban on leaded gasoline, have seen a far greater drop in homicide rates than smaller and mid-sized cities (where lead played a lesser role).
The above Bureau of Justice Statistics chart shows how big cities, which suffered the worst lead exposure in the post-war years and have benefitted the most from lead abatement efforts and the ban on leaded gasoline, have seen a far greater drop in homicide rates than smaller and mid-sized cities (where lead played a lesser role).

Another factor behind the inattention to the lead exposure research is that most of the studies thus far have been conducted by economists and public health scholars, not criminologists, and the key papers have been published in environmental journals rather than criminology publications. Nevin also sees an element of self-interest: “Everyone has their own theory that they hold dear about why the crime decline has occurred,” he says. “There are a whole lot of people ... on both sides of the political spectrum who want to claim credit for this and don’t really like hearing about this unrelated powerful force.”

Whatever the reasons, this lack of attention has left policymakers and juvenile justice practitioners unaware of lead’s apparently pivotal impact on adolescent (and adult) offending rates over the past half century.

What does this connection between crime and lead exposure mean for the juvenile justice field?

First, it sheds light not just on the sharp rise and dramatic fall in national delinquency rates in recent decades, but also on a number of other previously unexplained trends as well. The stark racial and geographic disparities in lead exposure help explain how America’s city’s became havens of violence in the post-World War II era, and why crime rates in central cities have fallen so significantly since as lead exposure rates declined. The murder rate in America’s largest cities (where lead exposure rates were highest) declined by two-thirds from 1991 to 2008, and is now equal to rates in small and mid-sized cities.

Declining lead exposure also helps explain why both arrest and incarceration rates are falling for adolescents and younger adults nationwide (who are benefiting from lower lead exposure), while rising for adults over age 35 (who were born at the height of the lead era). And why the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has fallen 51 percent since 1991. And it also helps explain why, despite continuing sky-is-falling media coverage of America’s education system, fourth and eighth grade students in every major demographic group have significantly improved their test scores over the past two decades.

Second, just as the big drop in juvenile offending shredded the logic and underlying analysis of so-called experts in the 1990s who predicted a ticking time bomb of adolescent crime fueled by juvenile superpredators, the emerging data linking lead exposure and offending rates also injects a needed dose of humility for today’s juvenile justice advocates and practitioners.

Across the country, as juvenile offending and custody rates have fallen, juvenile justice officials and some advocacy organizations have tried to claim credit — chalking up the progress to their own policies and practices. Of course, some reform efforts have made significant difference.  Connecticut, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas and California have all dramatically reduced confinement in recent years after passing new legislation or embracing new policies to limit the range of offenses for which youth can be confined, boost investments in non-residential programming, or change the financial incentives to encourage localities to offer a stronger array of community‐based services.   And many sites nationwide have reduced detention populations as part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. But looking across the country, game-changing reforms remain the exception in juvenile justice, not the rule.

For instance, juvenile justice scholar Jeffrey Butts has shown that U.S. delinquency courts were no less likely to incarcerate youth in 2009 than they had been in 1995. Nationwide, there was virtually no change in youth incarceration as a share of total delinquency cases (about 9 percent every year), all cases where formal charges were brought (about 16 percent every year), and all cases adjudicated delinquent (about 27-28 percent every year). Meanwhile, a new five-site study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency released this spring found that youth adjudicated delinquent were actually more likely to be placed into correctional or other residential facilities in 2012 than in 2002. As the Casey Foundation put it two years ago, “it is less clear whether [recent trends in youth confinement] reflect a genuine de‐incarceration movement, or rather signal that this is an opportune time to start one.”

Third, early childhood lead exposure has continued to decline steeply in recent years, meaning that youth entering adolescence over the next decade will have lower lead exposure than today’s adolescents. As a result, juvenile offending rates are likely to sustain their downward trend for the foreseeable future. That’s one more reason why now is an ideal time to initiate meaningful reforms in juvenile justice — including real reductions in the use of out-of-home placements.

Finally, returning to the humility theme, the lead data suggest that perhaps the most important thing our nation can do to reduce juvenile crime — and also to boost youth success in general — has nothing to do with juvenile courts or corrections systems. Maybe our first priority should be lead abatement — finishing the job by removing the last remnants of our tragic 20th century fetish with this terrible toxin.

Dick Mendel is an independent writer and editor on juvenile justice and other youth, poverty and community development issues. He has written nationally disseminated reports for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, American Youth Policy Forum and Justice Policy Institute, among others. 

Analysis: Coming Soon… A Watershed Moment on DMC

Click here to read more articles about youth of color in the juvenile justice system.

Reading through JJIE’s extensive coverage regarding racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice over the past month, reviewing its excellent new DMC resource hub, and scanning the available literature, it is impossible to avoid a couple of painful conclusions.

First, our nation’s juvenile courts and corrections systems remain deeply inequitable. More aggressive policing in low-income communities of color, counterproductive and racially-biased school disciplinary policies, weak legal representation and failed human service systems all inflate the rate at which youth of color enter the system. Then, once involved in the justice system, youth of color are subjected to a far more punitive and counterproductive variety of justice than white youth.

In its 2012 review of juvenile justice, the National Academy of Sciences found that even controlling for seriousness of the current offense, offending history and a host of other factors, “data consistently show that … race/ethnicity are associated with court outcomes, and that racial/ethnic differences increase and become more pronounced with further penetration into the system through the various decision points.”  In addition, NAS concluded, “bias (whether conscious or unconscious) also plays a role,” and “many conventional practices in enforcement and administration [in the justice system] magnify these underlying disparities.”

Second, though the evidence of unequal justice is overwhelming – a stark deviation from our democratic ideals – our country is not making much if any progress to redress it. Just look at the latest census of youth in custody nationwide: More than two thirds of the kids confined by juvenile justice systems nationwide in 2011 were youth of color, even though white non-Hispanic youth still comprised 57 percent of the U.S. youth population. The confinement rate for black youth in 2011 was 4.6 times that of whites, up from 4.1 times a decade earlier. Already large disparities have worsened for Hispanic and Native American youth as well.

Fortunately, there may be some good news on the horizon. On March 28, Administrator Robert Listenbee and other top staff in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will convene an unusual, perhaps unprecedented powwow with some of the nation’s leading juvenile justice reform advocates to discuss fundamental changes in OJJDP’s approach to racial and ethnic disparities.

This meeting presents a rare opportunity to initiate a meaningful, much-needed reboot of federal efforts to assure equal justice for youth of color.

For many years, it’s been an open secret that reformers and youth advocates are dissatisfied with the federal government’s lack of urgency in addressing the impossible-to-deny disparities in the treatment of youth of color in the justice system.

Yet, at least so far as OJJDP is concerned, the complaints have most often been muted, indirect, polite. As one long-time insider told me recently, “There’s not too many people who want to criticize OJJDP.  They’re the only source of grant money in the field.” OJJDP also funds many or most of the organizations and consultants working on DMC issues, assisting states and localities to calculate disparities and hopefully solve them. So full-throated criticisms are rare.

Yet, the basic outlines of the critique are clear.

First, advocates and many juvenile justice practitioners are deeply disappointed in Congress’ failure to issue a clear and specific mandate requiring states and localities to take concrete action to remedy disparities. When first enacted in 1974, the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act did not include any provisions related to racial equity. Congress did amend the law in 1988 adding a requirement that states study their systems, determine if minority youth were overrepresented in juvenile facilities, and undertake reforms efforts if disparities were identified.

Four years later, Congress elevated this mandate by making it a “core requirement” of the law. But that requirement only demanded that states study confinement disparities and then “address” any problems they uncovered, with no definition of what that meant.

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For more information about how the federal government is addressing racial disparities visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub


When it reauthorized the JJDPA in 2002, Congress expanded the DMC mandate’s focus from disparate minority confinement (looking only at which kids get locked up) to disparate contact (examining disparities at all phases of the delinquency court process). But Congress punted on the equally important need to strengthen the racial and ethnic equity mandate by insisting on meaningful concrete action to correct disparities. Since then, Congress has failed to reauthorize the law despite widespread consensus that many of its provisions are weak or dated, none more so than the DMC mandate.

When the JJDPA was first up for reauthorization in 2007, and again in 2009, the advocacy community banded together to promote specific amendments to JJDPA, including stronger DMC requirements, and it worked with sympathetic legislators to insert favorable provisions into legislative proposals.

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For more information about reform trends to strengthen JJDPA visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub


By contrast, advocates have been far less vocal regarding OJJDP’s role, due in part to a lingering lack of leadership at OJJDP. The agency’s administrator under President George W. Bush, Robert Flores, had no background in juvenile justice and little appetite for reform. Then President Barack Obama neglected to appoint a leader for OJJDP throughout his entire first term.

Yet, the fact remains that even without congressional reauthorization of the JJDPA, OJJDP has the authority to make many of the changes advocates seek regarding racial and ethnic disparities, and the resources to significantly up its game on the issue.

In 2010, for instance, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice urged OJJDP to “craft explicit outcomes” for efforts to address disparities. “The other three core requirements of the JJDPA … are informed by associated implementation regulations and a set of metrics that must be substantially met for states to receive full federal funding,” CJJ wrote.  “Such regulatory guidance and performance measures [should] be developed for DMC as well.”

In fact, OJJDP has a framework to guide states in meeting the DMC requirement. The agency advocates a five-step change model for addressing disparities, and it lists four requirements for states to be in compliance with the DMC mandate — comparing outcomes for youth of different racial and ethnic backgrounds against white youth (by calculating the “Relative Rate Index”) at successive stages of the justice process, assessing the causes of identified disparities, developing and implementing strategies to reduce disparities, and tracking outcomes.

In practice, however, states seem to be held accountable only for: (a) calculating the Relative Rate Index; and (b) submitting reports. Since 2006, only one state (Mississippi) and two territories (American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands) have been penalized for failure to comply. As the Haywood Burns Institute — a leading think tank and consulting firm dedicated to combatting racial disparities — complained in a 2008 monograph, “The federal government set the bar so low that today nearly anything — regardless of how attenuated or remote from actual results — done in the name of ‘DMC’ is still considered adequate.”

If OJJDP is looking to strengthen its requirements regarding racial and ethnic equity, one target might be data reporting. As of 2005, just 13 states reliably reported on the ethnicity of youth at various stages of the juvenile court process, leaving them unable to accurately account for the share of youth with Hispanic heritage. Though this situation is improving, problems persist in many states. And OJJDP’s own National DMC Databook still provides no information whatsoever on Hispanic youth, the nation’s largest and fastest growing minority population.

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For more information about reform trends to improve data collection visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub


OJJDP might also insist that states capture and analyze data at the local level, not just aggregate state figures. Most of the decisions affecting the treatment of youth — from arrest, diversion, detention, probation and placement — are typically handled at the local level. The dynamics of racial and ethnic equity operate far differently in Los Angeles than in Eureka, so state-level figures offer little benefit.

More fundamentally, OJJDP could promulgate (and really enforce) regulations that require meaningful action to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, following a clear set of protocols. It could require communities to establish active steering committees to examine disparities at the local level, meet regularly, develop action plans to address identified points of disparity and monitor the impact of their chosen strategies.

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For more information about reform trends to improve community collaboration and engagement visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub


Beyond issuing new rules, OJJDP could also revamp its process for delivering technical support to states and local jurisdictions on racial and ethnic equity.

Advocates complain that the aid offered by OJJDP doesn’t adhere to important lessons gleaned through leading reform efforts, such as those conducted by the Burns Institute and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. In these efforts, local leadership teams receive ongoing support from consultants with expertise not just in number crunching, but also in engaging system and community actors and facilitating deeper conversations to identify the hidden dynamics that often drive disparate treatment.

“You can’t just parachute in,” says James Bell, founder and executive director of the Burns Institute. Currently, Bell explains, when jurisdictions request technical assistance from OJJDP “they’re gonna send someone in for some period of time, a day or two, maybe a week, and then you’re done until your next request.”

By contrast, says Bell, “When you get us, we’re gonna be there every month, we’re gonna be asking ‘What’s the progress? Did you do that?’  And we’re going to help you do it.  [It] has to be about moving a process. That’s why you need to be there a long time, to establish relationships and to move a process.”

Over the past decade, the Burns Institute has applied its intensive methodology in more than 100 jurisdictions nationwide, including many sites in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. Likewise, through the Models for Change DMC Action network and other funders, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy has facilitated similar processes in many other jurisdictions. Often, these engagements have yielded encouraging results.

“We feel confident in the approach,” says Jason Szanyi, a staff attorney at CCLP. “We’re using it for a variety of funders. There’s faith in the process.”

To date, however, outside of a few smaller studies, none of these change models has ever been subject to an in-depth, independent evaluation to measure impact empirically, shed light on the characteristics of more vs. less successful sites, and examine critical factors in the timing or delivery of consulting support.

Bart Lubow
Bart Lubow

Here again, OJJDP support could make a pivotal difference.

Whether this type of evaluation research will be discussed at the March 28 event is anyone’s guess. The session will include leading advocates such as Bell and Raquel Mariscal of the Burns Institute, Bart Lubow of the Casey Foundation and Juan Sanchez of Southwest Key, as well as researchers, judges and OJJDP staff.

Mark Soler
Mark Soler

Another prominent participant will be Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which leads the DMC action network in MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change project. Soler has a long commitment to the racial and ethnic disparities issue, which he has championed heartily at CCLP and as part of the Building Blocks for Youth initiative.

Soler, who got to know Listenbee as part of the Models for Change effort in Pennsylvania, has been deeply involved in the discussions leading up to the March 28 meeting. Reached by telephone, he expressed optimism.

“We’ve let Bob know that we see some problems [in how the agency has been addressing the racial and ethnic disparities challenge historically].  We’ve made some observations and recommendations, and Bob has been very interested,” Soler said.

“He has authority to make changes, and he realizes that there’s only a limited window to get things done,” Soler added. “So he’s doing what any responsible administrator would do — taking the ideas to his team, and to outside experts, after which he will make a final decision.

“We’re all eager to hear what that decision will be.”


DISCLOSURE: Past and current financial supporters of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

Amid Widespread Inaction on Evidence-Based Care for Troubled and Delinquent Youth, a Few States Get it Right

Youth Villages-Inner Harbour Campus is on 1,200 wooded acres in Douglasville, near Atlanta, Georgia.

Youth Villages

Youth Villages Inner Harbour Campus is on 1,200 wooded acres in Douglasville, near Atlanta, Georgia.


In a pair of feature stories published earlier, (on Georgia's reform efforts and issues and two young men in the system) JJIE described two modes of intensive at-home treatment that show great promise to improve outcomes for emotionally disturbed youth in the delinquency system, both of which cost far less than incarceration or treatment in a residential treatment center.

As our stories documented, use of these models has been expanding slowly in Georgia and remains limited, despite a growing consensus among state leaders that Georgia’s current approach to juvenile justice is yielding poor returns due to over reliance on secure confinement and lack of investment in community-based treatment backed by research.

This dynamic is not limited to Georgia, however. Most states are also making only limited progress toward revamping their juvenile justice and adolescent mental health systems to take advantage of these promising new treatment approaches.

Evidence-Based Family Therapy

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]
Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about mental health and substance use disorders, including:

Be sure to check back often for updates.
[/module]The first promising approach involves intensive and highly regimented family therapy delivered by carefully trained and closely supervised therapists. A variety of models – Multisystemic Therapy, Functional Family Therapy, Brief Strategic Family Therapy, Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, Multidimensional Family Therapy – have all been tested in random trials and repeatedly proved more effective than traditional programs and services in improving outcomes for delinquent teens and those with serious substance abuse or mental health issues. Cost-benefit analyses suggest these programs save $7 to $10 for every dollar spent to deliver them.

Yet, a 2011 study co-authored by Scott Hengeller, the originator of Multisystemic Therapy (MST), estimated that only about 15,000 youth receive intensive evidence-based family therapy each year – about 5 percent of the population who could benefit.

Last year, a team led by former RAND Institute scholar Peter Greenwood examined states’ progress in implementing MST and two other prominent evidence-based treatment models. Their study found that “Although there are sufficient resources currently invested in juvenile justice programs to provide [an evidence-based treatment program] for every youth who could use one, less than 10 percent of youths in need actually receive these programs.” A few states are “taking explicit steps to facilitate the implementation of these proven programs,” the Greenwood study found, but “many others have not taken any but the most rudimentary steps.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]Only about 15,000 youth receive intensive evidence-based family therapy each year – about 5 percent of the population who could benefit.[/module]Despite the slow progress nationwide, a handful of states are realizing promising returns by aggressively implementing at-home family-focused treatment models.

Connecticut – Since 2000, Connecticut has expanded its annual investment in evidence-based, family-focused adolescent treatment programs from $300,000 to $39 million. According to a recent Justice Policy Institute report, the state provided evidence-based family therapy to 955 probation youth in 2012, plus thousands of other young people in the state’s child welfare and children’s mental health systems. These investments have helped Connecticut reduce the number of juvenile offenders committed to state custody by 70 percent since 2000.

Ohio – Since 2009, Ohio has launched two programs offering intensive at-home treatment in lieu of incarceration for serious youth offenders in the state’s six most populous counties. The Targeted RECLAIM program offers evidence-based at-home therapy programs, while the Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice program offers intensive at-home or community-based psychiatric and counseling services to delinquent youth with serious mental health problems. Together, these counties reduced commitments to state custody by 65 percent in just three years. A recent evaluation found that youth served in Targeted Reclaim were less than half as likely to be incarcerated for subsequent offenses as a matched comparison group of comparable youth committed to state correctional facilities.

[module align="center" width="full" type="aside"]For more information about evidence-based treatment practices visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]

Louisiana – In 2006, after a decade of litigation and federal supervision to address abusive conditions in its juvenile corrections facilities, Louisiana signed on as a pilot state in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative. By that time, the state had made significant progress improving conditions within its facilities and reducing facility populations. However, state leaders saw an unmet need to expand use of evidence-based community programs for justice-involved youth. Since then, Louisiana has expanded its evidence-based family programming from six treatment teams serving 199 youth in 2006 to 44 treatment teams serving 2,235 youth in 2011. (Editor’s note: The MacArthur Foundation is a funder of the JJIE.)

Florida – Through its $15 million per year Redirection Program, Florida diverts more than 1,000 youth every year into evidence-based at-home family therapy who would otherwise be incarcerated or placed into residential treatment facilities. Several evaluations have found that youth served in these programs are less likely than comparable youth placed in residential or correctional facilities to be arrested, adjudicated or incarcerated for subsequent offenses, and the program has saved Florida taxpayers an estimated $170 million since 2004 through lower treatment/confinement costs and reduced recidivism.

Wraparound Care

Hub-PromoThe second promising strategy, wraparound care, is targeted to youth with severe emotional disturbances at high risk for placement into residential treatment facilities or correctional institutions. Wraparound programs mobilize a team of caring adults in a troubled child’s life – including parents or guardians, other relatives, teachers, neighbors, coaches and clergy – and empower the team to choose from an array of Medicaid-funded services suited to the young person’s needs and goals. Several studies show that intensive programs adhering carefully to core wraparound principles are effective in reducing delinquent conduct and are at least as effective as residential treatment in improving the behavioral health of troubled youth, and at far lower cost.

Data is more limited on the utilization of intensive high-fidelity wraparound care for troubled and delinquent youth. The most recent national survey of wraparound programs, conducted in 2007 by the National Wraparound Initiative, found that 819 wraparound programs of varying quality and intensity across the country served roughly 100,000 children per year. Eric Bruns, coordinator of the National Wraparound Initiative, estimates that 30 to 40 percent of these programs served youth in the juvenile justice system, though no estimates are available on the number of youth referred to wraparound directly from juvenile justice.

As with evidence-based family treatment models, the scope of wraparound replication efforts are highly uneven across states. Programming remains quite limited throughout much of the country, particularly for delinquent teens. Yet a number of jurisdictions have built expansive wraparound care systems that serve large numbers of youth with severe emotional disturbances and achieve impressive outcomes.

Milwaukee County, Wisc. – Wraparound Milwaukee, which pools funding from child welfare, Medicaid, juvenile justice and mental health budgets, has long been one of the nation’s largest and most effective wraparound programs, serving 1,400 children and youth each year. With an annual budget of nearly $50 million, Wraparound Milwaukee has dramatically reduced the county’s use of psychiatric hospital and residential treatment centers. A recent study found that just 15 percent of delinquent teens participating in Wraparound Milwaukee – about half of the total program population – reoffended during their period of enrollment.

New Jersey – Since 2002, New Jersey has erected a statewide “system of care” providing integrated services for emotionally disturbed children and youth, including intensive wraparound care for more than 2,000 high-risk children and youth on any given day. A recent study calculated that the wraparound programs have saved the state $40 million since 2004 through reduced use of residential care.

Oklahoma – Since 2004, Oklahoma has created local systems of care – including intensive wraparound services for the highest-risk youth – in 55 of the state’s 70 counties. According to the state’s Department of Mental Health And Substance Abuse Treatment, a study of 800 program participants in 2012 showed substantial reductions in truancy (51 percent), school suspensions (64 percent), arrests (67 percent) and out of home placements (35 percent).

Massachusetts – In 2006, a federal court ruled that Massachusetts was not providing adequate care to children with serious emotional disturbances. Since then, the state has erected a statewide system of care – the Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative – that is overseen by six care management entities and delivered through 32 community service agencies across the state. Together, these agencies provide intensive wraparound care to roughly 4,000 children and youth in any given month – about half of them adolescents – giving Massachusetts’s the largest wraparound care system in the nation. In a recent survey, 98.6 percent of families with children participating in intensive wraparound care expressed satisfaction with the program.

As the Greenwood study explained, “There is a long history, stretching from Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th century to professional baseball managers in present day, of practitioners taking a very long time before accepting the practical implications of scientific discoveries. Juvenile justice fits right into this pattern.”

Fortunately, a handful of pioneering jurisdictions are beginning to act on the evidence and blaze a path out of the dark ages and into a more enlightened era.


This series is part of an ongoing collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity.

Expanding Evidence-Based Treatment for Georgia’s Troubled Youth: Everyone Agrees… Except the Budget

Mental health and the juvenile justice system

Georgia leaders are embracing reform in juvenile justice, but serious gaps and significant roadblocks still prevent many emotionally-troubled youth from receiving the best and most cost-effective care

Like a lot of young people caught up in our nation’s juvenile justice systems, Termaine D. and Elijah C. (not their real names) suffer with serious mental health problems. And like a lot of emotionally-troubled juvenile justice kids, for a long time no one in the juvenile courts (nor anyone else) offered them what mountains of evidence show are the best and most cost-effective kinds of treatment.

Fortunately, that changed last year.

Termaine, now 18, who suffers with bipolar disorder and has been under psychiatric care on-and-off since he was 10, got arrested in the fall of 2011 for assaulting a fellow student at school. Quickly, he was locked up for the sixth time in his young life inside the Gwinnett Regional Youth Detention Center in Lawrenceville, Ga.

On each of the previous occasions, Termaine was held for a few days or weeks, referred to a psychiatrist, and then released on probation. This time, instead of continuing the revolving door cycle, authorities placed Termaine into a program overseen by Youth Villages, a Tennessee-based agency that provides services for troubled young people in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Termaine spent four months in a residential care facility at Youth Villages’ campus in Douglasville, west of Atlanta. Then he was sent home to begin a program of innovative and intensive family-focused therapy.

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Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about mental health and substance use disorders, including:

Be sure to check back often for updates.

Like Termaine, Elijah, 18, was diagnosed at an early age with serious mental health conditions – in his case, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and bipolar. According to his father, Elijah has been taking medications since first grade. He has been arrested and detained several times, and has spent time at the Rome Regional Detention Center near his home in Northwest Georgia, two state-funded residential treatment facilities, and a county jail.

Then last November, Elijah’s probation officer assigned him a second stint in a rigorous “wraparound” program operated by the Lookout Mountain Care Management Entity in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

Kids working with a horse in the equine program at Youth Villages.
Kids working with a horse in the equine program at Youth Villages.

Termaine and Elijah have each stayed out of trouble and made significant progress since enrolling in their respective treatment programs. Both programs work with young people in their own homes, rather than placing them in institutions, and both concentrate on resolving family problems and other underlying issues that trigger young people’s problem behaviors.

The two boys’ stories, which are detailed in a sidebar article, help illustrate the potential for home-based treatment methods to turn around the lives of troubled youth while simultaneously reducing crime and saving taxpayers money.

In Georgia, consensus for change has developed among leaders in both parties, in the courts, and across the state government. Carol Hunstein, the chief justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court, who has emerged as one of the state’s leading advocates for reforming juvenile justice, addressed these issues in a speech this February.

[module align="center" width="full" type="aside"]For more information about evidence-based treatment practices visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]

“What does a judge do with a chronic runaway girl who comes before him with untreated mental health problems and a history of being sexually exploited while living on the streets?” Hunstein asked. “What does a judge do with the boy who repeatedly is charged with shoplifting but whose family is seriously dysfunctional? Most juvenile judges say they do not want to send these children to locked facilities, but with no community resources, and fearing for the children’s safety, they feel they have no alternative.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]Some model programs now operating in Georgia – including those serving both Termaine and Elijah – are being eliminated in 2014.[/module]This spring, the state Legislature overwhelmingly approved landmark juvenile justice reform legislation aimed at reducing over reliance on incarceration for low-risk youth, particularly those with mental health issues. However, a close look at Georgia’s budgets for juvenile justice and interviews with key leaders and service providers reveal that – even after the new law’s passage – serious imbalances continue.

Less than 2 percent of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice’s $300 million annual budget funds the kind of intensive, evidence-based at-home care for youthful offenders supported by research. Moreover, significant barriers to the widespread adoption of effective programming remain unaddressed in the state, and some model programs now operating in Georgia – including those serving both Termaine and Elijah – are being eliminated in 2014.

A New Consensus for Reform In Georgia


Known as “House Bill 242,” the new juvenile justice law was widely hailed as a fundamental step toward reform. “We worked hard, and we found ways to keep low-risk offenders out of detention centers and save taxpayer dollars, nearly $85 million over five years, while also eliminating the need for two new facilities,” said Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal. “We did all this while not only maintaining but improving public safety.”

The foundation for these reforms was detailed in two recent reports – a 2011 “Best Practices” study commissioned by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice and the Governor’s Office of Children and Families, and a December 2012 study from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, an influential blue-ribbon panel convened by Deal, a former juvenile court judge.

Both studies highlighted the state’s heavy overreliance on secure custody, particularly for low-risk youth. For instance, one quarter of the nearly 2,000 youth held in residential facilities by DJJ in 2011 were not felony offenders, and even many youth held for felonies were rated as low-risk. Overall, nearly as many youth confined in prisons known as Youth Development Campuses (YDCs) from 2005 to 2010 were rated as “low-risk” (30 percent) as high risk (32 percent). Meanwhile, 60 percent of incarcerated young people were receiving treatment for serious mental health disorders.

It costs the state $91,000 per year to confine young people in a YDC, and $88,000 in a short-term detention facility (called Regional Youth Development Centers or RYDCs). Yet nearly two-thirds released from the YDCs were convicted of new offenses within three years. “These rates of recidivism are unacceptable,” the Special Council report argued, “especially given the high costs to taxpayers.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]Less than 2 percent of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice’s $300 million annual budget funds the kind of intensive, evidence-based at-home care for youthful offenders supported by research.[/module]Meanwhile, the studies found, Georgia was lagging behind many states in adopting evidence-based treatment methods that scientific evaluations have shown cost less and produce better results. A national study released in December 2012 ranked Georgia eighth from the bottom in the use of evidence-based family treatment programs among the 35 states for which data were available. However, only a handful of states have invested heavily in these new treatment models. (For more about other states’ progress in adopting evidence-based treatment models, tune in for tomorrow's coverage)

Enacted with a near-unanimous support in the state legislature, Georgia’s new juvenile justice law prohibits juvenile courts from committing youth to state custody for status offenses like running away from home and for misdemeanor offenses except when committed by chronic offenders with at least one prior felony conviction. The reforms also allow DJJ to reduce lengths of stay for youth guilty of several designated felonies that were previously subject to rigid sentencing rules.

To give juvenile court judges useful information, the new law requires that all youth entering the juvenile court system receive a standardized risk and needs assessment. And the reform law creates a new $6 million-per-year grant program providing funding for counties to expand access to evidence-based community programs – precisely the type serving Termaine and Elijah – provided the counties reduce the number of youth they commit to state custody.

Two Types of Treatment

A chess tournament at Youth Villages.
A chess tournament at Youth Villages.

In Georgia (and nationwide), two modes of at-home treatment show significant promise for delinquent and emotionally disturbed youth.  First is intensive family therapy delivered by carefully trained and closely supervised therapists, such as Termaine received. Second is “High Fidelity Wraparound” care, like Elijah received from Lookout Mountain, which mobilizes a team of caring adults in each child’s life and connects youth to a menu of available treatment services and youth development activities.

Currently, DJJ contracts with a pair of agencies to provide intensive at-home therapy services for youth committed to state custody. One is Community Solutions, Inc., an Atlanta-based organization offering Multisystemic Therapy (or MST), an elaborate, highly calibrated treatment modality designed by scholars at the University of South Carolina in the 1980s.

Over the past 30 years, MST has been evaluated in 32 outcome studies, including 22 random trials, nearly all of which have found it more effective than alternative services in reducing subsequent arrests and out-of-home placements for youth with serious offending histories and/or serious behavioral disorders. According to MST Services, Inc., a nonprofit agency established by MST’s originators to support effective dissemination of the model, these studies find that MST lowers re-arrest rates by 39 percent on average, and reduces out-of-home placements by 54 percent when compared to other treatment, punishment and supervision alternatives.

With funding from DJJ, Community Solutions began running MST programs in 2002, working with delinquent youth referred by local juvenile courts. Two years ago, DJJ retargeted the program and required Community Solutions to begin serving youth committed to state custody rather than youth referred by the counties. The current contract, which totals $2.2 million per year, funds 100 MST slots in 14 of the state’s 159 counties – enough to serve about 350 youth per year.

Community Solutions reports that through the end of 2011 it had served 3,265 Georgia youth in its MST programs. The agency says that 88 percent of these young people were living at home at the time they were discharged from the program, and 88 percent were enrolled in school. Just 20 percent of these youth were re-arrested during the course of treatment, which typically lasts three to five months.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“We feel strongly that our program is able to achieve those types of long-term results because of the work we do with families,” said Cantrell.[/module]Youth Villages is DJJ’s other provider of intensive at-home treatment, and its “Intercept” program shares many commonalities with MST. Both programs offer intensive and highly regimented family therapy treatment delivered by carefully trained and closely supervised therapists. Youth Villages operates MST programs in several states.

In Georgia, Youth Villages provides at-home care to 40 youth at any one time, plus another eight youth at the agency’s residential campus. Residential care is often used as a first step to calm a youth down before starting home-based care, or to provide a respite if problems arise or the parent or caregiver needs a break.

The Intercept program is reserved for youth under Department of Juvenile Justice supervision whose behavior is in crisis and who are at imminent risk for placement into (or return to) residential custody, reported program director Kate Cantrell. As of September 2012, two-thirds of youth in Youth Villages’ Georgia program had multiple presenting issues such as behavioral disorders, abuse or neglect and substance abuse. Yet Youth Villages reports that 72 percent of youth participants were living at home the day they were discharged from Youth Villages' care, and 64 percent were still living safely at home six months later.

“We feel strongly that our program is able to achieve those types of long-term results because of the work we do with families,” said Cantrell. “We operate from a very structured, analytical model that allows us to get the results we get.”

A Second Promising Approach

Kids and their teacher-counselors fishing at the lake at Youth Villages.
Kids and their teacher-counselors fishing at the lake at Youth Villages.

Wraparound does not revolve around a highly structured therapy regimen. Instead, wraparound programs assemble a team of supporting adults in the troubled young person’s life – including parents or guardians, other relatives, teachers, neighbors, coaches and clergy. This team is empowered to choose from an array of Medicaid-funded services suited to the young person’s needs and goals – anything from anger management to psychiatric care, tutoring to karate.

Designed to work with disturbed youngsters involved in multiple human service systems – including child welfare, mental health and developmental disabilities and special education, as well as juvenile justice – wraparound programs aim to ensure holistic care for young people in the their own homes.

Rigorous versions of this model, known as “High Fidelity Wraparound,” have achieved impressive results in terms of controlling mental health symptoms, improving behavior and reducing delinquency, and they cost only a fraction as much as placements into psychiatric residential treatment facilities or youth correctional institutions. (Check back tomorrow for a JJIE article summarizing some of the nation’s most successful wraparound replication efforts.)

Recently, Georgia was one of nine states to participate in a federal demonstration project to test the impact of wraparound care as an alternative to placement in residential treatment for troubled youth, or as a step down from residential treatment. A national evaluation published in December 2012 found that youth receiving wraparound care made at least as much progress in behavioral health as youth remaining in residential treatment, yet wraparound’s total cost was one-third as high.

In Georgia, wraparound programs are primarily overseen by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The state’s main wraparound program, launched in 2009 and delivered by four private agencies, has capacity to serve 480 young people with severe behavioral health needs and high risk for placement into psychiatric facilities.

An independent evaluation of DBHDD’s wraparound programs, published in July 2012 by MStar Research, found that that 429 youth of the 1,043 youth (41 percent) who enrolled in wraparound in the previous year had been adjudicated in the delinquency courts. Of these court-involved youth, just 22 percent re-offended within one year – well below the statewide recidivism rate of 34 percent for all adjudicated youth. Nearly half of youth participating in wraparound (44 percent) showed statistically significant improvement in behavioral functioning, versus just 11 percent whose behavior deteriorated. MStar estimated that wraparound reduced annual Medicaid expenses by $44,000 for each young person enrolled, plus an additional savings of $3,180 annually per youth due to lower costs for juvenile confinement.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]Georgia’s new reform law aims to de-emphasize confinement and expand evidence-based community treatment.[/module]The DBHDD wraparound programs are open to youth referred from DJJ. However, in recent years, DJJ has also been funding a handful of additional slots in the wraparound program for youth in the northwest corner of the state who are committed to state custody, but whose needs are not quite as severe. This program funded Elijah’s second dose of wraparound care which, unlike an earlier stint in Georgia’s DBHDD-funded wraparound program that proved unsuccessful, has enabled Elijah to stabilize his behavior and steer clear of further delinquency charges. (Again, click here to read Elijah’s story.)

In Georgia, Everyone Agrees… Except the Budget

Mental health and the juvenile justice system
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Based on the encouraging statistical results, nationally and in Georgia, as well as encouraging anecdotal examples like those of Termaine and Elijah, Georgia’s new reform law aims to de-emphasize confinement and expand evidence-based community treatment.

According to Judge Hunstein, who served on the special commission that framed the juvenile justice reform package, careful study of Georgia’s juvenile system revealed that “there were communities that did not have any other alternative other than putting a child in juvenile jail,” she said. “Our reliance on incarceration for young people does not reduce their likelihood to reoffend. Indeed, it may do just the opposite, exposing low risk young people to violence and abuse, and putting some on the path to adult criminality.”

State Representative Wendell Willard, a Republican who also served on the special commission, concurs. “We've all seen the heavy expense in not only dollars but also lives lost because of the failure of the state to keep these children in their communities, where they can be best cared for," Willard said.

Yet, despite this seeming consensus, DJJ’s budget remains heavily tilted toward incarceration – and increasingly so.  For the fiscal year 2013, which ends on June 30, the department’s $307 million budget included $189 million for short-term detention centers (RYDCs), and youth prisons (YDCs), but only $40 million (13 percent) for community-based services, and roughly three-fourths of that funded residential facilities.

Less than $10 million was devoted to home-based services, and less than half of that amount – under 2 percent of the total – was used to fund intensive at-home treatment through MST, Youth Villages, or high-fidelity wraparound care.

This spring, just as it was voting on the state’s sweeping juvenile justice reform law, the Georgia Legislature amended DJJ’s budget and cut $6 million from DJJ’s community programs budget – primarily to eliminate wilderness programs. Then in May, the Legislature voted to sustain the reduced funding level for community services in the fiscal year starting on July 1 (FY 2014) while increasing spending for state detention centers and youth prisons by $7.5 million.

These budget changes apparently will not reduce DJJ’s modest investments in intensive at-home programming for emotionally disturbed youth in FY 2014.  For unspecified “business reasons,” DJJ has eliminated funding for Youth Villages at-home treatment program, and it has also dropped its limited funding for the Lookout Mountain wraparound care program. However, DJJ spokesman Jim Shuler said the department will soon solicit bids to fund additional evidence-based at-home treatment slots to take their place.

Shuler also confirmed that the state will sustain its MST contract with Community Solutions at the FY 2013 funding level. Sedgrid Lewis, Community Solutions’ MST director, said that with additional funds his agency could effectively serve many more of the state’s court-involved youth.

State budget documents suggest that the added funding for secure facilities is intended to resolve a bed shortage currently plaguing the department. The vast majority of YDC beds are filled with designated felony offenders, many of them low risk, serving mandatory sentences in secure custody. And roughly 200 RYDC beds per day are filled with youth committed to the state’s Short-Term Program – a 30-day shock incarceration sentence often imposed on low-level youth offenders, despite poor recidivism results.

Once it goes into effect in January 2014, Georgia’s juvenile reform law will substantially ease both of these pressures: DJJ will have new freedom to shorten or eliminate incarceration stays for many designated felons, and local judges will no longer be permitted to send low-level offenders to state custody. Experts at the Pew Charitable Trusts estimate that the new rules will cut the daily population in DJJ’s secure facilities by 467 over the next five years, and will save the state $85 million.

To date, DJJ has not announced any specific plans to re-invest these savings into evidence-based at-home treatment, or for other community-based programming.  Shuler, the DJJ spokesman, explained in an email that it is impossible to forecast future budgets, however “the Department of Juvenile Justice expects to provide increased services across the entire spectrum of evidenced based services in the community as this agency moves to implement the new requirements in the recently enacted Juvenile Justice Reform Act.”

Uncertainty over Future Funding for County-Run Programs

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“We’re trying to be able to reduce the reliance on deep-end system beds.”[/module]The recently enacted funding cuts to DJJ’s community programming almost exactly offset the most widely heralded provision of Georgia’s juvenile justice reform law – the new grant program to support new evidence-based treatment in counties, which will total $6 million in FY 2014.

Joe Vignati, who is helping design the grant program at the Governor’s Office for Children, acknowledges that the state’s $6 million commitment “doesn’t sound like a lot for a big state like Georgia,” but he argues that “it represents, especially in tough times, a significant investment in juveniles and reforms.” Vignati, formerly a juvenile probation officer, expects that the grant program will expand with time.  “We’re moving from bankrolling activities to actually funding outcomes,” he said. “We’re trying to be able to reduce the reliance on deep-end system beds.”

Wendall Willard, the Republican state legislator, expects the grant program will target about 20 counties in FY 2014 that send the highest numbers of youth into state facilities. "We can't do everything we'd like to the first year," said Willard, who chairs the judiciary committee in the Georgia House of Representatives and also sits on the appropriations committee. "I call the legislation and other steps the end of the beginning. This will be a growing program."

Ken Parks, director of the Lookout Mountain Care Management Entity, a wraparound provider, also expects that state funding for home and community-based treatment will grow. Given the high costs and poor outcomes of incarceration, he said, “There just isn’t the money in the state for it not to happen. If there wasn’t that money yesterday, there sure isn’t gonna be that money tomorrow.”

Yet, as Parks concedes, no commitments have been made. “There are any number of side conversations going on where people are saying the dollars will be shifted,” he said, “but the folks who have the authority to make that happen haven’t said that.”

Restricting Wraparound

Linda Henderson-Smith, coordinator of the Department of Behavioral Health’s wraparound programming, reports that the state’s main wraparound program will continue to support 480 treatment slots in 2014.  But the state recently had to narrow its eligibility criteria for wraparound services because it had too many needy youth applying for too few slots.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“The question for Georgia and other states is, how many kids are they serving?  Are they actually diverting kids from deep end placements when they could be served in the community?"[/module]Meanwhile, a federal waiver program that provided especially generous version of wraparound care for the neediest cases – part of the 9-state demonstration project – ended last September. A different federally funded wraparound program began in May, but with far more restrictive entry criteria.

Eric Bruns, a University of Washington psychiatry professor who coordinates the National Wraparound Initiative, said that Georgia deserves credit for mobilizing a statewide infrastructure for wraparound programming and for participating in the federal demonstration project.

“That is rare among states, and they should be commended for it,” Bruns said. “The question for Georgia and other states is, how many kids are they serving?  Are they actually diverting kids from deep end placements when they could be served in the community?  Have they gone to scale?”

Henderson-Smith concedes that, unlike a handful of states with particularly ambitious wraparound efforts, Georgia has not yet tapped existing funding from juvenile justice, child welfare, children’s mental health, and Medicaid to create an ongoing funding stream that enables the state to divert many more troubled youth away from expensive institutional placements and into wraparound care.

“From a Georgia systems perspective, we are all in the process of looking at how we get those evidence-based practices that we know can be effective for those special populations we serve,” said Henderson-Smith. “We’re trying to catch our system up quickly.”

Unfortunately, Henderson-Smith and her counterparts in the state’s juvenile justice system still have a long distance to travel.

“We're in the infant stages," said Appellate Court Judge Michael Boggs, who co-chaired the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform crime that formulated the state’s new juvenile justice law. "We know that other states that have implemented these strategies have seen [good] results. We didn't have to reinvent the wheel."

On the other hand, Boggs adds. "It's too early to tell whether what we have just passed in the General Assembly, most of which hasn't taken place yet, whether what we've enacted will effectuate the changes we expect.”

JJIE’s coverage continues tomorrow with a look at how other states are faring in their efforts to spread effective at-home treatment models. And be sure to read our story about two Georgia youth who recently participated in these programs.

Editor's Note: Dick Mendel, one of the co-authors of this article, has written frequently in recent years for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is currently working as an unpaid consultant in Georgia to help state and county officials implement the state's new juvenile justice reform law. The Casey Foundation played no role in suggesting, formulating, or framing JJIE's coverage of this issue.

This series is part of an ongoing collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity.