Tear Down the Juvenile Jails; They Make Bad Situations Worse

Judge Steven Teske(Part 9)

Out of destruction can come rebirth.

Like the phoenix, a mystical bird of Greek mythology that rises from the ashes of its predecessor, we are experiencing today a rebirth of a once promising trend in juvenile justice I refer to as deconstruction, which goes well beyond what we commonly call deinstitutionalization.

Deinstitutionalization is the process of identifying which youth shouldn't be incarcerated, and assumes that prisons for youth are a necessity, though maybe fewer are needed. Deconstruction is the process of shuttering all youth prisons as we know them today. It assumes that most kids don’t require secure confinement and that the few who do should be housed in smaller secure residential housing inside the communities where their families are located.

We are most familiar with the term deinstitutionalization because it is one of the four core protections of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), called the Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (commonly referred to as the DSO protection). Its intended purpose is to eliminate incarceration of youth whose conduct would not be criminal if they were adults, such as unruly and truant behavior.

Unfortunately, this intended purpose is gutted by the Valid Court Order exception (VCO), which allows courts to incarcerate status youth who violate a condition of their supervision. In other words, they can be treated as if they were delinquent, though they’re not.

Go figure.

Despite this legal incongruence allowing states to lock up status youth, statewide reforms over the past decade have shunned the VCO exception and refused to treat the kids who make us mad as if they are criminals. By 2014, 28 states and territories reported zero use of the VCO. This year Utah joined these ranks after overhauling their juvenile justice system and the Tennessee Juvenile Justice Task Force is recommending the same.

And I believe more will follow suit in the years to come. Why?

Irritating kids aren’t criminals

Because more people are paying attention to the evidence that youth who spend time in secure custody are less likely to complete high school, avoid rearrest, find employment and form stable families. They are also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Furthermore, youth of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by the juvenile justice system, including at the detention stage.

And these same people have come to their (common) senses and figured out that status youth aren't criminals, but the VCO exception treats them like criminals, which transforms them into criminals.

Status offenders don’t scare us, they make us mad. More policymakers are embracing the research and asking the rhetorical question, “When did making adults mad become a crime?”

The absurdity of the VCO exception becomes apparent to those who can grasp the concept that using detention to safeguard youth facilitates exposing them to greater risks. That may cause their behavior to deteriorate, sometimes causing a greater threat to themselves or others.

Status offenders are a conundrum for judges because the choices are conflicting. No matter what we do, there is a risk of harm. If we don’t detain, we risk the youth running away again and into the arms of the pimp or other adult exploiter. But if we detain, it is us who send the youth into the arms of delinquent youth already housed in the detention centers. That results in status youth assimilating delinquent behavior after their release.

When the latter becomes our choice, the kids who made us mad and who at worst present only harm to themselves are now a risk to harm others.

The lesser of two evils

In my baby years of judging, I too often gave in to parents who demanded that I lock up their unruly child to “teach them a lesson.” I would implore them to think twice and explain the criminogenic effects of the detention center. Some would relent, many others didn’t.

When I saw these kids later on delinquent matters, their parents regretted asking me to detain them, saying, “Judge, when my son was released, he started getting phone calls from the kids he met in jail, and he started running with them on the streets.”

It is the classic lesser of two evils dilemma.

Do we resist the temptation to detain knowing the youth will run into the night, or do we give in to our protective instincts and lock ’em up knowing the detention centers are the best training grounds for delinquency?

When we detain a kid for their own protection so he or she will not run away, we do so with disregard for the protection of others who one day will cross paths with the kid we introduced to delinquents, only to become a delinquent.

How sad is it to act out of our protective instinct but see harm to others resulting.

No matter how difficult the choice, we must guard against doing anything that will make matters worse, even when it feels contrary to our protective instincts. When we as judges fail to guard against this, we may end up contributing to juvenile delinquency and future offending, rather than preventing it.

This concept of deinstitutionalization of status offenders has carried over into our treatment of delinquent youth, but in a different form. Beginning with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), hundreds of systems across the nation have reduced unnecessary detention of youth, especially youth of color who are disproportionately represented in our detention facilities.

Incremental reforms increasing

The research is informing us now that incarceration is harmful even for those kids who commit crimes, and that we must use validated risk assessment tools to help systems determine which kids present a lesser risk to reoffend, and should not be detained.

In the past decade a number of states have reformed their juvenile justice systems and mandated the use of risk assessments at both the front end of the system (i.e. who should not be detained upon arrest) as well as the back end (i.e. who should not be incarcerated at disposition).

So it goes without saying that a process that reduces the incarceration of youth (i.e. deinstitutionalization) inevitably can lead to the closing of some prisons (i.e. deconstruction). For example, when Georgia mandated its risk assessment systems and limited judicial discretion by prohibiting the incarceration of low-risk youth, two prisons on line for construction were removed from the budget, and two were closed later.

This incremental approach (i.e. one prison at a time) to deconstruction has been the preferred choice of policymakers because elected officials are concerned about political fallout caused by the appearance of a massive deconstruction of prisons. Or even the downsizing and redeployment of smaller facilities spread throughout the state for the convenience of families and to facilitate effective treatment, which demands family involvement if treatment is to be successful inside a facility.

I confess that I am an absolutist when it comes to deconstruction, one who supports the wholesale destruction of youth prisons in exchange for much smaller secure residential-like facilities inside the communities from which the kid was removed. I also believe that notwithstanding the considerable strides made to reform our juvenile justice systems to reduce the incarceration of kids, there is still much more we can do to reduce those numbers even more.

When Jerome Miller introduced deconstruction in the early ’70s by shuttering the training schools in Massachusetts, well before evidence-informed programs were identified, it shocked the juvenile justice world. It was viewed by many as reckless, but listening to Miller describe how he came to this decision lent credibility to the notion that the only way to fix a reckless situation is by making what looks like a reckless fix.

He told us that the training schools were so abusive they were not reformable and shuttering them was the only option. In other words, how could sending these kids back home be any less safe than exposing them to the violence and abuse inside youth prisons?

They were all going to get out some day, and most, if not all, were going to be more dangerous than when they first entered prison.

Miller also confronted the lesser of two evils dilemma, but unlike those judges who act on their protective instincts to incarcerate status youth, Miller acted on his protective instincts to deincarcerate.

And in so doing, he not only saved those kids from further abuses, he also saved communities from the violent monsters those kids would have become. The subsequent studies of those kids released from prison proved that the shuttering of prisons was the lesser of two evils.

I think it’s time to raise the phoenix of deconstruction from its ashes.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

Bottom Line: Treating Kids Like Kids in Justice System Works Better

Judge Steven Teske(Part 8)

What does it mean to be “tough on crime”?

As we moved away from the “crimequake” of the ’90s and watched the juvenile crime rate fall, the fear that once pushed us off the slippery slope and into a lock ’em up frenzy was replaced by evidence-informed policymaking that emphasizes community-based solutions. The calm after the quake has afforded us the opportunity to rethink what works in crime and punishment while simultaneously exposing hardliners who push a tough on crime mantra as shallow thinkers.

The irony of hardliners is that they pride themselves on being fiscally conservative while promoting public safety, but in reality they compromise public safety and at an enormous cost to the taxpayer.

But history has also taught us that the politics of fear can quash what we know works when hardliners sensationalize violent acts of kids, or when there are tremors of crime that may or may not precede another crimequake.

After Jerome Miller closed the Massachusetts training schools in the early ’70s, other states like Utah and Missouri followed suit. Studies proved the Massachusetts Experiment safer and cost effective, so it made sense for Utah to close its 450-bed training school when facing a lawsuit alleging abuse inside the school. Missouri followed suit and closed its largest secured facility. Both Utah and Missouri repurposed its monies to invest in evidence-informed community programming, and later studies showed both systems yielded better results for kids.

Sound familiar?

Yep, today’s trend of closing facilities and redirecting the cost savings to community solutions is not new. What is today’s trend was yesterday’s Massachusetts Experiment, buried in the rubble of the ’90s crimequake caused by the sensationalistic outcry that a wave of superpredator kids were on their way to wreak mayhem among our communities. This outcry proved too much for a trend still in its infancy.

But that was more than 20 years ago and the crimequake is in the distant past though not forgotten, like the scenes from a futuristic post-apocalyptic movie with buildings partially standing and the survivors trying to navigate through the broken rubble. When a quake strikes, fear chases away rational thought, and the fear of an impending wave of violent kids shattered rationality, causing a rubble of broken kids as young as 13 to languish in prison for the rest of their lives.

But in the calm of sharply declining crime rates since the mid-’90s, states have returned to the Massachusetts Experiment and its Utah and Missouri progeny to reduce reliance on the costly prisons and redirect those costs to less expensive community programs proven to work.

Consider that between 2007 and 2011, 18 states closed more than 50 facilities. For example, Texas, with its Lone Star image of independence and tough stance on crime, closed nine facilities between 2007 and 2012 and reduced the number of incarcerated youth from 4,700 to 1,500. Texas became the leader that inspired like-minded conservative states like my state of Georgia to reform its juvenile justice system.

When the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform discovered that it cost $91,000 annually to lock up a kid, and that 40 percent of the kids incarcerated were minimum risk, but that 65 percent reoffended after release, it was time to do the conservative thing and stop wasting the taxpayer’s money on an idea that sounds good but doesn't work.

Like Texas, Georgia stopped sending nonviolent kids to youth facilities with confidence that crime rates would not increase. Our confidence rested on the studies showing that incarcerating low-risk offenders creates a hyper-recidivism effect, the increase of reoffending among low-risk kids when exposed to criminogenic (crime-producing) environments (prison).

The hardliners, still warning that this return to the Massachusetts Experiment will result in another crimequake, ignore evidence to the contrary.

In the last decade, for example, 14 states saw declines in both incarceration and crime. New York reduced imprisonment by 26 percent, while seeing a 28 percent reduction in crime. Imprisonment and crime both decreased by more than 15 percent in California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Eight states — Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah — lowered their imprisonment rates by 2 to 15 percent while seeing more than a 15 percent decrease in crime.

Now don’t get me wrong!

These declining crime rates among adults and kids alike may be riding what is a wave returning us to a normal state, where we were before the quake began. It also points to what we already know, which is what we don’t know: what caused the crime rate to increase, peak and dramatically decline.

We do know that efforts to deincarcerate did not cause the ’90s crimequake, just as the efforts to incarcerate did not cause the dramatic decline in crime.

And we also know that events just sometimes happen without explanation and when they do, we should be prepared to act on what we do know — to refrain from treating kids as adults. It didn’t work to reduce crime yesterday, and it won’t work in the future.

States may be resurrecting the Massachusetts Experiment in some form for four reasons:

  1. To settle lawsuits over abuses in facilities
  2. To help recover from the Great Recession of the last decade
  3. To pursue with genuine interest evidence-based systems
  4. a combination of all or some of these.

Even before the crimequake, the appeal in Utah and Missouri to replicate the Massachusetts Experiment was to reform abusive institutions. That appeal has regained its appeal in the post-crimequake era in states like Texas, California and Connecticut that were facing legal challenges for operating harsh juvenile facilities.

Other states were motivated by the cost savings of reducing bed space and turning to the far less expensive community programs to help get through the Great Recession. Suddenly the softer-looking approach to crime made sense to those historically entrenched in the tough approach, and so the costs won the day.

Then there are those states that embarked on reforms as the economy was recovering and were not under legal threat. I can attest from my several years on Georgia’s Reform Council that our deinstitutionalization efforts were driven by our governor’s political will to do better for our kids, a governor who once served as a juvenile court judge and vividly recalls the lack of community solutions.

Regardless of why a state embarked on the Massachusetts approach, the ends are the same — kids fare much better and communities are safer because of it.

So what if the selfless motive of doing what’s right played second to the selfish motive of money and lawsuits if in the end kids are treated as kids.

This is one time the ends do justify the means. I pray the ends will prove to all that the selfless motive was always justified in the first place.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

We Still Don’t Know Why Juvenile Crime Peaked, Fell, But Let’s Stop Doing Dumb Things

Judge Steven Teske(Part 8)

It's one thing to talk about and describe trends in juvenile justice, but it’s an entirely different creature when trying to explain why they occur.

After juvenile crime peaked in the ’90s, the trend has been fewer kids locked up than at any time in nearly 20 years, including violent crime at a 30-year low. This massive drop has spurred much discussion generating some pretty interesting theories, none of which by themselves can take credit for this drop.

So if none alone can take credit, we are left with either a “perfect storm” scenario or we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why crime went down, maybe we should be asking why it went up.

A glance at the crime rates during this period looks like an 8.9 spike on a seismograph. But like all earthquakes, what spikes on the seismograph must level off when the quake ends and all returns to normal. What if the spike in crime that reached an all-time high in the mid-’90s was a “crimequake”? It struck without warning, peaked and returned to normalcy like any quake.

Still, I doubt we will ever find the epicenter of this crimequake because there are just as many reasons given for the quake’s origin as for its end. Like those given for its end, none of the origin theories by themselves can take credit for its demise.

If we can’t explain why the crimequake occurred, maybe we should shift our attention to what we did in response to the crimequake. Our fear that a wave of  “superpredator” kids would unleash carnage never seen before led us down a path to enact laws to increase the frequency and duration of incarceration by treating them as adults.

But the wave never came and the crimequake ended, but the incarceration didn’t. It's not easy to explain why we are quick to change laws we think will fix a problem, but slow to fix the law that not only failed to fix the problem but made matters worse.

Jeffrey Butts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice made a similar observation, commenting that it’s not the why (crime increased), but the what (should we do if it returns).

The “why” and the “what” are like apples and oranges — no matter how much crime increases in the future, there are some things we just don’t do to kids.

There are certain truths about what not to do to kids that were once self-evident, but today are universally evident. Jerome Miller acted on what was self-evident when he shuttered the training schools of Massachusetts because they were more harmful than helpful, and today the empirical studies have validated his actions.


If we can’t explain why crime spiked and suddenly dropped, we should consider what we did wrong and why, and use that information to enact policies and practices that will withstand a future crimequake so we don’t do more harm to kids.

And this can’t happen unless we acknowledge that our reaction to the fallacious outcry of a wave of superpredator kids was a monumental disaster. Not just because the wave never came, but because increasing incarceration had little to nothing to do with reducing the crime rate.

In looking back at that superpredator scare moment, it created a slippery slope from which legislators slipped and slid in their sausage-making process, sending many kids to adult prisons in hopes of incapacitating them before they could wreak havoc on our communities.

The slippery slope argument insists that if event X has occurred, therefore event Y will inevitably happen. The failure to understand event X is what puts folks on that slippery slope. When we don’t ask why before acting, we risk making hasty generalizations that lead to faulty problem-solving.

The solutions are typically found in the problem. If we fail to analyze the problem, we will likely slide down the slippery slope into an abyss of unintended consequences that compounds the original problem.

The assumption that the rise in juvenile crimes in the ’90s was a sign that a wave of violent crime was coming our way set in motion the “either/or fallacy” — We either lock these kids up or there will be killing, raping and pillaging in our communities.

The hardliners, who rigidly support increasing the severity of punishment (prison) for kids and increasing its duration, believe incarceration will not only reduce crime by removing scary kids from the community, but will deter future crime.

They seized this opportunity to push for tougher sentencing by clamoring that either we incarcerate more kids or Armageddon is upon us. It didn’t matter that no one could explain why crime went up, and it didn’t matter that treating kids like adults would make matters worse.

I know that hindsight is 20/20, but there are some things that are a matter of common sense, which often escapes us when fear abounds. The thought of kids hanging out and having a conversation weighing the pros and cons of committing a crime is so naïve it would be great fodder for a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Assuming for a silly moment that kids contemplate consequences, it would likely go down like this:

Two kids are hanging out at the street corner and a third walks up displaying a gun and says, “Hey man, let’s go hit a lick.”

Kid number one excitedly shouts, “Yeah man, let’s jack-roll someone.”

The second one says, “Hey man, we need to think about this.” (I hope you’re rolling your eyes at this point.)

“Think about what?” says the one holding the gun. “We got ourselves a gun. It's easy money.”

The second one retorts, “I read in the newspaper [another eye-roller] that juvies will be DOCed in the big house with adults for at least 10 years, and no parole.”

“No s--t,” says the kid toting the gun.

“No s--t,” he replies with sarcasm.

Waving his gun with a grin, the kid quips, “I guess we better not get caught.”

And they high-five and walk off to hit a lick for some easy money.

Assuming for another eye-rolling moment that kids know the law, are hardliners so naïve that they believe kids care?

Studies conducted on adult felons reveal they have a poor understanding of crime and punishment laws. So imagine the depths of ignorance among kids.

During my 18 years on the bench, every kid I had to inform that he would be treated as an adult, and if convicted would spend a minimum of 10 years in an adult prison, reacted like a deer caught in headlights and then the tears followed.

But worse than being naïve is being ignorant. Hardliners enjoy informing the rest of us that incarceration WAS responsible for the dramatic decline in crimes.

But researchers can’t point to anything in particular to explain the dramatic drop in crime, and that includes incarceration. Notwithstanding Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s assertion in a lecture that incarceration was responsible for about 35 percent of the decline in crime, researchers have insisted that incarceration was responsible for only a 5 percent reduction in crime. To this day its impact has had a zero effect in crime reduction.

I can’t say for sure where the senator got his “35 percent” figure. But if I were a betting man, I would put my money on the economist and “Freakonomics” co-author Steven Levitts, who reported in 2004 that the increase in incarceration was responsible for over one-third of the reduction in crime.

However, Levitts later acknowledged that his 2004 findings could have been affected “... by the wide divergence in the frequency and severity of offending across criminals,” and therefore this could result in a “... sharply declining marginal benefits of incarceration.”

In other words, the “more incarceration equals less crime” theory subscribed to by hardliners is a bust when it hits a point of diminishing returns. That’s when widening the net of incarceration catches those less culpable in spreading crime, and it no longer yields the intended results.

The irony in pitching more incarceration is that it risks the very thing we don’t want — another crimequake.

I wonder if the recent uptick in crime in some major urban centers may in part be caused by the  criminogenic effect of prisons on the millions of nonviolent, low-risk offenders incarcerated alongside violent/high-risk offenders over the years — a phenomena I refer to as hyper-recidivism.

Be careful who you incarcerate, you may not like what comes out.

The criminogenic effect on kids is real because studies show that kids treated as adults are more likely to reoffend than youth treated in the juvenile justice system.

If the tremors of crime today are any indication of a crimequake tomorrow, it’s best we hang onto what we know works to avoid slipping down the slope into that abyss.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

JDAI Helped Preserve the Massachusetts Experiment Through the ’90s

Judge Steven Teske(Part 6)

A traveler approaching a village came upon an elderly man sitting at the base of a tree. The traveler asked, “Old man, can you tell me what kind of people live in this village?”

The old man replied with a question, “What kind of people have you encountered in your travels, sir?”

Confused by the question, the traveler said with a frustrated tone, “Listen old man, I have traveled many places far and near and I have encountered people who cheat, steal, lie and kill.”

The old man said, “Well, sir, that is who you will find in my village.”

Kicking the dirt beneath him, the traveler angrily said, “I will not visit your village.”

Later that day, another traveler approached and stopped to ask the old man the same question about the kind of people in his village, and the old man again asked, “What kind of people have you encountered in your travels?”

The traveler smiled and said, “I have encountered kind, caring, giving, loving and delightful people.”

The old man said, “Well, sir, that is who you will find in my village.”

And so the traveler answered, “I am looking forward to visiting your village.”

This West African folk tale reminds me of a British statesman named John Lubbock who stated that “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”

If we see delinquent kids as bad kids, we will treat them like bad kids, and punish their behavior.

If we see delinquent kids as good kids with bad behaviors, we will see the behavior as a symptom, and treat its cause.

I referenced Jerome Miller in my previous two articles describing trends in juvenile justice, and I will do so one more time before I move on — because his decision to close all youth facilities can never be overstated as the single most decisive act that set the stage for contemporary trends in juvenile justice.

The Massachusetts Experiment is the springboard from which reformers today find their resolve to dismantle what remains of the “Get Tough” legislation of the ’90s, or to battle the ignorant who cry for tougher penalties for kids. The ’90s taught us that Miller’s deinstitutionalization experiment transcends all else, even when eclipsed momentarily by short-term upticks in juvenile crime or shifts in political sentiments.

Miller did what he did because he saw delinquent kids with strengths who also happened to have deficits. He saw kids in pain and in need of help, not in need of more hurt.

Because Miller did what he did, today’s reformers have evidence that anchors the “what works” ship, waiting to inspire reformers to battle efforts to overincarcerate kids.

But I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) for reviving Miller’s deincarceration approach by keeping it on life support during the ’90s.

Consider that in the face of the “superpredator” scare of the ’90s, and politicians bringing down the hammer on kids, it was the Annie E. Casey Foundation that initiated an effort to combat the overincarceration of kids by introducing a model for detention reform.

Introduced in the early ’90s as JDAI in a handful of sites, today it is implemented in approximately 300 counties nationwide, and in 39 states. By 2014, these sites reduced their reliance on detention by 43 percent while simultaneously improving public safety, results that mirror the outcomes of the Massachusetts Experiment.

At a recent conference of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in New York City, Mark Soler, the executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, described JDAI during a plenary keynote as “... the largest and longest detention reform effort in the country.”

What began as an initiative is now a model grounded in eight core strategies that include collaboration, use of data, objective admission instruments, alternatives detention programming, expedited case processing, special detention cases, conditions of confinement, and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

The JDAI model revived the Massachusetts Experiment in two very significant ways: 1) It was the voice of reason among the insanity of the harsh ’90s that kept it breathing, albeit barely, so revival could occur; and 2) When the insanity subsided after the realization set in that the “superpredator” prediction was a myth, JDAI had already established itself as the leader in detention reform with a model that took us full circle back to the Massachusetts Experiment.

I point to a convening by JDAI of more than 100 of the nation’s leading experts in juvenile justice in 2011 to recall the Massachusetts Experiment and consider its application in today’s trend of deincarceration.

The JDAI folks seized the opportunity to use this symposium to create a deep-end model for the deinstitutionalization of youth to survive future upticks in crime and the shift of political sentiments toward the hammer.

Why? Because upticks in crime never last as we saw in the ’90s, and that means the winds of political thought never blow in the same direction all the time.

The legislation of the ’90s taught us a very valuable lesson about policymaking: Never formulate policy to respond to upticks in crime that is contrary to what the evidence says will work.

Bad facts make bad law, so it follows that predictions of a “superpredator” scare that never materialized makes for bad laws.

And we are still reeling from those bad laws.

No matter the future, we would do well to take a lesson from the elderly man sitting at the base of the tree: Make policy decisions in a light most favorable to our children.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

A More Perfect Justice System for Our Youth Is Coming — But Slowly

Judge Steven Teske(Part 5)

What is right will always overcome wrong, even when what is wrong is believed to be right.

It may take years or even centuries, but in time we eventually get it right.

And that has been our journey in juvenile justice, on a road still under construction, trying to get it right.

Consider the wrongness of slavery despite the many who believed it just and moral. It almost kept us from uniting 13 colonies to forge “a more perfect union.” We created a union, but only “more perfect” if you were not a slave.

Inherent in the belief that our nation was created in order to be “a more perfect union” is the idea that change will happen if perfection is to be achieved.

But change has many faces. It can be peaceful through legislative reforms, court litigation or exercising the right of free speech to protest on the streets, or it can be ugly.

Despite the loss of 620,000 souls during our Civil War, and the end of legal slavery, we still didn't get it right.

The wrong believed to be right took another form — segregation, a watered-down version of slavery, but just as harmful.

The trauma of living a separate and unequal existence can kill. Consider the 3,959 black men, women and children lynched after the Civil War.

Their deaths a tragedy, but in tragedy comes more change with different faces. A new face called civil disobedience was introduced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although the form of disobedience was peaceful, the response from segregationists was anything but peaceful. Civil rights workers were lynched and shot, black churches bombed, marchers and boycotters hosed down and beaten, which influenced other faces to enter the fray of change. With the help of the courts, Congress and presidents came the end of legal segregation and the passage of civil and voting rights acts.

Although these changes have moved us closer to a more perfect union, racial strife continues around us that is symptomatic of a derivative strain of discrimination called implicit bias.

And so the journey toward a perfect union continues.

Finding a more perfect anything is an evolving process and juvenile justice is no exception.

After Jerome Miller pulled the (metaphoric) trigger in 1972 and shuttered the youth facilities in Massachusetts, his shot heard around the world began a revolutionary trend to do the counterintuitive in juvenile justice.

Miller knew his tactics were rebellious, and this was intentional. Had he employed orthodox planning to close the facilities, the mission would have been doomed before it began.

If you’re trying to change a system not wanting change, you’re better off manipulating the system using legitimate means at your disposal, which is akin to the civil disobedience tactics employed to combat the evils of segregation.

Miller would later describe his “Massachusetts Experiment” as “a human passage” that was “raucous, fitful, threatening, exhilarating, at times impulsive, often unpredictable, changing direction as we took advantage of unexpected opportunities — and always difficult. We lived for a time on the edge of bureaucracy, professional ethics, legality and politics.”

Ironically, today's statewide reforms resemble Miller’s revolutionary experiment in substance though different in form.

Miller showed us how to increase public safety at a lower price tag, and that is attractive to most of us regardless of which side of the political aisle we sit.

By targeting the fewer high-risk offenders for state custody, the need for bed space disappears. When beds disappear, the costs for beds disappear, except today we call it reinvestment.

It was Miller who said, “the test for successful deinstitutionalization is that every dollar attached to an inmate should follow that inmate into the community for at least as long as he or she would have been institutionalized.”  

It took Miller’s rebellious tactics to show us that targeting the fewer high-risk inmates for state custody and diverting the rest to community-based programs supported by the cost savings will improve community safety. But once this breakthrough was made, the outcomes dictated that the means to the end would be replicated elsewhere, as in Georgia and Texas, Florida, Kentucky, Hawaii and this year Utah.

Just as it took rebellious colonies to form “a more perfect union,” it took a rebellious juvenile justice practitioner to show us that there can exist a more perfect system for our youth.

Deinstitutionalization today is led by governors from both sides of the political aisle using interbranch committees guided by data and evidence-based studies.

Unorthodox measures gave us the outcomes and today those outcomes drive the process.

Georgia is among these reforming states that in the ’90s believed what was wrong was right. We jumped on the “superpredator” bandwagon and passed tougher laws for kids. The scare turned out to be a myth, but the damage was done

Our data in Georgia in 2012 revealed that nearly 40 percent of incarcerated youth were low-risk offenders and had no business behind razor-wire fencing, and at a cost of $90,000 annually for each youth. Worse was discovering that 65 percent of these youth reoffended within three years of their release.

It became clear to Republicans and Democrats that the taxpayer was getting the worse end of the stick. This became painfully obvious when the research was clear that low-risk youth would do better in a community-based program at a cost of $8,000 per youth.

We had to put some bang in the taxpayer buck.

So the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2012 to reform the state juvenile justice system limited judicial discretion by barring judges from placing low-risk kids in state custody. This resulted in two youth prisons online for construction removed from the budget and the subsequent closure of two more facilities.

Today's trends are grounded in doing what is right for kids by exposing what is wrong for them.

And so the journey toward a more perfect juvenile justice system continues.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

Jerome Miller Got the Revolution Started

Judge Steven Teske(Part 4)

There has been a revolution brewing among stakeholders of all juvenile justice walks for years, and I think it has arrived.

Some may say it began with the first juvenile court in 1899. Others may say it was the In re Gault decision in 1967.

I can appreciate these thoughts, but a revolution is “a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people's ideas about it.”

The creation of juvenile courts no doubt was a step in the right direction. Maybe at the time it was “revolutionary,” but looking back it didn't bring about the change needed to make what I call the “complete difference”: the creation of a system that includes every variable, independent and dependent, that scientific studies have shown maximizes the success of delinquency prevention and rehabilitation.

Juvenile courts are but one variable among many that can influence the development of an effective system overall. One could say at the time of its creation that the juvenile court was a predictive variable that sought to influence the variable called rehabilitation by separating kids from adults, but it didn't guarantee they would be treated differently than adults.

The juvenile court was not the panacea of rehabilitation and treatment for delinquency, but it was a giant step in the right direction.

The irony in creating a juvenile court to improve rehabilitation of delinquent youth is that it took the Supreme Court in 1967 to inform the juvenile courts that separating kids from adults is only as good as the due process given to them. In other words, the juvenile court as a variable to influence change became a dependent variable in need of change.

Looking back since In re Gault, the juvenile court has been strongly influenced with the intended purpose of one day becoming a predictive variable that positively influences delinquency prevention and rehabilitation.

Gault brought us the process due kids, but it took revolutionary individuals, organizations and practices to bring what works to change the lives of our kids for the better, and to build safer communities.

We have a number of post-Gault forbearers of this revolution, but I have to say the “shot heard round the world” that started the revolution was delivered by Jerome Miller, the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. In 1972, he shuttered the youth facilities and returned all the youth to their homes to receive community-based treatment.

It took the establishment in Massachusetts by surprise, and the shock was so great his own staff tried to sabotage his efforts, though unsuccessfully. This courageous act created the opportunity for the rest of us to begin a frank and robust discussion of the deinstitutionalization of youth and alternatives to incarceration as a better practice.

A revolutionist is “one who works for or engages in political (or social) change.” Miller fits the bill.

He would go on to advocate for the deinstitutionalization of kids and for alternatives to detention. He co-founded an organization to spearhead this revolution called the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives based in Baltimore.

He once told The Washington Post that he attracted “an awful lot of enemies around the country” for his revolutionary tactics. The Post also reported that Miller “was criticized at times for being overly aggressive and insufficiently diplomatic in his efforts to upend long-standing institutions.”

Suffice it to say, he was not very popular among many politicians and law enforcement leaders, with some of his opponents arguing that his lenient approach would endanger public safety. When he emptied the facilities, his critics feared a spike in crime, but studies by institutions including Harvard University and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency would later show otherwise.

His “Massachusetts Experiment” inspired other jurisdictions to undergo similar deinstitutionalization efforts. Although these efforts were tempered in the ’90s by the “superpredator youth” scare that generated harsher laws sending kids to adult court and longer stints of incarceration, Miller’s experiment is being revived today in many states, including my own.

In 2011, the year before my governor asked me to take part in a concerted statewide reform effort to deinstitutionalize many youth, I had the good fortune to meet Miller at an invitation-only symposium in Washington, along with some of his prison deconstruction team.

Despite the fact that I led local reforms in my county that reduced detention and commitment rates by considerable numbers, Miller and his team raised my level of juvenile justice consciousness to an whole new level.

I left the symposium convinced that youth prisons for the vast majority of our kids “are bad ... evil ... criminogenic”; that most of the kids “were not victimizers, but rather victims”; and that most kids would fare better at home involved in evidence-based programs.

It was only a few months later that the governor’s staff would solicit my opinion of a juvenile code rewrite bill touted as a “model” for juvenile justice. Inspired by my new consciousness, I replied that the “model code was a lie” and that “there was nothing ‘model’ about it.”

The governor convinced the sponsor to withdraw the “model code” bill, which he did, and in return created a reform council to study juvenile justice and appointed me to it.

Shortly after my appointment, I received a call from a friend who had gotten a call from persons who will go unnamed, describing their concern that “Judge Teske will undo all the work that took years of compromise.” I guess word got out about my “born again” experience at the recent symposium, and that my “uncompromising” and “liberal” consciousness would destroy any chance of the legislature ever passing a so-called “model” juvenile justice code.

But they underestimated the leadership of our governor to devise an approach that begged for success, and underestimated my ability to forge consensus on a nontraditional scale.

Bold decisions were made to limit judicial discretion at the front end by restricting the commitment of low-risk kids, mandating the use of detention assessment tools and requiring risk and needs assessments at disposition. These decisions averted the construction of two youth prisons and later resulted in the closure of two facilities. The monies saved by the reduction in commitments were redirected to the juvenile courts for evidence-based community programs that give judges better sentencing options.

Miller was the revolutionary who showed the rest of us how to revolutionize our systems.

I am not alone in my assessment of Miller. Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, wrote, “The closing of the Massachusetts reforms schools stands as the premier event in the history of American juvenile justice reform … Miller set the course for the 21st century juvenile justice system and secured his place among history's great reformers.”

And to emphasize my assessment, ponder the Post’s announcement of his passing: “Jerome Miller, revolutionized juvenile justice, dies.”

My governor recently described me as a “revolutionary jurist.”

Miller inspired me to think like one, my governor created the opportunity for me to become one.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

‘Get Tough,’ Then Another Positive Supreme Court Decision Drops

Judge Steven Teske(Part 3)

Does anyone want the rest of their life defined by what they did at 14?

I don’t think so, and neither does our Supreme Court.

We have come a long way since the first juvenile court in 1899. I have compared our juvenile justice journey to a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, and to the frustrations of piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

Just when things seem to be at the lowest, and we can’t find pieces that fit, the Supreme Court drops a landmark decision that sends our ride soaring again, and a few puzzle pieces are found. That brings a sigh of relief and the hopeful feeling that putting the remaining pieces in place is just a matter of time.

The court first slapped us into a sobering reality in the ’60s with the In re Gault decision. That reminded us that kids too are deserving of the due process needed to temper our passions when reacting to a kid’s misbehavior. Too often those reactions are impulsive and ineffective, if not harmful.

What happened to 15-year-old Jerry Gault not only violated his right to due process, but also violated the principles of good parenting.

Should a parent punish their child without some evidence that he is guilty of the accusation? And assuming the parent doesn't believe their child’s innocent plea, is it right for a parent to ground their child at age 15 to his room until age 21, and for a nonviolent prank committed by many teenagers?

Of course the answer is no, but that is what the judge did to Jerry. I wonder if that judge would have treated his own son the same way?

I seriously doubt it, but that's what happens when juvenile court judges fail to exercise the most basic parenting principles while sitting on the bench. The concepts of due process and good parenting are very similar and overlap.

In his book, “The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting,” Laurence Steinberg provides guidelines based on the top social science research for good parenting. Among those 10 principles, and the most important one, is that what you do as a parent matters. Kids are watching us, mimicking us and how we treat them will decide how they treat others.

Treat your child with respect is another important principle, he says, because “Children treat others the way their parents treat them.”

Steinberg states that not only is respectful treatment of children necessary, but it must be consistent, which goes to the heart of due process. Our disposition toward the kids in the courtroom must be consistent, and that disposition must always be respectful. That's why we call it due process.

What does it say about judges who don’t practice fair treatment when the kids before them have been treated unfairly at home?

When we fail to display common decency from the bench, we validate the mistreatment they receive at home. For children such behavior from adults becomes the norm, and so these kids treat others just as they have been treated, and they go on to commit crimes.

There are too many in our society who complain about the inconvenience of due process, how it works in favor of the accused and promotes crime. The irony is that fairness works to reduce crime, especially among kids whose brains are still developing.

Fairness is about doing what is right, and what is right is about dignity, and dignity is about decency, and decency is about respectability. When a system is not fair, children will not learn to do what is right, dignified, decent and respectable. It’s difficult enough that many kids come to our courtrooms without these values, and this is why many end up in our courtrooms, but we make them worse when the system behaves like the parents who don’t model good parenting skills.

[Related: The Forgotten Ones: New Jersey’s Locked-up Girls]

Good parenting also demands that we explain our rules and decisions to our children, and this is true in how we process fairness in the courtroom. The juvenile court is set apart from all other courts because they are places for “carpe diem” moments, to teach kids fairness by doing due process.

The Gault roller coaster climb lasted about two decades until professor John Dilulio’s prediction of “superpredator kids” created fear among lawmakers. This prediction was a myth, but the damage was done. States passed laws in response to this prediction, treating kids as adults and making incarceration an easier option for judges.

Looking back at this “get tough” trend of the ’90s, it can be characterized as a cancer recurrence. The Gault decision is the chemotherapy that sent the cancer that infected the adjudication stage into remission, but two decades later those unnoticed cells spread to the disposition stage.

Kids may be getting the process due them, but the cancer shifted its attack to hurting kids in a different way — executing or incarcerating them, sometimes for life, and sometimes without the possibility of parole.

Let’s lock ’em up and throw away the key, but no worries because on the way there we gave them notice, an opportunity to confront their accusers, a lawyer and a fair trial.

So long as we gave the kid due process, we can do whatever we want to him. Or can we?

“No, you can’t,” said the Supreme Court.

And just like that, when we thought we couldn't find any more missing pieces to our puzzle, and the roller coaster was at another low, the Supreme Court came through again, 38 years after the Gault decision, ruling that kids can’t be executed and they can’t be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The justices admonished us, saying it’s not good enough that kids are treated fairly on the road to sentencing. Once they arrive to be sentenced, the state can’t impose a sentence that’s contrary to “the evolving standards of common decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

They reminded us that due process is not only about the fairness of the process, but it’s also about the validity of the law for which one must be fairly processed.

The Supremes seized upon the medical findings that the prefrontal lobe of our brains, which translates emotion into logic, is not developed until age 25. That's right, kids are wired to do stupid things, and for no explanation except they are kids.

There is something wrong, or indecent, about executing an underdeveloped brain or incarcerating it for life with no chance for release.

It’s called the Eighth Amendment, or the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Those juvenile justice practitioners who had already seized upon the teenage brain research to reduce reliance on detention and emphasize evidence-based programs were empowered by the court’s decisions to stay the course.

Others followed suit beginning in the late 2000s, including governors, legislatures and even judges, executing, codifying and ordering reforms of different kinds and in places outside the justice arena. This continues to this day, which brands our contemporary era of juvenile justice as revolutionary.

With the election of a new president, many are anxious about what this means for juvenile justice. Will the roller coaster take its plunge, or will the puzzle pieces become difficult to find?

There is no turning back, even if the president tries to eliminate federal support of states doing what works for youth.

And that's because the revolution is grounded in what works, and that is forever. A president has a lifespan of eight years.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

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Juvenile Justice Reforms Went Backwards in the ’90s

Judge Steven Teske(Part 2)

Building a juvenile justice system that works is like a jigsaw puzzle, it takes time to put it together.

Most folks begin a puzzle putting together the frame using the corner and edge pieces. The creation of juvenile courts beginning in 1899 followed by the In re Gault decision in 1966 are the corner and edge pieces of our juvenile justice puzzle. Together these events created the framework for us to find the remaining pieces.

This framework established a system unique for kids, separating them from adults and providing them the basic rights to ensure a process due them when accused of a crime.

We can exhale a sigh of relief that we have found the pieces that frame our puzzle, but there remain hundreds of pieces to connect. These remaining pieces would create a picture of what works to prevent and treat delinquency, but putting together this puzzle is hit and miss, often frustrating. The more we keep at it, the more pieces we connect and the easier it gets with the fewer pieces remaining.

I am convinced that we have reached that point in our juvenile justice puzzle that we know what the picture will look like, but we still struggle to find those pieces that fit.

When juvenile crimes spiked in the ’90s and folks like Professor John Dilulio predicted a wave of “superpredator” kids, we saw a “get tough” approach. When that prediction didn’t come true, we were stuck with laws that treated kids more like adults, which made matters worse.

Once bad laws are passed, they’re not so easy to repeal. Just like stupid, you can’t fix bad or at least not right away.

Timing can be everything. It’s either good or bad timing, and for juvenile justice it was bad timing. Just after most of these harsh laws were passed, medical research was published that proved what the behavioral sciences had been saying all along — the teenage brain is neurologically wired to do stupid things.

Although I am not so sure the adolescent brain research would have prevented the onslaught of laws that adultified kids, given the sensational headlines of the “superpredator” scare, I do know that if we knew then what we would discover a few years later, it would have made for some very controversial discussion.

But the sensational headlines proved to be just that — sensational.

Juvenile crimes were already on the decline before many of these harsh laws were passed, and have continued to decline over the years, but the sensationalism of the “superpredator” scare proved too much to overcome.

Kids became the victim of a phenomena I call the “politics of fear,” or when people, mostly politicians, incite fear in the general public to achieve a political, social or other goal using emotional bias. This is most often achieved by subjective and sensational comments that play on the biases of the public. Although Professor Dilulio later confessed that his “superpredator” predictions were wrong, it wasn’t enough to stop politicians from stirring up the masses to pass tough laws.

The truth is always stretched or ignored when fear is the weapon of choice in the effort to change laws, and the adultification of kids in the nineties was no exception. Not only did elected officials ignore the downward trend in juvenile crime, they touted these tougher laws as “reforms.”

They successfully lowered the age of adult criminal liability, and made it easier to transfer kids to adult court. States also passed “automatic transfer laws,” which sent kids accused of violent felonies straight to adult court.

By 1995, 21 states had automatic transfer laws and by 2003 31 states.

Reform, by definition, is theimprovement of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory,” but studies on these tougher laws showed they didn't improve the system. Instead, they made it “wrong, corrupt, and unsatisfactory.”

These studies found higher recidivism rates for juveniles convicted in criminal court than for similar offenders adjudicated in juvenile courts.

I took the bench in 1999, in the thick of this. It was a déjà vu feeling to watch kids sitting in adult court among the adult defendants and being treated as adults. This horrifying sight is what motivated the child advocates to create the first juvenile court to separate kids from adults in the first place, and today we are seeing child advocates rise up again to rally around the juvenile court.

Today's trends are a response to the sensational “superpredator” stories of the ’90s, and these advocates have seized the adolescent brain science to reverse the adultification of kids.

Those ignorant of the studies or apathetic about best practices have tried to force the “get tough” pieces to fit, even masking them as reforms, but regardless of how hard they try, they simply don’t fit.

More folks than ever are recognizing that the remaining pieces of the puzzle reflect evidence-informed community-based programs, and not the brick and mortar facades of rehabilitation we facetiously called “training schools” and “youth development campuses.” The weighty evidence of the adolescent brain research makes it clear that if the prefrontal lobe cortex of our brains that translates emotion into logic is not developed until age 25, there is something wrong, even abusive, with punishing kids as if their brains were developed.

Today’s trends in juvenile justice give us hope that maybe, just maybe, we are getting closer to connecting the remaining pieces because our attitudes toward kids are changing.

When attitudes change, how we see those missing pieces also changes.

And when that occurs, the puzzle begins to come together.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

How Our Roller-Coaster Juvenile Justice System Began

(Part 1)

Judge Steven TeskeJuvenile justice in America is akin to a roller coaster ride — when it goes up, it always goes down, and with kids screaming.

Just when we learn how to better the system that will make kids better, something comes to tear it down.

The trend today is to reach for what works to improve kids’ lives, but looking back at the tracks it becomes clear that there have been other peaks of joy and falls filled with screams.

I think more folks now realize a basic truth of effective juvenile justice: how we treat our kids today will decide what our adults will look like tomorrow.

The first climb in our ride began when the first juvenile court was established in 1899. Born out of public outcry over the abusive treatment of kids shackled and paraded alongside adult criminals in jail and courtrooms, the juvenile court was the first step toward what today is called “sight and sound separation.”

Even folks back in the late 19th century figured out that placing kids in bad environments make for bad adults.

Despite that outcry — from three women who had convinced the Illinois legislature to create a separate court for juveniles — kids lack the power of persuasion to influence the adults in control to do what is right for kids. They can’t enter into contracts or own property, and they can’t vote. They have no voice in a country whose politics is driven by the loudest voice.

Too often adults seem more interested in how juvenile justice legislation can be used to forward their own political interests than in the merits of what the legislation can do for our children.

Kids are second-class citizens, and second-class citizens tend to be taken advantage of by the adults who wield the power. So the roller coaster ride took a plunge.

Although the creation of juvenile courts was a good thing, kids didn't always fare better there because of their second-class status. More judges than not approached their courtroom with a parens patriae bent of mind, or the power to act as a parent without regard to due process — right to notice, opportunity to be heard and so on.

Parens patriae can be good or bad depending on the judge’s disposition toward the handling of kids in their courtroom. The difference between a well-rounded child and an abused and neglected child is the same difference between a good parent and a not so good one. The treatment a child gets in a parens patriae courtroom depends on that judge’s own parenting skill, and that can be a crap shoot.

Take, for example, my friend and mentor Judge Ted Rubin, who presided over the Denver juvenile court in the ’60s. He was a self-disciplined jurist who tempered parens patriae by emphasizing due process in the courtroom. He understood that a kid’s immaturity did not give adults a license to treat them as second-class citizens by short-shrifting the most basic right all citizens possess when accused of a crime, the presumption of innocence.

In those days many judges were not a Ted Rubin, and instead they would approach kids with a presumption of guilt.

This fact became clear in 1964 when a 15-year-old was arrested for making an obscene phone call to a neighbor. He was placed in a detention home without informing the parents. A petition wasn't filed until the day of the first hearing. At the trial, the victim didn't appear, but the kid was found guilty despite no presentation of evidence. He was convicted and sentenced to detention until his 21st birthday. If he had been an adult, the maximum sentence would have resulted in a $50 fine and two months in jail.

The kid’s name is Jerry Gault, and now you know the rest of the story.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision In re Gault that gave kids the same rights as adults when accused of a crime.

What happened to Jerry Gault became the impetus for Congress to do something to promote best practices in delinquency matters, and so they passed the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) to protect kids in four ways: Removal from adult jails, sight and sound separation, reduce racial disparities, and keep kids who committed status crimes (which would not be crimes if they were adults) out of detention.

And so the roller coaster climbed upward again.

When it looks like we have taken two steps forward, something happens that takes us one step back, and sometimes two or three steps back.

After passing the JJDPA to deinstitutionalize status youth, Congress changed its mind and added the valid court order exception allowing status youth to be jailed.

But the worst regression came in the ’90s when juvenile violence dramatically increased and politicians questioned the ability of juvenile courts to respond. So they turned instead to automatic transfer laws sending kids to death row, life in prison and mandatory minimum sentences, without the possibility of parole.

States also toughened their juvenile laws by increasing reliance on youth prisons.

Educators also jumped on the “get tough” bandwagon by creating zero tolerance policies resulting in significant increases in suspensions and expulsions. The push-out of students worsened when police were placed on campuses. Misbehavior once attributed to teenage immaturity and handled in the principal’s office became a crime and handled in the juvenile court.

And if the “get tough” trend wasn’t bad enough, the next decade brought a substantial reduction in federal funding, causing states to question the benefits of complying with the protections of the JJDPA.

And so the roller coaster spiraled downward yet again.

But today’s trends in juvenile justice have taken us to the next peak of the roller coaster track. This is largely because of a combination of reasons that includes adolescent brain research, poor outcomes of the “get tough” practices, evidence-based studies into what works, and, believe it or not, the Great Recession of 2007-08, which caused many leaders to introduce a cost-benefit analysis approach to juvenile justice policymaking.

The trends of the past influence what we do today, and what we do today will influence the trends of tomorrow. Through a series of columns we will be taking a closer look at the past to describe what we are doing today, why and what will it look like tomorrow.

But the bigger question — when will this roller coaster take the next plunge, and how scary will be the ride when that day comes?

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

Data Don’t Lie: Erasing Zero Tolerance Adds Graduates, Lowers Crime Rate

Judge Steven TeskeWhen we began our journey in 2003 to dismantle our zero tolerance disciplinary system in our schools, an interesting thing happened along the way.

The crime rates went down, but not until we changed the way we disciplined kids in school.

I am not sure how many folks similarly situated in juvenile justice understand that how we treat kids in our schools is one of the most essential factors in reducing crime among juveniles, and later in reducing crime among the adult population.

As go kids, so go adults.

Our graduation rates were at an abysmal 58 percent when we embarked on our journey. Since creating our school-justice partnership program, our rates have increased every single year. This significant hike in graduation rates parallels a significant decrease in school arrests and suspensions.

Our school-justice partnership approach has resulted in a 91 percent decrease in school referrals to the court while simultaneously the overall graduation rates increased 24 percent from 2003-15. Since changing in 2012 how we report these rates from overall to on-time rates, our rates have continued to climb another 16 percent.

The correlation between school arrests as an independent variable and graduation rates as a dependent variable should not be underestimated. A regression analysis done on these two variables shows a strong statistical relationship between school referrals and graduation rates.

This is also true for suspension rates.

When undertaking reform in your system, you should guard against unintended consequences, and this requires an understanding of how differing systems interact with shared populations. When a change occurs in one place, there is a risk that a shift may occur in another place that will create problems.

This brings me to another important requirement: that data must be collected along the decision-making continuum.

For example, by removing school arrests as an option in the schematics of school discipline, how does it impact the other remaining disciplinary options? We did not plan for this, but we did collect data on out-of-school suspensions after we implemented the protocol to reduce school arrests. We discovered that these kids were shifted to the suspension option despite providing an educational alternative for these kids.

We were still battling the punitive disciplinary culture.

This brings me to another best practice in school-justice partnerships, sustainability using written interagency agreements. We would not have identified this problem shifting had we not placed our protocol in writing to include a continuing partnership. That group meets to review data to determine if the protocol was being implemented effectively, to watch out for unintended and harmful consequences and to provide oversight.

This conversation about our population being shifted from one poor response to another did two things: 1) it identified that the good news of decreasing school referrals by 54 percent within six months of implementing our partnership was not so good if we replaced it with another harsh option, and 2) it provided the opportunity to discuss how to solve the problem.

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This led to the school system changing its code of conduct so that the minor school offenses that were no longer subject to referral to court were also removed from the list of suspensions. This was to prevent administrators from using out-of-school suspensions to replace arrests. We also introduced Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as a tool for educators in the classroom. These changes have reduced the suspension rate to the levels they were in 1994 before zero tolerance policies were introduced and wreaked havoc on our graduation rates along with school arrests.

When including suspensions along with school referrals as independent variables in a multiple regression analysis, we found what we hypothesized in the beginning: Keeping kids in school and out of courts will significantly improve graduation rates.

But this brings me to the one thing we didn’t consider — the influence of graduation rates on crime as the new dependent variable.

Despite those who deny a “school to prison pipeline” exists, the research shows that school arrests double the likelihood a kid will not graduate and quadruple the likelihood if the kid appears in court. I am surprised that these “deniers” do not connect this statistic to the extremely high number of inmates in adult prisons who dropped out of school (70 percent in Georgia).

If that doesn’t grab you, consider that only 30.73 percent of Georgia kids with 15 or more days absent from school (including suspensions) graduate from school. The more we suspend and arrest kids on campus, the more likely they will drop out of school and enter our adult prisons.

A regression analysis of multiple variables including the reduction in school arrests and suspensions and the increase in graduation rates revealed a statistically significant relationship between these variables and a reduction in juvenile crime.

We hypothesized early on that as go kids, so go adults: Reducing juvenile delinquency will eventually influence the adult crime rate. Thus we looked at the crime index rates before and after enacting the protocol. What we found suggests there is a relationship between this model and growing kids into a healthier adult population with reduced risks for criminality.

Our crime rate index for the baseline year (2004) was 57 per every 1,000. The year we enacted the protocol, our crime index rate was 57 crimes for every 1,000 persons. By 2015, the rate fell to 48 for every 1,000. We also found that in the years of zero tolerance preceding our protocol, the crime index rate increased into the 60s per 1,000 suggesting a statistical relevance between zero tolerance policies and the increase in crime rates.

If such a correlation exists between crime rates and graduation rates, it would follow that the more kids we graduate, the fewer crimes. If true, this would suggest that over time, as more kids graduate each year, as in my county, and become economically mobile, the crime rate increase will slow and eventually take a downward turn.

I opine that a community that pursues a school-justice partnership with fidelity will not only improve the academic success of kids, but will improve the quality of life for the entire community in a matter of years.

It is my hope that one day our understanding of what really works to reduce crime will be so ingrained in our culture of justice that it will become intuitive for us, and no longer a challenge to do what is right for kids, which we consider counterintuitive today.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, Department of Juvenile Justice Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.

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