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More Data Needed on New Group ‘Emerging Adults’

New Timberlake colorInspired by the same brain research that preceded the nationwide movement to reform our juvenile justice system, the term “emerging adults” has gained currency as the term denoting ages 18 to 25. This age interval is the final stage in the continuum of brain development that creates mature adults — those with aspirations, plans and possibilities and who are engaged in society.

It is not a period of transition but its own unique developmental stage. Emerging adults are important to the justice system as a whole because their crimes create a springboard into a vast prison system whose failures, scandals and costs have finally been recognized by government at all levels.

Does this sound familiar? Those of you who have worked for juvenile justice reform know a great deal about the work necessary to create science, imagine alternatives, pilot effective practices, educate the government and collaborate for change. What can you teach and what can we learn?

I recently attended a workshop at Loyola University Law School that examined issues for law, practice and policy where I learned much of what I am about to describe. Like juvenile reform, science can initiate a real world discussion. We know that 20 to 40 percent of youth have contact with the criminal justice system before adulthood and that 33 percent of those who are arrested are also arrested as adults. Youth crime peaks between ages 15 and 19 and then declines sharply in the early 20s.

National data show that more severe crimes including major violence, robbery and weapons offenses peak during the years of the emerging adults’ age range. (Note that the data on weapons is very broad and includes possession without use.) There is a small population of adults who are first arrested after age 25 but very little is known about them.

hub_arrow_2-01There are large gaps in both data and research, including differentiation by race, ethnicity and gender. Similarly, age-specific evidence-based responses to emerging adult offenders needs much work. On the other hand, there is current support for some of the same approaches used for youth: cognitive behavioral therapy, family interventions, drug and alcohol treatment and mental health services.

Juvenile practices for screening and assessment for trauma, mental health issues and substance abuse have proven their worth in discovering problems and directing case planning. Risk assessment for supervision and incarceration strategies can be productive for emerging adults but more research is needed as to particular risks, needs and protective factors in this age group.

I also recently had the educational pleasure of hearing a presentation by David M. Kennedy, director of the John Jay College Center for Crime Prevention and Control. His long career in criminology is evident in the rigor of his research and his unvarnished recommendations for policy reform. He describes this group as rationally fearful of prison and extremely amenable to change, echoing the scientific opinion of Lawrence Steinberg, the well- known adolescent brain development researcher.

Professor Kennedy describes a group of mostly male individuals who have a long record with multiple arrests and who simply do not understand their prison trajectory. One intervention technique is to call the offender to a meeting that includes law enforcement, parole or probation and family members. The individual hears an explanation of his official record, its effect on a sentencing hearing and the likely range of prison term for his violation of a current order or for a new case that the prosecutor has in hand. The power of fear of prison and the destruction it brings to hopes of a job, education, mate-seeking and housing are sometimes effective at deterrence. Family support and community follow-up are arranged.

I drew a comparison to evidence-based practices like multi-systemic therapy and restorative justice practices as frank and collaborative interventions.

Professor Kennedy also noted that length of sentence has little effect on crime deterrence and that shorter — much shorter — prison terms are just as effective and at much less cost to taxpayers. Researchers from around the world have found that by age 25 to 27, criminal conduct steeply declines for almost everyone. Unfortunately, this is also the age at which prison sentences peak, meaning that prison stays often begin at the same time risk is drastically reduced.

We must remember that effective juvenile justice practices will reduce crime and therefore, the population eligible for prison. For the adult justice community, we should heed the lessons learned by the juvenile system and seek better data, research, assessment tools and evidence-based practices specific to the 18 to 25 age group. For governments, we must recognize that reducing prison populations and reinvesting in services is sound policy.

The principles for both systems are identical: Positive outcomes for offenders — youth or emerging adults — creates public safety and saves us billions.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.

OP-ED: Justice Foiled by Ignorance of Trauma

New Timberlake colorAt the supermarket last week, I saw a young woman who looked familiar, but I could not recall her name. I said “Hello” and continued looking for kale, quinoa and 15-grain bread — staples at my house since we are eating healthy.

Two aisles over, I saw her again. She was thin, almost gaunt, dressed in worn clothes that didn’t fit, but I now recognized her from an appearance years ago in my juvenile courtroom. Let’s call her Kera.

Kera recognized me, too. I tried to start a conversation. She mumbled a short response and hurried out of the store without making a purchase.

In the parking lot, I sat in my pickup for several minutes thinking about this woman who had the outward appearance of a meth addict. I wondered how she came to be the person I just saw and what I might have done differently to improve her outcome.

My thoughts turned to remarks delivered by Abigail Baird, a developmental neuroscientist studying brain development and decision-making by teenagers. She was addressing a symposium sponsored by the National Center for State Courts and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative.

hub_arrow_2-01A few days later, I was in the audience for a presentation by Anne Studzinski, managing director of the Illinois Childhood Trauma Coalition. Both experts referred to the effects of trauma on the intersecting development of the individual. These two discussions had a link that stirred up my own memories of Kera’s visits to my courtroom.

Baird described the dual development of different brain regions for emotions and thoughts and how they influence each other.

Studzinski asked the audience to think back to their earliest memories. Most reported that the memory was from ages 4 to 6 and involved a “first” time — the first day of school, a first funeral, a first trip to the emergency room or first wedding. She said those are “recallable” memories but pointed out that brain activity begins in the womb and precognition does not mean that the world around a child goes unnoticed.

Emotional responses to external events create emotional memory and when those events are positive — like hearing your grandmother’s voice singing a lullaby — the sensations cause you to feel the warmth of those moments without being able to verbalize when or where she was.

Hearing that old lullaby again can create a warm feeling. On the other hand, witnessing or experiencing a violent event also has an effect. Baird described how the fight or flight response becomes associated with painful events in a child’s past. Later, the negative behaviors that society labels disruptive, disrespectful or criminal in a social setting may be traced to a response to a forgotten trauma.

Kera was first in a courtroom at age 9 when a petition alleging sexual abuse was filed against her mother and paramour-perpetrator that alleged sexual penetration at age 4. Mom refused to leave her boyfriend, and Kera became a ward of the state child welfare agency. She didn’t like that, and she bit, screamed, cried and threw tantrums. At the age 13, she ran away from her foster home. She was found, returned and placed in another foster home — only to run away again and again.

As she approached age 15, Kera was placed in a group facility where she discovered drugs from other residents, ran away and learned that sex is a saleable commodity almost anywhere. When that wasn’t enough, she and a friend burglarized a house. Sadly, the elderly resident was inside the home and was brutally beaten by Kera’s friend before they fled with about $500 and a .44. They were caught before they used the gun or spent the money.

After a long period in detention awaiting trial, Kera was convicted. At sentencing, her caseworker described her as a girl who was always “out of control” and “needing consequences for her behavior.” Even with therapy, the caseworker often found her running or scheming to run away to her “worthless” mother. In prison, she was placed in segregation at least once per month. In court review hearings, she was shackled, in leg chains and a belly belt to prevent her outbursts and attempts to run.

I can attempt to salve my conscience because I did not know about brain development or trauma-informed practice. But it doesn’t work — acknowledging my ignorance and failures of the justice system cannot repair the harm done.

Our court systems, both child welfare and juvenile delinquency, must learn what science can teach us and use that knowledge every day in every case, no matter what the circumstances. That will be justice.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission and an alternate member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his retirement as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the statewide Juvenile Justice Initiative.

OP-ED: Reality of Child Crime Often Starts With Child Abuse, Neglect

New Timberlake colorEvery April marks another observation of Child Abuse Prevention Month and with it comes a national awareness campaign to prevent child abuse and to assist the victims.

Child abuse is such a horrific crime that the focus on identification and prevention often overshadows discussion of the connections between child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Many states operate child welfare service offices and probation departments as completely separate entities even though the correlation between child neglect and abuse and juvenile delinquency has been recognized since the 1970s. The systems may be separate but the caseloads are not.

Studies have shown that child maltreatment increases the likelihood of criminal behavior and arrest as a juvenile and as an adult, decreases the age of first arrest and increases the frequency of subsequent police contact. Younger children who are abused or neglected are more likely to commit serious, chronic and violent offenses.

hub_arrow_2-01In one study of adult prison inmates, 68 percent of the sample population reported multiple forms of abuse and neglect, including physical and sexual abuse. These findings — from multiple sources — are quoted in the “Guidebook for Juvenile Justice & Child Welfare System Coordination and Integration” written by Janet Wiig, John Tuell and Jessica Heldman.

The authors are now associated with the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Center is an excellent source of information regarding the need for system integration and the tools to help make it happen.

The Guidebook notes: “The two systems employ the same disciplines requiring some of the same body of knowledge … the same treatment providers and may have an overlap or duplication of services. Mental health needs are critical and people of color are disproportionately represented ... Neither system emphasizes prevention. Both are without a lot of public support and work with unwanted, unsupported populations with a history of systemic neglect.“

From my years on the bench in both branches of juvenile court, I have seen the difficulty of using the judicial system as the venue for confronting complicated family and social problems. Court actors, including judges, often lack understanding of the correlation of juvenile crime and abuse and neglect.

There is sometimes a perception that abused kids are good and that delinquents are bad. But when an  abused kid commits a crime, he suddenly is seen by some as a dangerous miscreant. In both scenarios, parents are often seen as deficient failures.

Training opportunities for trauma, family engagement and evidence-based practices may be insufficient for a transient group of courtroom stakeholders. Court orders sometimes require programming that is unsuited to the risks for both parents and children or too many services that are impossible for families or kids to complete given the need to work or the lack of transportation.

Obviously, system change is needed. That change is happening in Indiana where Gov. Mike Pence recently signed legislation establishing a dual status screening tool and a dual status assessment team. The new law, effective July 1, will create teams of the participants and stakeholders in the presenting case, whether from child welfare or delinquency.

A team is required to report whether a delinquency case should be dismissed in favor of the filing of a child in need of services case or to some diversionary status. The judge determines whether the department of child services or probation services shall be the lead agency to supervise the dual status child and can order the departments to “work together and to provide any service available in either agency.”

Indiana lawmakers have taken a major step toward recognizing the realities of child crime as often being coincident with a history of child abuse or neglect. Their courtroom professionals — the ones who must make the law work — deserve support: training, resources and time to develop their skills in a new system.

The result can be healthier kids and families, greater public safety and wiser use of taxpayers’ dollars.

That will be real change and worthy of national focus during next April’s Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.

OP-ED: Fraternity Chant Shows How Racism Infects Organization

New Timberlake colorWhen something happens to upset our intellectual, emotional and social well-being, we have to find a way to deal with it. The cellphone video of the racist chant on a fraternity bus ride now stands stark in our collective conscience and is such an event.

Those of us exposed to the science of adolescent brain development may be more equipped to understand disturbing behavior by youth and young adults. However, regardless of the person’s age, race-based hatred is unacceptable.

My first reaction to the video was a mixture of rage, disgust and fear. Our nation has not progressed as far as I thought. We cannot relax into the comfortable narrative of advancement for people of color even with a black president in the White House.

A college fraternity is a quintessential group or tribe into which one must be invited and tested for inclusion. The experience often involves the risk-taking of hazing, the impulsivity of accepting drunkenness and the overwhelming influence of peer pressure. The effects of what we know about the lack of ability to make considered judgments by young people comes to bear on those wishing to be accepted.

I do not mean to condemn the Greek system, but science explains the negative effects of the experience on some members in some situations. The same principles can explain the positive benefits of similar groups.

No one on that bus did not know that a patently racist chant was socially unacceptable and a statement of hate speech. The collaborative effort of singing together, being together on an outing — belonging together — supported doing something wrong: risking vocalizing racial hatred, impulsively joining in, succumbing to peer influence.

What needs to be done now? The fraternity’s national organization quickly apologized, as did the song leader in the video. Every communications consultant would have given them that advice. We now expect to see a corporate apologist for every company’s wrongdoing to read a televised, scripted speech seeking the viewers’ forgiveness.

The apologies are warranted and were accepted by the local African-American leaders. But words are not enough.

The fraternity is an institution and this is an example of how racism infects organizations — is part of the foundation of exclusive groups. The chant was reportedly learned at a national conference, and that points to the institution’s duty to confront its own tacit institutional bias.

I admire the Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing & Training’s successful approach to racial conversations. With them, this incident could spark many frank, safe conversations in the Greek system — an institution itself and in this instance, a symbol of institutional racism for the world.

For the individual members of the chanting group, restorative justice principles apply. The apology of the leader was positive — accepting accountability is one step in the restorative process. The next step is to consider the harm done and to whom. A guided conversation is required.

The community was damaged by learning that those students individually and as a group were joyously singing of apartheid. Fellow students, academic staff and university employees had their world altered by the vulgar display of false, conceited, assumed superiority. This will take work by those on the bus and those in the university and fraternity administrations.

And for the rest of us in this human race, the symbol of blacks who refused to sit in the back of the bus as a courageous start to the end of segregation will now be accompanied by the video of racist chanting on a different bus as a symbol of the work we have to do.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.

OP-ED: We Must Advocate for Juvenile Defense Attorneys

New Timberlake colorDuring my years on the bench, some of the best days were spent listening to cases presented by a top-notch prosecutor and countered by a defense attorney of equal caliber.

Unfortunately, those days didn’t happen often enough. Occasionally, both sides seemed unprepared or sleepwalking through the case.

Far too often the prosecutor — armed with a thick investigative file and bolstered by years of trial experience — could argue the case inside and out while the defense attorney struggled to help a new defendant she had met for the first time just before the hearing. The defense was also hamstrung by having access to only the most basic information about the alleged offense.

During a recent meeting of a group of judicial advisers to the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC), I was reminded yet again of the many challenges faced by defense attorneys in juvenile courts. (The NJDC is one of the four resource center partners created by the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change juvenile justice reform initiative. The center aims to build capacity of the juvenile defense bar, improve access to counsel and uphold the quality of representation for children in conflict with the law.)

As one of a dozen judges invited to an informal and candid discussion about the state of juvenile defense in our court systems, it became readily obvious that there are great differences in approaches to juvenile defense among states.

Some provide juvenile defense through centrally organized systems from the state level. Others rely upon individual county governments to do so, but all use both publicly employed defenders as well as private attorneys appointed for individual cases. Some private lawyers are paid while others are required to provide legal services pro bono. Some states require mandatory training and/or certification for all attorneys appearing in juvenile court while others require nothing more than a law license.

Consistency around juvenile defense is lacking, and practice varies by state, county and individual courtroom. No one perfect system was discovered.

In juvenile courtrooms, it’s not uncommon for the second youngest person in the room to be the lawyer representing the youngest person in the room. Juvenile cases often are assigned to the newest attorney on the payroll.

If that attorney has been sufficiently trained in juvenile law as well as the developmental science now understood and championed by foundations, law schools and OJJDP, that’s not a problem. The NJDC has resources to guide the education of any attorney practicing in juvenile court. Their standards for practice and upcoming certificate program are great tools to inform continuing legal education.

In addition to training, improved defense for juveniles depends in part on increased public funds. Prosecutors often respond to defense staffing requests by referring to the even greater case numbers in their offices.

A significant difference is that prosecutors have greater access to county boards and their budgets, can divert cases internally and have sole authority to charge. Defenders must represent every case assigned to them without discretion to refuse.

Staffing issues extend beyond the number of attorneys. Juvenile defenders need investigators, support staff, social workers and mitigation experts. Too often, public defenders receive too little — or nothing — in regard to these needs.

And public defenders are uniformly paid less than prosecutors. Appointed private attorneys sometimes must work for free or receive as little as $25 per hour for their services — not enough to cover office overhead. Compensation has another facet: Defenders are not compensated for their juvenile expertise and must transfer to another assignment to receive adequate raises in salary.

It takes time to develop an expert defender. She must consider the facts of every case, and in addition to protecting the rights of the juvenile, she must weigh the opportunities for diversion or a plea. She must argue the unique characteristics of the individual child.

The defender is the court stakeholder who MUST know and understand adolescent development science, evidence, trauma-informed therapies and the local availability of treatment modalities. An effective juvenile defender makes the justice system work in determining guilt as well as advocating for the consequence that will be most likely to improve public safety.

We need to advocate for juvenile defense attorneys in those arenas that can supply the support needed — to state legislators, governors, county boards and court systems.

The judges at the NJDC meeting were very experienced jurists. They remarked on the length of time it has taken to understand the frailty of eyewitness identification and its mistakes — the injustice to individual defendants who have languished in prison for decades. The public perception of a justice system that ignored 40 years of science before allowing testimony about eyewitness mistakes undermines confidence in our justice system. We cannot afford to ignore juvenile development science today.

We must have defenders who are educated and equipped to adequately defend children in conflict with the law. Just remember that the Supreme Court decisions in Gault, Roper, Graham and Miller exist because defenders were willing and able to advocate for individual juvenile clients.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.

OP-ED: Judges’ Involvement in Juvenile Justice Meetings Is Booster Shot

New Timberlake colorIf you ever want to get the attention — and attendance — of all players in a judicial system, ask a judge to invite them to a meeting. It’s American democracy’s equivalent of a command performance before royalty (not that this retired judge equates the judicial branch with royalty).

Not everyone really wants to attend meetings called by judges. Some attend because they don’t want to risk alienating a judge, and others want to be sure someone will be in the meeting to counter whatever their adversaries have to say.

I’ve seen this dynamic played out often with local juvenile justice councils, the one place in my home state of Illinois where prosecutors, law enforcement, public defenders, schools and many other voices are gathered around the same table to share ideas and plan improvements. Letting council members know that a judge is going to attend magically boosts turnout. It’s even more effective than the promise of a free lunch.

Although some judges are reluctant to use this tool, it may get some increased use in Illinois, where the state Supreme Court recently clarified Rule 64, Canon 4 of the Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct. It now very specifically acknowledges and approves judicial involvement and leadership in juvenile justice system matters. If judges take notice and follow the Canon, they can convene meetings with everyone in a community whose presence is necessary for effective policy development.

Juvenile justice councils have made significant progress in helping keep kids out of the system and preventing others from going too deeply into the system for too long. But not all communities have councils, and not all existing councils have benefited from active involvement of local juvenile court judges.

I recently attended a statewide gathering of juvenile councils. Even though a sitting judge didn’t convene the meeting, we had a good turnout. That may have been due in part to the fact that a retired judge called the meeting. (I chair the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, which hosted the meeting.) And attendance likely was influenced by the fact that the Commission has grant money to assist juvenile justice councils. Grant funds are another great motivator.

Using OJJDP’s online data tools, the meeting began by identifying the participant communities and quickly calculating the total population represented in the room — two-thirds of the state’s children between the ages of 10 and 17.

The Illinois Association of Juvenile Justice Councils provided results of its recent survey of local councils’ action issues and needs. The survey found that the single greatest need for local effectiveness was comprehensive stakeholder membership at the table.

Other important issues included:

  • Truancy, suspension and expulsion were the universal issues between the school system and the justice system. Effective responses included simple conversations and relationships that develop when people get together. Those led to creation of truancy review boards, peer juries and youth courts as alternatives to formal court processing.
  • Substance abuse by youth in Illinois includes marijuana, tobacco and alcohol like all states but many communities report heroin, methamphetamine and prescription drugs as major problems. Local councils use stakeholder information to spotlight usage trends and locations to assist law enforcement’s scarce resources.
  • Including behavioral health agencies in coalitions has produced better focus on specific youth treatment models. Parent and community attitudes are changed through social media message campaigns.
  • Domestic violence has emerged as a serious problem in Illinois homes in all jurisdictions.
  • Local collaboratives have created awareness and responses to offset the overuse of detention, prosecution and out-of-home placements.
  • Evidence-based practices and treatment alternatives are inconsistently available across this large state, but juvenile justice councils do advocate for and develop local resources — often in collaboration with adjoining counties or communities — to share the cost of needed but expensive treatment models. The same approach has worked for trauma-informed assessments, training and therapy.

The search continues for answers to persistent problems like homelessness; access to medical, mental health and behavioral health care; long waiting lists for treatment slots; and transportation for poor kids across long distances.

At the end of the day, I weighed the problems against the people at that meeting and came away hopeful. The power of coalition and collaboration is really extraordinary in Illinois and across the country.

The more we can engage judges in the work of juvenile justice councils, the more likely we will be to involve the entire community. State systems can make better laws and policies and provide funding and resources, but it takes community members to change attitudes and practices that impact individual lives.

That is not just a belief – I saw and heard the evidence. Juvenile justice councils can and do change the world.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.

OP-ED: Juvenile Justice Questions to Ask for 2015

New Timberlake colorI read several automobile-related magazines and websites — some related to very old cars. A recent article described a collector’s restoration of a 1930 LaSalle with a rear body section made of wood. The project required learning woodworking skills and taxed the owner’s patience. Although it took five years to complete, the owner enjoyed the process and remarked that the old car hobby is rewarding because “You always have something to look forward to — there is always something to repair or improve.”

That is also a good attitude for juvenile justice advocates.

The reconstruction of the juvenile justice system may take longer than five years and probably won’t require learning woodworking, but there is much to celebrate and much to do. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declared the state’s juvenile sex offender registry unconstitutional. The Illinois Supreme Court has called automatic transfer of juveniles to adult court constitutional but gravely out of step with science and has urged the legislature to revisit the issue. Many states have changed the way children in conflict with the law are treated, and many others are considering monumental changes in the courts, legislatures and executive branches. On the other hand, there is much to do nationally and in local jurisdictions.

The beginning of a new year is a good time to assess progress made on last year’s resolutions about kicking old habits and starting new ones. Advocates of policy change — both activists in the field and those in government policymaking positions — also can benefit from a resolution review, and here are some of the questions we’ll be asking in Illinois. I think the list typifies much of what could be said around the country. Please see if you agree.

Do funding allocations reflect current science and its effect on public safety?

Is public safety enhanced by laws requiring the transfer of some juveniles to adult court, or do automatic transfer laws deprive most youth of the opportunity to change through rehabilitation and ultimately make our communities less safe?

Are the right kids — those at the greatest risk — in prison and detention, and is there a better way to protect the public and decrease the likelihood of future crime?

Are probation and parole terms categorical, or do they reflect individual decision-making regarding risk?

What policies and practices create disproportionality and how can those be modified to reduce racial injustice?

Is restorative justice actively used to repair harm to individual victims and to reduce expensive incarceration?

Are local communities allowed to consider local conditions and resources and to decide how to allocate funding for juvenile services?

What is the appropriate minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction and incarceration?

Is problem sexual behavior by juveniles understood and treated in a developmentally appropriate manner?

Does trauma–informed practice guide screening, assessment and case planning at all stages of the system?

Is data adequate and shared easily among relevant stakeholders?

Are kids and families considered partners in discovering what issues brought a youth into contact with the justice system?

Of course, this list could be doubled and still not include all the work that could improve public safety, save taxpayer dollars and increase kids’ chances in life. But a list of questions is not a plan. Goals must be developed and strategy considered in light of national, state and local conditions, but it is a start to acknowledge the things that need repair or improvement.

As the old car hobbyist said, we all have more work to look forward to in the future. Next New Year’s Day, what will we have accomplished?

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission since January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his 2006 retirement as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.

OP-ED: Time to Talk to the New Politicians and Save Some Lives

New Timberlake colorWhat do state politics have to do with juvenile justice? Just about everything.

Few political campaigns mention kids in conflict with the law, and those campaigns that make those kids an issue do it in the most negative, sensationalist terms. But the governments selected by those contests create the laws, funding and organizational structures that define the justice systems in our states and nation.

Midterm elections in a president’s last term often bring significant change, and last month’s contests were no exception. Eleven new governors were elected. The final tally for all gubernatorial seats is 31 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one Independent. Dozens of new state senators and representatives will serve, and Republican governors in 23 states will enjoy Republican control of their legislatures. Seven of the Democratic chief executives will have Democrat-controlled capitols.

Do these results bode well for system reform? If you review the scarce statements of real policy in speeches and advertising, you might become depressed. The rebound for government deficit spending after economic recovery is often a time of political and philosophical posturing around how revenue should be raised and spent. Most candidates promise lower taxes and deficits as well as a reordering of spending and an increase in budgets for new priorities.

Many candidates ran on an anti-Obamacare platform even though most national figures have changed their messages to admit that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay. Many argue that changes are necessary, and we can expect that the law will mature.

That realization is important to juvenile justice reform advocates because the services necessary to address mental health, trauma, substance abuse and other contributors to negative adolescent behaviors must be funded by some source. The Health Care Authority is the greatest opportunity for new dollars to states.

Advocates must pay attention to individual state Medicaid programs, waivers and services and communicate the need to provide for justice system-involved youth. Public safety and public health are intertwined, and we need to help governors and legislators recognize the connection between public health services to kids and the decrease in crime committed by kids.

In any state government, we can assume that funding change will occur. Reformulation of national, state and local budgets may create some anxiety for would-be budget cutters who recognize that more dollars are needed to capitalize on the research that has led to reduced crime and redirected lives. Budgetary reform can be a good thing if governments reduce funds for punitive practices and prisons as has been done in Illinois, Texas, New York, Ohio, California and many local jurisdictions.

Advocates have to communicate these messages:

First, it is possible to spend fewer dollars overall and achieve better public safety. It is better to spend taxpayers’ dollars on proven risk-based approaches to juvenile crime than to wait until those juveniles are adults. Spend when it can make the most difference in results and time instead of paying billions for jails and prisons and enduring the lifelong social costs of crime.

Second, spending on services must include frequent analysis of the results of that spending. Relevant data must be collected, and future spending must be adjusted based on careful analysis of that data.

New leadership can also learn that structures can change: Age of juvenile jurisdiction can increase; automatic transfer of kids to adult court can be rolled back or eliminated; attorneys can be provided to protect constitutional rights; redemption and recovery can be recognized by effective expungement policies. And much more can change with good results for public safety.

Juvenile justice reform advocates know this, and now many of us need to educate and persuade new elected leaders. A short moment of reflection can remind us that great progress in juvenile justice has happened in both red and blue states. No matter which party is in the majority, every government includes friends of children in conflict with the law, and there are potential new friends willing to listen to our arguments about how best to spend limited tax resources on crime reduction.

Fortunately, there is support in both major parties for juvenile justice reform. We have the data, research and fiscal analyses to prove that good juvenile justice policies protect public safety, save scarce public resources and improve outcomes for young people and families.

We must continue and increase efforts to spread the knowledge about juvenile justice reform to governments at all levels. We must tell stories of kids’ triumphs over terrible circumstances and sometimes terrible crimes. Stories of how kids fail due in part to bad system practices should be accompanied by explanations of what could have been done better. Every opportunity for media attention, every chance to speak to new governors and legislators should be taken. We have a good message, and we need to share it.

If that sounds like cheerleading, that’s because it is. We have work to do — make new friends, tell the story, explain the science, create the connections. Save some lives.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission since January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his 2006 retirement as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.

OP-ED: Book Clubs Are Next Logical Step

New Timberlake colorLet’s start a book club!  OK, I’m not Oprah but let me explain what book clubs have to do with juvenile justice reform.

In just the last 15 years, the field of juvenile justice has exploded with knowledge gained through scientific research and the increased availability of data. Making that information more widely known can speed the pace of juvenile justice reform.

I would like to see community leaders gather monthly for conversation about research papers or chapters from books on the latest in developments in juvenile justice. Assigned reading, a regular meeting time and an exchange of views would better inform the community about prosecuting, defending and rehabilitating our youth.

You don’t have to form “book clubs” to make that happen, but the club meetings do have the added benefit of being a good excuse to dish out some dessert with the discussions.

When it comes to great works of literature, Chicago and other cities now enlist thousands of readers in the enjoyment of the same book at the same time. The cities arrange public forums, and other groups are free to discuss the book of the month in private. The same can be done, on a smaller scale, with juvenile justice writings.

These conversations would benefit the people who work in the system every day and open a line of communication between the insiders and those who are impacted by the system but never experience it firsthand.

The need for this kind of educational dialogue has become more evident to me as I travel Illinois to encourage more counties to participate in Redeploy Illinois. This state program provides money to counties to pay for locally delivered rehabilitation services in exchange for agreeing to send fewer kids to prison. Redeploy Illinois has grown from a handful of pilot sites to a total of 44 counties, but there are 58 more counties not yet participating.

Programs like Redeploy Illinois and the introduction of restorative justice principles in schools are most successful when the community understands how they work and why they are improvements. That’s where a roundtable discussion and review of juvenile justice literature is beneficial. The process of identifying a community’s needs is best accomplished by assembling an informed coalition to examine local data, resources and needs. Whether it's a book club or a county “juvenile justice council,” reform can be advanced through a coalition of well-informed stakeholders and community leaders.

To shift culture and practice of many people and organizations at the same time is a huge undertaking. That readiness is always preceded by a period of learning and debate. Those of us in the business of juvenile justice reform can’t expect people unfamiliar with the system to buy into the change without proof. But when a community is ready to change, reform can come fast.

That’s how a juvenile justice book club would be valuable. If I were to select the first book, it would be the National Academy of Sciences' “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach” and its accompanying implementation guide. Tackling one chapter a month is doable for a book club or juvenile justice council, and the chats about those chapters might even keep the local juvenile justice systems “on the same page.”

If you accept this challenge, I predict you’ll soon be debating which book to tackle next and which reforms to introduce to your community. All you’ll need is someone to bring the coffeecake.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission since January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his 2006 retirement as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.

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OP-ED: Juvenile Courts Are Losing Opportunities to Create Better Futures

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2I recently learned of two traumatic events — both are connected to juvenile court but not to each other. I share both as further evidence of the need for best practices to take hold in our juvenile system.

Because I do not have first-hand information and because there may be additional developments in each case, I will not disclose identifying information.

The first was the suicide of a child held in a temporary detention center. Not yet a teenager, the boy had been in trouble for some time. This wasn’t his first stay in the detention center. Even though the detention facility is modern and run by an experienced and well-trained staff, the child committed suicide in his cell.

The investigation and soul-searching by all those connected with him will go on for years. That will include a search for answers to why a child so young was sent to a detention center and what alternatives might have been available.

The second jarring event occurred in a sentencing hearing for a 15-year-old boy who had been involved with delinquency court on several occasions.

Mulitsystemic therapy (MST) services had just become an option in the county and were off to a good start. This youth was screened for MST services and was accepted. After reviewing the probation department’s reports and the minor’s apology letter, the judge ignored the recommendation of services delivered in the community and sentenced the youth to juvenile prison. To make matters worse, the judge told him that his siblings, parents and other family members were well known to the court and that he — like them — was destined to be a failure and burden to the community.

The boy’s hopes to break free from the cycle of intergenerational justice system involvement were dashed, and the trauma of prison was created in that moment. The judge’s decision and statutory finding that prison was the least restrictive alternative for him may well find its way to a higher court, but we must wonder what damage was done by the judge as well as what damage may be done in state prison.

This outcome isn’t inevitable. The research and training opportunities for all juvenile court practitioners have helped spread the word of better practices, which not only avoid the devastation caused by unnecessary incarceration but also offer more effective approaches that improve the well-being of youth, crime victims and communities.

In the courtroom, we have tools, like the  Washington State Juvenile Court Colloquies, developed through the Models for Change program, to foster respect and better communication with youth and families regardless of the final decision.

In this case though, it appears that the disrespect for the youth’s feelings about himself and his family were ignored in favor of a rant that apparently had its roots in facts completely outside his case.

All judges become frustrated with people and cases, and all judges occasionally lose their temper. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest courts in all states and many bar associations were called to action to restore or create civility in the court. A rash of abusive trial practices and courtroom behavior led to a widespread call for reform. Unfortunately, that effort did not result in behavior change for this judge.

I do not make direct comparisons of the outcomes in the two cases mentioned here. The tragedy of the death of a child by suicide is impossible to explain or understand with words.

Rather, I draw attention to the lost opportunities for the juvenile court, its collaborating agencies and organizations to create positive outcomes for those children who come before us. We have treatment alternatives and screening procedures that are proven effective by real world evidence.  We have research that shows incarceration is a traumatic experience. We know that children’s brain development affects their ability to act in ways that are socially appropriate. From these cases, we have evidence that we have to be vigilant for danger to children in custody by order of our courts.

And we have evidence that we still have work to do.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission since January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his 2006 retirement as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.