OP-ED: Fitting Juvenile Justice into the ‘Public Policy Puzzle’

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2When I learned Michael Botticelli had been selected to be the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, I happened to be reading an excellent book on the topics that will be on his mind every day on the job and for the rest of his life.

David J. Linden’s “The Compass of Pleasure” has enlightened me as to the historical — and prehistorical — use of substances that influence the brain. Linden’s book brings the neurobiology from modern research into context with descriptions of drug use by cultures around the world and through thousands of years of human experience. The physical, social and political ramifications of addiction are explained in ways that help us understand how public policy — both good and bad — can greatly affect populations.

I recommend his excellent and entertaining analysis. Learning more about addiction at the same time a promising new drug czar is appointed gave me new reason for optimism. Any such appointment is big news but this is even more media-worthy because Botticelli is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 25 years. Many reacted to this choice with a collective “Finally!”

The war on drugs created decades of multibillion-dollar budgets used to arrest, try and imprison thousands of Americans for the intrinsic and biologically understandable pursuit of pleasure. That pursuit certainly can create real problems for addicts as individuals and for the communities they live in but criminalization and incarceration has proven to be an inadequate and expensive response to a public health problem.

The publication of Linden’s book and the appointment of Director Botticelli coincide with the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana by states and local jurisdictions. At the same time, our justice system is creating special drug courts. There is ample evidence to support the positive outcomes of this approach. The authority of the court coupled with adequate treatment resources yield extraordinary change in individuals resulting in conversion of addicts leaning toward criminality into tax-paying citizens.

Botticelli says that “part of our job now is making sure that we have adequate treatment and that we make sure that we’re not throwing people in jail who have a substance abuse disorder.” He advocates for community-based recovery support centers and for research into the medicinal qualities of marijuana. He also notes that research shows harmful effects of marijuana on the developing brains of children.

Linden tells his students that this is the golden age of brain research. The rapidly accumulating information, technological possibilities and public/private funding create great possibilities for new knowledge and treatment approaches. The White House seems committed to using science and cultural understanding to combat the huge negative effects of addiction.

Why should those of us active in juvenile justice policy be interested? The largest common characteristic of those youth in secure custody is substance abuse. Of course, there are other common indicators — poor mental health, trauma, poverty — but the number of those who use drugs often exceeds 75 percent, research shows. That number alone makes understanding the biology and history important to both practitioners and policymakers. But how do we fit into the public policy puzzle?

Most readers of this article are likely to be politically interested and influential.  As daily witnesses to the tragic effects of drug use by children, you have evidence that others don’t. Failed past policies still seem to motivate popular culture — we can watch dozens of TV shows dedicated to the pursuit of drug dealers with expensive, high-tech military tools — but where can you view stories of redemption through treatment? So those of us armed with scientific knowledge and personal experience have an opportunity right now.

Labor Day traditionally starts the dash to win elections. Politicians will be rolling out announcements of millions spent for new roads, tax breaks for big companies to build new plants, grants for new fire trucks and improvements to city parks. They also will be unusually accessible — making appearances in dozens of venues each day.

When a candidate asks, “What’s important to you?” and before she starts the stump speech about what she thinks is important, prepare an answer.

Perhaps something like this: Our country, community and American society should respond to issues that research and simple statistics reveal are important and far-reaching problems — such as substance abuse and addiction, mental health problems and the consequences of trauma to children. These issues cannot be solved by pseudo-moralizing, criminalization or incarceration. We need more research, more treatment and fewer prisons. We will vote for that.


Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, since his appointment by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years prior to his 2006 retirement as Chief Judge of Illinois' Second Circuit, which is comprised of 12 counties in southeastern Illinois. Timberlake also 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 Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition. A resident of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, Timberlake earned a bachelor's degree and MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law.



OP-ED: Juvenile Sex Offender Registries Don’t Make Us Safer

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2Sex offenders are people, too.

You probably won’t see that on bumper stickers soon, but it is the sentiment I try to convey when explaining my views of how our society should respond to sexual offenses committed by children. It’s one thing to tell an audience that research studies show young sex offenders respond well to treatment and — when reached with appropriate therapy — are not likely to offend again. But research and data don’t carry the impact of a personal story.

As part of the follow up to the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission’s recent report on juvenile sex offenses, we have begun interviewing young people who have been adjudicated for a sex offense to see how conviction and registration statutes have changed their lives. We also want to know more about how the victims have been affected.

What follows is the story of one young male, his sister and their family. Of course, their names, locations and current employments have been disguised. The mother heard some news coverage at the time of our report release and called us to offer help and to tell their story as representative of the harm that can be done by sex offender registries. Let’s call the participants Mike, Mary, Mother and Father.

According to Mother, the marriage fell apart due to Father’s anger issues and the messy divorce dragged on for three years in the courts. They had loud arguments, and the tension in the home was palpable. Everyone was affected, and Mike was in counseling to help him cope. The long battle had taken its toll on a 12-year-old boy with issues of his own. He was ADHD, introverted and socially isolated at school and had been in special education since the first grade.

About the time that the divorce was final, Mother found photos of naked children on Mike’s computer, and one of those children was Mary. Greatly alarmed, she immediately made an appointment for Mike with his therapist. Mike revealed that he had found his father’s pornography when he was 8-years-old and became addicted to Internet porn. He didn’t know that it was wrong and at that age, he was not attracted to adult women and gravitated to pictures of kids closer to his own age. Under state law, the counselor was a “Mandated Reporter” and called the police who came to the home very quickly. They asked to see Mike’s computer, and he gave them permission. By this time, he was quite tech savvy and felt that the police could not find his stash of porn. They did.

Mike was arrested and taken to detention for a few days, but his adjudication came months later because he was arrested for a new crime. He broke into an unoccupied house and used the computer to access web porn. He was discovered when the owners arrived to show the house to a prospective buyer. Mike ran out the door, left his bike in the front yard and headed for home. An hour later, A SWAT team arrived to arrest him. Mike was placed in detention for a week but was transferred to a private psychiatric hospital when he became suicidal. He survived. By this time, his school district had sent him to an alternative high school where he was surrounded by chronic drug users and other bad influences.

Mother determined the only way to save him would be placement in a residential treatment program. She looked unsuccessfully for affordable and effective residential treatment nearby. It would nearly bankrupt her, but she decided an expensive and distant facility was the only way to save Mike’s life. Mother sent both siblings — separately — to a teen nature treatment facility out of state. Mike stayed 16 weeks, and Mary stayed 12. Although each reported that it was tough, Mike now thinks that it was a turning point. He stayed in the other state and attended boarding school after the nature program. These facilities cost a fortune, and Mother’s sacrifice included all of her retirement savings and selling the family home. Friends helped some, but she teeters on bankruptcy today.

When Mike returned home, the local police discovered he had a Facebook page and arrested him for a felony violation of failure to include the Facebook information on the registry form. He had done so many times in the past but just forgot during his most recent registration with local police. When he was arrested, the police turned it into a public spectacle by parading him out of his workplace at the busiest time of day. Nothing inappropriate was found on his computer, phone or camera, and he has passed all of his drug tests while on probation. He pleaded to a misdemeanor, but because he was now 19, it became a public criminal record. Although his juvenile court record is confidential, this new charge must be explained each time he applies for a job, college admission or for an apartment.

Needless to say, his job record is spotty. He is attending college part time and working low wage jobs when he can get them. He cannot petition to be removed from the registry because his violation was within five years of adjudication. Mike is now 22 and has complied with all probation requirements and is eligible for discharge from probation in a few months. But he still will have to abide by the registry requirements, and his misdemeanor at age 19 still will be a public record. He is thinking a move to a state without a registry may be the only way he will be able to live a normal life.

And what about Mary? She is enrolled in a university and is doing well. She is happy, well adjusted and appreciates the therapy which she received. And she loves her brother. I do not describe this situation as a victimless crime. Life has been far from perfect for Mary, and other children in the Internet photos likely did not receive the kind of support and counseling that helped Mary.

In Mike’s case, no risk assessment instrument was used nor was any juvenile sex offender specific treatment provided. Had Mike been assessed early and given good treatment, this case may have had a shorter life. Instead, his actions at age 12 have left him deeply depressed, ashamed and fearful 10 years later.

This is just one of many, many poignant stories about young offenders and their victims. Along with data and research, they can help explain to the public why registries do not make us safer. Registries do create thousands of outcasts without connections to normative environments, and that damages public safety. By stepping forward to explain their experiences, Mike, his mother and sister hope to encourage changes that will benefit other families in the future. Changing public attitudes will take a combination of time, research, public education, and retelling of similar stories about youngsters like Mike, who are people, too.

OP-ED: Restorative Justice Isn’t Fluff, It’s an Investment in the Future

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2The argument escalated during lunch in the cafeteria. The 15-year-old boy who threw the first punch made a loud comment about the 16-year-old’s tattoo and threw a hard right. The older boy went down hard but came up swinging and the other students crowded around and yelled encouragement to one or the other combatant. Luckily, there was security present, and the guards quickly intervened, separated the boys and took them out of the lunchroom.

Deciding what to do about this kind of behavior is a question pondered by many.  In juvenile justice circles, I often hear repeated comments that go something like this: “Schools just call the cops. Many have stated policies that teachers and administrators cannot intervene physically and suspension or expulsion is required. These policies widen the net for the juvenile justice system leading to prosecution, detention — and sometimes prison.”

Another comment recited in conversation is that it “used to be that a teacher broke up fights, referred the students to the principal for ‘the talk’ and for parental notification, and that ended school involvement.” Of course, the reason for the conflict might not be addressed, and conflict often continues. The trauma of a physical battle might linger for a lifetime.

Some search for better responses to this type of situation, and I recently learned of a good result in an Illinois institution. An administrator contacted a community group which has trained mediators experienced in attempting to resolve conflict in just this type of fight. They agreed to consider an intervention.

The group began its work by researching the incident through the administrator’s records and by phoning the staff who witnessed the scuffle. The mediators wanted to know who was involved, any background information and the environment at the time of the fight. They learned that it was a normal lunchtime; many peers of each of the boys were sitting at adjacent tables and that all could hear the trash talk between the 15- and 16-year-old fighters. Neither boy knew the other except as fellow students. The audience to the fight included friends of both combatants, and their friends quickly came to attention and seemed ready to fight.

The immediate action by a security guard saved the event from becoming a brawl, and the boys were quickly removed to separate rooms in the building until the administrator could be summoned. They were not allowed to interact with each other or their friends until the mediation took place.

The community group agreed to the mediation and came to the site twice — first to get to know the boys individually and then to conduct a face-to-face meeting. They brought lunch from McDonald’s and talked for a couple of hours each time.

They learned that the offending tattoo communicated disrespect to the family of the younger boy, and that the older boy did not realize how the tattoo could be offensive. At the joint session, the boys responded to the mediator’s questions and rather quickly were able to communicate their feelings.

They reached an agreement: An apology was offered and accepted, and the boys jointly asked to be allowed to walk back to population together with just one guard. Yes, back to the “population.” You see, this school is in a juvenile prison, the “families” were gangs. If this had happened on the street, this conflict would have been settled with weapons and bloodshed. In prison, the risks include continued escalation and simmering hatred. Instead, these boys learned something about how to make it through life.

The staff learned something too — that brain science is real. Teenagers have little capacity for reasoned judgment; react with very little impulse control; have little ability to weigh consequences and even their limited constraints are quickly overrun by peer influence.

The big picture is that restorative justice practiced by trained mediators is not touch-feely fluff. It is a response to the known traits of adolescents and young adults. If we can recognize and describe behavior motivated by internal cognitive/emotional conditions, we can respond appropriately — not with “treatment” but with a human response to kids’ actions. It resolves conflict and teaches young people positive ways to deal with life.

The mediator spent about 45 hours in research, travel and relationship-building. I think that those hours reflect a wise investment when compared to interrupted education, emotional turmoil and months or years of continued incarceration. Restorative Justice is better for kids, for taxpayers and for potential victim. That’s not “fluffy.” It is good judgment.

OP-ED: The Makings of a Good Juvenile Probation Officer

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2When juvenile court judges across the nation make decisions in response to crimes committed by children, most often those children receive a sentence of probation, and the court relies upon the talents, education and professionalism of probation officers and departments to put those children on a better path.

You see, judges are trained to make decisions, not to do the hands-on work — matching kids to services, interacting with families and communities and encouraging kids to comply with court orders.

There have always been opposing opinions about how best to accomplish probation’s mission. Some advocate strict supervision requiring absolute compliance with court and probation requirements, and others favor supportive relationships encouraging growth and behavior change.

Unfortunately, some officers see their role in terms outside this continuum, and that is currently news in Chicago.

After conducting dozens of interviews with probation department officials, probationers and others and reviewing court, police, FBI and probation records, The Chicago Tribune recently reported probation officers “have the power under the law to visit homes and conduct surprise searches without court-ordered warrants if they have ‘reasonable suspicion‘ according to agreements probationers sign.” On some occasions, police officers and FBI agents have accompanied these probation visits and gained access to homes where they might otherwise need a warrant. Constitutional implications are obvious, but in some cases, allegations were raised about planted drugs, stolen money and coercion to become informants for the police.

These role definition questions are not limited to adult or juvenile officers or to Chicago and other large cities. While serving as Chief Judge in a very rural circuit — the administrative job that includes supervising probation officers and other court employees — it came to my attention that an officer was repeatedly late to work. When the probation director questioned him, he reported that he was losing a lot of sleep because he was attending night raids with a local law enforcement agency. Further inquiries revealed that he had developed a relationship with a female probationer and used her to inform about alleged crimes that he passed on to the agency. The hearsay evidence elicited from the female client was insufficient to support a warrant. His search authority was used on midnight visits to probationers’ homes, and warrantless searches found drugs. The state’s attorney was left to sort out this mess, and he wisely deferred from filing charges in many of these cases. The end of this arrangement came when I offered the officer one week to resign — he did not do so and was relieved of his employment.

These situations are somewhat understandable. Both probation and police officers are educated in the same Administration of Justice curricula in community colleges and universities. Both professions are dedicated to public safety and the officers work closely in their communities and see each other often during court proceedings. Consolidated training often occurs on matters of personal safety, new laws and emerging drug or gang activity. Perhaps what is missing is an understanding of the appropriate role of probation officers.

The American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) has published clear position papers on many topics including the purpose of probation. To paraphrase: The APPA states that the mission of probation is to protect public safety by reducing crime and that this role is accomplished by assisting courts through probation reports and by enforcing court orders; providing services that provide opportunities for offenders to become more law-abiding and by providing cooperation in preventing crime and delinquency. Further, the APPA believes that probation officers should recognize that: offenders have rights, including the right to privacy; humans are capable of change; intervention into an offender’s life should be the minimal amount needed to protect society; and incarceration may be destructive. The emphasis is on individual consideration and respect.

When a probation officer crosses the line into behaving as a police officer, the probationer may lose the confidence needed to pay attention to the officer’s advice and choice of services and programs. Of course, a probation officer cannot ignore clear signals. Like a doctor or psychologist, a probation officer has the duty to report danger to others, but good judgment is required.

The solution to the problem can be found in good management. Clear policy and protocol should be developed and driven by mission and purpose. Probation departments must regularly revisit this exercise and recognize new developments in law and evidence-based practice. The decisions as to searches and other matters must be documented, written, distributed and regularly reviewed.

Good management and practice are always needed in all fields. But when it comes to maintaining a probationer’s confidence in the fairness of the court and trust in a probation officer’s guidance, they are essential to the success of that probationer and fidelity to the probation officer’s mission.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission since his appointment by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years prior to his 2006 retirement as Chief Judge of Illinois' Second Circuit, which is comprised of 12 counties in southeastern Illinois. Timberlake also 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 Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition. A resident of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, Timberlake earned a bachelor's degree and MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law.

OP-ED: An Opportunity to Remake Juvenile Justice

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2It is the legislative season in Illinois and around the country, and that means advocates spend lots of time trying to improve the juvenile justice system and trying to defeat bills that would hinder progress.

These debates in state capitols take place at the same time state agencies, probation departments and not-for-profit service providers struggle to operate their organizations and pay attention to the legislative action.

While keeping track of dozens of small but important debates, it is difficult to remember the big picture. Considering the enormity of effort required to re-write statutes, re-position staff and re-budget an entire state system, the consensus seems to be that it is easier to wire around deficiencies than to attempt to create a more rational structure. With the right guiding principles, the right people in leadership and advocates who are willing to create the right kind of accommodations, the system can function reasonably well.

But sometimes, it is important to step back and ask whether this complicated and costly juvenile justice “system” is really accomplishing what we want it to accomplish. If not, why not? Is the very structure of that system getting in the way? Is this the system we would build if we could start from scratch? Sometimes, it is important to ask these really fundamental questions for the benefit of the young people and communities who rely on the juvenile justice system.

My view of this exercise is colored by more than a law degree and years on the bench. I was fortunate to be educated in a joint JD/MBA program at the University of Illinois. I have never forgotten what some very good professors drilled into me. In particular, I learned about organizational behavior: the study of how people act in concert to achieve a desired result. The academic approach was to determine an organization’s structure and to examine its mission, guiding principles, policy and procedures. The daily results and practices of the enterprise depend upon how staff interact with all of these structural components and with each other.

The best juvenile justice organizations — whether state or local, public or private — begin with essential principles; fairness for victims and offenders, equity among clients, public safety, family inclusion, respect for the individual and many others. As a business enterprise, these organizations must also consider efficiency, achievement of results valued by society and positive cost-benefit ratios.

So, why expend brain time on this thought path? Because our juvenile justice systems may be facing an unprecedented opportunity for clean-sheet thinking, the time is right. Tight budgets, declining crime, adolescent brain science and burgeoning public understanding create a climate for re-structuring the results instead of altering the margins and wiring around problems. The “put good people in leadership” principle is a good approach, but new leadership faces structures that developed as past crises or political changes have whip-sawed its’ staffing and goals. Agency heads inherit union contracts, bricks and mortar and institutional culture are grown by accretion over time. And good people are promoted or are replaced by changing politics or changing board members.

A precipitating event may create an opportunity for structural change: a crisis inside an institution, a lawsuit or fiscal dilemma. In some states, the opportunity for change is imbedded in statute by sunset laws. In Illinois, the 1970 constitution — the first change in 100 years — allows for a constitutional review every 20 years as recognition that needs and goals change over time. No such review has taken place in the 44 years since: at least partially because the status quo is preferred by those who benefit from it.

If a precipitating event or a public appetite for change gives juvenile justice system organizations an opportunity, how should the clean sheet design be created, how should a new organization be formed?

Of course, the essential principles described above are keys to guide both structure and behavior. The mission of the organization must be designed to articulate the results sought by the people who pay the bill. Thereafter, decisions about policy and procedures must be thoughtfully created to fulfill the mission. Staffing, physical plant, contracting, performance review based upon adequate data and effective on-going evaluation and quality assurance must all be created and implemented.

The practices employed by the staff must be directed by evidence of effectiveness, and, perhaps most importantly, the day-to-day organizational behavior must be managed by well-trained and committed personnel who understand all of the above.

Re-visiting the principles that guide an organization’s structure and comparing the results achieved in furtherance of its mission is not time lost. Providing resources for management and support is not money wasted.

Sometime, to make real change — you just have to start over.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, since his appointment by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years prior to his 2006 retirement as Chief Judge of Illinois' Second Circuit, which is comprised of 12 counties in southeastern Illinois. Timberlake also 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 Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition. A resident of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, Timberlake earned a bachelor's degree and MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law.

OP-ED: Teens and the Sex Offender Registry, No Good Outcomes for Anyone

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2Last week, I hailed a taxi in Washington, D C, and asked the driver to take me to the Keck Building for a meeting with a committee of the National Research Council. The cabby recognized the address and asked if I was a scientist. I explained that I am a retired judge and that applying science and research to juvenile court could make us all safer, save taxpayer dollars and improve the futures of kids in the justice system. He said, “That makes sense but just how can that happen?”

The day before, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (IJJC), which I chair, released its nearly two-yearlong study entitled “Improving Illinois’ Response to Sexual Offenses Committed by Youth”. So, I used it as an example.  We found that the number of sexual offenders in our juvenile justice system is very small — 232 arrests in 2010 — and 50 percent of those kids were 14 years old or younger.

The offenses charged were the alleged result of a very wide range of behavior from inappropriate exposure to touching or fondling to sexual penetration. Furthermore, national and Illinois studies reveal that the vast majority of these youth have not acted in response to a deviant sexual arousal or a focused intent to harm others. The victims in the majority of these cases are family members or persons known to the youth.

I continued my “taxi-ride speech” by re-counting the study’s findings that these kids very rarely commit another sex offense and that individually structured treatment is extraordinarily effective. Finally, the study concluded that sex offender registries for juveniles do not increase public safety and often interfere with positive outcomes for both victims and offenders. The report recommends that Illinois’ categorical registry requirements of 10 years to life should be abolished.

The cabbie asked several pertinent questions, and I told him about adolescent brain development: that kids lack the ability to exercise impulse control, to think of consequences and follow the best course of action. Teenagers are extraordinarily subject to peer influence and genuinely cannot make moral judgments to dictate their behavior. They cannot assess risks, consider future consequences, evaluate rewards and punishments nor react to positive and negative feedback.

He said that he understood how the findings lead to the conclusion about registries. Perhaps because he was a black man in his 60s, he was in a better position than most in realizing that law and practice do not always create justice and public safety.

In the week prior to my D.C. taxi ride, I met with many interested parties to preview the IJJC’s report. While meeting with a former prosecutor, I explained that our report revealed that treatment is effective if it is based on adequate assessment of a youth’s risk of re-offending with a validated assessment tool such as JSOAP or ERASOR. The treatment should be community-based, family-focused evidence-informed and attentive to the needs of the victims and their families while promoting offender accountability. For those few high-risk kids, intensive, specialized and sometimes residential treatment should be available and utilized.

The report recommends training for all juvenile justice system stakeholders; developing adequate and informed standards for sex offender risk assessment; creating a qualification method for treatment professionals and establishing case-planning methods for all those court personnel who deal with youth who have sexually offended.

Finally, based upon low re-offending rates and victim and offender therapists’ agreement that sex offense stigma interferes with successfully treating their clients, the IJJC recommends removing young people from the state’s counter-productive sex offender registry.

That last recommendation caused the ex-prosecutor to comment and question. He understood the findings from his career in the justice system — the few sex offense cases in a prosecutor or judge’s career make a strong impression and they usually involve a very young offender in a family, peer or neighborhood situation. He had no knowledge of caseload numbers, recidivism rates or treatment effectiveness but was unwilling to abandon registration. As with many court professionals and the public, he believed that registries somehow make us safer.

The contention that registration can somehow prevent future sex crimes simply is not supported by evidence. On the contrary, we found that registries and their requirements can damage the futures of victims and offenders. If the principle of “Do No Harm” applies to the justice system, we must find common ground to protect public safety, exercise fiscal responsibility and create positive outcomes for victims and offenders.

My cab driver understands that. Now, we just have to convince our elected representatives.

OP-ED: You can’t Talk About Justice Without Talking About Race

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2Attempts at reducing disproportionate minority contact (DMC) and disparate treatment of racial and ethnic youth in the justice systems of our country have not made much progress. Advocates, foundations, courts and stakeholders have exercised words and approaches, but the numbers don’t lie.

According to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s recent analysis of federal data from 1990 and 2010, minority youth were greatly over-represented at every point of the system. The comparison of that 20-year span shows little to no improvement of DMC in arrests, adjudications, detentions and transfers to adult court.

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For more information on the scope of racial ethnic issues visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub


Perhaps part of the problem is that we continue focusing on effects instead of causes. We do not want to have that conversation in which we have to ask, “Am I a racist? Are my decisions affected by race? Is my court part of the problem?”

Recently, I have been involved with a training for judges entitled “Racial Equity and Justice.” It is staffed by public child welfare workers, judges and people from Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training.  Specifically, the approach is aimed at reducing disparity in the child welfare system, but the program has equal or greater applicability to juvenile justice.

Sessions include the fundamental question of “What is racism?” and offer the following guidance. Racism is not the same thing as individual race prejudice and bigotry. All people are racially prejudiced regardless of racial or ethnic identity, but this does not mean that everyone is racist. Racism is more than race prejudice and more than individual attitudes and actions. Racism is the collective actions of a dominant racial group.

Systemic power — the legitimate ability to access and/or control those institutions sanctioned by the state — turns race prejudice into racism. When one group’s racial prejudices are enforced by the systems and institutions of a society, giving power and privilege based on race to the group in power, and limiting the power and privilege of the racial groups that are not in power, racism is created.

Simply put, race prejudice plus misuse of power by systems and institutions equals racism.

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For more information on common causes of racial and ethnic disparities visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub


The training approach begins with creating a safe place for the participants to learn and converse. The judges’ group I facilitated included men and women of African-American, Caucasian and Latino heritage. Faculty included Native Americans and people from around the U. S. Topics included the history of differential treatment of whites versus Native Americans, blacks, Asians, Latinos and Arabs in our country. Crossroads’ curriculum explores how racism and racist institutional values become codified into law and accepted into the institutional structures and the culture of our country. The workshop discussion among participants includes the ongoing realities of racism today and how it is manifested in law and courts. The session explores the social construction of race and how race in internalized as well as the implication for financial structures and wealth accumulation.

Although the presentation and ensuing conversations are frank and sometimes disturbing, I can testify that the judges involved were seriously interested in determining where the justice system fits in the equation of disproportionality.

Most important to this session was not the reality of racism but what can be done about it. Judge Louis A. Trosch, Jr. of the 26th Judicial District in North Carolina, is an avid faculty member of Crossroads’ workshops across the country. He acknowledges the environment of the Old South in which he lives but personifies the attitude of one who is out to change the effects of racism in his child welfare court.

One approach is to use the Preliminary Protective Hearing Benchcard developed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. It guides judges through a series of questions aimed at objectively determining facts necessary to make decisions about removing a child from her family without racial bias. The Benchcard also suggests reflections for the judge that protect against institutional bias such as “How is my decision specific to this family?” and “How might the court’s past contact with this family influence my decision making process or findings?” Approaching real decisions with real tools has helped Judge Trosch organize a team approach in his court and community, which has made progress on changing institutional bias.

This short article cannot replicate the lessons or experience of confronting questions of race with colleagues and court stakeholders, but it does communicate a beginning. In fact, the Crossroads Training is designed for a three-day presentation, but we collapsed it into one day to accommodate court schedules. Nonetheless, that one day may change the world a bit in dozens of courtrooms. After all, if we are not talking about race, we are not talking about justice.

OP-ED: The Importance of Jobs Programs for Youth Re-Entry

New-Timberlake-color-e1378833721804-140x140As the nation’s perception of the juvenile justice system has evolved steadily over the last 20 years, states across the country have acted on many lessons learned from research and experience in reforming the way public agencies deal with children in conflict with the law. For many stakeholders, there is consensus that evidence-based practices seeking positive youth outcomes are the best way to improve public safety.

An emerging policy principle is this: imprisoned youth should be transferred to normative systems and environments at the earliest safe opportunity. Prisons are inherently false environments and inadequate tools for changing behaviors. By “normative” I refer to what is considered to be the usual or correct way of doing something – in this context, living a non-criminal life.

Positive outcomes for youth in conflict with the law require connections to community services, community members and community values. That includes the value of work.

Our entire country has been affected by the long economic downturn and the plight of millions of people who have been unemployed. But jobs are now increasing, and even some manufacturing is returning to the United States. This experience has taught all of us that job readiness is critical to achieving self-sufficiency for our citizens – young and old alike. For kids involved in the justice system, employment is clearly a positive outcome and a part of a normative approach and environment.

How do we create in young people the understanding that work is normal and desirable; that awaking at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. is necessary; that absences are not allowed and that you do not get to choose everything that you must do on the job?

One common system response is to organize summer jobs programs. Too many such efforts are created by finding unspent money in other government programs and slapping together a summer jobs program close to the end of the school year. Administrators scramble to find willing employers, and politics influences who gets the programs and whose kids get the jobs. Although not well planned, these summer efforts are well-intentioned, and any job experience will help the teenaged employee along his or her way to understanding that reliability and willingness to undertake job duties is a normal way to get ahead.

However, there are effective and evidence-based models for youth employment.  YouthBuild, the U.S. Department of Labor’s extraordinarily successful approach to job readiness, is one. Youth who are school dropouts, including kids involved in juvenile justice systems, are provided with substance abuse treatment, GED preparation and real job skills. Volunteers and employees from the building trades and social services move students along a trajectory to finishing school and getting a job. This highly structured and well-financed approach produces thousands of new employees each year.

Not every community has YouthBuild, but all can learn from its lessons. Every community does have employers and business leaders who understand that their future workforce can be improved by early job readiness.

Ten years ago, “Operation Your Choice” was guided in my community by National Guard members and a retired Marine, Jim Butler. The program was a predecessor to today’s National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which intervenes in the lives of 16- to 18-year-old kids to instill values, life skills, education and self-discipline.

Jim Butler was very interested in the job futures for the kids, many of whom were referred to the program by the juvenile court. He approached a large drugstore chain, which has a huge distribution center in town.  We invited the manager of that facility to become a member of the local juvenile justice/child welfare coalition. He readily agreed to allow the National Guard’s prevention program to hold its after school sessions in his facility. After a few months, adult employees volunteered as mentors and were allowed to engage in youth activities on company time. Eventually, the company agreed to hire interns from this group of justice involved at-risk kids. Everybody won.

We need to expand every jurisdiction’s approach to connecting at-risk kids with jobs. Why are jobs programs a summer-time afterthought instead of an integral approach to providing normative connections for kids in prevention, probation, prison and re-entry systems?

The successes of afterschool programs are well known and easily understood – involve at-risk kids in positive activities and they stay out of trouble.  Jobs are positive activities and should be program goals. Of course, there are obstacles and risks – but employers of teenagers have encountered most all of them.

Collaboration is needed between justice system stakeholders and businesses in every community. Including the talents of normative institution stakeholders is necessary to the success of youth in conflict with the law and to the communities in which they live.

OP-ED: Trauma and Triumph in Family Court

New-Timberlake-color-e1378833721804-140x140Shortly before Christmas, I returned a phone call from a woman whose 12-year-old stepgrandson wanted to end court-ordered visitation with his non-custodial mother. As I was about to tell her that I no longer practice law and am retired from the bench, she mentioned the mother’s name – let’s call her Amanda – and a flood of memories came to me.

Hang with me, please. This is a story of complex family relations and problems and one that exemplifies the challenges, as well as the benefits, of engaging families in changing juvenile behaviors.

I met Amanda first in a child welfare case when I was a judge in southern Illinois. Because she looked at least 16 years old, I asked the state’s attorney to correct court documents recording her age as only 12. He advised that I should review the entire file, which alleged that she was a runaway and would have been criminally charged with prostitution but for her age. Behind the blue eye shadow, clothes suitable for a hooker and a sullen demeanor, was a girl raped by her father, rejected by her mother and alone in the world except for an unidentified pimp.

As the months rolled on, I learned that she was the daughter of a man well known to the criminal court. In a different child welfare case, he was identified as the father of Amanda’s 14-year-old half-sister who was also the victim of his sexual abuse – let’s call her Jane. Jim, the father, was convicted, and I sentenced him to five years in prison. In the meantime, Amanda entered residential treatment, and at age 14 appeared for a permanency hearing looking like the waifish blonde adolescent that she was – clean and sober, no longer under the influence of her pimp or cocaine. Her custody was returned to her mother, and the case was terminated.

Her older sister Jane’s case had been termed a failure due to her absolute refusal to comply with therapy, counseling or residential placement. But, as the years went by, Jane developed into a good mother to her own children and was a resource for Amanda. Jane occasionally stopped by the courthouse to chat with her public defender, the assistant state’s attorney and me.

Amanda did not fare as well. She backslid from her early progress in juvenile court. She married three different men with substance abuse and criminal backgrounds and had a child by each of them. The three children now are wards of the court in child welfare cases.

Her son was the reason for her stepmother’s phone call to me at Christmastime. The stepgrandmother is married to Gary, once addicted to drugs but now clean. Gary’s son, Ron, was well known in juvenile delinquency court but sobered up in his mid-30s. Ron and Amanda are the parents of the 12-year-old boy in question who is in the custody of his grandfather and step-grandmother by court order and has been ordered to visit with his mother, Amanda, for two hours once a week in a public place.

Amanda and her third husband did have alternate weekend visitation that was reduced due to the medically determined beatings the boy received during that visitation. Because the third husband is now back in prison for unrelated conduct, the court ordered the current visitation that the boy wants to terminate. Everyone in the case is court savvy, and the grandparents do not want to encourage a violation of the order. On the other hand, the boy alleges that Amanda meets him at a restaurant and takes him with unknown men to a house where the adults smoke meth before returning with the child to the court-ordered meeting place.

Although none of the names used here are real, all of these situations actually happened in cases I heard. A court hearing on this case is scheduled for later this month when a judge may learn more about the 12-year-old’s visitation experiences. It’s not likely to be the last time this child and his family will be in courtroom.

Family engagement always has been a necessity in the juvenile justice system’s response to delinquency and child abuse. But my recollection of Amanda’s life story underlined for me just how many tools were not available to us 20 years ago when this story began. We did not have knowledge of adolescent brain development, evidence-based practices or adequate assessment tools. Trauma informed practice might have changed the course of Amanda’s life and created a positive relationship with her own children. Jane’s resilience kept her safe when all the court’s and caseworker’s plans seemed foolish to her. She is now – and always was – a resource for her family. The step-grandmother came forward to protect a non-blood relative. The grandfather and father have turned their lives in a positive direction and are in family therapy with the 12-year-old.

We cannot use a blaming or shaming approach to family chaos. Research supports the positive outcomes for effective family engagement: shorter lengths of stay in out-of-home placement, fewer and less restrictive placements and lower recidivism rates. We must change our vocabulary to move away from terms like “dysfunctional,” “resistant” and “enmeshed,” and we must not ignore basic needs for families to survive – food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

While this family's relationships might appear dire, there are resources and resiliencies here too. Even in this complicated family situation, there are caring adults who can partner in – and lead – efforts to improve the outcomes of the children involved. The job of a juvenile court judge is to understand families and tap into these valuable human resources.

Family engagement is hard work and requires us to look beyond our prejudices, learn unfamiliar cultures, help families face their secrets and strengths – and to recognize redemption when it happens.

OP-ED: Holidays in the Juvenile Justice System

New-Timberlake-color-e1378833721804-140x140My wife, Mary Jo, and I were snowbound in Michigan while working on a building project so we lost Thanksgiving with our families in southern Illinois. Missing a holiday with the dozens of brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles got me to wondering – what is the holiday experience for a kid in detention?

I remember ordering some kids to serve detention during holidays as a “tough love” approach to behavioral change and, later, performing population reviews to release as many kids as possible. Because I wanted to know the current experience of judges, detention centers and the kids inside, I talked to Mike Abell, who is a veteran administrator of juvenile facilities and is an expert on juvenile incarceration. Mike is the director of court services in the Second Judicial Circuit of Illinois and was the first superintendent of the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center (FCJDC) when it opened in 2004. FCJDC serves 28 counties in the southern quarter of the state.

I called Mike with several questions about detention in general as well as about the holiday experience. He advised that FCJDC’s population is stable now, but that the tough economy had reduced admissions beginning in 2008. Judges seem to be more aware of and more comfortable with using community-based alternatives to detention.

Although generalizing about 28 different counties with dozens of judges, prosecutors, defenders and probation gatekeepers is difficult, Mike thinks that evidence-based practices, risk screening and the influence of Redeploy Illinois have raised the bar in deciding whether an individual kid is detained. Evening reporting centers, home detention and electronic GPS monitoring is widely used. As a retired judge, I also hear a more enlightened approach to incarceration from most judges.

Mike asked Shawn Freeman, the current superintendent of the FCJDC, to compile population statistics. Shawn is an excellent administrator and confirmed data user. The monthly population totals for 2006 to 2012 show significantly lower daily population averages in December for four of the seven years reviewed. Shawn can remember having more staff than youth during many holidays. Disciplinary incidents are rare on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and visitation by family members increases.

Community involvement with youth in the FCJDC is slight and usually limited to two individuals – a minister and a retired schoolteacher. They talk to the kids, make personal financial contributions and provide weekly non-denominational church services. In most ways, the detention center is invisible to the community except when the media covers county board meetings about budgets.

Stephanie Upchurch, an FCJDC supervisor with a decade of experience at the detention center, emailed the day before Thanksgiving to say that they had created a no school/pizza party day. There were no issues with any of the kids as they played team games and board games. Stephanie polled the kids about Thanksgiving Day plans, and several wanted to see the televised parades and some football. She said, “I really feel they enjoy being out of their rooms the majority of the day and try harder not to receive consequences.”

Shawn said, “My personal philosophy as a floor supervisor was that Christmas and Thanksgiving were the two days I wanted to youth to ‘feel’ like they were not in detention.”

As to problems in general, the detention staff believe that detention is misused when the court or the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services do not have other viable placement options. Some youth cannot be returned to their homes, and detention is seen as a “safe option.” If a youth is a threat to the community or another person, then detention is the right choice. If safety can only be achieved behind bars and locked doors, the system – not the kid – is the problem.

My holiday musings led to these conclusions: the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center in my home community is staffed with caring and compassionate people who understand both their facility’s mission and the juvenile justice system. And they understand that the home cooked dishes they bring for holiday meals is no substitute for a family table for any kid who is not a genuine threat to others.

That snapshot of a child’s Thanksgiving behind bars in southern Illinois was played out under similar conditions throughout America.

Holidays are an important time for families to be together, and no doubt nearly everyone in our country’s juvenile justice systems -- from judges to jailers -- tries to minimize the number of children behind bars during the holidays. But holiday or not, that should be our goal 365 days a year.