A visitor from another planet – or even another country – who reviewed the juvenile justice system in most states, might conclude that we are committed to continuing crime through our addiction to incarceration.
The overwhelming lessons of science and experience should be enough to convince policymakers to use detention, jail or prison as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. Instead, most states perpetuate large punitive institutions at great cost even though best practices demonstrate that local community-based, family-involved treatment is more effective at reducing juvenile crime. Imprisonment fails as a strategy to rehabilitate because it seldom changes behavior except to worsen it.
I do not mean that incarceration is never necessary nor that any state should ignore the need for swift action to remove a kid from the public in exigent circumstances. And I don’t mean that any kid should not be held accountable for his or her criminal actions.
But our juvenile justice systems should be held accountable also – to increase public safety through attention to the individual circumstances of a child in conflict with the law.
Why do we continue to rely on prisons? Partial answers point to ignorance, stereotypical mindsets and because reform advocates haven’t given policymakers a rational, reasoned argument for a different system.
Unfamiliarity with relevant science and practice is somewhat understandable in a law-based environment. Law schools teach the process and art of making decisions and cannot cover all the fact-based situations that come before the court. Stereotypical approaches are human phenomenon that give our brains shortcuts to making decisions – useful but inappropriate for a legal system which must protect individual rights of both victims and the accused.
Examples of this type of thinking came in comments recently from a deputy sheriff and a former prosecutor. They each said, “a kid who is 16, 17 and 18 is a young adult; they know right from wrong and must be held accountable for their voluntary actions.” The trouble with that statement is that brain development science now clearly shows that most kids of this age have difficulty exercising impulse control even though they can clearly state what good behavior is; that their behavior is enormously affected by peers and that they cannot consider the consequences of their actions in such a way as to alter their impulsive behavior.
Moves toward a different juvenile system can be seen in states like Ohio, Texas, Mississippi and my home state of Illinois. These states are revising spending practices in the fiscal structures relative to juvenile prison and reducing the types of crimes – like misdemeanors – that cannot result in imprisonment.
However, sending fewer kids to prison is only one step on the path to a rational, competent and effective system. What follows is a list of some necessary components - means to the ends of greater public safety, positive outcomes for kids in conflict with the law and greater fiscal responsibility.
Data. The system often doesn’t have research data or ignores it. Instead, it relies upon shorthand formulas, such as bright-line rules like “three strikes and you are out of society and into prison.” Real world information about the characteristics of the juvenile population is needed at all decision points in the system.
Restorative justice. Crime creates real harm to real people, not just an infraction against state rules. The offender, the victim and the community must be included.
Leadership. Someone in the system has to stand up and say, “We can do better.”
Collaboration. Nobody does anything alone – people in top management and line-staff must talk to each other and make joint decisions about what works.
Training. Creating a common vocabulary and a common understanding of juvenile characteristics, science and effective practices requires training at all levels.
Screening and assessment. To make good decisions about what is best for a youth, we need to determine the strengths and needs in a kid’s life and individual risk levels.
Results-based contracting. Private businesses and nonprofit agencies brought in to help youth must be told what outcomes are required and be held accountable.
Local governance. Those affected by our systems – practitioners, policymakers, taxpayers, family members and victims – must be involved in setting effective policy.
This list is not complete, is not applicable in the details to every community and is not a statement of principles, which every community or state should have to guide change. It is a starting point toward moving away from the failed policy of relying on incarceration to reduce crime. Needless incarceration does not work to change behavior; it often leads to greater crime; and it costs too much money. We can do better.
Illinois received more evidence last week that incarcerating young people doesn’t rehabilitate them. Independent experts told a federal court that Illinois’ juvenile prison system operates an education program far below minimally accepted standards, does not meet the basic mental health needs of incarcerated youth and uses solitary confinement too often and for too long, with potentially damaging effects on youth who return to our communities.
Gov. Pat Quinn has another view.
"We've made very important strides in juvenile justice in Illinois," he told reporters.
Can they be talking about the same prison system? Yes, and both seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints are correct.
Following Quinn’s appointment of Arthur Bishop as Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) in 2010, there have been significant improvements in some conditions and delivery of rehabilitative services to kids held in state prisons. IDJJ has also established a new aftercare program to transition youth back to their homes after leaving prison. New state programs and policies have reduced the number of youth in state prisons from more than 1,400 to around 900 in the past seven years. That’s good news for public safety and for those youth who can be held accountable for their actions at the local level and don’t have to leave home to receive treatment for mental illnesses and addictions and don’t have their educations interrupted.
But the experts’ reports, which are part of a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Illinois, describe conditions that should keep us all awake at night: little schooling, inadequate mental health care even for youth in severe crisis, squalid conditions in the “confinement” units and youth languishing in prison far beyond their release date due to a lack of community-based placements. To its credit, IDJJ allowed the three experts inside and is attempting to resolve the suit without costly litigation. Now, Quinn and all Illinois legislators and policymakers need to read these reports and pay close attention to the findings.
A close look at what's going on in Illinois could be instructive to other states with youth prisons. Because mass incarceration of youth in large prison facilities is a fatally flawed concept, other states likely have similar problems. There's no question that the evidence against massive incarceration is mounting. The unresolved question is what Illinois and other states can do to reduce incarceration. There, too, Illinois could become a model.
The ACLU lawsuit could produce great change, especially if the federal court can demolish whatever bureaucratic barriers have prevented IDJJ from delivering a quality education and from diagnosing and treating mental illnesses that brought so many into prison. However, the best way to “fix” the terrible conditions the reports describe is a dramatic reduction in the number of youth incarcerated. We must keep more youth in their homes, receiving the kind of supervision and services proven to reduce reoffending much more effectively and at a fraction of the cost of sending a youth to prison.
Here’s the road map to a smaller juvenile prison system:
Cook County fills many state prison beds with young men – between the ages of 18 and 21 – awaiting trial on a new adult charge. These young men are held for months at state expense due to a violation of parole connected to an earlier action as a juvenile. If they're going to trial on a more serious adult charge in Cook County, they ought to be held in Cook where they have better access to attorneys and where local taxpayers can pay the bill. IDJJ should refuse to accept them and put the dollars saved into better rehabilitative services for juveniles.
Redeploy Illinois has helped to lower youth prison numbers from 28 counties, which agreed to send 25 percent fewer young people to state prison in exchange for financial assistance used to deliver rehabilitative services in those counties. By all measures, this prison diversion program, which began in 2006, has been a success. This year, Quinn signed legislation tailor-made to ease Cook County into the program, but officials have dragged their feet. Cook County and others that commit large numbers of juveniles should be given a choice – participate in Redeploy Illinois or pay the state the nearly $100,000 annual cost of incarcerating a juvenile.
Today, 10 percent of the kids in an Illinois prison have been approved for release, but they remain behind bars because they aren’t welcome home, because the state places restrictions on where they can live or because they need substance abuse or mental health treatment and none is readily available. The state needs to step up the search for approved living arrangements and help create them when none are available.
About one half of the youth entering an Illinois prison last year were reincarcerated for violating the terms of their parole. Often, these were “technical violations” like failing to attend school or obey a curfew. Illinois needs to shorten the length of parole, which can last up to five years for some youth, and require technical parole violations to be addressed with more effective interventions than re-incarceration.
The “important strides” Illinois has made in juvenile justice reform should be the first steps in a marathon of wide-reaching reforms. We cannot afford to run in place.
When you bring a couple hundred good people together on a Friday in downtown Chicago, you can expect a party to break out. But if those people also happen to be juvenile justice policy wonks, the party becomes a symposium, and some work gets done.
I recently attended such a party… rather symposium. The occasion for the celebration was the retirement of the founding member of Northwestern University School of Law’s Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC), Bernardine Dohrn. A separate, but obviously related reason was to celebrate CFJC’s receipt of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Creative and Effective Institutions Award.” The best way to celebrate these momentous events for this fun-loving crowd: a symposium, of course!
“Pursuing Justice: A Constitutional and Human Rights Jurisprudence for the Child” was a lot like a party: recognizing Bernardine on her groundbreaking achievements over a lifetime of advocacy for children; congratulating Julie Biehl – the current director of the CFJC – and the many past and present members of CFCJ; seeing the many friends from around the country and the world who share past battles for – and future visions of – justice for children in conflict with the law.
The entire theme of the party was just right because it recognized good work and described the reasons for what still needs doing. Bart Lubow, Annie E. Casey Foundation’s well-known juvenile policy director, was one of many brilliant speakers and began the morning by recognizing Illinois’ wisdom in creating the first juvenile court in 1899. The enlightened approach spread throughout our country. As head of the Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), Bart has studied the history of juvenile courts and has worked with dozens of local jurisdictions around the nation.
He noted that the creation of the court in Chicago was a great achievement but lacked a sufficient articulation of the developmental differences that made it necessary. Furthermore, the original concept and its future developments did not provide clear direction for the role of the legal advocates.
While well intentioned, the juvenile justice system became a place where arrogant adults often made ill-informed decisions about children solely on the basis of their experience as parents. This lack of science – or evidence in too many cases – led to an unnecessary expansion of the role of courts – to include status offenders, schoolyard fighters, the unruly, the incorrigible and the obnoxious.
Bart advocated for his oft-stated “My Kid Test.” This simple standard should replace all the arguments as to how courts and their stakeholders should act. The logic of Bart’s test was quickly illustrated. Retired Illinois Circuit Court Judge John Payne is the statewide coordinator for Redeploy Illinois, and Jeff Bradley is a former prosecutor and currently the statewide coordinator for JDAI.
During the symposium, we met separately – away from the party –with advocates from two different jurisdictions in Illinois. Each was concerned about a local judge’s approach to sentencing. One described a rote-sentencing scheme: no plea agreements accepted, mandatory probation with a stayed 30-day detention term and a commitment to juvenile prison on the first probation violation. The second meeting began with a similar concern: the judge almost always orders probation repeatedly until offense number six and then commits the child to prison with the comment that “I gave you every chance.”
The judges expressed a belief in the value of boot camps and impact incarceration in prison. What’s missing here is a lack of understanding of adolescent development and the belief that compliance is the goal of juvenile court rather than behavioral change, which can be achieved through adequate assessment and good casework.
My conclusion is that Bart’s wisdom must be included in jurisprudence: the “My Kid Test” should be on the books. If your kid says he will do something and doesn’t; if your kid fails to remember the time; if your kid is sometimes impulsive and makes mistakes, you don’t lock him in the basement or send her away from home. You look for a reason, and you search for answers and responses that will change behavior.
I have an addition to propose to Bart’s test, and that’s for judges to be reminded that it is important to exercise patience.
I am blessed by many nieces and nephews, but having no children of my own, I lack a lot of necessary experience. Sometimes I am impatient at expecting the mastery of a skill or the completion of a task. Our great nephew, Jaxon, has taught me a new phrase – he looks at me solemnly and says: “Sometimes you just have to wait for it, Uncle George.”
Words of wisdom – patience alone is sometimes all it takes.
A recent conversation with a group of friends reminded me that discussions about money are complicated and can move easily from discussion to heated argument.
I said that more public funds should be dedicated to research about positive outcomes for kids in the juvenile justice system and that the research would lead to development of additional evidence-based programs and practices.
One friend countered that dollars should be dedicated to prevention to keep kids out of the system. Another suggested that lots of kids come from intergenerational criminal families and will continue offending no matter what the services - that spending public funds on those kids just removed funding for services to kids who don’t get into trouble.
A third colleague noted that the most cost effective approach to preventing bad outcomes has nothing to do with kids in trouble with the law. By putting nurses or experienced parents in contact with new mothers, better results occur for even those families with long histories of involvement with crime and punishment.
Before this discussion degenerated into name-calling – egghead, do-gooder, defeatist, and worse – I asked a neutral participant what she thought. Her answer was, “Kids who come into contact with the justice system self-identify as obviously needing attention. Let’s spend our money on direct services.” She recognized that “justice system” work is accomplished by one-on-one relationships and that money is required too for salaries of probation officers, social workers, correctional employees and therapists and to pay the incidentals – gas money, internet, copy paper, and more.
In a time of tight government budgets, difficult choices have to be made, so I asked what services should be purchased. The responses were many but clustered around a few themes. Work experience was suggested as a necessary component for approaching adulthood in a responsible way, and YouthBuild was suggested as an example of excellent programming. “Anger Management” seems to be generally accepted as a response to angry, acting-out youth, and Washington Aggression Interruption Training is a model in wide use. A social worker said that family therapy was essential to changing behavior and added that Multisystemic Therapy had excellent results in difficult families.
A newcomer to the subject of juvenile justice overheard this conversation and said, “Why don’t you just provide those services to every kid and stop arguing about it? Recidivism will go down, and we can spend less money in the future.”
I had to remind my friends that their suggestions were all evidence-based programs and that they indeed had great results. On the other hand, none of those approaches should be employed without adequate assessments of individual kids by trained workers. Assessments of risks, needs and strengths should drive decisions about what services should be provided, or more importantly, whether any services of any kind should be employed with a child who is at low-risk of re-offending.
Intelligent selection of services for medium and high-risk youth come from many effective assessment tools. After all, a great case plan based on assessment and evaluation yields better results than the belief that one program alone can change behavior forever. Boot camps yield good intermediate results, but the benefits of “three hots and a cot” plus structure cannot ignore the real world outside. If drill instructors and well-run camps are replaced by empty refrigerators, absent addict parents and roach-infected mattresses on the floor, the boot camp lessons soon yield to the past patterns and necessities of survival.
Good fiscal decisions can yield good results for kids, and those decisions occur at all levels of government. Nationally, we need more research into evidence-based programs. Not all EBPs work with all kids, and even the best of them do not work on all populations. Federal funding and technical assistance can drive better data collection around what works with kids.
Recidivism reduction is the goal of the juvenile justice system, but more research and data around positive outcomes is needed to determine the intermediate steps to reducing repeat crime.
State governments should develop quality assurance structures to insure fidelity to existing EBPs and to capture data to develop new and effective practices. Results–based contracting can require performance measures to demand that scarce dollars are spent for real outcomes.
Even when public funds seem to be stretched to the limit, it is possible to find dollars for research, and one logical place to look for money is in prison budgets. Governments spend an inordinate amount of money to punish teenagers in prison settings where delivery of services is far more expensive and far less successful. If states only sent kids to prisons when necessary for public safety and got them out of prison as quickly as possible, millions of dollars could be freed up for community services and research that would lead to the development of even better services and strategies.
Why all this talk about money? Because we currently know how to reduce crime and improve the lives of kids, and additional research can yield even smarter, more cost-effective tools. The reduction of the juvenile justice population will make us all safer and improve the lives of real people. All it takes is wise money.
It has been a good spring for juvenile justice in Illinois. In a year of great fiscal challenge, the General Assembly approved Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to double funding for Redeploy Illinois, a successful program helping teens get services in their communities instead of behind sent away to distant prisons. Legislators also passed a bill to customize Redeploy programs for Cook County neighborhoods and bring the diversion program to the state’s largest county for the first time.
In addition, lawmakers approved a bill raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 17 for young people charged with felonies. That was a huge victory propelled by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission’s well-researched report (“Raise the Age; Don’t Split the Difference”) and accomplished by the Juvenile Justice Initiative’s effort to create the largest advocacy collaboration in the state’s juvenile justice history. Those legislative moves forward were buttressed by an Illinois Supreme Court rule change, which was championed by the Illinois State Bar Association, giving priority to appeals of delinquency proceedings.
Discussing all of that progress would be enough for this opinion column and a few more, but this one is devoted to a reform not yet completed – widespread adoption of restorative justice practices.
John Lash and Judge Steven Teske have often and expertly discussed on these pages how restorative justice is a natural fit for juveniles in conflict with the law, and I’ve delved into the topic, too. In a conversation with Sally Wolf, the executive director of the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice (IBARJ) project, I noted the “good press” that restorative justice has received recently. I see RJ as woven throughout the Illinois reforms passed by the Legislature, as well as the drop in juvenile crime.
“What more is there to add,” I asked Sally. But she quickly replied: “No, we’re not there yet – we haven’t reached the tipping point.”
I challenged her and noted that Cook Circuit Court Judge Sophia Hall and her assistant Peter Newman, who is active in IBARJ efforts, host meetings where more than a dozen Chicago judges come together to discuss their practices in adult criminal court with sentencing circles; housing court where landlords and tenants use RJ to settle their differences; and women’s court where prostitutes are treated as victims. Juvenile court judges use restorative practices and refer kids out to great practitioners like Cheryl Graves and Ora Schub at the Community Justice for Youth Institute. IBARJ’s own Stone Soup project in Chicago’s south suburbs is creating community by opening communication among traditional residents and the influx of city dwellers forced out by the destruction of public housing and gentrification. The Chicago BARJ Week attracts more than 100 city practitioners. In southern Illinois, Safe Schools Coordinators Priss Parmenter of Mt. Carmel and Sandy Crawford of Alton use circles to complement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and reduce school conflict.
“I can name dozens of examples of restorative practice in Illinois,” I told Sally. “Why haven’t we reached the tipping point?”
Sally said, “Think about it.”
So I did. My thoughts turned to the never-ending discussions about whether restorative justice belongs in the community or the juvenile justice system.
I suspect those working to reform juvenile justice in other states can tell a similar story. Like Illinois, perhaps restorative approaches aren't yet as tightly woven into the fabric of your state's juvenile justice system as it could be. Like Illinois, I suspect many other states haven't yet reached that "tipping point."
My career in the justice system leads me to believe that court stakeholders need to think more deeply about our roles. I think the system folks ignore that court is a rule and role based approach, which sometimes blinds us to the realities of who actually makes change in the lives of victims and offenders. Judges file papers and have hearings and issue orders, but it is really others who do the work – probation staff, social workers mental health professionals and others with the skill, patience and will to get very personal with offenders and victims.
Those in charge of the courtroom need to learn to trust those restorative practitioners in the community – some of whom have been through the court process themselves. It is difficult to abandon our silos and surrender to the talents of others. When we do, we will reach the tipping point. The court and the community together can repair harm to victims, increase public safety and improve the outcomes of kids in the juvenile justice system.
We cannot miss the opportunity to recognize what good policy means to real people -- the police, probation and detention officers, social workers and therapists. Most importantly, we should seize this opportunity to explain how juvenile policy affects a real kid in a real family.
Dave McClure remembers getting the phone call at 12:30 a.m. He was a CCBYS worker on call, and an officer from the local police department was seeking his help. CCBYS is the awkward shorthand for Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services, an Illinois Department of Human Services program. It provides crisis intervention services in every Illinois county — all 102 of them.
The officer had brought two boys to the station after finding them sleeping in a laundromat. One boy’s mother had come to collect her son. The father of the other 15-year-old had refused to come — in fact, the father said his son was worthless and should be placed in the detention center. The cop could have called for a detention gatekeeper, but he thought the youth’s disrespectful and combative attitude was not enough to warrant a night in the lock-up.
Dave showed up and began a long effort to resolve the situation. The father came to the station after Dave’s encouragement, and, in the presence of the crisis worker and the policeman, father and son began a verbal battle that was obviously well practiced. It was eventually agreed that the boy would spend the night with an uncle and both would meet Dave the next day. That was the beginning of an eight-month case for CCBYS.
Neither father nor son was willing for the mom to be part of the discussions, but it became obvious that this was a family of secrets. Dave created a linkage to a mental health counselor. Mom never appeared, but secrets came out. She was an alcoholic, regularly beaten by her husband, an otherwise respectable local businessman. The son knew of the violence and developed great hatred for his father but kept the fights secret. Why — because his mother swore him to secrecy about her constant drinking and enforced that pact by keeping the son’s secret — that she had walked in on him as a 14-year-old having sex with his 12-year-old male cousin.
Domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual offending and family dysfunction – sound familiar? This is not a made-for-TV movie where everyone is saved, but the mental health counselor helped the son work through his terrible conflicts. He graduated high school and did not go deep into the juvenile justice system. Good policy made good practice — as it has across Illinois.
CCBYS provides a network of crisis workers who are on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Once involved, crisis workers help the young person secure emergency housing, with counseling, case management and links to substance abuse or mental health treatment. Law enforcement, schools and parents depend on crisis intervention services to divert young people from costly and potentially life-damaging juvenile detention or the child welfare system.
The highly effective crisis intervention programs served 6,373 young people across the state in 2012. The impact is significant:
More than half of the referrals came from police, probation and the courts;
85 percent of youth return home or to a family-approved living arrangement;
Less than 6 percent end up in secure confinement or as wards of the state; and
77 percent successfully complete their case plans.
In short, CCBYS provides hope to kids and families and a second chance to stay together and address their problems in a healthy and productive way.
CCBYS also saves substantial money. The average cost of serving a 15-year-old youth is $1,733. The annual cost per youth in Department of Children and Family Services is $36,174 — and the average 15-year-old ward will remain in state care for six more years. A commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice averages more than $98,000 per year.
CCBYS is one example of good policy and practice, and, like so many other effective approaches across the United States, its budget has been cut. We cannot stop at making good policy. We must see the job through and that means financially supporting programs so there is someone to call at 12:30 in the morning.
Debate is raging in communities across the country about the role of police in our nation’s schools. While the discussion is long overdue, too often the debate centers on the role and presence of police alone.
Some ask how many armed police officers are needed to keep school buildings free of violence. Others push back, asking whether increasing the number of officers patrolling school hallways and playgrounds will sometimes make society less safe in the long run, by increasing arrests and incarceration of more youth who would benefit more from rehabilitation services in their home communities where they can remain in school and graduate.
This debate played out late last year on Capitol Hill where Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin, D-IL, presided over a congressional hearing about ending the school-to-prison pipeline. The subcommittee hearing focused attention on the get-tough disciplinary practices that steer students out of schools through suspension, expulsion or police involvement and into the criminal justice system.
What receives too little attention in these often emotional discussions is the fact that there are effective strategies for change and that those strategies produce greater school safety, better educational outcomes for all students and do so at much less cost than sending them deep into the juvenile justice system.
One of those proven strategies is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a national best practice model for reducing disciplinary referrals, school suspensions and expulsions.
What is it? Better known in school circles as PBIS, this model is a way of ensuring that all students have access to the most effective and accurately implemented instructional and behavioral practices and interventions possible. In effect, all school personnel must recognize that they are educators and that role requires the support of every student, vigilance for each child’s well being and the creation of a positive atmosphere for every child.
Maybe that is what we all expect of our schools, but it requires the overt understanding by all school employees that the mission of education includes more than the schedule and curriculum. Recognizing each student, saying “good morning” and knowing a child’s family are the simplest manifestations of a positive atmosphere.
Second, schools must make data-based decisions for instruction of behavior and academics. Like the juvenile justice system, schools must collect data on youth in their care, their actions and abilities and then respond with resources and practices in order to support better outcomes. Take school discipline for example. If fighting is an issue, where does it happen? Maybe there is a stairway where rival gang members must transfer between classes in close quarters. Maybe there is a classroom or teacher with greater numbers of disciplinary referrals than others. Data will tell those stories.
Next comes the “tiered approach” within PBIS. All kids receive the benefits of a positive school environment. Between 80 and 90 percent of students will require no more efforts, but the rest will need more targeted interventions in a rapid response to disciplinary problems. PBIS implementation studies indicate that only 1 to 5 percent of students will need intensive, individual, assessment-based actions to respond to the needs of this small group. Once these higher-needs youth are identified, wrap-around planning for the complex emotional/behavioral needs of these students and their families can yield better disciplinary and educational outcomes.
Thousands of schools across America are involved in the training and implementation of PBIS. The U.S. Department of Education provides the science and technical assistance for local school districts to change the way they do business. It results in more tools for teachers, fewer office disciplinary referrals and fewer suspensions and expulsions for preventable and predictable problems. And any teacher will confirm that more time in class and fewer classroom disruptions yield better educational attainment for all students.
Of course, there is a cost to PBIS, but the absence of it also has a price. The Washington Post recently reported that more than 3 million students a year are suspended or expelled from U.S. schools. That happens at great cost to taxpayers, as well as many young lives that never are rehabilitated. However, schools using PBIS can save by reducing the time administrators spend each time a student is sent to the principal’s office and each time a school teacher must stop instructing to break up a fight and attend disciplinary hearings.
Lisa Jacobs, Illinois program coordinator for MacArthur’s Models for Change Initiative puts it this way, “A fundamental fact is this: pushing kids out of school and into the justice system unnecessarily is a deeply flawed approach to school disciplinary issues. It may address a problem in the short term, but produces negative outcomes for children, undermines the ability of the justice system to function effectively, wastes scarce resources and can actually increase risks to public safely. Simply put, kids belong in schools and communities, where they can learn, grow and become productive members of our communities.”
Schoolwide PBIS can help put a plug in the school–to–prison pipeline.
Photo by Indiana Public Media | Flickr
The MacArthur Foundation's new "Mistakes Kids Make"Internet-based campaign is a welcome and innovative way to educate the public of the wisdom of giving kids an opportunity to straighten out their lives and learn from their mistakes.
As I watched the campaign's clever animated video, it occurred to me that it is important for young and old to learn from our mistakes. That’s a good reminder, not just for kids in trouble but for policy makers as well.
In Illinois, we recently made a significant change in our juvenile justice system that, while not a gigantic mistake, is one that other states should avoid. On the plus side, we in Illinois are learning from those actions and taking steps to correct our system. In doing so, we have learned lessons that we can share with other jurisdictions.
The change occurred in 2010 when Illinois revised the age of jurisdiction of juvenile court, but only for 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors. Felony charges of 17-year-olds would still be prosecuted in adult criminal court
This oddity set Illinois apart from the rest of the nation. No other state places the same aged teens in juvenile court for misdemeanors but in adult court for felonies.
Why would we do that?
After a few years of unsuccessfully attempting to persuade the Illinois General Assembly to join with the 38 other states setting juvenile court jurisdiction at age 17 and younger the “bifurcated approach” seemed like a reasonable compromise. Many in the justice system agreed that science and logic dictate that 17-year-olds should be treated as youth, but strong objections based on presumed fiscal and management issues remained.
A lawmaker proposed a compromise, suggesting that starting with misdemeanor cases would show whether or not 17-year-olds would overwhelm the juvenile system. If local courts could handle the change without major problems, the state could reconsider raising the age for felony cases.
That sounded like a reasonable compromise, especially because the legislation mandated a thorough study with the findings reported back to the General Assembly and the governor.
Not only did it sound reasonable, it was the only way some 17-year-olds would be treated like the juveniles they are. Without this compromise, all 17-year-olds would continue to be treated as adults, with little access to services and all the obstacles an adult criminal record creates.
But there is a good reason no other state had gone this route: It doesn’t work.
It hasn’t worked out well on the street where police officers must determine quickly whether the 17-year-old being arrested is likely to be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor and whether he has the rights and protections of a juvenile or is treated as an adult during interrogations, booking and confinement.
It hasn’t worked out well in courtrooms where 17-year-olds charged with felonies first appear in adult courtrooms and mugshots and criminal charges are a matter of public record.
It hasn’t worked out well at any point in the system from arrest to county jails to prosecutorial and plea decisions to sentencing and to rehabilitation. Decisions about which 17-year-olds are juveniles and which will receive permanent adult consequences are unclear, unappealable, and often seem unfair. Too often, confusion reigns.
While I don’t recommend this approach for any state, there have been some positives to this experiment, which has entered its fourth year.
One of those positives is the fact that we have solid research detailing the problems above. Because the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission was directed by law to study the impact of the age change, the public and their elected representatives now have a detailed report with data about arrests, adjudications and probation caseloads, plus feedback from law enforcement, prosecutors and defenders. This analysis also shows that moving all 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system is manageable.
The report also confirms that the best reason for placing 17-year-olds in the juvenile system is that it is the right thing to do for young people, families, taxpayers and public safety. Handling youth in the juvenile system reduces the chance they will commit more crimes and provides them and their families with rehabilitation services that encourage changed behaviors.
So what can other states learn from Illinois’ experience? One important lesson may be to pair incremental change with solid analysis and study to lay the foundation for the next steps in ongoing system improvement. That approach seems to be bearing fruit in Illinois. But the most important lesson is this: When it comes to juvenile justice policies, it’s never a mistake to do what is best for young people.
(To read the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission’s “Raising the Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction” go to ijjc.illinois.gov/rta.)
Since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School late last year, there has been an abundance of suggested policy changes to keep children safe. They include armed guards in every school building, placing police stations in schools, allowing teachers to carry guns and creating registries of kids adjudicated as delinquents. Some advocating these measures must believe that simple steps done in big ways will answer our fears.
Creating policy and legislation by anecdote is easy but usually ineffective. Long-lasting and successful policy is rooted in examination of past practices, data analysis and assessment of pilot programs.
Instead of embracing every “solution” with mass appeal, we must confront the circumstances of schoolhouse shootings in recent years: few of the changes proposed would have prevented these tragedies.
If we cannot rely on big, simple changes to eradicate all risk of harm, what can we do?
First, our country needs better screening and mental health treatment for those young people in, or at risk of entering, the juvenile justice system. Adequate mental health practices could provide early identification of young people most at risk for committing terrible crimes. Delivering support to them early would make it more likely they will be successful in school and in life and far less likely they will deteriorate into the evil of mass murder.
Second, we must not overlook the largest and most powerful tool of all – the individuals who make up the affected community.
For young people, “community” can be a town or neighborhood, a family, a schoolroom, a pod in a detention center or even a unit in a juvenile prison. Crime does not occur in a vacuum – it causes harm to an individual and, therefore, includes a victim, the offender and the community affected by the event. If the juvenile justice system includes those personally involved in a harmful event, a restorative justice approach requires that the offender be held accountable, the safety of the community be strengthened and that the offender develops the ability to refrain from future criminal conduct. Most importantly, the victim must be heard and the harm suffered must be repaired on the victim’s terms.
These are lofty goals and do not describe the legal system which defines crime as violation of specific laws and an offense against the state which requires specified punishment. Let’s see if the restorative justice approach could affect safety in schools.
The MacArthur Foundation’s juvenile justice reform initiative, Models for Change, supported a restorative justice project in Peoria, Illinois, and the report detailing its path to success is recommended reading for communities considering the addition of restorative justice services. “Partnering with Schools to Reduce Juvenile Justice Referrals” is available on the Models for Change website.
To begin, the Peoria County Juvenile Justice Council conducted an in-depth data review of local juvenile crime and detention patterns. The council noticed a large number of aggravated battery arrests at Manual High School and probed deeper to find the reason behind the higher than expected rate of detained students. Interviews of school personnel revealed the “aggravated” battery charges usually resulted from a teacher trying to break up a fight among students and were “aggravated” because they occurred on school property, not because of physical harm to teachers or students. Students expressed concerns about conflicts in the community spilling over into the school; teachers were concerned about school safety, disruptions to learning and a lack of effective responses to conflict in the school.
Changing the culture at Manual High began with Peacemaking Circles, a restorative justice technique to provide students with a method of airing issues, working out misunderstandings and resolving differences through a structured discussion led by school staff. The Circle process kept disagreements from escalating into physical altercations. The process spread to seven other Peoria county schools. These low-cost interventions resulted in a 35 percent reduction in school-based referrals to detention and a 43 percent reduction for African-American youth following implementation.
Another restorative practice – peer juries – was implemented to hold students accountable in constructive ways for disruptive behavior at school. Peer juries emphasize youth-led, consensus-based conflict resolution in which the youth is held accountable, relationships can be repaired and new social skills can be learned. Kiefer Academy, the Peoria alternative school, embraced both Peacemaking Circles and peer juries. Use of restraints at Kiefer Academy dropped from 212 instances in the 2007-2008 school year to 141 in 2009-2010. Equally important, the students reported better relationships with teachers and classmates, less disruption in classrooms and better grades and school attendance. The Peoria County Juvenile Justice Council kept accurate data throughout this process, and the numbers support the success of these restorative justice techniques.
We need the “system” to focus on all the research and best practices to improve public safety in a fiscally responsible way that provides and promotes positive outcomes for kids.
But we also need to recognize that we are all in this together – the “system” is not just someone else with a badge, a gun or the keys to a cell. It is each one of us – in our roles in the system and in our roles as community members.
Skipping school – perhaps that makes you think of adventures with high school friends just to test your independence. Four of my high school pals skipped school one beautiful spring day and drove to a nearby mall. A DJ for a local radio station was in the midst of a live remote when he interviewed my friends about a new rock and roll group.
Unfortunately, my buddies did not consider that the radio might be playing in the principal’s office.
Unlike Ferris Bueller, my friends were caught in the act. The angry principal notified their parents; discipline was instilled, and they didn’t skip school again.
Also unlike Ferris Bueller, truancy today is a serious matter. It is often the first public manifestation of real problems in a kid’s life and the first encounter with the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.
Each day of the school year, thousands of students of all ages are missing from the classroom. Accurate nationwide chronic truancy data is not available, but what we do know is that it is enough of a concern that many communities are searching for way to reverse the trend.
While on the bench, I saw many reasons behind frequent absence from school: illness, no parent at home to get kids off to school, an effort to hide child abuse, drug addiction or gang activity. The point is that absence from school must be noted and investigated where truancy persists.
The effects of truancy are widespread. The student falls behind classmates, requires more of the teacher’s attention and often never catches up but simply gives up and drops out of school. “Although correlation is not causation, the links between leaving school before graduating and having poor life outcomes are striking,” according to a Brookings Institute policy briefing, which also noted that more than two-thirds of state prison inmates never graduated high school.
The negative effects are not limited to the dropout but are also felt by taxpayers as everyone bears the ever-escalating prison costs, and the associated problems rarely stop with one individual, one generation.
For most school districts, truancy also means a drop in average daily attendance counts and a corresponding loss of state revenues. In some school districts it may mean referral to the juvenile justice system. Prosecutors, defenders and judges may be unaware of best practices in combating truancy and therefore resort to familiar tools – prosecution, stern lectures and detention for failing to abide by court orders to attend school.
Although detention of status offenders, including kids who have truancy charges, is a violation of the federal law and can lead to loss of federal funds to the state budgets, some state policymakers and local jurisdictions turn to the juvenile justice system to correct truancy problems. Because chronic truancy often is a sign of complex underlying issues in families, reliance on courts to be the enforcer without addressing the root cause will not keep the child in school and could start the youth on a lengthy path into the juvenile justice system.
There appears to be a growing recognition among the public that truancy – and the fact that too often the penalty for truancy does not bring the student back into a classroom but continues to interrupt learning – is a problem impacting communities across the nation.
“For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) said at a December congressional hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. “What is especially concerning about this phenomenon is that it deprives our kids of their fundamental right to an education.”
Effective truancy responses in Illinois vary. A recent Chicago Tribune series examining truancy reported, for example, that Galesburg, Illinois, uses outreach workers to make home visits and can issue $75 tickets to parents whose children have repeated absences. One outreach worker gives alarm clocks to students who tell him they can’t wake up in time to catch the school bus.
Also Illinois, Jefferson County Sheriff Roger Mulch allows his officers to serve notices to appear at the Truancy Review Board (TRB. He says, “When problems are identified at the informal TRB hearings, actions immediately follow … appointments are made with therapists at the table, referrals are made to drug treatment. Sometimes, the issues are financial, and we can refer to emergency funding sources. Overwhelmingly, those kids are back at school.”
From a judge’s perspective, I recognize the importance of early intervention to avert educational failure and criminal behavior. Truancy is a subject not easily handled by traditional justice tools. Many communities have successful models for truancy reduction and the best practices include efforts by a group of local stakeholders and parents. Judges must get off the bench and be involved in our communities’ efforts to produce positive outcomes for kids who are not in school.
The Hon. George W. Timberlake, Ret., a trial court judge for 23 years, serves 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.