Racial Disparities Persist After Years of Juvenile Justice Reform, Models for Change Leaders Say

WASHINGTON — James Bell, founder and president of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, told a gathering of juvenile justice reformers earlier this month that it was time to begin “an uncomfortable” conversation about racial disparities in the youth justice system.

He made the comments to Models for Change stakeholders gathered here to discuss the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s final evaluations of the $121 million juvenile justice reform initiative, which began in 2004. It ended as MacArthur changed its emphasis from reforming youth justice to jail reform.

The daylong meeting centered around the many success Models for Change helped bring about, from reducing incarceration sentences to influencing states to stop shackling youth in courts to raising the age at which teens are treated as adults in court.

[Laurie Garduque video | Accomplishments]

Bobbe Bridge, founder and president of Center for Children & Youth Justice in Washington state, said, “Models for Change was certainly the catalyst in accelerating reform. We have certainly changed the conversation.”

Yet, thanks in part to Models for Change support for data collection, it is apparent that racial disparities in the youth justice system, if anything, have gotten worse, not better.

A MacArthur-commissioned evaluation of Models for Change by Mathematica Policy Research found that disparity “persists, mostly at pre-Models for Change levels.” The Sentencing Project recently reported that in 2015 black male youth were five times more likely to be locked up than white youth.

[Laurie Garduque video | Racial disparities]

Speaking of the reforms, Bell said, “What we now know after 10 years of informed analysis is that all of those things have benefitted white kids and the racial disparities persist.”

In the past, he said, the reformers wanted “to get something rather than nothing” so the discussions that might have made decision-makers uncomfortable didn’t happen. Now, he says, “As we go into 2.0 of reform policy we are going to make people very uncomfortable to examine why the disparities still persist.”

Laurie Garduque, who led the Models for Change initiative at the MacArthur Foundation, said although the disparities rate has not improved, the harm done to youth in the system has been reduced for kids of color. “Fewer of them are being swept up in the system, more of them are being diverted and remain in the community, fewer are incarcerated; the incarceration rate has dropped dramatically, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent depending on the state,” she said.

Laurie Garduque

She added, “You are dealing with a host of economic, structural and political issues … you can’t expect the justice system to overcome. So there has to be an acknowledgement that we can make the system fairer and more just, but the deck is stacked against certain groups in such a way that it is very hard to make it equitable.”

The Mathematica evaluation reports that in states where Models for Change concentrated its effort:

  • “Significant paradigm shifts not only continued during Models for Change, they were propelled by it ...
  • “State and local stakeholders became more aware of the harms of detaining youth, particularly low risk youth, in out-of-home placements.
  • “The poor conditions that characterized confinement drew attention and litigation.
  • “Evidence mounted about the ill effects of formal involvement in the justice system.
  • “As these perspectives took shape, so did intentions to divert youth from pretrial detention and secure confinement and from the justice system entirely.
  • “As interest in diversion and serving youth in the community grew, evidence-based programs emerged as desirable alternatives to secure confinement and formal processing.“

Models for Change was not the only group influencing change. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) is active in seeking community-based alternatives to youthful incarceration.

Donald K. Ross of Malkin & Ross said his public policy firm, which worked for Models for Change, hired 56 different lobbying firms to work with states to help bring about reforms. For example, at the beginning of Models for Change in 2004 only 10 states forbade shackling of youth in courtrooms. Today there are 31 such states.

[Laurie Garduque video | Changes]

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, said that when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that kids are different, it gave everyone the freedom to use the youth developmental language. Yet, “what we haven’t eliminated is a persistently punitive response to offending in this country that still infiltrates and drives our criminal justice system.”

[Laurie Garduque video | Language]

Garduque said the research the MacArthur Foundation helped underwrite established the legally relevant ways that kids are different from adults, which was made concrete by Supreme Court decisions. Now there is a reluctance to think of young people as the worst thing they have done and focus instead on the individual young person.

Marsha Levick

The field was forced to ask, she said, “How can we hold young people accountable for their transgressions in ways that recognize that they are not adults and doesn’t jeopardize their future life chances and gives them the skills and competencies to become successful adults?”

[Laurie Garduque video | Future]

What’s most gratifying for her is that “Those principles have been adopted and now seem to be secure and are the basis for another generation of law and policy reform where we are rolling back those harsh and punitive sanctions.”     

Leonard Witt is executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism, the publisher of the JJIE. The JJIE was a MacArthur Foundation Models for Change grantee.  

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Head of Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative Sounds Alarm for Reformers

ORLANDO, Florida — The director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's* Juvenile Justice Strategy Group sounded an alarm Monday about a slowing of progress and an increase in the length of time youth are being incarcerated in some of the 300 sites of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

Nate Balis spoke at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Foundation-sponsored Initiative (JDAI), with some 900 registrants attending the three-day event. The JDAI has been instrumental in cutting the juvenile detention rate by 40 percent over the last two decades.

He noted in his prepared speech that much of the rapid growth in reducing youth incarceration happened between 2002 and 2012, but now progress is slowing. “I see this slowdown as a sign of JDAI reaching maturity, solidifying its transition from a renegade, against-the-grain reform idea to the standard for detention practice nationwide,” he said.

He also was concerned that the average duration of detention has increased in some sites by 40 percent or more. ”In those early days of JDAI, detention centers were often bursting at the seams, bunking three and four young people in cells designed to house one or two. So early JDAI stakeholders did everything they could to move young people out of detention quickly.

Patrick McCarthy, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation

“These days, most detention facilities have empty beds, so the need to move kids out can feel less urgent. That’s understandable, but it’s not consistent with JDAI’s values.”

Balis also said, “We still don’t involve and support families like we could and should, or give young people a voice in shaping our policies and practices. And we don’t partner with community organizations as often as we could to connect young people with positive adults and with constructive activities in their home neighborhoods.

For more information about JUVENILE JUSTICE RESEARCH, go to JJIE Resource Hub | RESOURCE HUB

Increasingly, reformers realize that the voices of people and communities affected by our systems, especially people and communities of color, are critical to defeating systemic racial and ethnic injustice.”

So too are relationships with the police. Balis said, “We know from experience that JDAI works much better when law enforcement is actively involved. But in many sites law enforcement leaders are not. That needs to change. ... Most importantly, law enforcement is the key player at the stage of the system where racial and ethnic disparities are by far the greatest. If we are ever going to make wholesale improvements in racial equity, law enforcement just has to be actively at the table.”

Bart Lubow, past director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group

JDAI pioneer Bart Lubow had three lessons for the next generation of reformers. First, he called for a “laser-like focus on limiting incarceration and reducing punishment.” Second he listed racism’s effects on the outcomes of the juvenile justice system. “While it is great that there are half as many youth confined as was true only 20 years ago, none of us should ignore the fact that that number would be reduced again by half if only youth of color were treated like their white counterparts,” he said. Finally, system reform is complicated and challenged by a sense of urgency, but it takes time and steady progress to undo 100 years of wrong policy.

No one knows the future effects hardliners like President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions might have on youth justice. However, Patrick McCarthy, president of the Casey Foundation, wasn’t overly concerned, “The work that we do is primarily driven by states and counties and we have seen in states all over the country — red states, blue states, purple states across the ideological spectrum, the political divides — the one thing people agree on is that they want to see the juvenile justice system help get kids back on track. That’s what we focus on.“

*The Annie E. Casey Foundation helps fund the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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JJIE Multimedia Story is ONA Finalist

Battling meth: a mother's road to recovery
The story, featured in the JJIE’s digital magazine, follows a young mother, Lindsay Curio, and her struggles with methamphetamine addiction in rural Georgia.

The Center for Sustainable Journalism, the publisher of the, has been named a finalist by the Online News Association (ONA) in the Student Projects category.

The multimedia story, Battling Meth: A Mother’s Road to Recovery, was completely produced and edited by five Journalism and Citizen Media track students for their Department of Communication capstone project at Kennesaw State University. It was published by the JJIE in March 2014. The students are Shaddi Abusaid, Daniela Duron, Elizabeth Keener, Roger Newton and Lindsay Walker.

The story, featured in the JJIE’s digital magazine, follows a young mother, Lindsay Curio, and her struggles with methamphetamine addiction in rural Georgia.

Others chosen as finalists in the large group student category include NYCity News Service at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and Carnegie-Knight21 at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. The winning entry will be announced at the ONA annual conference in late September.

The ONA is the largest association of online journalist in the world. Founded in 2000, the organization makes awards each year across the industry. Finalists in other categories include The New York Times, NPR and ProPublica.

Past winners in the student categories include Boston University, the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism and the University of Miami School of Communication.

Her Legacy Lives On

Linda-smiling-3Linda Sullins Ballew — 1950-2014

Those of you who have followed the JJIE know that thanks to the early and continuing inspiration, advice and support of Ruth Ann Harnisch of the Harnisch Foundation we have had four exciting years of growth with many more such years on the horizon.  What’s maybe less known is that from the beginning, Ruth Ann took counsel from Jennifer Raymond, who is now executive director, and Linda Sullins Ballew, director of projects, at the Harnisch Foundation.

Sadly Linda passed away earlier this month. She had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which needs no greater explanation in this month of social media-inspired fundraising and ice bucket dousings.

Usually I would get emails like these from Linda:  “I think BOKEH is genius — for those of us who are visual thinkers!” or “Congrats on membership in the Investigative News Network — just read about it today!”

It was part of who she was. Ruth Ann captured that essence when she wrote in her memorial tribute: “We will miss her unremitting sunshine in a sometimes shady world. Lindy always chose to see the best in everyone and everything.”

Her sense of humor came through even in this very sad May 2012 email that preceded a phone conference. She wrote: “I don’t know if I’ve shared with you that in August 2010, I was diagnosed with ALS. (Lou Gehrig ’s disease). Now my speech is being affected. Please share with your team. I don’t want anyone to think I am drinking on the job. ☺”

Later today I will write a little note to her family. It will be about legacy.  Linda’s early and continuing advice helped make us what are here at the and and its sister publication Youth Today. Each day our journalists and editors produce stories, members of our audience write commentary and partners throughout the youth justice and child welfare arenas produce research and resources. We amplify and share it all with people who want to improve a world that short-changes too many of our youth. Collectively we make a difference and each time we do a bit of Linda Sullins Ballew lives on.  So for our staff, our partners, readers and especially for all those children, thank you Linda.

Publisher’s Note: Watch’s Continuing Coverage of Cops Smash Boy Through Window

Leonard Witt
Leonard Witt" credit=" 

When Daryl Khan, our New City Metro bureau chief, broke the story “Cops Smash Boy Through Window in the Bronx,” he was fulfilling our mission that demands that we shine a spotlight on the darkest corners of the juvenile justice system.

At the same time, we aim to write stories on how to repair the system via best practices. We do it all via solid reporting by professional journalists such as Khan, backed up by commentary and with links to in-depth research.

Thanks to Khan’s reporting and then to all our socially conscious Facebook and Twitter connected audiences, the world now knows that 14-year-old Javier Payne almost bled to death in handcuffs after being smashed through a plate glass window while being arrested.

However, as solution-oriented journalists, we can’t leave the story there. Now we are doing a deep dive not only into what happened that night, but also to discover what in the system allows such an incident to happen and to be sure that justice is done for Javier and every other kid — and especially every kid of color — here in the Bronx and around the nation.

You can help by continuing to keep the story alive on social media networks as we continue to report on it. Just follow us on Facebook and Twitter where we can alert you and you can alert the world.

Support JJIEYou can help us in others ways too. We are blessed that The Tow Foundation, which saw worth in what we do, funded our New York Metro bureau at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism. That’s where Khan is based. We want to continue to grow on that investment and you can help by hitting the support button here on this page.

We know all know that Javier’s is just one story of many that need to be told in this era when traditional journalism institutions don’t have the resources or at times the inclination to go after the difficult stories or to cover the kids forgotten in the shadows of society. That’s our job — and yours — to ensure that injustices to our youth are amplified to the world. Thanks for joining us on this journey and for all the great work you do each day.

EDITORIAL: Shame on ‘Beyond Scared Straight’ and Shame on Douglas County, Ga.

Leonard Witt
Leonard Witt

Douglas County, Ga., is about 40 miles from Kennesaw State University, where we publish the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. However, it is light years away, really light years behind, what our reporting and commentary have been saying about Scared Straight programs since 2011. Scared Straight programs don’t work. More Scared Straight kids end up as recidivists than similar kids who don’t go through these programs.

So we are perplexed why Douglas County would run a Scared Straight program and even more perplexed why officials there would agree to let the “Beyond Scared Straight” A&E TV crew tape an episode that will air tonight. It features two teenage sisters who are humiliated and intimidated in a way that if you and I did it to our own kids in public we would be the ones thrown in jail.

scared_straight_seriesThe Douglas County Sheriff’s office is so far out of touch with present day reality and research that officials there literally use a mace, a medieval weapon, to symbolize their Scared Straight program. I am not making this up. Right on the web page explaining what their M.A.C.E. (Making A Change Early) program is all about, is a drawing of a mace with this caption: “The overwhelming usefulness of the mace was its ability to generate enormous swinging force that could bring a tremendous blow to an opponent.”

The mace in the drawing is a club with a chain on the end tethered to a steel ball with spikes. See, you swing that club and crack your opponent’s skull open with the spiked ball. Now, we have been wielding the best practice research and our commentary as kind of a gentle club, but alas, we are apparently dealing with some very thick-skulled and thick-skinned policy makers in Hollywood and in Douglas County.

First there are the executives at the Walt Disney Company and Hearst Corporation, the parent companies of A&E TV, which produces the disgusting “Beyond Scared Straight.” It’s a program built on demeaning and threatening young boys and girls, apparently in a quest to build audience and reap profits. Why else would Disney and Hearst back the long discredited Scared Straight programs?

We are not so sure of Douglas County Sheriff Phil Miller’s motives. His mission statement for the M.A.C.E. program, which will be featured on “Beyond Scared Straight” tonight, reads: “The basic premise for this program is one of deterrence; the belief that realistic and aggressive exposure to prison life and inmates will cause youth to refrain from delinquency due to fear of the consequences of the bad behavior and ensuing incarceration.”

Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director at the Coalition of Juvenile Justice, a network of organizations dedicated to keeping children and youth out of court, told our reporter Maggie Lee that these tactics don’t make the kids more timid. In fact, it will  “harden their bravado” and make the kids want to affiliate with the nasty talking inmates who have the most power.

In other words, it is more likely to have them pick up a mace and pop someone upside the head to demonstrate who has the power.

So, as I did two years ago, I call on the Walt Disney Company CEO, Robert A. Iger, to pull “Beyond Scared Straight” off the air because it touts a program that does not work and also demeans the very children Disney claims to shower with wholesome programing.

Here is a promotional blurb for this season’s “Beyond Scared Straight”: “Returning inmate ‘Hustle Man,’ a ferocious incarcerated killer, is dragged away from the teens after he tries to attack.” Is that promotion about wholesome programing or about greed of the worst kind? Come on CEO Bob Iger, give us an answer.

I also invite Sheriff Miller down to Kennesaw State University to meet the folks who run our Master’s and Ph.D. programs in conflict management. They can tell you a few things about how violence begets violence and why piling trauma on kids who have suffered trauma their whole lives is not such a smart approach. Ever hear of programs like restorative justice? Come on down, Sheriff Miller, and when you do, please lock the Scared Straight cell door behind you -- forever.


Collectively We, As a Nation, Can Reduce Gun Violence

Lenoard Witt, Executive Director and Publisher, JJIE.orgLast Friday 20 children aged six and seven were systematically executed by a young man, who has been politely defined as suffering from a personality disorder, but who in another time would simply have been referred to as a mad man. His baby-killing arsenal included a Glock 9-mm handgun, a Sig Sauer 9-mm handgun and a Bushmaster 223-cal semi-automatic rifle.

Our president brushing tears from his eyes, said,  “The majority of those who died today were children -- beautiful, little kids … They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”

“Our hearts are broken.”

The president wept.

We, as a nation, mourned.

But we as a nation have tolerated a country where gun-related homicide deaths are 20 times greater than any other Western nation. In the last 10 years, more than 140,000 human beings were victims of gun-related homicide, another 208,000 turned guns on themselves, and since 1968 -- the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated -- more than 1 million deaths in the United States were gun related, according to Children’s Defense Fund statistics.

So, we as a nation have mourned a million times over, wiped away torrents of tears -- and have acted as if nothing can be done to stop the mayhem.

I am here to say something can be done – if we want it to be done.

Let me first wind the clock back to 1995, I helped oversee a project called the Minnesota Action Plan to End Gun Violence. We held forums all around Minnesota and talked to more than 500 adults and then an equal number of students at one junior and senior high school complex.

The most important lesson I learned is that a civil discussion can be held around gun violence related issues. People can advance meaningful ways to help reduce the gun violence. I also learned afterwards that the typical way the debate is framed now, whether intentionally or by happenstance, prevents viable solutions from occurring.

Here is an example of what I mean, which I have spoken of many times since. After the publication of the Minnesota Action Plan to End Gun Violence, I was invited to the local public television affiliate with about 100 other people who were working every day to end violence of all kinds. We were asked to sit stadium style before a panel addressing gun violence. It was the type of balanced panel we are all used to seeing. It included an anti-gun person, someone from the NRA, a politician from the far left, one from the far right and a mom whose son had been killed. Remember this is public broadcasting so the producers wanted it to be fair and balanced  -- for real. But it took about five minutes for the sides to dig into their positions. If you were watching from home on your TV, you would shake your head and say, this is impossible. You can never reach a middle ground, never do anything to end gun violence. The sides were too far apart.

However, if they had only turned the camera around 180 degrees, there were 100 people who spent every day of their lives trying to end violence. One told me he called himself a straw bearer. He knew he alone could not stop gun violence, but he could do his share, which would be the equivalent of throwing a straw on the camel’s back. If enough others did the same, if everyone threw a straw to end gun violence, then eventually the back of the camel of gun violence would be broken.

The take away: One of us alone, isolated from others probably can’t affect change.  However, if we see ourselves as individual straw bearers for change and know others are doing the same, we can collectively accomplish a lot. We did so with drunk driving, we did so with seatbelts and auto safety, and we did so with cigarette smoking. We can do it with gun violence.

There will be push back from the manufacturers who make the baby killer weapons and their overtly and covertly paid minions. Change will not happen overnight, it will happen one straw carried by one straw bearer at a time. But eventually that camel’s back of violence will break and we collectively can take control of the gun violence that plagues every nook and cranny of American life.

Should 24-Year-Old Offenders be Considered Juveniles?

LAS VEGAS -- When the National Partnership for Juvenile Services annual symposium opened, Jason Bowser, a youth service director from Columbus, Ind., told an executive committee that one of the standing committees was focusing on the question of “What is a juvenile?”

It might seem an odd question for a gathering of folks who specialize in working with youth in the juvenile justice system, but really the question, even when not spoken, would be present in training sessions across the three-day symposium held here this week. Nor is it just a hypothetical question because nearly 250,000 young people under the age of 18 end up in the adult criminal justice system every year, according to the National Institute of Corrections report, “You’re an Adult Now: Youth in Adult Criminal Justice Systems.”

Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice -- in a session reflecting the “Adult Now” theme -- reminded everyone that New York and North Carolina still consider juveniles to be adults at the ages of 16 or 17 in criminal proceedings, whereas in the rest of the states it’s 18. Ryan said a new report shows that each year 100,000 young people get sent to an adult facility and on any given day approximately 10,000 of them are in an adult facility.

Michael Dempsey

Once there, the correction system managers do have rules that treat the juvenile differently from the mainstream adult population. At times that means putting the kids into isolation. Elissa Rumsey, compliance monitor coordinator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), said, “Isolation means that there is no outside time, you are seriously locked down for 24/7. Some get out three hours in a week and are in a cage on the grounds by themselves. Truly no human contact, food through the door, no contact with staff, no services, no other people. That’s isolation.”

Ryan said they might be isolated because of a teenage behavior issue, be a true danger or for their own protection from the adult prisoners.

No matter the reason Rumsey says, “When they are put in isolation that increases the behavioral issues because it tends to drive one crazy when you are locked down for 24/7 without any sunlight. So they would act out with even worse behaviors.”

Michael Dempsey, who works with the Indiana Department of Correction and who has been advocating for juvenile treatment for a 14-year-old who was found guilty of murder as a 12-year-old and given an adult sentence, says, “There are many of us who believe anyone up to the age of

Cindy Thacker

23 or 24 could still be considered a juvenile, it depends on where they are at developmentally. But in the eyes of most laws anyone over the age of 18 is considered an adult.”

New research demonstrates that the brain is not fully developed until about the age of 25, according to experts. Margaret Davis, who co-taught a training seminar on the latest developments in brain research, says, “When you ask a lot of people what is a juvenile, they think it has shifted today to be a later age and it really can be anybody up to the age of 25.”

Furthermore, her co-presenter Cindy Thacker said staff working with young people need tounderstand the ways kids’ brains work, and that extends to staff who work with kids in adult facilities.

Davis said, “They cannot and should not be treating those kids the same way they are treating the adult offenders. They need more programming, they need more structure. These 16-year-olds cannot make the decisions for themselves the way a 30-year-old offender makes those decisions.”

Margaret Davis

Dempsey, from the Indiana Department of Corrections, said unfortunately that is not the case for kids when they end up in the adult system. They have to deal with staff who are trained to work with adults and not trained to be adolescence development specialists, he said.

As we deal with the question: What is a juvenile and how to best treat youth in the juvenile justice system, Dempsey says we must identify the best approaches and piece-by-piece build a best practice model that can be duplicated nationally.

“I think we will get there. It is a slow process,” he said.

Photos by Leonard Witt |

Police Put Young Informants in Grave Danger: Q&A with Author Sarah Stillman

Sarah StillmanBelow is a real time, Google Chat interview that Leonard Witt conducted with Sarah Stillman, who recently wrote an article for the New Yorker entitled: The Throwaways; the subhead sums up the story well: “Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.” So let’s get started.

Leonard Witt: Hi Sarah, first thanks for agreeing to do this interview, you have written a great, heart breaking story, centered around these two sentences from your story: “Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen.” So my first question is why does it happen?

Sarah Stillman: Well, on the one hand, this system has been around for quite some time -- for more than a century, the police have recognized that using "insiders" to gather information on hard-to-penetrate criminal networks can be tremendously useful to them.  The major shift we've seen is that, all too often, the young people used as informants in the war on drugs aren't actually big-time insiders, so much as small-time users or dealers deployed to go after other small-time users or dealers.  There are so few regulations governing the use of informants in some areas, and so many incentives pushing in the opposite direction.  To name just one: informants are cheap to employ, both financially and procedurally (in that they usually don't require a warrant or other forms of judicial approval to use).

Witt: You say these young offenders who are used as confidential informants aren't big time offenders. Can you give an example of what might cause a kid to be enlisted into this role and is enlisted the right word?

Stillman: The range of offenses that can mark the beginning of a young person's use as an informant is tremendously broad.  In my story, I wrote about a teenager in Kentucky, LeBron Gaither, who punched his teacher at school, then wound up facing a juvenile assault charge; he was offered a way out of prison if he would become a local drug informant.  In another case I highlight, a young man in Washington St. named Jeremy McLean was caught selling eight methadone pills.  In both cases, the young men's work as informants led to their violent deaths.

And, yes, I think "enlisted" works.

Witt: A punch in one case and eight pills in another turn into death sentences. Sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. What do you think?

Stillman: I think it's quite shocking when young minor offenders are put into situations that are significantly more dangerous than the ones they were trying to escape.  Another surprise for me was that often, once the informants have done the work, they receive death threats, go to authorities for help and protection, and receive none -- that was certainly the case of Jeremy McLean, whose life was threatened non-stop in the months before he was killed.  It was heartbreaking to hear from his family about how he had been living in virtual house arrest.

Witt: The police don't come off very well in your story. How are they being held accountable -- or are they being held accountable? If not, why not?

Stillman: For starters, I've been surprised by how some police, themselves, are critical of the lack of regulations, because it can put them in a bind: if they don't have clear procedures in place that govern when and how they can use informants, and that help them make very difficult on-the-spot decisions, then they are more likely to get into situations that lead to tragic outcomes, and possibly to scandals.  This is particularly true in cases where police departments or task forces are under a lot of pressure to rack up their drug-bust numbers in order to maintain federal funding. In many of the cases I highlighted, families who'd lost their children to poorly-regulated C.I. use wound up suing the city and the police force.  That's the most common avenue for people seeking accountability, I suspect.

Witt: Tell us more about the financial incentives for the police to force kids into this kind of extremely dangerous work?

Stillman: Before I started speaking to policy experts on this issue, I had no idea how much certain financial incentives drive drug-war practices, including the widespread use of informants to orchestrate big drug busts.  In many cases, regional narcotics task forces like the one that conscripted Jeremy McLean are funded by the federal government, in quantities that are tied directly to the number of drug busts they are able to generate, the size of the busts themselves (i.e. quantity of drugs and other illegal goods confiscated), and other such factors.  If the police don't manage to pull off enough busts, a key funding source dries up. This dynamic led Jeremy's father to believe (rightly, I think) that one reason his son was used again and again and again to initiate drug busts in a relatively small area where his identity was likely to become compromised was, ultimately, structural.

I should also mention that asset forfeiture laws allow police to keep a portion -- up to 80%, in many cases -- of what they confiscate during busts, which may lead to their acquisition of cash, cars, boats, and more.

Witt: Lives for cash doesn't seem very moral?

Stillman: Right. I should say, of course, that most police would emphasize that they try to enhance drug bust numbers because they are trying to get drugs off the streets, not because they are strictly after cash!  And I don't think there's a single explain-it-all force driving these practices; I think it's complicated, and a variety of factors are at play.  The real question remains: is it helpful or counterproductive to go after drugs and crime with an under-regulated method that seems to regularly produce very, very sad outcomes?  In the cases I write about in "The Throwaways," the final results would indicate that, rather then stemming crime and violence, more violence was created.

Witt: I have to go back to something you said earlier: “...families who'd lost their children to poorly-regulated C.I. use wound up suing the city and the police force.  That's the most common avenue for people seeking accountability, I suspect.”  So in other words, a kid has to be killed to get change? Isn’t there a better avenue?

Stillman: Part of the message of the story, I think, was to ask, "Why don't we think about these things prior to tragedy? Why is it that the only time we seem to inquire about these practices is after a young person has been killed?" In the cases where calls for accountability have emerged -- like in Florida, where a law was passed to govern informant use -- the driving force has almost always been a high-profile death (in that case, the murder of Rachel Hoffman).  It also makes you wonder how often informant deaths take place that we're not even hearing about, since many victims' families don't have much access to legal resources and may not be likely to sue or lobby for legislative reform.

Witt: Playing off that answer, the use of confidential informants has happened mostly under the radar of everyday citizens and maybe lawmakers too. In fact, you have one lawyer Daniel Taylor III, saying, “ “I’ve been wondering when the hell the rest of the world was going to wake up to this.” How pervasive is this practice? Just a few isolated cases or is it nationwide -- and if it is the latter, using Taylor's words, "when the hell [is] the rest of the world was going to wake up to this?"

Stillman: I think we can be confident that it's very pervasive. As I mentioned earlier, informants are used in an extraordinarily wide array of cases -- sometimes in helpful ways (like going after insider trading on Wall Street, going after white supremacist groups or racketeers or whatnot), and often in the counterproductive ways I profile in the story.  There are so many cases I learned about that didn't make it into the story, and again, those are only scratching the surface of informants' deaths and misuse -- I closely examined dozens of cases, and we can be certain there are many more. For instance, there are angles we often don't think about; I spoke to the mother of a young man named Colton Peterson, who committed suicide after he was facing tremendous pressure to go to work as an informant after a minor pot bust.  So, if cases like his are included in our sense of the overall picture -- and I very much think they should be -- the issue is huge.  It seems to be grieving parents who are at the vanguard of calling for some policy reforms -- Colton's parents, Hoffman's parents, as well as lawyers like Daniel Taylor.

Witt: Last question: Your story shines a spotlight on a very dark corner of our justice system. In your mind, what might be the best outcome from this story?

Stillman: I felt so grateful for the chance to report the story and to listen to the voices of the parents and family members who've been speaking out on this issue, from Detroit to Montana to Kentucky.  I truly hope their voices will be factored into the policy debate on these issues.  Frankly, though, there doesn't seem to be much debate on the use of young informants to begin with, and I imagine that's the first thing that has to change.  Part of what excites me about the role of journalists is that we get to shed light on issues we believe are important, and then, from there, hope that others will take on the urgent tasks of continuing the debate and finding meaningful solutions.

Witt: Thank you Sarah for a great piece of literary journalism and thanks to the editors of the New Yorker for helping make it possible. And thanks for your time and insightful answers here. It is deeply appreciated.

Stillman: And thanks to you, Leonard, for taking the time.  I really appreciate the chance to have this conversation.

A Q&A With Child Advocate Judge Gail Garinger About Bullying

bullying kidsLeonard Witt, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism and publisher of Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange recently spoke with Judge Gail Garinger while at a symposium hosted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Garinger is now Child Advocate for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

LEONARD WITT: You talked about the idea of bullying – and it’s on everybody’s mind right now – and you’re a little bit worried the legislators are going to over-react. Can you talk about that a little bit?

JUDGE GAIL GARINGER: As you mentioned, I’m from Massachusetts, and what we saw in Massachusetts was a very tragic situation involving a suicide of a young woman who had been continually bullied in the school. And as a result of that tragic event, legislation was quickly passed in Massachusetts. It was something that I felt very strongly needed to be slowed down, we really needed to think through A) whether an additional law was needed to deal with the behavior that had taken place, and B) just to make sure if a law was going to be put into effect that we be thoughtful and craft it in a way that was really going to result in the best outcomes for kids.

LW: So what happened?

Gail Garringer
Judge Gail Garringer.

GG: So what happened was there was a real rush to pass the legislation, and as a result of that legislation my office receives help-line calls predominantly from parents whose children have been charged with bullying in the public schools – children as young as seven that have been charged with “bullying-like” behavior.

LW: What does that mean?

GG: Well that’s what we’re trying to help sort out. One call we received was about a seven-year-old girl who was on an IEP, which is an individualized education plan. She’s on the very high-end of the autism spectrum – a very smart girl, but has trouble with her boundaries, especially with other kids. She kind of gets in their face. When she does that some kids kind of step back and feel really awkward. So she was put on a slippery slope and accused of bullying-like behavior.

LW: And how old again?

GG: Seven.

LW: Wow.

GG: And then her IEP issue was to deal with this awkwardness around boundaries. So she was in fact being punished with the bullying legislation for the very behavior she was supposed to be getting assistance with in the school.

LW: Interesting. Judge Steven Teske wrote a column about sometimes kids who are bullied -- and so the reaction is to hit back at some point, and then they’re in more trouble than the kid who was doing the bullying. Do you run into that case too?

GG: Absolutely. Yes, we’ve certainly seen that.

I think any of us who are parents know very often that the kid that retaliates against the sibling is the one we land on, never having seen what proceeded that. I think the same kind of thing is happening in the schools with kids who are being bullied coming to school, perhaps, with even weapons because they’re so fearful of what might be going on.

We’re mainly concerned with the fact that we feel it was a law that was passed very, very quickly. It’s being applied to situations which should be dealt with in the schools in a very different way. We’re creating juvenile court records for kids as young as seven or eight, and these are part of their juvenile court record even if they’re case is dismissed. They’ll forever have on their juvenile record that they were charged with bullying.

LW: So… what? Bullying is not necessarily a good thing, so what do you do about that then? You’re not sanctioning it right?

GG: No, of course not. I take serious bullying very, very seriously. But I think what we’re talking about is having schools create reasonable alternative programs for working with children, working with parents, and responding appropriately – not blowing out of proportions a situation and really individualizing a response.

I think school officials have gotten really frightened because of what’s been occurring and it’s much easier to take a zero-tolerance approach and just label everything quickly as bullying and pass it on to someone else to deal with, rather than try to work out a creative solution within the school that’s best for everyone involved.

LW: So you don’t think it should have been put into the legal arena? You think it’s something that can still be worked out in school?

GG: I think that in most cases – in most cases – the school is the best place to deal with it. That’s where the behavior occurred. That’s the people who should have the best understanding of what the school climate is like, what’s going on within the school.

It results in kids hopefully not being suspended unnecessarily, not being brought into the juvenile justice system, and addressing the behaviors, again, in a way that’s appropriate to the actual circumstance.

We have laws on the book that deal with really egregious bullying. We have assault and battery. We have harassment laws in most states. We have disturbing the conduct of a school. There are other ways to deal with the problem.

And again, I think that the typical response is to quickly pass a new law when we have a tragedy occur as opposed to really sitting down and thoughtfully talking about what’s the best way to address the situation.

LW: Yeah, they used a term today called ‘moral panic.’ What does that mean exactly?

GG: Well, moral panic, to me, I think some people would say a bit of hysteria often results from a tragic outcome. I think moral panic is more appropriate.

We want to do something. A legislator’s typical response is to pass a new law. That’s what they think of as being their way to respond appropriately to a situation. And as we’ve talked about a lot today, I think the media plays a large role in fuels, in stoking the fires of the public, to respond, and for politicians to respond to public pressure.

LW: So you’re basically saying, “Everyone take a deep breath, and take a minute to consider.” Isn’t that right?

GG: What I’m saying is that maybe a new law is needed in your state to deal with a situation, but don’t rush to do it. Sit down. Really talk about what happened.

There’s an old saying: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is defined as a nail.” If you only think about the only tool you have is to pass a new law, it’s really going to preclude, I think, of you sitting down and talking about all the options that are appropriate for the situation.

Top photo via trix0r