image_pdfimage_print

Los Angeles Supervisors to Vote on Comprehensive, Countywide Youth Diversion Program

WitnessLA

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County Supervisors are scheduled to vote today on a motion determining whether or not they will give the go-ahead to a comprehensive plan for a countywide youth diversion program designed to redirect the trajectories of thousands of LA youth who would otherwise be headed for the juvenile justice system.

A committee established this year wrote a detailed, highly researched report on youth diversion strategy, with the goal of “minimizing youth contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system.”

The report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” outlines a three-phase strategy that, according to one of its authors, could have the first stage of the proposed new diversion program up and running within 18 months — or even less.

If fully implemented, the roadmap has the potential to make Los Angeles County, which has the largest juvenile justice system in the U.S., one of the nation’s “most forward thinking counties” in improving the wellbeing of kids who might otherwise struggle with “the lifelong consequences of justice system involvement,” the report said.

Although there is a great deal of variation in diversion programming nationwide, a wide array of research has established that involvement with the justice system produces long-lasting collateral damage for young people.

Justice contacts such as arrest, probation supervision and stays in juvenile lockups are not only stigmatizing but interrupt the young person’s positive development and, lead to an increased risk for dropping out of high school, along with additional childhood trauma. Even one justice system contact reportedly greatly hikes the risk of further justice system contact.

This kite string of consequences too often follows kids into adulthood, affecting one’s ability to earn, leading to increased family disruption and a markedly increased risk of adult incarceration.

About 11,000 youth arrests were reported throughout Los Angeles County in 2015, the report said, “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies,” which would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation, under the California Welfare and Institutions Code.

Los Angeles County has made progress in reducing the number of arrests and citations for kids in the last 12 years. According to Department of Justice statistics, the total number of youth arrests and citations plummeted from 56,286 arrests and citations in 2005 to 13,665 in 2015.

This is in part due to a general long-term drop in youth crime, which was helped when, through the passage of Senate Bill 81, the “Juvenile Justice Realignment Bill” signed into law in 2007 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state drastically reduced and reformed its scandal-plagued California Youth Authority (basically a prison system for youth), and directed that all but a very small percentage of law-breaking juveniles be kept in California’s counties instead of far away from home in the mostly cleaned-up state facilities.

But, as the report points out, the statistical change was also a product of a concerted effort by child advocates and others to reduce “youth involvement in the justice system” altogether, “through collaborative, data-driven efforts” to persuade county officials to treat low-level misbehaviors as a flag that a youth needs help, not a reason to call police.

LA County Probation is now working to close as many of its juvenile camps as is possible, and to turn those remaining camps and juvenile halls into therapeutic, research-guided, “trauma-informed” environments that help and heal, not punish. Campus Kilpatrick, which opened this past summer, is the flagship and pilot for the department’s new ethic.

Juvenile facilities are expensive and have notoriously poor statistical outcomes. For instance, the cost per youth per year in an LA County juvenile probation camp is estimated at more than $247,000, with a recidivism rate (as defined by rearrest within one year) of approximately 33 percent.

In contrast, there are successful community-based organizations such as Centinela Youth Services, which has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a restorative justice diversion program that keeps youth who qualify out of the juvenile system if they break the law. This Juvenile Arrest Diversion Program, or JADP, costs an average of $4,000 or less per youth, with a recidivism rate of 8 to 11 percent.

Another urgent reason for the new program to be voted on today, according to juvenile advocates, is the matter of racial disparities.

Even as juvenile arrests declined throughout LA County, racial disparities have grown. Youth of color continue to be disproportionately impacted at all stages of the juvenile justice system, when controlling for offense, and represent 95 percent of youth in the county’s probation camps and juvenile halls.

Early in the process, the  ad-hoc Youth Diversion Subcommittee, supported by consultants from the nonprofit research center Impact Justice, set out five basic goals for the new plan:

  1. Increasing and improving collaboration between law enforcement, community-based organizations and other youth-serving agencies;
  2. Reducing the overall number of youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
  3. Reducing racial and ethnic disparities in youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
  4. Increasing the number of youth who are connected to services that address their underlying needs without acquiring an arrest or criminal record;
  5. Improving health, academic, economic and other outcomes for youth.

This story was written for WitnessLA.

The Little Boy Who Lost His Dream

Back in the early 1970s I watched my favorite TV show “Emergency!” As a child I dreamed of becoming a fireman just like the firemen on “Emergency!” Every time the bell would ring and the big red shining engine 51 would leave the station on a run, I would imitate it with my firetruck. I pictured myself going to rescue a stranded person or putting out a fire.

As I grew older, the innocence I had as a child was lost. That was when my neighborhood became heavily infested with drug dealers and violent gang members. Living in the neighborhood became an everyday struggle just to survive. The drug dealers began to fight one another over who was going to control the drugs. Then rival gang members started to do drive-by shootings and innocent people got shot or murdered.

Living in the inner city, I felt like I was in the middle of two nations at war with one another. Sadly, I watched the helicopters flying over the crime scene while the ambulances and the police arrived late as always. Then I heard a mother who had just lost a child to gang violence scream a scream that no other mother should have to scream.

The gang violence and drug dealing got so bad that I would see dead bodies lying in the middle of the street, in vacant apartments and in the alleys as well as seeing women being physically, sexually and emotionally abused by the one they loved. I started to wonder if I was really safe in my own neighborhood and do the police even care.

Dealing with the traumatic death of my grandpa, I felt like nobody gave a damn about me and what I was going through, so why should I care about them? So I became numb, heartless, desensitized to violence. I dehumanized other people, which made it easy for me to hurt them and not feel nothing about it. I exchanged pain for pain.

Today, as a 45-year-old young man, I no longer believe and feel that way. Because I’m incarcerated for taking another human being’s life and being in restorative justice, I realize the pain, grief, and suffering that a mother, father, sister, brother goes through after losing someone they love through violence.

Even though my grandpa is resting in peace, I made a vow to my grandpa not to ever harm another human being again and I mean it from the heart.

Despite me not being able to become a fireman, I’m still able to rescue others and put out fire. This time I do it by sharing my story.

Michael Webb is serving 25 years to life in San Quentin for first-degree murder, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. He was 17 when he committed the crime and started serving his time at 19.

This column appeared in The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth. David Inocencio founded The Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

House Lawmakers Introduce JJDPA Reauthorization

1200px-united_states_capitol_-_west_front-1170x606

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced long-awaited legislation today that would strengthen the key federal law protecting youth in the juvenile justice system.

The Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act (HR 5963) aims to help local and state officials better address the needs of youth by preventing their involvement with the juvenile system, protecting them in custody and helping them transition back into the community.

The provisions are part of an overall proposed reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency and Prevention Act. The law sets the core requirements for the treatment of juveniles that states must follow to receive federal funding.

“At the federal level, we must continue to incentivize a focus on evidence-based prevention and intervention initiatives which reduce delinquency and save money. Making sure we get juveniles in the system or at risk of delinquency off the wrong track and back in school on the way to college or a career is one of the most common sense, cost-effective actions we can take to improve our communities,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, ranking member of the House Education and Workforce Committee and a lead sponsor of the bill, in a news release.

Advocates welcomed the bill and what it could mean for juvenile justice reform on Capitol Hill. While Senate lawmakers introduced bipartisan JJDPA reauthorization legislation last year, the House had yet to do the same.

“It’s a solid, strong bill. Primarily we’re happy that the House has turned its attention to the JJDPA and that they’ve done so in a bipartisan way,” said Marie Williams, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

And the bill could boost a bipartisan Senate JJDPA reauthorization bill (S 1169) that stalled earlier this year.

Scott introduced the bill with lead co-sponsor Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida. Other original sponsors of the bill are Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minnesota, and Reps. Susan Davis, D-California, Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, R-Georgia, and Frederica Wilson, D-Florida.

“Many children are born into circumstances out of their control and believe the only path forward is one of crime or delinquency,” Curbelo said in a news release. “The purpose of this legislation is to help those children understand there is a better path forward and success is within their reach.”

The committee plans to consider the legislation on Wednesday.

The JJDPA has not been updated in nearly 15 years, a time of significant changes in the juvenile justice field that’s yielded new best practices that reformers say need to be incorporated into the law.

The bill includes provisions that would:

  • eliminate a loophole that allows youth to be detained for status offenses, behaviors such as running away or truancy that are only considered an offense because of a youth’s age;
  • strengthen requirements that juveniles be kept separate from adults in facilities; and
  • provide greater flexibility in prevention grant programs.

“I think this is a strong signal to the Senate that the House is also prioritizing it,” said Marcy Mistrett, chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Even if a JJDPA reauthorization is not finished by the end of the year, the attention is important, the bill’s supporters said.

“The momentum around it in this Congress would certainly not hurt,” Williams said.

One significant difference between the House and Senate bills is the structure of the phase-out of what’s called the “valid court order” exemption for status offenders. While JJDPA prohibits the detention of status offenders, they may be detained if a judge issues a valid court order.

Under the Senate bill, a three-year phase-out would be followed by one year when states could ask for a hardship exemption. The House bill would allow states to ask for the exemption beyond the one-year mark.

“We would have hoped the House version would recognize — especially given the emphasis on evidence in the bill — that confining status offenders is not evidence-based,” Williams said.

The Senate bill had stalled because Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, objected to ending the loophole, meaning the bill could not pass under a fast-track procedure.

False Confessions Make It Harder to Establish Innocence for Alleged Juvenile Offenders

Krisberg_Barry (1)The national media has widely reported the story of Brendan Dassey, whose murder and sexual assault convictions were reversed by a federal court in Milwaukee on Aug. 12; he had served nearly nine years in prison. He was ordered released unless prosecutors wanted to file a new charge.

Dassey, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, was a central figure in a very popular Netflix documentary — “Making a Murderer.” The court found that the youth was mentally unfit and was coerced into confessing his involvement in the crime by false promises by investigators. The court held that his confession was involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. His lawyer had not challenged the propriety of the confession.

This was not an isolated incident. Davontae Sanford, a developmentally challenged 14-year-old, was also released after more than nine years in a Michigan prison for allegedly murdering four people in a drug house. His confession to police was made after two days of intense questioning without the presence of his guardians or an attorney. A professional hit man subsequently admitted to the murders. It appeared that Sanford’s interrogators ignored or did not reveal gross inconsistencies in the original confession.

Most Innocence Projects have focused on exonerations of adult defendants. There have been hundreds of these cases over the past decade. Many of these cases involved utilizing forensic evidence, especially DNA. Most of the exonerations are also due to inadequate legal representation, false eyewitness identifications or coerced confessions.

There are several Innocence Projects that look for cases in which the defendant was under age 18 at the time of the arrest. It is estimated that 38% of juveniles are falsely convicted due to false confessions, compared to 11% of adults convicted due to false confessions. Some research suggests that minors are more likely to tell interrogators what they want to hear or to brag about their gang exploits. The other concern is that youth are not equipped to adequately participate in their own defense and may be victims of inadequate counsel. There is some very limited research suggesting that eyewitness identifications may be harder with younger people.

These innocence cases often involve plea bargains or jury trials that occur in criminal courts, but they are the tip of the iceberg of excessive punishment for juveniles. Different from the issue of actual innocence are situations in which minors are prosecuted as adults either via statutory mandates, direct filing by prosecutors or transfer hearings in juvenile courts.

There are many youth advocates pursuing the issue of handling youth as if they were adults, such as student clinics at the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount Law School. These advocates are relying on recent Supreme Court decisions in Miller v. Alabama as well as some state laws that provide for sufficient due process for minors who receive life with possibility of parole or very long sentences known as "virtual life." The Supreme Court very recently extended the scope of the Miller decision in Montgomery v. Alabama to all prisoners serving these harsh sentences who were arrested before age 18. Typically, remedies in Miller or Montgomery appeals seek petitions for resentencing or for reconsideration of parole decisions.

There are many organizations that are trying to reduce the number of youngsters who are tried in criminal as opposed to juvenile courts by challenging state laws and prosecutor discretion in this area. It is often alleged that minors do not receive adequate representation in the early stages of the judicial process that might limit these transfers. For example, juveniles may unknowingly waive their Miranda rights or be pressured by their guardians to tell the law enforcement people "the truth."

There have been many cases in which minors tell court social workers or probation staff about prior involvement with drugs or gangs that can trigger sentencing enhancements that lead to transfers to adult court and/or long mandatory sentences. Given the vulnerability of youngsters and their limited ability to actively participate in their defense, treating teens as if they were just small adults is very bad public policy. The underlying philosophy of juvenile court, with its focus on treatment and education, is far more humane than the punitive criminal sentencing system.

A very different approach to reducing the mistreatment of young people by prosecutors and the court system is that taken by the National Juvenile Defender Center, the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia and the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. These groups focus on establishing standards for the representation of juveniles in criminal or juvenile courts. The emphasis is on the fair application of federal and state constitutional protections covering search and seizure, the Miranda decision and the right to counsel, which is very uneven and underfunded in many juvenile courts. There also are a set of groups such as disability rights advocates and public counsel that look at the particular developmental and mental health challenges faced by young people and push for increased legal attention to mental competency issues for minors.

Even before formal legal proceedings there are difficult issues involving the preadjudication detention of juveniles, both in adult jails and in specialized youth centers. Since young people do not uniformly have a right to bail, the detention decision is critical for them.

Many youngsters are held for substantial amounts of time "for their own protection" or for very minor violations of the rules of their probation. Most of these young people will be ultimately released with charges dropped or a nonsecure residential placement. There was a tragic case in New York City in which adolescents were held on Rikers Island for years without any charges being filed.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been the leader in reducing inappropriate and excessive detention of young people. The reforms here usually involve increasing the legal representation of youth at the detention hearing and the routine consideration of nonincarceration alternatives. The conditions of juvenile detention are often very harsh, educational and social services are often nonexistent, and solitary confinement practices are common.

Concerns of fair consideration of juvenile innocence and due process occur in a variety of nonjudicial and administrative forums that may involve very significant adverse consequences for youth, such as school-based discipline and expulsions. Even some very well-intended nonjudicial programs such as diversion programs, peer juries or restorative justice programs have ill-defined protections for youth rights and parental interests.

These cases also bring in the concerns of child welfare or protection agencies that might result in removal of the child from the home to shelters or foster care placements. Another important issue involves the use of powerful psychotropic drugs in the foster care system and the protection of youth who may not want or need these medications. While some locales have sought to better regulate these potential abuses, much more needs to be done.

Other crucial areas for needed reforms involve the rules governing the sealing or expunging of juvenile records and the mélange of state laws on the confidentiality of juvenile court hearings. Large issues involve whether juvenile adjudications can count as prior offenses in the criminal courts, especially under Three Strikes laws, or the use of juvenile adjudications to bar employment, college admissions or access to college loans. Still another important topic is the handling of minors who are undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings and policies of mandatory detention holds for these youth if they are arrested.

While there has been impressive progress made in the reduction of youth incarceration and more attention given to alternatives to confinement, these positive changes could be reversed if fears about juvenile crime are fueled by ambitious politicians and the media. The legal protections for youth have made some fitful steps forward, but the actualization of youth rights requires adequate access to high-quality legal assistance.

It is time for juvenile justice advocates and enlightened professionals to protect the basic legal rights of minors in a variety of settings. These problems are especially pronounced for young people of color and the poor. Issues of basic fairness and ingrained prejudice must be eliminated wherever they appear.

Barry Krisberg is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California, Berkeley.

Juvenile Justice Reformers Driven by Memories of Mistakes in Their Less-informed Past

Roy L. Juncker Jr., director of the Department of Juvenile Services in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, had an "ah-ha moment" about how well the juvenile justice system works more than 10 years ago.
Roy L. Juncker Jr., director of the Department of Juvenile Services in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, had an "ah-ha moment" about how well the juvenile justice system works more than 10 years ago.

BOSTON — The revelation struck Roy L. Juncker Jr. more than a decade ago, but the memory remains as stark as it is vivid.

Juncker was standing outside the detention facility in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, about seven months into his tenure as director of juvenile services there. He was having a chat with Nat Williams, the facility’s supervisor.

Williams interrupted the talk to say hello to a middle-aged black woman and her daughter heading toward the entrance. Williams knew the women by name, Juncker said. Williams told his boss that one woman was the grandmother, the other the mother, and they were going to visit their daughter and granddaughter, both of whom were in detention.

“I looked at him and I said: So you’re telling me that we have had three generations of this family cycle through our detention center, and he said yes,” Juncker recalled. “I said we are doing something wrong here. Why is that that we have three generations of a family coming through our detention center and we have not broken that cycle?”

Juncker resolved then, outside the detention center, to spearhead an effort to reform how he did business for the youth coming into his system.

“That was kind of my ah-ha moment,” he said. “I thought, my God, we have to do something different. I mean this is insanity; we are doing the same thing over and over again looking for a change in the families, so at that point I realized we had to do something different.”

Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubJuncker was not alone in being haunted by his professional past, and dogged by old decisions. Many of the professionals who gathered for the symposium on probation system reform organized by the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice in Boston in April talked about the lingering guilt they still wrestle with today.

Many of the men and women on the frontlines of the juvenile justice systems, especially those in leadership positions, have made great strides in reforming their jurisdictions, pointing to lower recidivism, staggering drops in the number of youth in secure facilities and lower caseloads.

But despite such successes, there was a theme that was palpable over the week of the symposium, both privately in hotel hallways and publicly from the podium: a desire to make up for past mistakes. The more they implemented sound reforms that led to better outcomes for the children in their care, the more they thought about the old way of doing things and the damage they may have caused.

“I’d like to tell everybody here that I was some kind of great visionary that saw the future of juvenile justice, that I designed my own program and moved forward, but that would be too far from the truth to sell that to you,” said Bob Bermingham, the director of court services in Fairfax County (Virginia) Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. “I did all the wrong things for the right reasons for about 15 or 16 years of my career. I think about the possible harm that I did to kids and families over the course of my career. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t use that to motivate me.”

new york logo 01Fairfax is a safe, affluent community with a low crime rate, he said. But after he took over as director of the county agency he found the detention centers were filled to maximum capacity, his probation officers’ caseloads were stunningly high, and the system was rife with disproportionate minority representation.

“It didn’t make sense,” he said. “It motivated me to go out and look at what was going on around the country.”

Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta.
Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta.

Adolphus Graves, the chief probation officer of Fulton CountyJuvenile Court in Atlanta, was also driven to transform his juvenile justice system by the mistakes he made as a young probation officer.

“I was a little wayward and misguided as a probation officer,” he said. “Knowing my times as a probation officer, and how many things I did horribly, or how many children that I irresponsibly, or sometimes just ignorantly, subjected to detention because I had no other tools,” he added.  “The recurring theme consistently has been the lack of knowledge, of understanding what’s going on, the depth of what’s going on in a child’s life.”

When Keith Snyder started his career as a probation officer he remembers how many of the youth in his caseload were afflicted with mental health problems. Now, as executive director of Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, he has worked to change that.

“The quality and quantity of mental health services just wasn’t good and that was still stuck in my craw,” he said.

A decade ago, when the opportunity to work on reforming the system in Pennsylvania presented itself, he said, he volunteered to step up and spearhead the reform.

Gina Vincent is associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Gina Vincent is associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Gina Vincent said she remembers researching as a graduate student outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system and making troubling discoveries about recidivism rates and the number of youth in detention facilities. She is an associate professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts, and the president of National Youth Screening and Assessment Partners,

“And that was in tree-hugging Canada,” she said. “We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

There is an 18-inch by 24-inch framed autographed drawing of Spider-Man that reminds John Tuell about what he describes as the moral underpinning of the work he and other probation professionals do. It was drawn by Eduardo, a youth he worked with when he was an administrator at a residential treatment facility for chronic delinquent offenders in Fairfax, Virginia.

John Tuell is the executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.

Tuell, the executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, lived in the area where he worked, so he would occasionally run into young people at a ballgame or at their jobs. He saw Eduardo at a favorite restaurant. He was a youth with a childhood marred by poverty and abuse. Now he was working at a restaurant and going to college to become a cartoonist.

“His brief note accompanying that autograph remains a priceless reminder for me of why we must give our all to these youth; more, why we must succeed, he said.

Not all the stories ended so well. Tuell worked with Christy, a bright young woman with a broken childhood, when she was 14 to 18. She looked to him as a father figure, he said. So it was a blow when Christy’s sister told him Christy had killed herself shortly after her 26th birthday.

“Her loss and my realizations of the many gaps and failures in my approach coupled with the way our systems responded to Christy, drive me every day to prevent another of these stories,” he said.

Juncker has more than a past as a probation officer driving him. Before he joined probation, he was a police officer. He worked as a juvenile detective for more than four years.

“As a police officer we looked for probable cause, we made arrests, we put kids into the system because that’s what we were trained to do,” he said. “Once I made the arrest and the child went to court and was adjudicated I didn’t care what happened to that child.”

Now as a leader transforming his agency Juncker said he feels he can atone for that jaded approach to children.

“I felt like all the damage I had done before arresting these kids and putting them in the system, that now I had an opportunity to correct that and make positive changes.”

This story has been updated.

Bronx Youth Detail Problems, Solutions to Juvenile Arrests in Neighborhood Report

DeVante Lewis (right) in front of portraits of local youth wearing shirts that highlight the report's main findings at the Bronx Art Space.
Survey researcher DeVante Lewis (right) views portraits of local youth wearing shirts that highlight the report's main findings at the Bronx Art Space.

NEW YORK — The bold black lettering stood out emphatically on freshly pressed white T-shirts.

One read, “Only 28 percent of youth had their parents present while being questioned by police.”

“Only 42 percent of the youth had their parents notified immediately after arrest,” read another.

The T-shirts were a concrete way to dramatize a survey about some of the most pressing juvenile justice issues in the Bronx. Unusually, young adults from the community had been trained in participatory action research, which is created for, about and by affected community members.

Wearing the shirts, they eagerly shared their personal experiences with about 100 neighborhood residents and some experts at a February event.

new york logo 01The commissioner for the Administration for Children’s Services, which provides juvenile justice services in New York City, said she was impressed not only with the survey but with the suggested solutions.

“Send me your recommendations, you should hold me accountable,” Gladys Carrion said. “I am responsible. You pay my salary.”

A New York Police Department (NYPD) spokesperson, in an emailed statement, declined to respond to the survey findings, but said it is department policy to notify parents or guardians when juveniles are taken into custody and to question juveniles in their presence.

The report the youths created, “Support Not Punish: A Participatory Action Research Report” outlines findings from a survey created and completed over 18 months during 2014 and 2015.

It showed that nearly 80 percent of youth arrested miss more than 20 days of school following an arrest, and 45 percent said the programs they were sent to were not helpful. The report contains sections on arrest, probation, juvenile court processes, detention, placement and family member support.

But the research was about more than just identifying problems.

hub-slide-final2“The best type of research doesn’t just tell us what is, but it helps us imagine what could be,” said Whitney Richards-Calathes, who trained the group and works on juvenile justice reform in Los Angeles, during the panel discussion.

“We want to know what does a world look like where 10-year-olds aren’t being arrested,” she said.

Additionally, researchers found 37 percent felt police used excessive force and 75 percent said they felt officers were being dishonest regarding what would happen after their arrest.

“In situations like this,” said researcher DeVante Lewis, 24, “solutions are simple. You just don’t question a kid without their parent.”

Wesley Jennings, associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, who has also published research on youth in Puerto Rico and the Bronx, agreed.

“Relocation of a youth, for any reason, you would hope that parent or guardian would be abreast of that in real time,” he said, adding that although it differs from traditional academic research, “Support Not Punish” is valuable because it comes solely from the community and addresses the entire juvenile justice process.

Attorney Ezekiel Edwards, with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bigger issue is the overcriminalization and overincarceration of the black and minority community in New York and the nation.

“Just think about that — a 10-year-old getting arrested,” he said. “You should call the parents. But why are you arresting a 10-year-old?”

Report co-authors Charles Hudgens (right) and DeVante Lewis (back to camera) explain its findings at the Bronx Art Space.
Report co-authors Charles Hudgins (right) and DeVante Lewis (back to camera) explain its findings at the Bronx Art Space.

What Lewis said he found especially appalling was that among those surveyed, 70 percent said their parents weren’t notified immediately following their arrest, which is a violation of New York state law.

The team was pleasantly surprised that 62 percent of the juveniles surveyed found their probation officers to be helpful, said researcher Charles Hudgins, 25.

The team spent a week learning about data collection and about three weeks creating, testing and tweaking the survey, Lewis said. Then they hit the streets, surveying 92 youth under the age of 15 by attending family court, holding focus groups and going to block parties in Bronx neighborhoods. Researchers sought out youth on playgrounds and in shopping areas like the intersection of Third Avenue and 149th Street.

The tense atmosphere in family court made data collection the most difficult, Hudgins said. “What we learned is that youth are willing to share when they are in a safe environment with people they trust,” he said.

[Related: Racial, Ethnic Disparities Stubbornly Endure in Juvenile Justice System, Expert Says]

Not long after completing the report, Lewis was coming home late and dozed off on a near-empty D train. He said he was jolted wide awake by two officers standing over him who violently dragged him off the train and told him to remove his shoes. His pockets were searched repeatedly.

“In the back of my head, I was thinking of this report that I just got done finishing and thinking if I was 12, I’d be going through the same thing,” he said.

“But at that moment when I had two police officers push me against the wall and physically search me, I wanted my mother,” he said, reminding the audience he was an adult at the time.

The survey was a project of Community Connections for Youth, a nonprofit that works to develop community-based alternatives to incarceration for young people.

Seventy percent of those surveyed would like to be involved in policy discussions, Lewis said. He suggested community gatherings such as the presentation are an important part of that process.

“It’s so important to share our stories,” he said. “There’s strength in knowing that you’re not the only one and that there are others who look like me who are also victimized and criminalized by the system.”

More related stories:

Proposed Georgia Budget Shifts Money to Community Programs

Advocates Offer Solutions for Kids at Crossroads of School, Justice System

What Do I Tell Young Men of Color About the Police?

Students Sound Off on Georgia Campus Carry Bill

JJIE intern Claire Bohrer experimented with Instagram and Facebook videos, interviewing students at Kennesaw State University on a Georgia bill that would allow some students to carry handguns on campus. The bill is likely to be voted on in the state Senate this week.

Check it out on our Facebook and Instagram pages.

If you would like to shoot a short video for us, send it to Roger Newton at rnewton@csjournalism.org.

California Gov. Jerry Brown Backs No More Automatic Adult Charges for Teens in New Initiative

California Gov. Jerry Brown in a 2013 photo.
California Gov. Jerry Brown in a 2013 photo.

Under pressure from the courts to reduce his state’s prison population, California Gov. Jerry Brown has thrown his support behind a plan that’s likely to slash the number of teens who get prosecuted as adults.

If approved by voters, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 would block district attorneys from charging a suspect under 18 as an adult. Instead, a judge would decide whether teens accused of a violent crime should stand trial as an adult.

Those measures are part of a bigger ballot initiative to reduce California’s prison population, which now tops 127,000. The state is under a court order capping that population, which includes more than 5,000 prisoners held in other states.

The proposal also would let inmates earn credit on their sentences for good behavior and education. In addition, it would let nonviolent inmates qualify for parole once they serve the full term for the most serious charge against them. It needs nearly 586,000 signatures before it can be put on the ballot, however.

[Related: Attorneys Need to Be Alert to Youth Who May Be Put in Solitary]

“The basic premise is very simple: Judges should judge, prosecutors should prosecute,” Brown told reporters this week in announcing his support. “It’s well-balanced, it’s thoughtful, and I think it’s an important step.”

It’s the latest turn in a big week in juvenile justice news. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled its 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision could be applied retroactively, giving hundreds of inmates who were teen offenders a chance at release from life-without-parole sentences via a resentencing hearing. And President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, saying he hoped the move would become a model for states.

The new California initiative would roll back a 2000 measure that required suspects 14 and older to be tried in adult court for murder, rape and several other sex offenses and allowed prosecutors to bring other adult felony charges against teens without a judge’s approval. There were 6,286 inmates whose felonies were committed before they were 18, as of Dec. 31. That's 5 percent of the state's total prison population.

If approved, it would be the latest in a series of steps back from the tough-on-crime measures passed at the state and federal levels during a surge in crime that peaked in the 1990s.

Californians already have voted to reduce most drug possession charges to misdemeanors and let people convicted of those offenses seek to get their charges reduced retroactively. Brown said Wednesday that some of the sentencing laws he supported during his first stint as governor, in the late 1970s, had “unintended consequences” that removed incentives for convicts to go straight.

Brown’s endorsement won cheers from the National Center for Youth Law, which worked with juvenile justice lawyers to help draft the initiative and pushed for the governor’s support. Approval will mean young offenders would again face punishment “in a developmentally appropriate way that allows them to learn from their mistakes,” it said.

“We are particularly heartened that Governor Brown will be speaking out in favor of this initiative, which has the potential to move public opinion forward on issues related to incarceration, especially, of young people,” the NCYL said in a written statement.

This article has been updated.

More related articles:

How Cities Can Lead in the Effort to Arrest Fewer Youth

Important First Steps to End Solitary Confinement for Youth in Federal Prisons

Report Looks At Best Practices for Addressing Trauma in Diversion

The Case That Got Me Hooked on Restorative Justice

LevineThere were 10 of us in a large room, sitting in a ring of comfortable chairs encircling a large table. Late afternoon sunlight caught the red hair and freckles of a 15-year-old student (we’ll call her Sarah) as she tilted her head back slightly to keep tears from escaping.

Her parents, our school principal, several students and her boyfriend surrounded me, a teacher, as I began to share how I was affected by Sarah’s actions over the weekend.

I began, “Well, I was the one driving the van from the campsite to the grocery store when Sarah and her friend stole the bottle of vodka. After she was caught drunk, I felt embarrassed, like I should have been been watching the group more closely. I felt like it was my fault. Once they discovered what they had done, most of the others at the retreat had to deal with the issue. I was in charge of the other 20 students trying to cook the entire camp dinner. It was very stressful and I really could have used the extra adult help.”

This was my first Restorative Justice (RJ) Council and everyone at the table was sharing how they were affected by Sarah’s choice to drink on the trip. Our principal had to call Sarah’s parents, drive her back to Seattle and miss a lot of the retreat. The 11th-grade student who facilitated this council meeting, Ryan Thon, shared about how alcoholism had affected his own family, and the pain he felt seeing Sarah drunk. Sarah’s parents shared how scared they were to get a call from the principal in the middle of the night.

Sarah had her boyfriend there as a student ally. He wanted the group to know that she was a good person, that she has been depressed lately and that everyone makes mistakes when they are young.

When it came back around to Sarah, she said, “I never realized how many people I affected. I kinda just thought I was hurting myself. I didn’t mean to mess up the trip. I was invited by student government as a guest and I disrespected everyone there. I shouldn’t have drank. I think drinking is just like an escape for me, but now my problems are even worse.”

Sarah was asked to further reflect on what she was thinking at the time of her decision, what she was feeling as well as how she thought and felt about the event now that some time had passed.

Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubThen — and this was my favorite part of RJ — we were all asked to write down as many positive qualities about Sarah as we could think of and share them. These would serve as a reminder to her of her importance, her strengths, her contribution to our school community, as well as help us in creating three contract items for her to complete. These RJ contracts are a way for students to repair caused harm. In addition, they often help students avoid a suspension or other forms of traditional discipline.

In Sarah’s case, the RJ council and contract served as more of a reintegration into the community and a way to shorten the length of her suspension.

During our circle time, as we shared qualities that we saw in her, things like creativity, leadership, her ability in math and science, her strength, she was no longer able to hold back her tears.

“I just thought you were all going to yell at me. Hearing how much you all see in me, I just feel like ... I really let all of you down,” she said softly.

But now Sarah was being presented with a way to repair some of the relationships that she had hurt. Sarah and the rest of us brainstormed things she could do to eliminate the root causes of her harmful choices, heal relationships with fellow students and improve her chances of graduating on time.

Of many great suggestions, none of which felt punitive, we unanimously agreed on three. In addition to several days’ suspension (most of which had been served during scheduling of the council meeting), she agreed to :

  • Attend a drug and alcohol counseling program
  • Lead a researched classroom discussion on teen substance abuse
  • Become a member of the student government group that had planned the retreat.

In the weeks that followed, Sarah completed these three items, as well as voluntarily wrote letters of apology to the adults she had affected. She was not a perfect student, but she never repeated the same behaviors. Her advisory class enjoyed the discussion she led, and they grew stronger as a group because of the honesty and vulnerability of all the students who shared their experiences. Not only did she begin attending the student government meetings, she really enjoyed them. Almost unbelievably, months later, she was voted president of the whole group!

Critics of the RJ approach contend that the punishments are not harsh enough. To be honest, I never thought suspensions were that harsh, at least not compared to the intense emotion and introspective conversations Sarah went through. Not to mention she had to face the many students who had heard about her mistake and act as a school leader despite the shame she must have felt.

I also cannot defend the sentiment that we should treat any young person harshly. If discipline’s main goal is to reform behavior, I observed this RJ methodology to be highly effective. This inclusive and humane process not only prevented recidivism but went a step farther by actually leveraging the negative actions into a net positive for the student and the school as a whole. I was hooked!

[Related articleWill Restorative Justice Work in South Bronx Schools?]

My view of discipline was not nearly this enlightened at the beginning of my career in classrooms. Having spent three years as a substitute teacher in a plethora of New York City public schools, I experienced a wide range of student misbehavior … substitutes often get it the worst.

Usually, as a substitute teacher, I did my best to manage the classrooms, but when a major incident would occur, such as a screaming match or physical fight, I was taught to simply pop my head out into the hallway and yell “Security!” An in-school police officer would promptly head into the room and remove the troubled students, after which I would say something like, “OK, let’s settle down now,” and try to get back to the lesson of the day.

I will be honest and say that at the time I didn’t give much thought to what would happen to those students. I assumed that they would get into some sort of “trouble,” but I never stuck around long enough to see the outcome of these incidents: e.g. if these students continued to repeat the same behaviors, much less if students were affected disproportionately by race or gender.

I always greatly enjoyed working with students of all ages and backgrounds, despite the hard days as a substitute and later as a certified English language arts teacher. And yet I just never gave much thought to cases of discipline. I let the deans and security officers deal with those issues as I busied myself gaining confidence in my ability to “teach.”

It wasn’t until I found myself in a small school near Seattle, working within the advisory structure of Big Picture learning, where I began to sit face to face with the fact that discipline, instruction and learning are parts of a whole, not separate entities.

I began to know my students deeply, by strength and by need. There were no security officers or deans to handle discipline for me. I began to understand the root causes of most misbehaviors I was seeing, things like early childhood trauma, poverty, low self-esteem, unstable housing, mental disorders, institutional racism and far too many schools that ask students to conform, rather than serving the student’s needs.

Further, I saw that when a student makes a poor choice, far too often students from disadvantaged backgrounds pay a significantly higher price for their actions than their more privileged counterparts. Students from poverty, especially those of minority backgrounds, and those with learning disabilities face higher rates of suspension, drop-out and more severe punishments in general.

As someone who wanted to help these vulnerable groups, I knew that the traditional discipline system was broken. I saw the advisory structure, restorative practices and student-empowered approaches to make absolute common sense.

Through Sarah’s process, it became clear that mistakes can blossom into opportunities for rich personal growth, a place to reflect, repair and re-emerge as a better student and person. I could not believe how obvious yet rare this approach seemed to be. I felt honored that I had a pioneer of a principal, Loren Demeroutis, who very early on valued Restorative Practices and had the best interest of every child at our school in his heart and mind.

I am grateful to my advisory student Ryan Thon, now a student at Western Washington University, who made it his senior thesis project to solidify RJ practices at our school and allowed me to be his mentor.

What started as a stressful night as a chaperone for a school trip emerged as the beginning of a great journey in discovering how discipline can actually be a positive experience for everyone involved. Can you imagine that?! I can, because I have now seen it repeatedly with my own eyes.

In writing this, I reached out to Sarah to see how she is doing, more than a year after this event. She is currently a senior in high school, but attending full-time community college classes as part of Washington’s Running Start program. This is quite an accomplishment, one that defies statistics, for a young woman who was suspended in 10th grade for major misconduct.

When asked to reflect on her experience with Restorative Justice, she wrote to me, “My experience was one of the most effective disciplinary approaches that I have ever been confronted with. It made me understand how my actions affected people not only directly, but how my actions set off a series of events. Seeing this reality and being given a second chance made me so thankful.

“Ever since these events I have excelled in high school, have felt closer to my community, and brought me closer to the people I affected. To this day, when harm happens to me or my community I try to look at all sides of the story, express my emotions, and listen to other people’s and look for a positive outcome.”

It is inspiring to hear Sarah speak of this turning point in her high school career with such maturity. I could not imagine this transformation happening had she simply faced a traditional school suspension (which could have been up to 90 days in Washington state). School, at its best, is about learning new skills, academically and emotionally, not simply maintaining the facade of perfection that most traditional schools are expecting and requiring.

RJ is messy, tough and personal. It is beautiful, rewarding and just. I have been part of this journey with many students since working with Sarah, yet I will always remember the profound change that occurred that day sitting in a circle as Sarah’s community, the afternoon sunlight cutting across the room, turning golden at dusk.

David Levine holds a teaching certification in English Language Arts grades 7-12 and an MFA in creative writing. He has worked as an educator in Big Picture public high schools for the past eight years in Brooklyn, New York; Seattle, and now in the Bronx, where he is currently a Restorative Justice facilitator, dean and teaching coach.

More related articles:

OP-ED: I Believe in Restorative Justice for My Child’s Killer

OP-ED: Joy in the Dirty Work of Restorative Justice

OP-ED: Restorative Justice Isn’t a Plug and Play Option

MacArthur Surveys State Progress as Models for Change Winds Down

The adolescent development research that underlies the latest wave of juvenile justice reform should remain the foundation for future improvements, says a new report from the MacArthur Foundation.

As the foundation winds down its investment in juvenile justice reform this month, the report tracks how widely states have put developmentally appropriate policies in place.

MRchart-2The survey found every state has adopted at least one policy, such as limiting courtroom shackling or allowing an adult court transfer only at the court’s discretion. Though more work needs to be done, the states’ performance is a sign of “undeniable and widespread” progress, said the report.

[Related articleMacArthur Foundation Urges Major Changes in Juvenile Justice System]

Still, the authors cautioned that today’s reforms could be undermined by economic, cultural or practical considerations; crime rates rise and fall, demographics change, and program implementation can be uneven.

States and other reformers should therefore remain true to the principles of developmentally appropriate and evidence-based practices that have guided the foundation’s juvenile justice work for nearly 20 years, said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the foundation.

The foundation began its work in a handful of states but now works in nearly every one through its programs and partnerships.

“We feel we’ve created a platform for continued progress,” Garduque said.

hub_arrow_2-01Since 1996, the foundation’s investments in juvenile justice research and practice have helped establish the widely accepted idea that adolescents are different than adults in areas such as culpability, competency and capacity for rehabilitation.

Garduque said leadership is critical to states’ progress but there is no ideal mix of conditions on the ground that jump-start reform.

“Regardless of a state’s starting point, you can make progress in juvenile justice reform,” she said.

The report looks at nine policies across five key areas: minimizing contact with the system, keeping youth in the appropriate justice system, protecting youth inside the courtroom, adopting developmentally appropriate confinement policies and removing obstacles to reintegration in the community.

In some cases, very few states have adopted the policies. South Dakota and Utah are the only states to allow transfer to adult court only for youth 16 and older. Pennsylvania and Delaware are the only two to set a time limit of four hours on each episode of solitary confinement.

On the other end of the spectrum, 42 states keep young people in juvenile court until age 18,  and 30 have a juvenile-specific competency statute.

Overall, the reforms have had positive effects on both individuals and society, according to the report.

“Because the reforms are embedded in developmental knowledge, young people are better able to reach their potential and become responsible members of society, decreasing recidivism and making communities safer and healthier — a range of positive returns that is both broad and deep,” the report said.

Related:

Models for Change — A Decade of Advancing Juvenile Justice

Temper Risk and Needs Assessments With Positive Youth Development

Report: Supreme Court Opinions Changing Juvenile Justice Landscape Beyond JLWOP