Role of Law Enforcement in Our Schools Can Be Supportive, Benign

Marie WilliamsAs fall rolls around, parents and young people are preparing for a new school year. So too are teachers, school administrators and, in many places, school-based police officers and school resource officers (SROs). In its 2015 report on public school safety and discipline, the National Center for Educational Statistics estimates that there are more than 43,000 school resource officers and other sworn police personnel working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools. With such a significant presence of law enforcement within our educational institutions, the time is ripe to re-examine and reimagine their role.

In 2013-14, 13 percent of all public schools reported at least one serious violent incident, and 2 percent reported at least one physical attack or fight with a weapon. Fifty-eight percent reported physical attacks or fights without a weapon, and 56 percent reported threats of physical violence (9 percent of which included a weapon and 47 percent that did not). Overall, the rate of serious violent incidents per 1,000 students was 0.5.

Regardless of how one might answer the question of whether the presence of police officers in schools is, or is not, a deterrent to serious violence, it is clear that since the 1999 Columbine school massacre, we, as a society, have been unwilling to accept the risk of violence. But increasingly, school-based police officers and SROs are being charged, not only with addressing violence, but also with removing from schools those children who are deemed to be disruptive to the educational environment. Across the nation, children are subject to removal, and even arrest, not only for things they do but oftentimes for things they do not do, including subjective infractions such as “defiance” and “noncompliance.”

We all remember the 2015 video recording from a South Carolina school where a girl was put in a headlock and thrown to the ground by a male police officer who had been called because she refused a teacher’s order to put away a cellphone. Not only was the excessive force shocking, but later, when the totality of the girl’s circumstances came to light, the system failure was even starker. At the time of her arrest, she was undergoing several familial challenges and was in foster care. Though it is impossible in hindsight to say whether those challenges were responsible for her refusal to cooperate that day, what is clear is that in an ideal world, an inquiry into her personal circumstances would have at least been made.

Among the children excluded from schools each year, an estimated 50 to 75 percent have behavioral or mental health needs and some estimates say as many as 70 percent have cognitive or learning challenges that may make school settings unreceptive, or even hostile, places for them.  

Additionally, there are children whose home and family circumstances make it difficult to attend school on a regular basis, focus and perform up to standards when they do attend, or respond appropriately to teachers and other authority figures. Other children may be victims of abuse or other trauma, making them more likely to be triggered by the rules, strictures or approaches that are typical of the school environment.

At the very least, these data suggest that we may be overusing and misusing the most extreme tool at our disposal in an effort to preserve the peace in our learning spaces. In Philadelphia, following many years of experience in the police department, and after rising to the level of deputy police commissioner, Kevin Bethel began to suspect as much.

As deputy commissioner, Bethel and his officers found that too often, children arrested in schools were no real threat to the public and were certainly not “delinquent.” Instead, they were more likely to be “defiant,” “insolent,” “belligerent” and in some cases “disruptive”— adjectives that, in the most benign interpretation, could be considered accurate descriptors of normal adolescent behavior, but could also be seen as indicators of a need for supportive social services.

With the cooperation of law enforcement, the juvenile courts and, perhaps most notably, the Department of Human Services, in 2012, former Deputy Commissioner Bethel began to reimagine the role of law enforcement in the School District of Philadelphia.

After developing memoranda of agreement and a process with his partners, Bethel started small — rather than arresting students for minor, nonviolent offenses, school-based police officers and SROs would divert these children and give them and their families the option to receive case management and support services.

In the first academic year (2014-15) of the Philadelphia School Diversion Program, arrests declined 54 percent and there were 1,051 fewer behavioral incidents in the schools. And just as important, through the program’s intervention, hundreds of children and their families gained access to services they might not otherwise have received.

The Philadelphia experience reinforces what we already know from the data — that children funneled into the juvenile justice system are often not “bad” but rather in need of services, and that, all too often, schools become a pipeline to prison rather than a pathway to success. By simply reimagining the role of law enforcement in our schools, and by refocusing their presence toward helping students and their families, we might just restore our youth, our schools and our communities along the way.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

Why Immigration Policy Should Matter to Youth-Serving Systems

Marie WilliamsImmigration policy, once thought of as almost purely a federal government issue has, in the past several years, become one of increasingly local concern. During the 2016 presidential election cycle in particular, the complicated policy issues surrounding the undocumented population became oversimplified and were reduced to sound bites about “criminal aliens,” “sanctuary cities” and fears of imminent terrorist attacks on the “homeland.”

The candidate who became president called for the building of a physical barrier between the United States and its southernmost neighbor, and the creation of a deportation force to swiftly exclude those who made it into the United States without a legal immigration status, stoking fears among some of our most egregiously underserved groups, including noncitizen children and children with undocumented parents.

Throughout this period, the immigration conversation focused largely on adults who might do harm to the United States. Discussions about children were had primarily in the context of their parents’ status, and the threat to youth who benefited from DACA, the Deferred Action for Undocumented Childhood Arrivals program implemented under the Obama administration.

The tenor of the policy debate rarely, if ever, touched on the effect that draconian immigration policy may have on children who are at risk of, or already involved in, the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. These two layered and complex systems become even more so when one adds the specter of adverse immigration actions (detention or deportation) directed at either a noncitizen child, or children who are U.S.-born, but who have an undocumented parent (i.e., mixed-status families).

Who are these children and youth?

During any given calendar year, the majority (well over 65 percent) of undocumented children come from Mexico and Central America, about 10 percent come from East Asia and the Pacific, just over 10 percent come from Europe, eight percent from Africa, eight percent from the Middle East and South Asia, and just over four percent come from Southeast Asia. Most will come with, or develop, deep and ingrained fears about interacting with official agencies. Or, worse yet, they will have been rendered invisible to public systems by adults who seek to exploit them. And if fortunate enough to live with a parent or caring adult, the suspicion or fear of authorities could delay or deny children in these families the services or supports they may need.

Why should child welfare and juvenile justice systems care about immigration policy?

Immigration policy touches a large percentage of young people in the United States. Twenty-three percent of children in the U.S. are either immigrants or children of immigrants. While many of them may have been born in the United States, some have parents who do not have legal immigrant status; and some of the children are themselves without legal status. And immigrant children, whether documented or not, are among the most vulnerable.

Those who are unaccompanied by an adult when they immigrate (“unaccompanied minors”) may be victimized by smugglers who bring them to the United States to work as domestic servants, restaurant or factory workers, or to engage in drug-trafficking or sex work. Government estimates of people trafficked into the United States range widely, from 14,000 to 50,000 each year. The State Department estimates that up to half of trafficking victims are minors.

Since they are often marginalized, or “invisible” to public systems, these young people are particularly high-need. They are more likely to live in poverty, less likely to have health insurance and are more likely to encounter barriers to accessing public benefits and social services. Further, since many are fleeing economic deprivation, political violence or unrest in their home countries, immigrant youth are also more likely to have suffered trauma. And certainly, the immigration process itself, particularly if done illegally, comes with its own stressors and associated trauma.

Additionally, families with one or more adult who are undocumented are no less susceptible to the challenges that lead to child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, mental and behavioral health issues, or delinquency. While these challenges might, under the best of circumstances, lead a family to seek out supports and services, this is less likely to happen in a household where adults or children do not have legal immigrant status. Predictably, the needs could become more acute, and the triggering event that leads to system involvement could be more severe.

There are currently no reliable data about youth in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Despite our knowledge about the existence of this population of high-need children and youth, child welfare and juvenile justice systems still have no reliable data about them. This state of ignorance is worsened by the fact that most systems lack the resources to implement this kind of data collection, may not view that information as relevant or simply recognize that in the current highly politicized immigration policy climate, this information could imperil the same families and young people they seek to serve.

Action steps for youth-serving systems

As the immigration debate plays out on the national stage, the needs of undocumented youth and children or youth and children from mixed-status families continues to grow. So, at a minimum, youth-serving systems now have a duty to investigate whether they are adequately serving this population. At a minimum, systems should:

  • Determine the scale and scope of the issue in their communities. Since undocumented children, youth and families are adept at maneuvering through society largely undetected, they may present as yet another child, youth or family in need. Systems may then see a reluctance to accept services, poor follow-up with services offered and general inaccessibility, without comprehending why. If they discover that those challenges are due to fears about immigration actions, systems will be better equipped to provide services to those in need if their fears are allayed.
  • Clarify policy, processes and practices for undocumented and noncitizen youth and their families. The sanctuary city conversation in particular has led to widespread confusion about whether federal law requires local youth-serving systems to enforce federal immigration laws by detaining youth who are without lawful status, absent another lawful justification for that detention. It does not. Further, systems should consider whether the processes and practices they have in place are adequate to ensure access to services by noncitizen youth and their families, and address these deficiencies if they are not.
  • Educate and train relevant staff and stakeholders, including families, on the common forms of immigration relief for noncitizen youth. Noncitizen and undocumented youth have several forms of relief available to them through which they may achieve lawful permanent residence. Child welfare and juvenile justice systems are generally not equipped to pursue these remedies, but should consider actively partnering with organizations that are, and making connections to youth and their families that may need this help.

While the complexities of the intersection between immigration policy may seem daunting to youth-serving systems, one thing is clear: Youth-serving systems can no longer remain willfully ignorant about this area of acute need.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

Start Small: The Key to a More Gender-Responsive Juvenile Justice System

Marie WilliamsOn Jan. 21, hundreds of thousands of women gathered in Washington and other cities to send the message that “women’s rights are human rights.” The broad agenda for the marches included issues as disparate as LGBT rights, immigration reform, pay equality and even environmental protection.

Though very different, all were issues we have come to expect to see appended to a gender equality agenda. What we don’t often hear on the national stage is a call for broad reform of how women and girls are treated in the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

With the announcement of the president’s Proposed Budget Blueprint, which threatens significant cuts to programs for children and youth, jurisdictions seeking to do transformational work on this issue should not wait for a large, progressive national agenda to address this need; they should start locally, and start small.

The call for gender equality we heard on Jan. 21 is as relevant in juvenile justice as in any other sphere of American life. In fact, the unequal justice that girls receive began at the earliest stages of the system. The first juvenile court founded in 1899 defined “delinquent” as anyone under 16 who had violated a city ordinance or law. As applied to girls, however, the court included “incorrigibility, association with immoral persons, vagrancy, frequent attendance at pool halls or saloons, other debauched conduct or use of profane language” in its definition of delinquency.

Thus, from the very beginning, the system that was set up to rescue young people from the harshness of the adult system placed girls at greater risk of becoming system-involved, being adjudicated and ultimately confined. And that increased risk was based almost solely on gender norms that sought to define what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior if one was female.

Today, still, parents, caregivers and schools, disappointed, frustrated or alarmed by behaviors that deviate from a gender-based norm push girls into the juvenile justice system in an effort to get them to comply. And once there, girls’ individual struggles, personalities, attributes and needs are more likely to be overlooked, de-emphasized or dismissed.

Research shows that girls are more likely than boys to have experienced disproportionately high rates of victimization, particularly incest, rape and battering. They are also more likely than boys to internalize responses to trauma in the form of depression, self-mutilation and substance use, and as such may have child welfare involvement.

In a May 2016 study, researchers found that young girls with child welfare involvement were more likely to be placed in group homes because, the researchers posit, judges viewed out-of-home placement to be protective of girls who were in what was perhaps a “malignant” home environment. When girls come into contact with the courts, they are also more likely than boys to be detained for minor offenses and technical violations and are more likely to be returned to detention or placed out of home. The same study found that girls held a 56 percent greater risk of being sentenced to a group home placement over time on probation than boys.

In part because of the rapid evolution of our understanding about the root causes and possible solutions to the problems faced by girls, we still lack a coherent vision and strategy for how to address them. We are left to respond on an ad hoc basis when agencies or advocates sound the alarm about the increasing number of girls in our juvenile justice systems.

Even in states and locales where promising approaches are implemented, very few manage to sustain them through implementation of policy. Fewer still evaluate their work or collect data and information that could lead to the development of replicable models.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Girls Initiative, coordinated by the National Crittenton Foundation, aims to fill this gap by providing training and technical assistance, organizing convenings and developing resources to help systems become more gender-responsive. In 2015, NGI awarded more than $300,000 in grants. Even with their guidance and support, advances in our approach to girls remain local and limited. But limited need not mean ineffective. States and locales may find as they assess this issue for themselves that there are discrete areas where they can intervene to make a real difference.

In Philadelphia, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), whose core mission is to support youth prosecuted in the adult system and juvenile lifers, has begun such an effort. At YSRP, Stoneleigh Foundation’s Emerging Leader Fellow, Natasha Felder, is attacking the problem at the frontline by developing a toolkit for defense attorneys to recognize and help address some of the needs presented by young women when they come into contact with the juvenile justice or adult criminal justice system. Many of them are issues that could make adequately defending them more complex than it might be for boys.

Juvenile defense attorneys are, by their nature, one of the first contacts that these girls may have that is primarily concerned with identifying their needs. Unfortunately, attorneys often lack the training or tools to apply a trauma-informed and gender-specific approach to case investigation and sentencing advocacy. As a result, courts may not receive critical information they need to make informed, and potentially mitigated, sentencing decisions.

Through focus groups, conversations with young women involved in the system, as well as experts, advocates and systems professionals, Natasha Felder’s work has the potential to transform the lens through which some defense attorneys view their clients who are girls. While this project is discrete, it has the potential for far-reaching reform of how girls who come into contact with the juvenile justice system are assessed and ultimately treated.

If juvenile justice stakeholders in states and localities are looking to make their system more equitable in its treatment of girls, they should consider similarly incremental approaches. The strong and firm federal leadership we think we need on this issue may not be forthcoming. Start small. The key to a more gender-responsive juvenile justice system may already be in your hands.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

A New Strategy for Juvenile Justice Reform: Local Leadership, Incremental Change

Marie WilliamsAfter Nov. 8, the juvenile justice field has had to make a few adjustments. Undoubtedly, juvenile justice reformers will still — as they should — prepare their transition memoranda and talking points. They will dig, though perhaps now a little deeper, to find areas of potential leverage with the incoming administration.

But even the most optimistic of observers must consider that juvenile justice reform might not be among the top priorities for the new president or Congress. Our hope that the federal government will assume leadership in moving the needle on the past decade’s reform objectives may not come to pass.

So what does the field do now? Although there may be a momentary sense of disorientation, there are a few points to remember.

First, reform has always been local. Apart from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act itself, true groundbreaking reform in juvenile justice has almost always originated at the state level. And even that legislation was driven by observations, information and energy from practitioners and advocates who were well-positioned to see how poorly we were serving young people who came into conflict with the law and how we might address it.

The results of this election won’t change that. Reform can happen — and even thrive — no matter the national political climate, and successes in one community can often be replicated in another.

Second, reform has always depended largely on committed and capable leadership. Whether driven by the advocacy community or others, durable reform rarely occurs simply because a vocal minority decides to rage against the machine. Finding and supporting strong, credible and dedicated leadership has always been essential for reform to flourish. And, when well-connected and knowledgeable about the local context, that leadership is likely to succeed.

Third, the resources for juvenile justice have always come overwhelmingly from state coffers. Without exception, more than 90 percent of states’ juvenile justice funding is appropriated not by Congress but by state legislatures. This knowledge should help debunk the myth that the strong arm of the feds is the best, or only, avenue to change.

And finally, though many of us are loath to acknowledge as much at this early stage, we really don’t know what a Trump presidency will look like for juvenile justice. The void of clear policy positions may seem like a drawback, but it is also an extraordinary opportunity to build partnerships and try to foster a collaborative spirit with an administration getting its bearings on a multitude of complex issues.

Before the election, the juvenile justice community was paying close attention to the forecasts of the political intelligentsia and primed to make their case to a longtime advocate for children and families, a former staffer at the Children’s Defense Fund who has spoken often about the challenges facing juvenile justice reformers.

Now, as the nation prepares for a Trump administration, there are more questions than answers about how juvenile justice reform will fare under the incoming president. What we do know is that President-Elect Trump has made many statements that lean in the direction of the now discredited tough-on-crime policies of the ’90s, and that some of his rhetoric seems to evince a limited understanding of the communities most affected by much of current juvenile justice practice and policy. Still, this will not be the first time the cause of reforming our nation’s juvenile justice systems has faced a potentially challenging political environment.

For more than a decade, juvenile justice was such a low priority — even in a so-called “friendly” administration — that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention remained leaderless and rudderless, only recently benefiting from the visionary leadership of former Philadelphia Chief Juvenile Defender Robert Listenbee.

And in Congress, funding for juvenile justice programs has declined steadily, reaching a nadir in 2014 and 2015 when some of the resource streams (Title V and the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant program) were zeroed out altogether. Nevertheless, there were significant gains in juvenile justice led largely by well-funded philanthropic endeavors, like the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), now reforming systems in 40 states and 300 counties nationwide; and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative, which since 2004 poured more than $100 million into creating a network of juvenile justice reform innovators in 35 states and at the federal level.

Other foundations like the Public Welfare Foundation and Open Society Institute turned their attention to thorny issues like improving racial and ethnic fairness, ending juvenile life without parole and keeping nondelinquent youth out of confinement.

At the same time, a tenacious group of organizations at the national level, the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC), quietly but doggedly worked at keeping a key group of senators and national policymakers informed and engaged on juvenile justice. And just recently, the NJJDPC scored a few notable successes: They helped get the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act out of the Judiciary Committee and into the Senate, and more recently, out of the Committee on Education and the Workforce on the House side as well.

In both cases, the bill had Republican and Democratic champions and seemed poised to move. In the Senate, the bill’s progress was interrupted by an ideologue; in the House, it was halted by the tyranny of the congressional calendar and a presidential election season no one could have anticipated.

For the past decade, the Stoneleigh Foundation in Philadelphia, where I am pleased to be a member of the staff, has invested in a new model of juvenile justice reform, which adapts the models and adopts some of the lessons learned from many larger, more heavily resourced national foundations. Drawing from the Models for Change example, it is clear that reformers are most effective when they have an insider perspective, even when they are not themselves insiders; and from JDAI we learned the importance of having collaborative relationships with systems, and leadership steeped in (or drawn from) the local context.

Through our fellowships, the Stoneleigh Foundation invests in local leaders to create a cadre of system reformers embedded in the very systems they hope to change — be they public agencies, community-based organizations or advocacy groups working on seemingly intractable issues. The theory behind the Stoneleigh approach is that while the fiscal climate and political parties may change, creating and nurturing political will and policy know-how are the best paths to sustainable change.

Though the Stoneleigh Foundation’s approach is largely focused on creating change in the Philadelphia region, it has produced significant thought leadership in the field by seeding the work of exceptional individuals.

For example, our current group of Fellows includes Nicole Pittman, whose groundbreaking work to remove juveniles from sex-offender registries has achieved significant national attention; to former Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, whose school diversion program has produced enviable results in dismantling Philadelphia’s school-to-prison pipeline; and Naomi Goldstein, who is rigorously applying data to build and implement a developmentally appropriate approach to juvenile probation.

As the juvenile justice field as a whole — and not just the philanthropic community that supports it — confronts the new and uncertain reality of an incoming Trump presidency, we would do well to consider the next four to eight years an opportunity to further broaden our view of what it means to invest in reform.

Though it is too early to predict, we may not get the hoped-for commitment from the federal government. Despite the best efforts of national advocacy groups — which should continue unabated — the era of large-scale national reform may well be at an end.

But that doesn’t have to mean a halt, or even a slowing of the wave of reform. There are now unprecedented Left-Right-and-Center coalitions at the state and local levels all around the country that agree on the fundamentals: Our nation’s juvenile justice systems can and should be safe, fair and effective.

So let’s get back to work.

Marie Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice  and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

OP-ED: Why Congress Must Act Now to Reauthorize, Fund the JJDPA

Marie WilliamsIt has been more than a decade since Congress last reauthorized the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA, or “the Act”).

But thankfully, during this period there were still significant strides in juvenile justice, due in large part to private investments from the MacArthur Foundation, which invested $165 million in its juvenile justice reform initiative, Models for Change; and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, whose Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative helped spawn the deincarceration push.

Those initiatives and many others around the country, along with declining rates of juvenile delinquency and the release of compelling research about what works, contributed to a mood of optimism in the field.

That mood was bolstered when, in the 113th Congress, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, co-sponsored the JJDPA reauthorization bill, S. 2999.

This legislation was an important signal to the field that the federal government was once again willing to take up the mantle of leadership in juvenile justice and support a bipartisan and modernized JJDPA consistent with the new science and developments in the field.

This signal is particularly important because over the past decade while the act remained unauthorized, appropriation levels dropped by more than 80 percent. Innovation came largely from an enterprising mix of state appropriations and private foundation dollars.

Now that private foundations have begun to turn their attention to other social causes, federal leadership and support — fiscally and in terms of policy — is more urgent than ever. And yet the field is still awaiting news on when and whether a reauthorization bill will be introduced in the 114th Congress.

Instead, we received word of two letters to the Department of Justice in which Sen. Grassley called into question the use of federal funds appropriated under the act. Naming eight states and territories, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee called for information that would explain charges that several states that were not in compliance with one or more of the JJDPA’s four core protections for young people in the juvenile justice system but were nevertheless permitted to receive juvenile justice monies from the federal government between 2006 and 2011.

Citing a range of allegations — from incompetence to outright fraud — Grassley asked a series of questions about each state. No matter the state, no matter the question, the underlying inquiry was: Why is federal money being spent on states that do not comply with the JJDPA? Coming from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the question is undoubtedly appropriate, as it seems to be aimed at ferreting out the cardinal sins of waste, fraud and abuse. The problem, however, is that, as is too often the case, the conversation on Capitol Hill bears little relationship to realities on the ground.

The reality on the ground is that the JJDPA’s funding streams have been systematically starved for more than 10 years. It is that starvation that makes it difficult for states to comply with the act’s requirements.

Title II formula grants, which pay for delinquency prevention at the local level, have been cut by $33 million since 2002; Title V went from $94.3 million in 2002 to $15 million in 2015; and the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants Program has been zeroed out entirely.

Nationally, federal allocations to juvenile justice programs have declined by nearly 50 percent. In chairman Grassley’s own state of Iowa, as in all states that participate in the JJDPA, Juvenile justice practitioners have to do more with considerably less. Iowa alone has seen a 68 percent reduction in juvenile justice formula and block grant allocations since the start of this decade.

With dwindling federal dollars, states must not only create or fund programs for youth, but monitor compliance with the JJDPA’s four core requirements and report their findings to the — until fairly recently — rudderless OJJDP. To ensure that young people actually receive the protections provided by the act — including the right to be separated for their safety from adult inmates, removed from adult jails and lockups, and not be incarcerated for nondelinquent behaviors — many states face a formidable task.

For example, Texas must monitor 3,000 facilities for compliance; Vermont, 112 facilities; and Illinois must look at 957 facilities, lockups, county jails and sheriff’s departments; obligations that remain despite the dramatic dropoff in funding.

In Illinois, the attendant costs of compliance — salaries, travel, technical assistance and training — now account for about 24 percent of the state’s federal allocation. In fiscal year 2010, those same costs accounted for only 13 percent of the Illinois budget.

Less funding means that compliance costs (which may be largely static) will take a bigger piece of the pie. Less funding can also mean less support for states seeking to come into compliance and remain so. That support, which comes from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, has also been compromised, as OJJDP’s budget has been cut by more than half since 2002.

So while no one — least of all those of us who work for the protection of young people, families and communities — wants to see limited federal dollars go to waste, we submit that that conversation is relevant but incomplete.

We want to talk about why Congress has yet to make a meaningful commitment to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and why congressional lawmakers fail to provide states with resources to do the same. That is the conversation that the juvenile justice field has been having since 2002. We invite our members of Congress to join us.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

OP-ED: Why the JJDPA Still Matters

Marie WilliamsWhen first enacted in 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) revolutionized juvenile justice practice across the United States.

While not commonly discussed as such, the JJDPA is, at its core, reform legislation. By establishing core protections for young people who come into conflict with the law (and incentives for states to adopt those protections), it codified at the federal level several truths that practitioners and advocates on the state level had already accepted as self-evident.

The first truth is that young people are different from adults. The second is that an effective justice system is one that not only protects society from those young people who do harm, but also protects from harm young people in its custody. The third is that disparate treatment of young people across the United States who come into contact with the juvenile justice system according to mere geography is untenable, and only federal standards can begin to address that disparity.

Over time, as the field of juvenile justice matured, so too did the Act. Only the deinstitutionalization of status offenders (DSO) and sight-and-sound core protections were part of the original legislation in 1974. The jail removal protection was added in 1980 in response to congressional findings about the negative effects of placing youth in adult lockups and jails. In 1992, the disproportionate minority confinement (DMC) core protection became part of the JJDPA when additional research demonstrated that disparities existed not only according to geography, but according to race and ethnicity as well.

Of course, later research demonstrated that disproportionality existed not only in confinement, but at several other contact points in the system. The DMC core protection came to stand for disproportionate minority contact. In each instance, the Act retained its reform focus and was resilient enough to accommodate new research and findings from the field.

The JJDPA today is lagging behind. Having last been reauthorized in 2002, it fails to reflect many exciting new developments in the field, including but not limited to: new adolescent brain science research (that establishes definitively that youth are different from adults), the cost-effectiveness and improved outcomes from treatment-focused, community-based approaches; the efficacy of violence prevention and treatment programs; and the ways in which a system designed to address males in a majority white society is failing to meet the needs of minorities and girls.

Further, the JJDPA, having once been perceived as providing core “protections,” is now more commonly thought of as prescribing core “requirements.” This distinction is more than one of language — it indicates a slow shift of perception: The Act now constrains and requires rather than supports and facilitates change efforts aimed at protecting young people in the juvenile justice system.

The failure to reauthorize the JJDPA to incorporate new developments in the field only further bolsters this perception and creates a disincentive to enact bold new reform efforts supported with public dollars.

Reauthorization of the JJDPA that incorporates the best practices, policies and new knowledge from the field gives policymakers at the state level the cover they need to champion investments of public dollars in effective juvenile justice practices.

This is essential since a majority of funding for juvenile justice comes from state, rather than federal, coffers. As private foundations turn their focus and their funding to other social issues, the need for public investment could not be greater. A statute informed by what we now know to be effective will ensure that juvenile justice practice does not lose the significant ground gained since 1974. Congress should act soon to reauthorize.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

OP-ED: Reflecting on the Past, Planning for the Future of Juvenile Justice and JJDPA

Marie Williams
Marie Williams, Executive Director, Coalition for Juvenile Justice

Anniversaries are a time to celebrate, but also to look back and reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going. This week, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) will welcome more than 300 juvenile justice practitioners and policymakers to Washington, D.C., for our annual conference. Our theme, “Looking Back, Planning Ahead: A Vision for the Next 40 Years in Juvenile Justice,” reflects the fact that this year is our organization’s 30th anniversary, and is the 40th anniversary of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

In 1986, shortly after CJJ was founded, we issued a report with recommendations to the president, Congress and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). In it, CJJ asked that the General Accounting Office research the inappropriate use of the valid court order (VCO). We also asked that OJJDP “give the highest priority to research in the areas of: (a) differential incarceration rates of minority juveniles; (b) increasing numbers of youth with profound mental health problems in the juvenile justice system and (c) improved techniques in screening for risk, i.e., objective classification.”

All of these topics are still major challenges for the field of juvenile justice, although a look at how they are represented in our upcoming conference shows that the conversations around these issues is evolving. The number of states using the VCO has steadily decreased in recent years, and the majority of states no longer use it at all. Eliminating the VCO entirely has been a major part of CJJ’s work for many years, and U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA29), author of a congressional bill that would phase-out the VCO exception, will be a featured speaker at our conference. Cárdenas’ bill and elimination of the VOC exception as part of JJDPA re-authorization will also be a focus of the conference’s Hill Day advocacy. But we and others are also increasingly calling for responses to status offenses that avoid the court system altogether. For one of our conference workshops, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Status Offense Reform Center will talk about how to implement status offense system change more broadly, and share local success stories. The field is also moving toward incarcerating fewer youth who commit delinquent offenses generally, and achieving better outcomes for youth using strategies including risk assessments, data driven decision making and community engagement. Several examples will be highlighted at a plenary presentation by Pew Charitable Trusts and a workshop given by the National Juvenile Justice Network.

Unlike when CJJ issued its 1986 report, disproportionate minority contact (DMC) is now one of the four core requirements of the JJDPA. Yet states still struggle with how to reduce, and even measure, DMC. As part of Hill Day advocacy for re-authorization of the JJDPA, CJJ members will offer Congress specific recommendations for how to strengthen the Act’s DMC provisions.  During the conference’s Saturday plenary, experts from the W. Haywood Burns Institute and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy will provide strategies to address this issue from a national and local perspective. There will also be workshops on engaging communities and better using data to address DMC.

The conference will also include a federal update by OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee, and workshops discussing federal research and recommendations on evidence-based practices, adolescent development and preventing youth exposure to violence and the traumatic stress it causes.

New challenges, new solutions

The field — and our conference — is also now focused on many important issues that we weren’t as aware of 40, or even 20, years ago. Other workshop sessions will present guidance on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, better engaging families, and improving outcomes for crossover youth. Participants will also have the opportunity to learn more about solitary confinement and isolation of juveniles, and meeting the needs of gender non-conforming youth.

CJJ founder A.L. Carlisle will be at the conference to present the award named in her honor to JJDPA architect Dave Schmidt of New Mexico. Youth advocate Marquis Parker (DC) and Juvenile Justice Specialist Reg Garff (UT) will receive awards as well.

We at CJJ are excited to see so many colleagues and friends at our conference this week, and we look forward to continuing to partner with our members and the field to prevent delinquency and improve the juvenile justice system for those who do come into contact with it.

OP-ED: To Address Disproportionate Minority Contact Keep Status Offenders Out of Courts

MWilliamsProfileAll children deserve to be treated fairly in the juvenile justice system. Unfortunately, all too often, that is not the case for minority youth.

Under the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA), states are required to address disproportionality of racial, ethnic and linguistic minority youth at every stage of the juvenile justice system, also known as disproportionate minority contact (DMC).  In 2011, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that only 34 states had implemented DMC systems improvement and delinquency prevention strategies. Those efforts, however, largely ignored a significant number of youth in the justice system: those at risk for, or charged with status offenses.

A status offense is behavior that would not be considered a crime if committed by an adult. The most common examples of status offenses are running away, skipping school, “being beyond the control of their parents” or possessing alcohol or tobacco. In many states, kids can even be locked up for status offenses if they violate a court order not to commit them again.

These behaviors are often the result of unmet child and family needs including child abuse or neglect, an unsafe school or living environment or mistreated or undiagnosed special needs.

The most recent data from the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement show that more than 2,239 youth were locked up in 2011 for committing status offenses. Of these incarcerated children, 32 percent were African American, 10 percent were Hispanic and 4 percent were Native American.

These numbers indicate significant disproportionate representation of youth of color among those in residential placement for status offenses. That same year, 76 percent of youth age 12-17 were white; only 16 percent were African American, 16 percent were Hispanic and fewer than 2 percent were Native American, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Although many states and communities are making strides to reduce DMC, we need to do more to address the staggering number of minority youth who charged with non-delinquent offenses. Research has shown the damaging effects that incarceration, and even court involvement, can have on young people who have committed status offenses. They can suffer long lasting psychological consequences and often learn worse behavior from their peers in the system who may be incarcerated for serious delinquent offenses.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice recently released the “National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses” as part of the Safety, Opportunity & Success (SOS): Standards of Care for Non-Delinquent Youth Project, and will be releasing an issue brief on DMC and status offenses later this month. The SOS Project engages multiple stakeholders to guide states in implementing policies and practices that divert non-delinquent youth from juvenile courts and locked confinement, and connect them to family and community-based systems of care that can more effectively meet their needs. The “National Standards” include specific recommendations for system professionals — from law enforcement to social service providers and courts — to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, including:

  • Collect and analyze data at all decision points so intentional strategies can be developed to reduce racial and ethnic disparities;
  • Use culturally competent screening and assessment tools at appropriate points and throughout a status offense case;
  • Implement practices that are culturally and linguistically competent;
  • Implement family engagement and alternative dispute resolution strategies during status offense cases;
  • Provide access to family-connected and community-based services in youths’ home communities, especially where a community may have disproportionately high involvement in the status offense system;
  • Identify the root cause of the status offending behavior before court involvement; and
  • Avoid secure detention for all youth who commit status offenses.

We must change conversation away from how the juvenile justice system ought to be involved with status offenders and toward whether the juvenile justice system ought to be involved with these young people at all. The “National Standards” provide a framework that could help discontinue the over-representation of minority youth in the nation’s juvenile justice system.

Marie Williams, JD, is executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and leads the organization’s Safety, Opportunity & Success (SOS): Standards of Care for Non-Delinquent Youth Project.