Bart Lubow on the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI)

Bart Lubow, who has been working for more than 20 years to reduce the number of youth being sent to detention centers, told a gathering of 700 attendees at the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) conference in Houston last week that now, “may prove to be a unique moment in juvenile justice history, a time when, as a nation, we shed some of the system’s worst baggage - including our unnecessary and often inappropriate reliance on secure confinement” of youth.

Center for Sustainable Journalism Executive Director Leonard Witt, publisher of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and Youth Today, caught up with Lubow to get his take on JDAI initiatives that have expanded to 38 states across the country and become the most widely replicated juvenile justice system reform project in the nation.

Learn more about Bart Lubow, Director of Juvenile Justice Strategy for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Bart Lubow: Cutting Youth Incarceration Doesn’t Cut Public Safety

Bart Lubow, who has been working for more than 20 years to reduce the number of youth being sent to detention centers, told a gathering of approximately 700 conference attendees this morning that now “may prove to be a unique moment in juvenile justice history, a time when, as a nation, we shed some of the system’s worst baggage—including our unnecessary and often inappropriate reliance on secure confinement” of youth.

The conference attendees are in Houston for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative conference, which as its name implies is working to reduce the number of youth sent into detention and instead aims to provide community-centered alternatives. The conference is hosted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Apparently the 19-year quest is working. Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Casey Foundation, told the gathering that “JDAI sites have reduced reliance on secure detention overall by 42 percent, with numerous jurisdictions posting reductions in excess of 50 percent.” All of this happening without compromising public safety, he said.

The quest in the end means, in Lubow’s words, “We need to detain the right kids, but only the right kids.”

We as a nation, he said, should be using the “my child test.” What would we want for our own children if they became entangled in the system.

Reading from these prepared remarks, he said: “Evidence is mounting from all parts of the country that policy makers, justice system practitioners and whole communities are prepared to eschew the policies of mass incarceration that have been at the center of crime policy for the past four decades. This shift is not restricted to Democratic or Republican states, or to specific sections of the country. It is increasingly embraced by people and organizations of all political persuasions."

He added: “It is at least a portent of a different future, one that recognizes that mass incarceration has proven a fiscally unsustainable approach to public safety that maintains and exacerbates racial and ethnic disadvantages, disrupts families, undermines communities and disregards new knowledge about how to respond more effectively to crime.”

Althought the JDAI is a national movement, most of the decisions that affect kids in the justice system, according to Lubow, are made at the state level where “the rules of incarceration are set, through statute, through regulations, and through fiscal arrangements. Second, it is at the local level—in courts and probation agencies—where those rules are actually implemented. So, any substantial effort to reduce reliance on juvenile incarceration must address both realities."

Although it is a local issue, it must be put into an international context. Lubow said, “Our country’s reliance on juvenile confinement is unique in the world. Even if we reduce juvenile incarceration from today’s levels by 50 percent …we would still be locking up our kids at rates far in excess of countries with similar political and economic systems. That is, halving our juvenile incarceration rate in the next decade is eminently do-able, at least as illustrated by the international experience.”

One method to produce that reduction, Lubow said, “…is simply to restrict eligibility for confinement. That is, we need to establish that juvenile institutions are reserved to those youth who pose the greatest public safety risks, not those who anger or frustrate us, or those with substantial needs.”

To pass the “my child test”, Lubow says, “I want a system that gets it that kids are not simply small adults, but largely different creatures, still maturing, less culpable, more amenable to change. Such a system would be loath to prosecute children as adults, to incarcerate kids with adults, to sentence them to life without parole, no matter what they’ve done.”

He added, “I want a juvenile justice system in which all children—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—are treated equally, without prejudice, but with competencies that recognize these differences and their implications.”

Photo by Jeffrey Benzing and the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism

Alternatives to Youth Detention Conference Opens in Houston

Texas State Senator John Whitmire came to the podium last night at the opening of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) conference in Houston and got right to the core work of the JDAI. Five years ago, he said, 5,000 youth in Texas were incarcerated at any one time. Today the number is down to 1,500. It has happened, he said, without compromising public safety.

John Whitmire, file photo

The JDAI is an initiative backed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and according to its press release, “In 2010, JDAI sites detained 42 percent fewer youth — approximately 2,400 — on an average day than they had prior to implementing approaches that include electronic monitoring, community monitoring, and day or evening reporting centers."

Over the next two days, more than 700 invited judges, prosecutors, probation officers, academic researchers and community activists will attend sessions aimed at keeping even more kids nationwide out of incarceration.

The attendees, who come from among 150 JDAI sites in 34 states, will be offered some 40 panels and workshops with titles such as “Leadership Strategies to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Disparities” and “Making a Difference: Transforming the Lives of Court-Involved Youth.”

This conference follows on the heels of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Kids Behind Bars national symposium for journalists, where a sense of optimism seemed to prevail that this is an era for positive change for the juvenile justice. That’s the prevailing mode at the JDAI conference also.

However, as Whitmire, a conservative Democrat, pointed out, there is plenty of work to be done. His own focus is on decriminalizing truancy in schools and preventing kids from getting charged for disorderly conduct “for behavior that you and I would have had on our resumes.”

Photo by Texas GOP Vote

Bad Mentoring Overheard While Waiting for the Elevator

Working in a juvenile court in metro Atlanta, I become a fly on the wall to some interesting conversations that take place among kids while they wait for appointments.

Not long ago, while I was waiting for our reluctant elevator, I overheard a conversation that really caught my attention.

Girl No. 1:  Smiling, “Hey, you know this is my second time in court … only my first time in this court though…”

Girl No. 2:  Eyes popping open wide, obviously impressed, “Really, aren’t you afraid you will have to go to the RYDC?” (Regional Youth Detention Center)

Girl No. 1:  Flashing tough girl smile, “For real girl, I have already been there.  Met some cool girls too… hoping to hang with them all soon.”

At this point I looked at both of the girls’ mothers, shocked that neither had intervened in the conversation taking place. They sat staring straight ahead, not appearing to hear or be paying attention to them in the least.

Girl #2:  Leaning into Girl #1, “Wow, for real?  I have never been to RYDC.  I have heard of some girls who have.  Maybe I’ll end up there too, after all, it’s gotta be less boring than school.”

Girl #1:  “Oh, it’s really boring too, but easy. I am not scared of any of it. It’s just time.”

Both girls went on to explain the nature of the acts that landed them in court that day.  By the time my elevator arrived, one might never have known they had just met.

The two girls were awaiting a program at our court called the Quad C-ST. It is a single point of entry to local services and consists of a panel of experts that meet with the parents of youth who have been referred by an individual or agency in the community.

The panel gathers important information about school, home and community history of the youth.  This information is then used to develop an appropriate plan of treatment/intervention for each at-risk youth. Recommendations are based on each youth’s needs and the resources which are available in the community.

Instead of filing truancy and unruly petitions, the child and family are referred to the Quad C-ST for assessment. The same is true with low-level school offenses, which are mostly unruly students but masked with a delinquent act, disrupting public school and disorderly conduct. This has reduced school related petitions by 73 percent. All of this began when we joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative network and equipped ourselves with the knowledge of detention ineffectiveness and with tools to serve kids better.

We have come a long way from past years.  Now, with these new tools and collaborative systems, we are better able to keep low-risk offenders away from high-risk offenders and out of detention centers and instead serving them in the community. However, we still have a system that does not consider that these positive changes might require a shift in the way we fund the system.

Statistics show that of all status runaways, four out of five are girls, increasing the odds that girls will be detained for a status offense if there are no services available to keep them safe.  Let’s face it; most girls are not high risk, but high needs.  Unfortunately, most communities do not have the resources for appropriate services for girls with high needs.

One program that the evidence shows works with youth, especially girls, is mentoring.

After my wait at the elevator, I couldn’t help but think I had just spent five minutes witnessing some serious mentoring.  Unfortunately, it was negative mentoring. Positive mentoring programs for at-risk girls are few and far between, as they are difficult to fund.

Girls like the ones I saw, often end up receiving safe keeping and services in an RYDC setting, but could have best been served in their communities, if only resources were available.  It is not enough to assess the needs of youth.

We must question why low- risk, high- need youth  too often only find needed services in an RYDC environment.

Fight Ahead Over Bold California Move to Close State-Run Youth Prisons

This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity

California, often a trendsetter, could make history if it approves Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid to close all state-run youth prisons and eliminate its state Division of Juvenile Justice.

Much depends, though, on whether the state’s politically influential prison guards, probation officers and district attorneys can be convinced — or forced by legislators — to agree to Brown’s proposal. That won’t be an easy sell, due to both public-safety arguments and sure-to-surface haggling over just who pays to house juvenile offenders.

Vowing to restructure government more efficiently, Brown, a Democrat, wants to close the last three of 11 youth prisons that have long been attacked by critics as “expensive failures.” If the state phases out the last three of its aging detention centers, all future young offenders would be held, schooled and treated by California’s 58 counties.

This is the second time since taking office last year that Brown has proposed closing the state juvenile division, which is part of its corrections system. The division’s responsibility has already been slashed dramatically from 10,000 wards in the mid-1990s to about 1,100 in state custody today. Their numbers may be few, but the cost for keeping those youth in state custody runs about $200,000-a-year for every ward.

A host of agendas

The drop in numbers of youths in state custody is due in part to a decline in juvenile crime in California, but also to state legislation in 2007 that blocked counties from sending nonviolent youth offenders to state-run detention centers.

It was a move driven, some argue, largely by California’s massive budget deficits and the desire to lower ballooning incarceration costs. But the decision also dovetailed with an emerging national philosophy favoring locally-based rehabilitation programs over state-run facilities that have been plagued with records of neglect, danger and sexual abuse.

Behind the policy debate: never-ending negotiations over money. The 2007 initiative included millions in state money to counties to devise and provide more effective treatment closer to wards’ home areas and families. Last year, after wrangling with Brown, legislators approved a deal requiring counties to begin paying $125,000 for each ward they sent to the state, if the state’s revenues didn’t improve.

Sure enough, revenues didn’t improve, and now the counties are balking at having to pay the $125,000 per ward they owe. And Brown isn’t collecting. Instead he has resurrected his idea to shut down the state facilities, and give counties even less than he offered before.

Many, but not all, juvenile justice reformers nationwide are cheering Brown’s announcement this month.

“The same phenomenon is happening on the two coasts,” said Bart Lubow, director of programs for high-risk youth at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He noted that New York State, too, is shifting care for juveniles more to local custody for cost-control and quality reasons.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal this year includes a deal for New York City to keep most of its offenders locally. Mayor Michael Bloomberg complained in 2010 that it cost New York City $62 million in 2009 to satisfy a requirement that it pay half the state’s costs for jailing, on daily average, fewer than 600 youth offenders from the city.

The state-run jails were far from New York City wards’ families, the mayor argued, and had dubious records, like California’s, with recidivism rates of about 80 percent.

Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation said that if Brown is able to pull off the feat of closing all state facilities, other states will have a model to follow. “California is at the leading edge of a national trend,” he said, “to abandon centralized facilities that are scandal-prone and ineffective.”

What’s best for juvenile offenders?

As it was last year, Brown’s idea is embedded in his proposed 2012-13 state budget announced this month. It will be hashed over publicly and privately before legislators make a decision by a June 15 deadline.

Most legislators in California are Democrats, as Brown is, but they are always under pressure not to appear soft on crime. They are also mindful that California’s correctional workers’ union is a big player in state politics and a heavy donor to campaigns.

This time, given that only three state juvenile facilities remain, legislators are perhaps under more pressure not to overburden counties, which are already coping with fallout from last year’s budget deal.

That deal was considered historic because after years of waffling, legislators authorized a significant shift of certain low-level adult felons to county responsibility. The aim was to cut state costs and satisfy federal court orders to clear California’s overcrowded prisons.

Mark Varela, legislative chairman for the Chief Probation Officers of California, said his group continues to oppose closing the last three state juvenile detention centers, although, individually, there are some probation chiefs in California who favor it and say they are ready.

Varela said opponents’ “concern is that the youth in DJJ [the Division of Juvenile Justice] represent offenders with a high degree of sophistication,“ who could have a “negative impact” on lower-level offenders who might not easily be separated from them in local facilities.

By mixing the populations, Varela said, the more violent youths, some of them incarcerated for murder or sex offenses, could endanger or influence others and undermine their progress.

Hardball in Sacramento

District attorneys, too, are expected to fight Brown’s proposal; indeed, the California District Attorneys Association has already shown it can play hardball on the issue.

In hearings and official letters last year, the association argued that if California youth prisons were no longer on option, it was “inevitable” that for public safety, prosecutors would likely try many more juveniles as adults and send them to adult state prison. District attorneys also argued that if counties had to pay the state $125,000 per ward, more youths would also likely be prosecuted as adults.

Books Not Bars, a prison rights group that backs Brown’s proposal, is preparing to counter the prosecutors’ threat.

The group has crafted a draft bill designed to force counties to pay for minors they send to state prison, Jennifer Kim, a Books Not Bars leader, told the Center for Public Integrity. “We are currently shopping it around the Legislature,” Kim said.

Kim said the bill calls for counties to pay the state the going adult rate — about $52,500 a year — for each minor put in adult prison based on the discretion of a prosecutor.

That’s not as much as the $200,000 a year it costs the state for each ward in existing youth prisons, Kim said. But she said it could help dissuade counties from trying to avoid keeping young offenders by putting them in adult prison.

Kim said that while legislators might be vulnerable to soft-on-crime accusations, they also are under fire after years of chopping education severely, closing parks and stripping down other services. They need to justify, Kim said, spending millions on a system that fails to reform most of its wards, and has a record of documented abuses.

“California could be its own country,” Kim said. “It’s so big. And we can’t figure out how to handle about 1,000 kids? That’s smaller than the high school I went to.”

Like the district attorneys association, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is also opposed to Brown’s idea.

“We’re very disappointed with the proposal. We feel it is an immense disservice to youth offenders,” JeVaughn Baker, spokesman for the correctional workers’ union, told the Center for Public Integrity.

Baker said that instead of a complete closure, the union favors trying to reduce costs per ward, and continuing improvements at the state-run juvenile prisons, which have been operating for a number of years under court decree to improve conditions.

However, Baker said, the union also is willing to talk about a compromise and “wants to be part of the solution.” A meeting is planned in mid-February among union representatives to discuss more steps toward continuing reforms to the state facilities, he said.

The correctional workers’ union contributed heavily to Brown’s election, and continues to have a seat at the table when it comes to prison reforms. But with California reeling from waves of budget cuts, it doesn’t have the clout it used to at the state Capitol and has had to accept changes that cut jobs, said Barry Krisberg, an expert on incarceration policy at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

Krisberg, who is also an appointed monitor reporting on improvements at state-run youth facilities, predicted a tough sell for Brown’s proposal at the Capitol. “I’m hearing there is not much enthusiasm in the Legislature for this,” he said.

Krisberg also has his own doubts that the state government should completely phase out its ability to take custody of minors.

He fears that some counties aren’t bluffing when they argue that they are not suited to handle high-level young offenders.

Krisberg said a total closure “would be the most radical juvenile justice reform in history.” He’d rather see the division shifted to the state’s Department of Education, possibly, and out of the prison system.

He also noted that county systems for youth offenders are not scandal-free. The Los Angeles County Probation Department is under federal order to rein in use of force, including pepper spray, as well as neglect of wards with mental health problems and suicidal tendencies.

In December, a federal report found that the Los Angeles probation department still fell short of improvements it was ordered to make.

Krisberg said that in the end, he’d prefer to see California keep a few hundred beds for juveniles at the state level and enact strong policies and provide adequate funding for monitoring and improving local treatment.

Because many high-level wards are adults by the time they’ve served their sentences, what they critically need, Krisberg said, is help from the state with post-incarceration re-entry to society, including housing, access to mental-health medication and job placement.

Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan group in San Francisco, is a friend of Krisberg, but differs with him on this issue, arguing for a shutdown of state facilities that he says are relics of a failed rehabilitation model.

Besides, Macallair said, the majority of the state’s wards come from only about a dozen counties, out of 58, that have grown reliant on the state, and need to be pushed to develop a better infrastructure locally for rehabilitation. His group’s research, Macallair said, shows that despite claims to the contrary, California’s counties have enough room and the ability to appropriately separate juveniles.

Meanwhile, he said, “you’ve got a state system that’s really hanging by a thumbnail.”


The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit organization focused on investigative journalism. 


Photo: Office of Gov. Jerry Brown

It’s Time to Get Real about Kids and Detention, Anecdotes, Evidence, Blasphemy and the Truth.

It's time to get real about kids and detention. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "All great truths begin as blasphemies."

Well, here are my blaspheming thoughts.

I am tired of those with the "lock ‘em all up" attitudes critical of alternatives to detention. They talk off the top of their heads and spew opinionated garbage from their mouths with nothing to show in support of their "get tough" attitude but anecdotes.

Here's an anecdote for you.

One of the biggest critics of our Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI-an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation) many years ago attempted through various measures to stop the initiative. Despite her efforts, the program continued with the implementation of a Detention Assessment Instrument to measure risk of re-offending, the creation of detention alternatives -- such as electronic monitoring, GPS monitoring, after-school Evening Reporting Center -- wrap-around services in the home, intensive surveillance, development of a graduated sanctions for technical violations of probation, Failure to Appear (FTA) Locators to locate youth who do not show to court in lieu of a FTA warrant, and more.

This critic made my professional life a living hell.

Despite the misery she propounded on me, I always knew her to be of great intelligence and extreme integrity. Notwithstanding the stress I endured from her attacks on my belief in JDAI, I always respected her many wonderful qualities. Ironically, it was these characteristics that led her to attempt to disprove the JDAI approach by requesting all the data about the decisions to release youth to alternatives opposed to incarceration.

She was shocked at the outcomes.

Our detention rates decreased 51 percent since starting JDAI. As we cut the use of detention in half, our re-offense rates for those placed on community alternatives were cut in half as well.

"How can this be?" she thought to herself. More are released, but fewer are re-offending.

She began her research and what she found was a plethora of studies on evidence-based practices for juvenile offenders -- studies showing the negative impact of detention on youth and how it's influence "can persist for months and even years into their future."

She continued to read studies showing that "being held in detention is the number one predictor of recidivism -- beating out other likely predictive variables such as gang membership, gun ownership, and dysfunctional family background."  Another study, reported in 2006 in the newsletter of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and conducted in New York City found the recidivism rate for kids sent to alternative programs ranged between 17-36 percent , while those incarcerated averaged 76 percent .

Other research explored the reasons for low recidivist rates of alternative detention programs. She read how behavioral scientists found that grouping delinquent kids together in a detention facility "can result in deleterious outcomes because detained juveniles receive informal peer deviancy training."

If one stops to think about it, the studies only confirm what common sense should tells us -- that detention gives first-time offenders the chance to make new criminal friends, join gangs and learn tricks. These same studies go on to show that exposure to detention creates a negative learning opportunity for kids in which the data reflects that detained kids are "more likely to commit future crimes and have difficulty adjusting to adult life.

Just as delinquent kids with less than desirable values and beliefs require cognitive restructuring to change the way they think, so do adults when we cling to a belief system grounded in anecdote or political and/or social thinking -- and not objective testing.

My critic possessed the intellect and integrity to pursue an objective study -- although with the motive to support her own conclusion -- and instead underwent her own cognitive restructuring. Most important, she had the integrity to confess her revelation and the courage to support JDAI. She would later make public appearances -- including testimony before legislative committees --  supporting detention alternatives.

She learned that detention has its place in juvenile justice, but not for as many kids as she originally thought. She learned the difference between those kids that scare us and those that make us mad.

This former critic was my colleague on the bench. She is Tracy Graham-Lawson, now the district attorney where I work, in Clayton County, Georgia.

Tracy is an inspiration to me. She reminds me that one's ideological enemies -- especially those with integrity like Tracy -- can change their perspective.  Tracy didn't change her mind because of me or anything I said. She changed because she pursued the truth using data and reading research based in objective testing.

Tracy faces a different task prosecuting adult offenders. She is a tough prosecutor -- and rightfully so! These are adults, not children.

Since taking office, she has aggressively reduced the criminal docket. She is not afraid to try cases. She is a formidable foe in the courtroom. I would not want her on the other side.

Even still, she works hard to help kids who are arrested as adults by transferring them to juvenile court when appropriate -- and she does her fair share of transfers to ensure kids get the best treatment available in a youth detention center or residential placement as opposed to an adult correctional facility grounded in punishment.

She also produced an award winning documentary that is shown in schools to educate kids about the seven deadly sins and how they can be treated as an adult as early as age 13 and exposed to the negative influences of adult prisons.

She may be prosecuting adults with zeal and passion -- but Tracy is still an advocate for kids.

Those of you with the "lock-‘em up" attitude -- have some integrity. Get some courage!

Use your computer, laptop, or IPad and Google. Read the research. For the sake of our kids -- just read!

Obama Proposes “Social Impact Bonds” to Fund Social Service Projects

The White house is floating the idea of raising money from private investors to pay for privately managed social programs.  The Baltimore Sun reports on this experimental investment scheme that would rely on the private sector to develop solutions for problems such as homelessness and drug addiction.

Here’s how it would work:  A group of investors might fund a program to train teenagers who need job skills.  If it brings results, the government would pay them back with interest.  If it doesn’t work or doesn’t meet performance targets, the investors lose all or part of their money.

The concept comes from England, where the first social impact bond experiment is underway at Peterborough Prison. The British government has a deal with a nonprofit called Social Finance to provide job training and housing for 3,000 prisoner inmates who are getting released.  Social Finance is raising nearly $8 million from private investors, and promising them a 13% profit.

The Obama administration is asking Congress for permission to test the social impact bond model by creating pilot programs for job training, juvenile justice, education and other projects.  The White House wants to set aside $100 million from existing department budgets and spend the money only if the programs work.

The idea is getting a close look from experts at the Annie E. Casey Foundation .  In a new report out this month from the Center for American Progress, Harvard economist Jeffrey Liebman argues that current government run programs don’t pay enough attention to performance measurement, and there are better ways to support social innovations.