Benjamin Chambers On the School-to-Prison Pipeline

How do you reduce the number of kids going into the juvenile justice system? Overhaul school disciplinary policies.

Here's a quick overview of research on the problem, a great video that puts a human face on the issue in Connecticut, and some things you can do.

Just yesterday, the Council of State Governments Justice Center released Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. The report is based on a groundbreaking study of nearly 1 million secondary school students in Texas. (Researchers were able to control for over 80 different variables because they had individual-level records from schools and juvenile court for every single youth in the study.)

Though it's methodologically very careful in its conclusions, it does show that:

  • nearly 60 percent of all students in the study were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grades;
  • African American students and children with "particular educational disabilities" were disproportionately affected -- especially for infractions where administrators had discretion over what sanctions to apply; and
  • students who were suspended or expelled were more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system the following year.

But there's grounds for hope, because researchers also found that:

  • suspension and expulsion rates varied widely beween schools, even among schools that were similar in terms of their students' racial compositon or economic status.

This suggests that schools can handle behavior problems differently, and with fewer negative outcomes on the youth.

This isn't to say that teachers and school administrators should never suspend or expel youth. However, in the past 30 years, the rate at which students are suspended has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, and removing students from the classroom doesn't actually make classrooms safer or help other students perform better. (My source is Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, a report released last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center reviewing 30 years of data on the use of suspensions in middle schools. For an overview, see my post, School-to-Prison Pipeline: Middle School Suspensions Unfair and Ineffective.)

Many states are beginning to address the problem. For instance, check out this great video from Connecticut, "Education vs. Incarceration the Real Cost of Failing Our Kids." Follow the link to see the full, hour-long program. (Hat tip to the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance). The first segment is below:

What can you do in your community to address the overuse of school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline?

1. Download Mapping and Analyzing the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track: An Action Kit for Understanding How Harsh School Discipline Policies and Practices Are Impacting Your CommunityAction Kit (Hat tip to the National Juvenile Justice Network.)

2. Work with your local juvenile court. Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga., and Judge Brian Huff of Jefferson County, Ala., have worked with local schools and other partners to dramatically reduce unnecessary referrals to juvenile court from schools. Follow the link to check out their PowerPoint, given at a Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference in 2010. Or, you can see their fantastic presentation on reducing school arrests at a forum hosted by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. (Their presentation is 90 minutes long, but I assure you, they are worth watching.)

3. Implement restorative justice in your local schools, which recent research has shown to lower suspension and expulsion rates.

4. Tap the energy of the students themselves. Chicago public school students have organized to advocate for more reasonable discipline policies -- and they're being heard.

What have I missed? Any great strategies or ideas to share? Leave a comment!

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Benjamin Chambers Interviews Gordon Bazemore: How to Tell if Your Community is Really Doing Restorative Justice

What's one of the biggest drivers pushing kids into the juvenile justice system these days? Schools.

Schools often suspend or expel youth who misbehave, ostensibly to maintain order. Unfortunately, an analysis of 30 years of data on middle school expulsions and suspensions issued last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the sanctions were unfair and ineffective.

So what can be done? For one thing, schools can partner with juvenile courts toreduce the number of unnecessary referrals to juvenile court (follow the link for a great 2010 presentation for the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance given by Judges Steven Teske and Brian Huff on how they accomplished this in their jurisdictions).

But restorative justice offers another useful solution. Recent research done on a few schools in the U.S., Britain, and Canada suggests that adopting restorative justice techniques in the classroom can reduce suspensions and expulsions significantly.

Restorative justice is an approach that connects the victim of a crime with the person who committed it in a structured meeting with others present. There's various ways of setting this up, but the process has the advantage of being more personal than the formal justice system, and more comprehensible. While it's also effective with adults, it seems tailor-made for juvenile justice settings, because the brains of adolescents are still developing and youth are often highly capable of changing their behavior.

But as you can imagine, it takes skill and dedication to run a successful restorative justice program, so I asked Dr. Gordon Bazemore, who's studied and implemented numerous restorative justice programs, what the hallmarks of a good restorative justice program were. (Bazemore is professor and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and director of the Community Justice Institute, at Florida Atlantic University.)

Here's his reply:


The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Benjamin Chambers On Why Treating Teens for Substance Abuse Issues Matters

Does it really matter if we screen and assess teens for alcohol and drug problems?  Most adults, after all, started experimenting with alcohol or other drugs before they turned 21 -- and if they didn't, they almost certainly knew a lot of kids who did. And most of them (though not all) survived into adulthood.

So what's the big deal if we turn a blind eye to identify teen drinking or drugging?  Federally-funded research shows why it's a big deal from a public health standpoint:

(Click the image for a larger view.) It's taken from an excellent presentation, "Characteristics, Needs and Strengths of Substance Using Youth by Level of Involvement in the Juvenile Justice System," given by Dr. Michael Dennis, Senior Research Psychologist at Chestnut Health Systems, at the Reclaiming Futures Leadership Institute held in Miami last month. I'll be posting more slides from his presentation soon - stay tuned!

Here's Dr. Dennis' notes on the slide (emphasis added):

This figure shows ... the prevalence of these past year substance use and problems in the height of the graph by age along the bottom.

1- Substance use disorders typically [surface] during adolescence and young adulthood. In fact, 90 percent of all adults with dependence started using under the age of 18, half under the age of 15. Moreover, 90 percent met criteria for abuse or dependence by age 20 – thus it is primarily an adolescent onset disorder.

2- After several decades, the rates of abuse and dependence do decrease as people go into remission, incarceration or die. Epidemiological studies of people with lifetime substance dependence suggest that 58 percent eventually enter sustained recovery (i.e., no symptoms for the past year) -- a rate that is considerably better than the 39 percent average rate of recovery across psychiatric disorders (Kessler, 1994; see also Dawson, 1996; Robins & Regier, 1991).

3 – Notice how the rates of no use go up with age.

One caveat: remember that most youth in the juvenile justice system (at intake, detention, or in secure placement)don't have an alcohol and drug disorder -- though many do.  For more information, check out this post: How Prevalent are Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in Juvenile Justice? The Answer May Surprise You.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.


Benjamin Chambers Interviews Karen Pittman on Why Helping Teens Beat the Odds is Not Enough

Isn't it great when you see a young person beat the odds? You know what I mean -- you'll read a story or see a video about a teen who struggled with drugs, alcohol, and crime, and somehow overcame all of that (and probably more) ... and it just makes you feel fantastic, doesn't it?

Well, it should. But Karen Pittman, CEO and Founder of the Forum for Youth Investment, has an even more inspiring idea, which she shared in an interview at the Reclaiming Futures Leadership Institute held in Miami in May:



You can also see Karen's full presentation at the Reclaiming Futures Leadership Institute here.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Benjamin Chambers Interviews Dr. Jeffrey Butts on Positive Youth Development

Positive youth development is a key part of Reclaiming Futures. But what the heck is "positive youth development?" According to juvenile justice researcher Dr. Jeffrey Butts, it blends what we know about adolescent development and what we know about effective services.

But don't take it from me -- here's a brief interview on the subject that I did with Dr. Butts at the Reclaiming Futures Leadership Institute held in Miami in May:

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Benjamin Chambers: Speaking in a Loud Voice – A Juvenile Probation Officer Makes Documentary about Sex Trafficking

Charles Taylor Gould, a former co-worker of mine, is a juvenile probation officer in Multnomah County, Ore., who's been hearing stories for 15 years from teenage girls in the juvenile justice system who've been sexually exploited or victimized by sex trafficking.

So what did he do? He did what anyone would do: he made a full-length documentary. And along the way, he interviewed people like U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and actress Daryl Hannah.

Your American Teen "follows three teens for approximately two years. All three girls suffered severe trauma as children and throughout their adolescence; all three had parents that were unable or unwilling to care for them." Gould and his fellow producers, Tyler Benjamin and Keith Murphy [the latter is also a juvenile probation officer and co-worker of Gould's], "interviewed survivors, detectives, organization executives, celebrities, lawyers, policy makers and many others in [a] quest to find out what is being done to prevent sexual exploitation of vulnerable girls" in the Northwest.

Charles Taylor Gould

Q: What inspired you to make this documentary?
Mainly, it was that you see kids in deep pain ... I've been doing my work 15 years now. I work with all populations at juvenile justice because I lead skill groups [educational, cognitive restructuring, etc.], which means I get kids from all units - a girl who was trafficked and in our system because of that, a gang member, sex offender -- any of them. I hear their stories and they're almost unbelievable.

As a juvenile court counselor, your voice can be loud -- but only so loud, and the only other way I knew how to yell to Joe Public to hear these stories was to do the other thing I love, and that's making films. It's the best way to get people to hear these stories.

Q: Does this affect boys as well as girls?
It's predominantly girls, yes. Make no mistake, there are boys out there who are sexually victimized. The thing that kills me about it is some of these kids are 4 and 5 years old when they get raped, beautiful kids, and they live in silence with this unbelievable pain. It happens to boys and girls, but mostly girls.

Q: Does your film address the issue of criminalizing prostitution when teens are victims of sex trafficking?
Yes. And about how drugs play a role in this. An amazing amount of young women and girls end up addicted to drugs and are exploited sexually because of that addiction. It happens all too often. In fact, you see a young woman talk about that in the film trailer.

These girls are treated like criminals. They're brought into detention facilities, they're sometimes tried, they  can have felonies that go with the prostitution charge.

There are more than 100 girls in Portland at any given time that are victims of sex trafficking by a pimp. And we have three beds [in the service system] dedicated to help these girls. That sounds horrible, but it's three more than we did have. So the movement is going in the right direction. People are starting to understand that these girls are victims and not criminals.

It's amazing to me that we have 100 girls in absolute crisis right now. Many need up to 9 months of treatment [which can be a combination of drug and mental health treatment, cognitive restructuring, and trauma-focused care] -- you do that math, that's a lot of money and beds. I don't know what the answer is. We've asked a lot of peole, and no one has one. The money's not there, but the problem continues.

Q: Based on the trailer, it looks like you're dealing with more than just sex trafficking. Can you say more about that?
I can't stand the term "sex trafficking." It doesn't describe what's really happening. That really comes from moving bodies from one place to another. This happens -- because Portland is on the I-5 [highway] corridor, the city is a great hub for sex trafficking. Pimps will trade girls from Seattle to Portland, Vegas, then back up to Tacoma [Washington] -- we're talking about selling children for sex. That's one end of the spectrum.

But there's more going on than that. Other facets of the documentary are about girls dealing with sexual exploitation every day, as young girls and teenagers. The sexual exploitation issue is that we as a society seem to be upping the ante as far as what is acceptable in how we sell things and what we perceive to be sexy. There's all these different things happening at once. The way they're connected -- from actual pimping to pressure to dress a certain way -- these girls are being exploited around their sexuality. It's all connected.

Q: How can the film help?
By getting the message out there, it can help young girls know they're not alone. One thing the three girls we followed in the film all have in common: they all suffered severe trauma and were left to deal with it by themselves,  because their parents were unable to help because of their own depression, or locked in drugs, or didn't care about their kids the way they should have.

The girls are still fighting their battles. Two are doing quite well, and one is still struggling. The reason they were so willing to do these interviews was that they wanted to help younger girls deal with similar situations. So I think the film can help younger girls know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there are people to help.

Equally as important, the general public needs know that the issue exists, that the service systems are aware of it, and are fighting to do something about it, that there are people out there who are at least trying to help. The more people who are aware, who stand up, who don't buy into the garbage media tells us about sexuality and girls, the better off we'll be. This is a call-to-action film.

Q: What can people do?
First, I'd say, face your own issues. We're all guilty at some level - we have a huge issue with pornography in this country, but beyond that, we often buy into the idea that younger is sexier, or women believing that they have to look young and be ditzy to get love. The experts we interviewed in the film all say, "Dive in, face your own issues, but be honest."

Second, find out who's working on this issue locally. Join an activist group, like the Soroptimists.

Third, let your local government officials know this issue's important to you. Find champions and support them.

Fourth, work to educate kids in schools about this. We need to forget this idea that kids in middle school can't handle this subject, because if we're not teaching them ways to deal with their own sexuality, and how to draw lines in terms of sexual exploitation, they're going to learn it from their peers.

Q: What's next for the film?
It still needs to be edited, but its world premier will be in January 2012, at the next conference held by the Northwest Coalition Against Trafficking. Beyond that, we're working on our distribution plan. We'd like to cut a version for use in schools, and another for adults.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.


Ben Chambers On What Juvenile Courts Should Know about Trauma and Delinquency

It's not a secret that many youth in juvenile court struggle with symptoms related to trauma, but it can be hard to remember in court, when faced with a defiant youth who's been repeatedly delinquent.

So it's great to see a new publication from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 10 Things Every Juvenile Court Judge Should Know about Trauma and Delinquency.(Even though it seems to be aimed only at judges, it's useful for all staff who work with or in juvenile court.)

Scoff at the idea that trauma could be related to breaking the law? Here's a telling observation from the publication:

It does not go unnoticed by youth when their safety and well-being is not addressed but their delinquent behavior is. These kinds of paradoxes and frustrations can increase the likelihood that youth will respond defiantly and with hostility to court and other professionals who are in positions of authority. System professionals would benefit from recognizing that imposing only negative or punitive consequences will likely do little to change the youth’s patterns of aggression, rule breaking, and risky behaviors because such a response does not address the impact of traumatic stress on the child. By recognizing and addressing the role of trauma in the lives of youth, the court and other systems can become more effective in meeting the needs of the justice-involved youth and the needs of the community.

And, just to whet your appetite, here's the first three things on the list:

1. A traumatic experience is an event that threatens someone’s life, safety, or well-being.

2. Child traumatic stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

3. Trauma impacts a child’s development and health throughout his or her life.

4. Complex trauma is associated with risk of delinquency.

For the rest of the list and lots of helpful detail, including the research behind the publication, download the full document and share it with your colleagues. Other resources on childhood traumatic stress are also available from the document's other co-sponsors, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.


Benjamin Chambers: Evidence-Based Practices for Children Exposed to Violence: A Selection from Federal Databases – and More

Seems like youth violence -- and ways to address it -- is all over the news right now.

1.  Research: Children Exposed to or Victims of Violence More Likely to Become Violent.

A study of 800 children between ages 8 and 12 showed that kids exposed to violence think it’s normal and are more likely to become aggressive.

2.  Evidence-Based Practices for Children Exposed to Violence: A Selection from Federal Databases.

This publication from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services "summarizes findings from federal reviews of research studies and program evaluations to help communities improve outcomes for children exposed to violence. It cites evidence-based practices that practitioners and policymakers can use to implement prevention services and activities for these children." (H/t to

3.  National Summit on Gender-Based Violence Among Young People: Reading Materials

"On April 6th and 7th, The Department of Education hosted The National Summit on Gender-Based Violence Among Young People. The summit brought together more than 150 major organizational, federal and academic leaders to discuss how to translate research into practice, highlight promising practices, and provide the field with the tools they need to serve our nation's students. The purpose was to engage federal partners and the broader field in developing a comprehensive federal strategy to address the issue of Gender-Based Violence among young people. Topics discussed included: domestic violence, teen dating violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault." (Hat tip to

4.  Summit on Youth Violence

The Department of Justice hosted this summit on April 4, 2011.  (You can read Attorney General Eric Holder's speech) here; and event coverage from The Crime Report here.)  Mayors and other officials from six cities -- Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Salinas (CA), and San Jose -- presented comprehensive plans to prevent youth violence in their communities. The Departments of Justice, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy are collaborating to provide technical assistance to the participating cities.

According to JUVJUST , the cities' comprehensive plans to prevent youth violence are available at, but I wasn't able to find them. However, you can find a lot of related resources on youth violence prevention on that site.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.


Illinois to Cut All Alcohol and Drug Treatment Spending – Will Other States Follow?

Blogger Benjamin Chambers brings up the subject of debilitating state budget cuts, pointing out the depressing news that the state of Illinois plans to zero-out its budget for alcohol and drug prevention and treatment programs and asks, just how bad can it get?

As of March 15, the state of Illinois is cutting its $54 million budget for alcohol and drug treatment and prevention services to zero (full disclosure: I wrote the news summary linked to here).

That's right: zero.

According to providers, that means many of them will shut down.

What's left, without state money? According to provider representatives, about 80 percent of their clients (or about 55,000 people) get treatment funded by the state, leaving 20 percent of their clients who are covered by Medicaid -- -- women only, though. The state will reportedly be cutting the amounts it reimburses for Medicaid services by six percent.

What's not precisely clear from news reports is the impact on youth treatment. Prevention services serving about 230,000 youth a year are definitely gone, but children's treatment can be covered by Medicaid - I'm not sure how that's handled in Illinois. However, in my experience, most treatment agencies rely on the volume of their adult treatment programs to support their youth treatment programs. Without the mix, I would guess that many youth programs -- even those billing Medicaid -- might not survive.

Will other states follow?

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Wanted: Insights on Trauma and Delinquency

Exposure to trauma, delinquency and school failure are related, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).  More than sixty percent of children have witnessed violence and 46.3 percent have experienced physical assault.

If you have direct experience with kids who’ve gone through traumatic experiences, you may want to join the online forum called "Chronic Trauma and the Teen Brain". Benjamin Chambers writes that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is collecting information and data.  If you can answer the following question, this forum is for you:

“Where are there opportunities within these adolescent systems to better identify, assess and intervene to support the needs and healthy development of young people affected by chronic trauma?”

For more information:

Chronic Trauma and the Teen Brain - An Online Forum

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation