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

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

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

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

[Laurie Garduque video | Accomplishments]

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

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

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

[Laurie Garduque video | Racial disparities]

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

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

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

Laurie Garduque

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

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

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

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

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

[Laurie Garduque video | Changes]

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

[Laurie Garduque video | Language]

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

Marsha Levick

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

[Laurie Garduque video | Future]

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

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

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Los Angeles Board Of Supervisors Votes To Launch ‘Historic’ Juvenile Diversion Plan

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt an ambitious plan to divert thousands of the county’s youth away from the juvenile and criminal justice systems, connecting them instead to a comprehensive array of supportive services.

Speakers stepped to the microphones to declare their ardent support for the 78-page report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” which provided the framework for the sweeping strategy proposed.

Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, speaks to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.

“This is an historic day in the history of justice reform,” Dr. Robert Ross told the board. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, one of the largest foundations in the U.S.

“We know that 80 percent of the youth now being arrested in the county could be diverted to community-based services if the plan is realized,” he said. The county could “lead the nation.”

The report said that 13,665 arrests and citations were issued to the county’s young in 2015, according to the Department of Justice Statistics. And approximately 11,000 of those 2015 arrests — “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies” — would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation under the California Welfare and Institutions Code, had the proposed program been up and running.

Ross also told the board that the Endowment had been supporting restorative justice and diversion programs in California communities such as Long Beach, San Diego and Oakland. And they had promising preliminary data, he said, particularly from Oakland.

In the course of these programs, “young people come face-to-face with the people they have harmed,” and then make a plan for “making it right with the folks they’ve harmed,” he said, plus get health services that address many of the their needs. The programs are “proven to work better than incarceration and cost considerably less,” he said.

Michael Nash, director of the Office of Child Protection, said the program will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion

Another enthusiastic speaker was Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of the Juvenile Court, now the director of the county’s Office of Child Protection.

As a judge, he’d long been supportive of youth diversion, Nash said. And now he was “very concerned” by the numbers of youth crossing over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. “But this program,” he said, will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion.

Several of the speakers described the 18-month process of designing the proposed new strategy as an unusually inclusive one, involving law enforcement leaders, local judges, county officials, health experts, community advocates and young people who had themselves been incarcerated.

The point was emphasized by Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) who, with her young colleagues, had come before the board many times, often to protest a vote, such as previous motions having to do with plans to expand the county’s jail system.

But on Tuesday, McGill talked of the honor she and other YJC members felt to be “a part of the youth diversion work group,” and how they “fully support” the plan moving forward.

She also highlighted some additional areas of focus her group thought “should be robustly included in the implementation.” They believe it is essential to protect youth from the “databases that track arrests.” This was mentioned in the report, she said, but it would require oversight.

Another of McGill’s concerns had to do with California’s Senate Bill 395, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. The new law guarantees that every young person of age 15 or under will speak to a lawyer before being interrogated by law enforcement. She stressed the necessity of including LA’s Public Defender’s Office and the Alternate Public Defender’s Office as “key partners moving forward,” so that “even young people who are being diverted have an opportunity to speak to counsel.”

Jessica Ellis, the director of Centinela Youth Services, was also on the subcommittee that created the diversion program-to-be. She told the board how “critical” it was to have “system-involved youth” continue to be part of the “implementation phases” of the project. Centinela Youth Service has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a successful restorative justice diversion program, which has frequently been cited as evidence that the newly presented countywide strategy is on the right track.

Peter Espinoza, the director of the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, had some suggestions along with his praise: the wish that “our menu of services is robust and diverse” and would include “a very serious focus on education and job readiness.” Most of the work he previously did as Superior Court judge, he added, “was aimed at the intersection of educational failure and justice system involvement.” The new diversion

When  it was time for the five board members to vote,  Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board’s chairman, asked the board’s executive officer to record a unanimous vote.

“Giving youth access to supportive services as an alternative to arrest and incarceration is both morally imperative and fiscally responsible,” he said later, after the vote was finished.

Motion co-author Janice Hahn agreed: “The best juvenile system is one that keeps kids out of it in the first place.”

This story was written for WitnessLA.

The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story was written for WitnessLA.

How to Create an Effective and Equitable Juvenile Justice System in Michigan

Two 15-year-olds, Ryan and Michael, are both arrested for simple assault. While Michael is ordered to complete a diversion program, Ryan is to be locked up for six months in a juvenile facility. Why the difference in punishments? They live in different counties in Michigan.

Every youth, from Detroit to Marquette, deserves the same chance to overcome the mistakes of youth and reach his or her full potential. Simply put, that’s not happening today. Stakeholders have been talking for years about reforms needed that address geographical and racial disparities and that emphasize rehabilitation rather than punishment. Despite broad bipartisan support, the reforms have stalled.

Michigan’s current juvenile justice system is decentralized and inconsistent. Each county has its own complex system of jails, local courts, budgets and private providers. The entire system needs to be reformed so that it provides fair and equitable outcomes for all youth. For this to happen, all counties in Michigan need the tools to provide appropriate treatments that address the complex needs of youth in the system.

Research into brain development shows that a youth’s ability to reason and exercise sound judgment continues to improve well into their mid-20s. Since minors are likely to outgrow impulsive behavior, diversion programs and community treatment options better serve them. But currently counties in Michigan are not consistent on how and whether they use evidence-based diversion programs, treatment services and assessment tools.

Michigan's current approach is also expensive. Michigan is one of just five states that treat 17-year-olds as adults if they are charged with a crime. On average, locking youth in adult prisons costs taxpayers $34,000 a year per prisoner. Worse still, youth who serve time in prison are more likely to reoffend after being released back into their communities and are more likely to commit a violent offense than their peers in the juvenile justice system. The policy of adjudicating 17-year-olds as adults is at odds with the research that shows youth are better served by rehabilitative and positive youth development practices.

In spring 2016, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a Youth in Prison Legislative Package to address problems facing the system. The package passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but died in the Senate.

Stakeholders are currently renewing discussions to bring about change in Michigan’s juvenile justice system. It is important for this talk to turn into action. Going forward, policymakers should consider these guiding principles to achieve statewide improvements:

  • Every young person deserves fair and effective support to become a productive, law-abiding adult.
  • A child’s development and well-being greatly impact future success.
  • Systems should be designed to meet the developmental characteristics unique to youth.
  • Policies and practices should effectively identify and address disparities among vulnerable youth and marginalized communities.
  • Public safety is improved when young people are given the opportunity to thrive.
  • A child-serving system should use data and research to inform best practices and wisely invest.

Some local juvenile justice systems have taken the initiative to make improvements by investing in evidence-based assessments. Others are establishing diversion programs, school partnerships and effective community-based alternatives to detention and incarceration. But statewide reform is incomplete until this work is taken to scale and all 83 counties have the access, knowledge and resources to address the needs of justice-involved youth.

Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.

States Consider Options for Young Adults in Justice System

All of Roca’s programming is tailored for high-risk young people who are not yet ready, willing or able to participate in group programs. High school education classes, workforce readiness and cognitive behavioral skills are taught in one-on-one classes and in small groups.
All of Roca’s programming is tailored for high-risk young people who are not yet ready, willing or able to participate in group programs. High school education classes, workforce readiness and cognitive behavioral skills are taught in one-on-one classes and in small groups.

WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, juvenile justice reformers have used developments in adolescent brain science and psychology to make their case for a system that emphasizes rehabilitation and second chances for young offenders.

Those same developments now are helping fuel an interest in how the criminal justice system treats young adults. This population has plenty in common with their younger counterparts because they, too, are still maturing, researchers and policymakers say.

And, because young adults ages 18 to 24 are disproportionately likely to commit crimes and to reoffend, they’re a prime target in the quest to reduce mass incarceration, they add.

“We don’t want crime. We don’t want victims. Our goal is to protect society. So, where do we look next?” said Lael Chester, a research fellow in the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which has promoted the idea that young adults are a population worth paying attention to.

Jurisdictions across the country have recently began rolling out experiments related to young adults, with more action expected this year and beyond:

  • A community court in Cook County, Illinois, will focus on young adults ages 18 to 26, using restorative justice techniques that emphasize healing relationships between victims and offenders;
  • Five counties in California will have the flexibility to allow some young adult offenders ages 18 to 21 to serve their time in juvenile correctional facilities.
  • The federal government has provided $31 million in grants to organizations that can design programs to help young adults re-enter the community after serving their time in prison; and
  • Lawmakers in Connecticut are expected to debate once more this spring whether to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, so that youth remain in the juvenile system until age 21 rather than age 18. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, has championed the headline-grabbing proposal.

“If we get it right with this age group, if we intervene and significantly change their behavior for the better, we can use this as a way to improve public safety,” said Brent Cohen, senior advisor to the assistant attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs at the Justice Department.

As reformers consider if and how to change the justice system for  young adults, they will have to grapple with plenty of hard questions, including how to tailor services to the needs of young adults and how to explain to elected officials and the public the need for a new focus.

Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said the juvenile justice field likely will have plenty of advice to offer about how to take a developmentally appropriate approach to reform.

“I would hope those who are leaders in the juvenile justice field see themselves as resources to share their knowledge and their experiences of what’s worked and what hasn’t worked,” he said.

Roca’s youth workers reach out dozens of times to high-risk young people over weeks and months, and keep coming back until they build trust and are able engage in harder conversations and push behavior change.
Roca’s youth workers reach out dozens of times to high-risk young people over weeks and months, and keep coming back until they build trust and are able engage in harder conversations and push behavior change.

Crafting appropriate responses

Discussions about tackling the young adult population draw on the fields of adolescent brain science and psychology. Scientists have shown teenagers have less control of their emotions and are more willing to take risks, findings that have propelled the idea that “kids are different” when it comes to their culpability for crime and potential for rehabilitation.

“Adolescents just aren’t as good as adults at putting on the brake,” said Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California-Irvine.

However, as researchers have charted for the past two decades the way adolescents develop, they also realized there’s no that separates a teenager from an adult, arguing that development continues into a person’s mid-20s.

“You can’t with a straight face say that 18-year-olds are adults and 17-year-olds are not. You just can’t,” said Lisa Jacobs, program manager at the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University in Chicago, which has a young adult research initiative.

But the fact that maturation is a process means a 15-year-old is not identical to a 20-year-old, not when it comes to their exact developmental stage, and not when it comes to the programs they need to thrive in society after criminal justice involvement.

“What a 21-year-old needs and what a 16-year-old needs and what a 10-year-old needs are not the same,” Cauffman said.

For example, the education, housing and social needs — the very things policymakers will have to consider when they craft programs — could all differ for young adults compared with their younger counterparts.

When Connecticut first mulled raising the age to 21, a group of prominent adolescent researchers warned that the science wasn’t settled on whether young adults’ brains were so immature that they deserved the same treatment as teenagers.

Jacobs said that’s a fair point — that there are thorny questions about how to make programs work for young adults, especially if reformers use a juvenile justice framework as their starting point. But that’s not a reason to abandon the effort before it even begins, she said.

“You don’t have to use the same system, you don’t have to use the same program, but there are things we can learn,” she said.

Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning in Connecticut, said a common worry he heard when the legislature considered raising the age to 21 was that young adults didn’t belong in the same facilities as much younger teenagers.

He’s replied that the proposal isn’t intended to suggest that 20 years old is the same as 16 years old, or that young adults and teenagers should live in the same spaces while detained. The motivation instead is that the rehabilitative, community-based and developmentally informed approaches that have guided reforms for juveniles are worth looking at for older offenders.

“That mechanism is what we’re trying to take advantage of,” he said.

Schindler, at JPI, said researchers heard a similar idea last year when the think tank held stakeholder roundtables on potential young adult reforms with leaders from law enforcement, juvenile and adult corrections, the courts and community-based organizations, researchers and formerly incarcerated young people. No one suggested the juvenile system was perfect but they thought it could be a starting point.

And for the most part, the roundtable participants did not support creating a third system just for young adults but instead applying what works in juvenile justice to young adults in the criminal justice system, with a focus on community-based programs.

In their final report on the roundtables, JPI wrote that the field also should be aware of the potential pitfalls of using brain science research to guide reforms for young adults.

“This conversation should not lead to the limitation of other legal rights, such as voting, or influence policies in other areas, like family planning,” the report said.

JPI also noted that the arguments rooted in adolescent brain development have been successfully contested in lower courts, which could limit their use in criminal justice reform.

Roca participants and their crew supervisor clean the streets of Chelsea, Massachusetts, as part of Roca’s contract with the city. The young men are in a transitional employment program, where they gain real wages for real work while learning critical job skills.
Roca participants and their crew supervisor clean the streets of Chelsea, Massachusetts, as part of Roca’s contract with the city. The young men are in a transitional employment program, where they gain real wages for real work while learning critical job skills.

What’s next?

Emily Morgan, a senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, also has been watching as states tinker with supervision and services for young adults, including in a report that outlines opportunities and difficulties jurisdictions could encounter.

She expects states will begin their efforts with low-risk, nonviolent offenders before bringing in a larger group of offenders.

Regardless of the approach though, Morgan said it’s critical to remember there’s little research on what interventions will work best with young adults. Policymakers should build in ways to track their results if they want to build a knowledge basis that goes beyond one-off projects.

“As states are pioneers in the effort everyone is going to look to them, so it’s important they know how they measure success,” she said.

States also can look to a few models of long-standing programs that may offer clues about how to provide support to young adults.

In a 2016 national scan, the National Institute of Justice identified programs across the country that focus on justice-involved young adults, including young adult courts, probation and parole programs, district attorney-led programs, community-based partnerships, prison-based programs, and advocacy and research programs.

Among the programs researchers were most frequently referred to was Roca, a community-based program in Massachusetts that has worked with young adult offenders for decades.

Roca uses an intensive model focused on young adults who leave prison and are at high risk for reoffending. For months, caseworkers will contact potential participants, stopping by their homes and calling them over and over until they can establish trust and begin to help someone rebuild their lives.

Anyone hoping to work with young adults should recognize that it isn’t an easy job, said Yotam Zeira, a spokesman for the group.

“You have to build the capacity, the culture and recognize that it’s hard. You have to provide training and support for staff to keep up with it,” he said.

But Zeira is encouraged by the conversations he hears happening about young adults.

“The world is kind of catching up,” he said.  

New Zealand Sees Success With Culture-specific Youth Courts, Family Group Conferences

Te Wharenui (the carved meeting house) of Manurewa marae.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It’s midmorning on a Friday in Manukau’s Youth Court, and Judge Philip Recordon is sitting behind the bench, speaking to Thomas, a young teenage boy (his name has been changed to protect his privacy). The others in the room, including police prosecutor Sgt. Richard Spendelow, a lawyer, and representatives from Child, Youth and Family (CYF), are discussing Thomas’ case while he stands quietly.

Recordon tells Thomas he can sit down, then sets his curfew: He isn’t allowed out between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. unless he’s with his mother or aunt, and he’s not allowed any contact with the friends he was with when he got into trouble. Thomas’ mother sits behind him, her forehead furrowed. They’ve recently lost their house, and though they have short-term, emergency housing, the stress of that situation is clearly compounded by her son’s court case.

Spendelow looks at her and asks that if her son breaches curfew, she call the police. She nods.

Spendelow turns back toward Thomas.

“You can tell the judge whether your mom’s going to have to make the call that will break her heart,” he says.

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Thomas’ charges are for trespassing, burglary and using threatening language. That they landed him in court mean they’re considered serious — experts estimate that only 15 to 20 percent of youth offenders end up in court. For the remainder of the cases, which are often petty, opportunistic crime, police have the flexibility to make decisions based on the context and details of the case, with a focus both on diverting young people from entering the court system and involving their families and communities in the rehabilitative process.

“You often get a young person where things go wrong; there might be divorce at home or someone dies or there’s some kind of crisis and they might commit a lot of minor persistent offending over a couple of weeks or a couple of months,” said Nessa Lynch, senior lecturer at Victoria University School of Law. “The New Zealand system allows police officers to really use their discretion and their common sense to deal with that situation.”

Nearly two months later, Thomas has transitioned to Te Kooti Rangatahi (youth court, in Māori). Though in many ways the court setup is similar — the same laws apply, and lawyers, lay advocates, a police prosecutor and social workers operate under a presiding judge — Te Kooti Rangatahi is specifically for Māori, a group that makes up 62 percent of young offenders who appear in court, and approximately 16 percent of the overall population.

Held on the marae, which is a Māori community space, the Rangatahi court incorporates tikanga Māori (roughly, Māori culture) into the court process. Since 2008, when the first Rangatahi court opened in Gisborne, New Zealand, 13 more have opened around the country. There are also two Pasifika courts in Auckland, focused on incorporating cultural practices from various Pacific Islands.

In addition to the cultural aspects (including a pōwhiri, or welcoming ceremony, to begin the day), the main difference is the involvement of Māori elders, who sit on a couch along the wall and take turns speaking after the judge.

In court, Thomas introduces his mother to Judge Gregory Hikaka, the presiding judge, as he did in Judge Recordon’s court. This time though, he introduces himself with his pepeha, a recitation of his ancestry. The introduction serves to tell the court who he is and where he comes from, with the goal of rooting him further into his culture.

“Hopefully it’s a way to make them proud of who they are,” said Judge Frances Eivers, who also presides over Rangatahi courts.

In 1985, then-Minister of Social Welfare Ann Hercus commissioned a report on her ministry, asking a committee to examine how well it worked with Māori. The result was a damning report called Pauo-te-Ata-tu (Daybreak) that focused on institutionalized racism targeting Māori.

Judge Philip Recordon behind the bench in Youth Court.

Partially in response, in 1989, the Children Young People and Their Families Act overhauled the processes in place, which largely still looked at the justice system as a way to care for children in need. The new act emphasized the importance of family and culture in the youth justice system, and shifted the focus toward diverting offenders from formally entering the system.

While CYF (which is currently transitioning to the title “Ministry for Vulnerable Children”) and the Ministry of Justice partner in administering youth justice, the police department is perhaps the biggest player in the system, as the first and often last line of defense. They are required to handle as many cases as possible outside of the courts.

Ross Lienert, youth manager for the New Zealand Police, says the majority of young offenders are “adolescent limited,” meaning that their offending is limited to their teen years, and they won’t continue to commit crimes past adolescence.

“They would stop offending if we did nothing at all, so the response is generally pretty light — reparation, an apology, some form of closure,” he said.

In addition to punitive measures, part of the police’s work is to remove the need to commit these offenses again. A teen who has committed a minor assault may be required to attend anger management classes; one who is driving without a license may be supported to get his or her license. Depending on whether or not victims are involved, this may be enough. Otherwise, the case is escalated.

“Legally we’re required to deal with the underlying causes, but we also need to hold the child or young person accountable for their offending and deal with the victims,” Lienert said.

One of the tactics that goes hand-in-hand with court is the Family Group Conference (FGC). When a case is too serious to be dealt with by the police alone, it will be sent to an FGC. FGCs are the core of the youth justice system, and nearly all offenders who commit a serious offense will be required to attend one. If a child is arrested, they will first go to court, then an FGC.

In the conference, a facilitator, offenders, their families and other professionals meet to discuss a plan. The first step is to discuss the offense and for the young person to admit their wrongdoing. Next, everyone except for the family leaves the room, and the family and offender develop a plan to hold him or her accountable. This could include community service, drug and alcohol counseling or even parenting programs for the offender’s family. In the final step, everyone meets again to discuss the plan and assign roles and responsibilities to everyone in the room.

In FGCs, the victim is entitled to be there. Although not all conferences involve the victim, the ones that do fall under the restorative justice category. While definitions of restorative justice vary, the main theme is the idea that providing a healing process for the victim and the offender allows the offender a better chance of rehabilitation, and the victim a greater sense of justice.

“The theoretical idea is that you’re supposed to be be returning the power of the offense to the people who are most affected by it,” Lynch said.

Paul Hapeta, a Family Group Conference facilitator who works in Wellington, has seen lots of success come from the FGCs. One that stands out for him is a conference where a young boy had done a “smash and grab” from a local shop, stealing valuable merchandise. As part of FGC plans, many young offenders are required to do community work. Instead, he was sentenced to work in the victim’s shop after school for three months, learning valuable skills in addition to working toward reparations. After he completed the service, the shop owner offered him a job.

Police Prosecutor Sgt. David Mundy, Māori elders Toimai Katipa, Mere Komene (back), Judge Gregory Hikaka, elders Te Miharo Munro and Taipari Keepa inside Te Wharenui (the carved meeting house).

“The victim feels satisfied that he’s part of the solution and the young person gets to experience something they otherwise would not have experienced, and they don’t see the victim as being a faceless person any more,” Hapeta said.

For cases more serious, like Thomas’, offenders will end up back in court after the FGC, but that doesn’t mean the charge will always stay on their record. Depending on the charge’s severity, and whether the teen meets the requirements, the judge can decide to give a “282 discharge,” which in effect clears their record, meaning that they go into adult life without a criminal history. For Thomas, this can mean the ability to travel out of the country in a few years to pursue his dreams.

As she does every time an offender receives a 282 discharge, Te Miharo Munro, one of the four elders, stands up to sing a song of appreciation and respect to Thomas.

Te aroha (Love)

Te whakapono (Faith)

Me te rangimarie (Peace)

Tatou tatou e (For us all)

“You’ve grown in stature. Do you know what that means?” Judge Hikaka asks, and for the first time, Thomas smiles.

“It means you’ve grown to be a more responsible young man.”

At Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn Teens Get to Work with Pros on Their Songs

Brandon Ridenour, of Carnegie Hall’s Affiliate Ensemble, performed a horn solo.
Brandon Ridenour, of Carnegie Hall’s affiliate ensemble Decoda, performs a horn solo.

NEW YORK — In the Resnick Education Wing 10 floors above the main stages of historic Carnegie Hall, a teenage girl named Breanni stood nervously in front of the crowd. She was chosen to kick off the Musical Connections concert this week, presented by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoBut Breanni stood frozen before her peers and family members, well-dressed in black and white, her long hair styled in braids. She struggled to recite her poem, which would be the opening piece of the night.

“I’m mad scared, guys!” Breanni said into the microphone with a laugh.

Wednesday night’s concert was the culmination of eight weeks of workshops provided by Musical Connections, which connects communities with the resources to positively express themselves via music. Students from Brooklyn’s Belmont Academy, a nonsecure detention and placement site, could take part through partnerships the program has with the New York City Department of Education and the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

The teens worked diligently with Carnegie Hall’s resident hip-hop duo Circa ’95 and affiliate chamber music ensemble Decoda to produce and record six original songs, complete with musical arrangements and lyrics. Bronx-based nonprofit Voices UnBroken also provided workshops to produce poems that described the deeper meaning behind each song.

hub_arrow_2-01Once she regained her composure, Breanni read her poem, “Black & West Indian Roots Is Poppin,’” in which she used similes to describe the look, taste, smell and sounds of her culture. Her poem was an introduction to “Who Am I?” the first song of the night, co-written by Breanni and her peers Diamond, Madeline, Orson and Tiyanna.

“This song is about who I am because people think I cannot be who I wanna be,” Madeline said into the microphone as Kris Saebo of Decoda played moody bassline that reverberated over bandmate Conor Meehan’s steady drum beat.

While the teens looked proud and confident as they performed onstage, it was a struggle to attract them to the program at first. Aiyana Allman, director of placement operations at ACS, said she first connected Belmont with Musical Connections last year when the school had no resources for after-school activities. Allman said the staff had to get creative in order to pique the teens’ interest.

Diamond emceed on the song “NYC.”
Diamond emceed on the song “NYC.”

“Kids were disengaged at first,” Allman said. “It took prompting — we played one album recorded by another group during their lunch periods, to let the other kids know what to expect.”

Ann Gregg, director of community programs at Carnegie Hall, built the Musical Connections program over the past seven years. Starting with one detention facility, the program’s outreach grew to four buildings within ACS, then to seven probation offices including the South Bronx’s Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON). The program also extended its outreach to Riker’s Island and Sing Sing.

[Related: Juvenile Justice Reformers Driven by Memories of Mistakes in Their Less-informed Past]

And while she says she has improved the program over time with feedback from former participants, she agreed that the main challenge is getting the teens to engage and realize their strengths.

“They don’t know it, and they don’t show it,” Gregg said. “The challenge is to get them to a place of trust and that builds over time. The staff’s challenge is to open them up, but another challenge is saying goodbye as they continue on pathways to continue their school transitions.”

The concert was all about celebration of the teens’ hard work. Each teen shone as they performed their own music and sang their own lyrics inspired by the struggles they face. A breakup song titled “Leave Me Alone” by participant Dan Lin detailed the pain of heartbreak felt by a young girl who discovered her boyfriend’s infidelity; a song called “Open Your Eyes II: Overcoming Struggle” featured hip-hop bars over a jazzy beat with the hopeful message of overcoming adversity.

Closing out the night were teens Ariyanna and Diamond. The emcees performed a song titled “NYC,” an ode to the streets where they grew up. In the first verse, Ariyanna spat the lines “Never had an angel, my mentor’s name is Satan / Massive attack, don’t I sound like Nicki? / That’s my next step, but these haters tryna get me,” name-dropping Grammy Award-winning female rapper Nicki Minaj, who grew up just a train ride away from Carnegie Hall in Queens.

The crowd cheered along. Ariyanna said for her, joining Musical Connections was an easy decision.

“They came to my school and they helped me write music to get our voices heard,” she said. “And I did it cause I love to write.”

The program helped her learn how to communicate with her peers and work together as a creative team. Ariyanna draws her inspiration from the New York-based R&B and hip-hop artist Ashanti.

“I learned to commit to social responsibility, too,” she said. “Social responsibility is taking actions for yourself and others with open communication.”

Reph Star, half of the hip-hop duo Circa ’95 that helped the teens produce their music, said using hip-hop as a form of self-expression was a no-brainer due to the genre’s history of promoting social change.

“Hip-hop music was born in Bronx at a time ... they were cutting arts out of schools, the housing struggle — similar things that are happening today,” he said. “Hip-hop was born out of that. That’s the essence of hip-hop.”
“It’s also about speaking truth to power,” Circa ’95 member Patty Dukes said. “When hip-hop gave someone a microphone, it was the moment where we got to hear the voice and got to hear what was going on in the community. Hip-hop is the voice of the people, hip-hop is identity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story has been updated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the research was about more than just identifying problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Case Now Strong for Ending Probation’s Place As Default Disposition in Juvenile Justice


Forty-plus years after sociologist Robert Martinson rocked the worlds of juvenile and criminal justice by declaring that “nothing works” in offender rehabilitation, Jens Ludwig and his colleagues at the Chicago Crime Lab have gone on a remarkable roll.

hub_arrow_2-01In a series of carefully controlled studies since 2012 testing a variety of strategies to prevent delinquency or reverse behavior problems of already adjudicated youth, Ludwig and his team have documented dramatic positive impacts on violent offending, other offending and the closely linked domain of academic success.

  • One study examined the impact of an inexpensive, light-touch intervention program called “Becoming A Man” (or BAM) on seventh- to 10th-graders in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. In BAM, trained counselors employ cognitive-behavioral techniques to teach groups of high-risk students to “stop, look, and listen” in emotionally charged situations where poor decisions can lead to severe consequences. Students assigned to BAM (plus an after-school sports program) had 44 percent fewer violent crime arrests during the program period and 38 percent fewer arrests for other offenses than a randomly assigned control group. The intervention, which also yielded long-term gains in academic achievement, cost only $1,100 per participant.
  • In a random assignment study with high-risk ninth- and 10th- graders in Chicago, some students were selected to participate in the same Becoming A Man program, others in BAM plus intensive math tutoring, while a control group received no special services. Again the results were remarkable. Students in either of the treatment groups (BAM, or BAM plus tutoring) proved 66 percent less likely to fail a class than control group youth. Also, they made dramatic gains in math achievement, had 25 percent fewer absences and showed behavioral improvements consistent with a 26 percent reduction in future violent crime arrests.
  • A third study tested the impact of a BAM-like cognitive-behavioral program inside the Cook County Temporary Detention Center, where facility administrators were seeking to improve the quality of care in the facility one unit at a time. From November 2009 to March 2011, youth were randomly assigned either to treatment-as-usual units or to units incorporating the CBT training along with increased educational requirements for staff and a new “token economy” to reward positive behavior. Youth in the reformed units returned to detention 21 percent less often following release, and they were 10 percent less likely to be involved serious disciplinary infractions while in the facility.

Standing on the shoulders of recent research documenting the effectiveness of other adolescent intervention models, these studies leave no doubt that our society has amassed a wealth of new practical knowledge on how to reduce delinquency. Combined with revolutionary advances in brain science and adolescent development research, the Chicago Crime Lab studies help to clarify the dimensions of a more targeted approach for combating delinquency and improving outcomes for high-risk youth generally.

If only our nation’s juvenile justice systems took proper notice.

Evidence against probation’s effectiveness

Think about it: Well over half of all youth adjudicated delinquent in U.S. juvenile courts each year are sentenced to probation. Even many youth referred to juvenile court but not adjudicated (24 percent in 2013) are placed on informal probation.

Yet there is virtually no evidence that probation as commonly practiced reduces the reoffending rates of youth. Quite the contrary. As I’ll detail below, what research exists on the impact of standard-issue probation suggests that, on balance, it does nothing, or next to nothing, to reduce offending. Nonetheless, probation has remained largely unchanged in recent decades, and it remains the disposition of choice for system-involved youth.

This arrangement may have been defensible in previous eras, when we lacked solid research to understand the dynamics of delinquency, the factors that propel adolescents toward lawbreaking and the characteristics of effective interventions. But that day has passed.

What should we do instead of probation? Well, there are lots of alternatives, and much more experimentation and learning to be done. But based on the Chicago Crime Lab studies and other research I suggest we begin with a pair of three-letter answers, BAM and YAP, plus two more options — citations and intensive tutoring — that lack acronyms but also make tons more sense than standard supervision for many or most youth currently enmeshed in probation.

Before talking about these alternatives, though, let me explain three reasons why probation’s central place in the juvenile justice system is so problematic.

  • The available evidence shows that probation doesn’t work.

In a 2008 review of research on probation (aka community supervision), a team of scholars led by James Bonta reported that, on average, probation was associated with just a 2 percent decrease in recidivism for both youth and adult offenders, and had no impact at all on violent offending. “On the whole,” the study authors reported, “community supervision does not appear to work very well.” Likewise, a 2012 article in the Journal of Crime and Justice reviewed the available research literature and declared that “the impact of community supervision is at best limited and at worst leaves clients more likely to recidivate.” And in 2013, a paper by Ed Latessa and his colleagues at the University of Cincinnati came to a similar conclusion: “traditional community supervision — both as an alternative to residential supervision (probation) and as a means to continue supervision after release from a correctional institution (parole) — is ineffective.”

Most recently, an updated evaluation of Ohio’s RECLAIM programs, published in 2014, found that low-risk youth referred to probation had “a 3 percent greater likelihood of reoffending compared to youth who participated in any other programs.” At every risk level, the RECLAIM study found, youth placed on probation experienced significantly higher reoffending rates than comparable youth whose cases were not processed in juvenile court and were instead placed in diversion programs.

  • New research into brain science and adolescent development makes clear that traditional probation is fundamentally ill-suited to the challenges of reversing behavior problems and fostering success among high-risk youth.

While probation practices vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, even officer to officer, the core of the juvenile probation model involves a judge imposing a list (often a long one) of rules and requirements the young person must follow, and then a probation officer keeping tabs on the young person and sometimes referring him or her to counseling or treatment services. Whenever youth formally sentenced to probation break these rules — skipping school, failing a drug test, falling behind on restitution payments, missing a required check-in with the probation officer — they are in violation of their probation and may be punished accordingly, up to and including incarceration in state or local correctional institutions. Indeed, a substantial share of youth committed to juvenile corrections facilities each year are sentenced not for committing new crimes but for violating probation rules.

Given what we know about delinquency and adolescent development, probation’s emphasis on surveillance and rule-following makes no sense. Here’s why.

Thanks to new brain imaging technologies developed over the past quarter-century, we now know that the human brain does not fully mature until age 25 or later. The last section of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for controlling impulses, weighing consequences and regulating emotions. Meanwhile, the part of the brain focused on sensation-seeking and risk taking (the limbic system) is unusually active during adolescence.

As a result, law-breaking and other risky behaviors are common, even normal, during adolescence. But in the vast majority of cases, youth grow out of their lawbreaking even without any intervention from the justice or mental health systems. What sense does it make, then, to impose additional rules on already troubled youth, heighten scrutiny of their behaviors and then punish them for entirely predictable transgressions when most would likely desist from delinquency on their own?

Increasingly, scholars have determined that the key difference distinguishing youth who desist from delinquency and those who become chronic offenders is “psychosocial maturity” — the abilities to control impulses, consider the implications of their actions, delay gratification and resist peer pressure — all of which enable the young person to assume adult roles in society (employment, marriage, parenting). As Temple University adolescence scholar Laurence Steinberg and two colleagues explained in a 2015 essay, “Just as immaturity is an important contributor to the emergence of much adolescent misbehavior, maturity is an important contributor to its cessation.”

Meanwhile, another powerful strand of recent research has found that chronic offending is tightly linked to extensive and wide-ranging exposure to trauma in childhood. And delinquency scholars have long recognized the close connection between academic failure and delinquency.

Yet, rather than concentrating first and foremost on helping court-involved young people accelerate their maturation, rather than address the traumas they have experienced or overcome their academic deficits, probation instead imposes additional rules and punishes those who — like most adolescents — are unable or unwilling to follow them.

    • Emerging “what works” research offers a valuable yardstick for determining which types of interventions effectively foster adolescent behavior change.

The juvenile justice field has also been blessed in recent decades with a wealth of new research on what works and doesn’t work in preventing and reversing delinquency. Using meta-analysis, a technique for aggregating the results of many studies to identify cross-cutting findings from an entire body of research, scholars have gleaned several clear lessons.

The first is that some types of interventions work much better than others with delinquent youth. Specifically, programs aimed at deterrence and discipline (Scared Straight, boot camps) tend to actually worsen recidivism. Programs geared toward surveillance (i.e., probation) tend to have little or no effect on recidivism. But therapeutic programs aimed at helping youth accelerate their psychosocial maturation consistently reduce recidivism rates — and by a considerable margin. These counseling and skill-building models include cognitive-behavioral therapy to help youth address anti-social attitudes and learn problem-solving and perspective-taking skills, as well as family counseling and mentoring by volunteers or youth workers in the community.

Second, correctional interventions work best when they target youth at high risk to reoffend. Mark Lipsey of Vanderbilt University has found that delinquency risk is the variable with “the largest relationship by far” with success in juvenile justice intervention programs, and that “larger effect sizes (greater recidivism reductions) [are] associated with higher risk juveniles.” The crucial corollary to this finding is that intervention programs targeting lower-risk youth are far less effective — and can even worsen outcomes.

A third lesson is that close relationships with caring and responsible adults are a key to adolescent behavior change. Canadian scholars Craig Dowden and Donald Andrews have identified relationship-building — the ability to foster open, warm and enthusiastic communication — as “arguably the most important” of the five “core correctional practices” that have consistently proven effective in improving recidivism outcomes.

How to implement reform

Taken together, the research leaves little doubt that continued heavy reliance on surveillance-oriented probation is a flawed strategy, and it is especially problematic when applied to lower-risk youth who are likely to desist from delinquency on their own.

How should the juvenile justice field correct this imbalance?

One option is to fundamentally reorient probation to do what works. This past week, I attended a probation system reform symposium organized by the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. Led by former probation officer John Tuell, the probation reform unit at the RFK Center has developed a rigorous system review process for juvenile probation offices, and it has provided extensive assistance over the past decade to shepherd just over a dozen probation agencies through that process.

Results to date are encouraging. Through the RFK process, juvenile probation agencies are rethinking their mission, improving their screening and assessment processes, crafting new response grids, retraining their officers and expanding the range and quality of their intervention programs. At least in some cases, sites are shifting lower-risk youth away from probation supervision and into diversion programs. Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, for instance, has reduced its probation population by 48 percent since 2011, more than doubled the number of youth diverted from court and developed an array of evidence-based interventions to meet the needs of diverted youth without the stigma of court supervision.

Though some RFK sites are not as focused on reducing probation caseloads or increasing the use of diversion, Tuell described trimming the probation population as “one of the primary goals of system reform.”

“We need to make sure that kids who do not need to be involved do indeed stay out of the justice system,” Tuell added. “And at the same time we still need to be able to address the needs those young people are facing” through effective alternative responses and diversion programs.

However, the RFK Center’s reform model is time-consuming and labor-intensive.  The review process itself takes 10-12 months, followed by an implementation phase that can last a year or longer.  And like any ambitious system reform aiming to shift the culture of entrenched organizations, success depends heavily on motivated participation from administrators and line staff within the local probation agency. With more than 2,000 juvenile probation offices coast to coast, the RFK approach will be difficult to replicate effectively at scale.

That’s why I believe the first step in probation reform should be shrinkage. Many or most of the young people currently assigned to supervision (which, again, doesn’t reduce reoffending) should instead be steered toward interventions with proven power to lower their likelihood of reoffending — or diverted from the juvenile court system entirely and left to mature on their own.

At a minimum, courts should refrain from employing probation to supervise young people whose cases are diverted from court and those who are referred to court but never adjudicated. And even among youth who are adjudicated, formal probation should not be imposed on youth with limited prior offending and low risk to reoffend.

Instead of probation, young people should be steered to effective intervention programs like BAM that employ cognitive behavioral therapy delivered by skilled and personable counselors to help young people learn to resist peer pressure, control their impulses, and apply restraint and forethought in heated situations.

Or they should be assigned mentors in the community who offer coaching, encouragement and support to help youth avoid lapsing back into problematic behavior patterns. For 40 years, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (or YAP) has been assigning trained advocates to work with court-involved youth as an alternative to incarceration. These advocates, who hail from the same communities as the youth they serve, form close trusting relationships with the youth and help the young people complete individualized service plans developed in partnership with their families.

A recent analysis found that 86 percent of participating youth in multiple YAP sites nationwide were not arrested while participating in the program, which typically lasts four months, and 93 percent were still living at home when the program completed. (Similar programs not affiliated with YAP operate in Maryland, and in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.)

Or, given the powerful impacts documented in Chicago, diverted youth should receive intensive math tutoring to help them bridge academic learning gaps that commonly frustrate youth and cause them to drop out of school, greatly exacerbating their risk for delinquency.

Finally, for those youth whose offenses are minor and who show limited risk for future offending, the juvenile court should avoid any action beyond a warning. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis by Canadian scholars Holly Wilson and Robert Hague found that diversion from court is more effective in reducing recidivism than the traditional justice system. Diversion was superior to court processing, whether diverted youth received only a caution or were referred to a counseling or intervention program. In fact, low-risk youth receiving only a caution fared better than those referred to a diversion intervention.

In recent years, Florida has steadily expanded the use of “civil citations” in lieu of arrest and court processing for first-time misdemeanor offenders. In 2014-15, nearly 12,000 young people received these citations.  State recidivism data show that only 4 percent of citation youth reoffended, as compared to 13 percent of youth placed in court-supervised diversion programs and 17 percent for youth placed on probation.

There are, of course, many probation officers, and even some whole probation agencies, who are doing their best to heed the research, divert youth whenever possible and provide the most promising, evidence-based care for youth with more serious offending behaviors who really do require supervision.
But for the hundreds of thousands of youth nationwide who are guilty of minor misbehavior typical for adolescence, the lesson is clear: When it comes to probation, less is more.

This story has been updated.