Kansas Overhauls Juvenile Justice System, Emphasizes Community-Based Reinvestment

Kansas State Capitol Building
Kansas State Capitol Building

Kansas has become the latest state to overhaul its juvenile justice system, with a set of reforms projected to reduce the number of juveniles in custody by more than half and save tens of millions of dollars.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, signed the sweeping legislation, SB 367, after it cleared the Republican-controlled legislature earlier this year with only a handful of dissenting votes during a tough budget season.

hub_arrow_2-01“This bill is about being smart on crime. It aligns our juvenile justice system with what research shows works best to reduce victimization, keep families strong, and guide youth toward a better path,” he said in a news release.

Like recent reforms in other states, the law aims to reduce the juvenile justice system’s reliance on youth incarceration and emphasize the use of community-based treatment programs for young offenders.

Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project at Pew Charitable Trusts, said the reforms address the system from top to bottom.

“It is easily one of the most far-reaching and comprehensive juvenile justice reforms in recent memory,” he said. Pew assists states with analyses and policy recommendations.

The reforms are projected to cut out-of-home placements by 60 percent by fiscal year 2022 and save $72 million during a five-year period beginning in fiscal year 2018. Each year, the state will direct any savings from a reduced reliance on youth incarceration to a Juvenile Justice Improvement Fund that will pay for community-based programming.

“It provides a continuous, positive feedback loop when savings are reinvested in the programs that are improving the success rate, which in turn saves more money,” Gelb said.

The law also:

  • establishes a multiagency Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee;
  • phases out the use of group home placements except in limited circumstances; and
  • establishes case length limits that determine how long a juvenile can remain under the court’s jurisdiction.

Some prosecutors in Kansas are skeptical of the new law.

The Kansas County and District Attorneys Association said in a news release that the law will "undermine the discretion of the courts to hold offenders accountable and protect the public."

The group also is concerned about whether funding will be adequate to support the reforms and said prosecutors should have had more say in shaping it.

"A bill this expansive, and potentially impactful deserved more input from those ultimately responsible for its successful implementation. That said, the KCDAA will remain vigilant and actively engaged in the process necessary to ensure this bill achieves the stated goals," the group said.

Kansas is the sixth state to participate in a juvenile justice reform project run by Pew, after Georgia, Kentucky, Hawaii, South Dakota and West Virginia. A bipartisan group of judges, district attorneys, law enforcement officers and public defenders began studying the juvenile justice system in June 2015 before making recommendations to the legislature in December.

The group found that while the juvenile arrest rate in Kansas had dropped more than 50 percent from 2004 to 2013, the number of youth under community supervisions or in residential placements hadn’t fallen as fast. In addition, a growing number of juveniles in out-of-home placements were lower-level offenders, a trend the group attributed to a lack of community-based options.

State Sen. Greg Smith, a Republican who participated in the working group, said he was skeptical about the idea of reforms at first.

“My initial reaction was this is just another way to coddle kids,” he said.

But the data won him over, turning him into a champion for the bill in the Senate. He said it became clear that early intervention and community-based treatment held the most promise to get young people on the right track, rather than locking them up — a case he also made to his colleagues.

“Rather than keeping kids from reoffending we were teaching them to reoffend,” he said.
Benet Magnuson, executive director of the nonprofit justice center Kansas Appleseed, a member of Kansans United for Youth Justice, said he’s thrilled with the legislation.

The group will be encouraging communities to embrace reforms, especially the promise of reinvestment.

“The law’s in place, the funding’s coming into place, but now it’s up to the communities in Kansas to really implement the reforms,” he said.

This story has been updated.

Proposed Georgia Budget Shifts Money to Community Programs

BASICS: Macon Youth Development Campus, Macon, Georgia. All girls facility, rated for 94 beds, at time of visit the population was 81 girls—60 african American, 14 Caucasians, and 6 other. Most are designated felons. Commitment and detention. Director Debbie Blasingame says the girls are challenging, hold you to your word, moody, motivated, and eager. It is the only facility for girls in the state, so transportation and distance are issues. Average stay is less than 12 months. They were under a DOJ (dept. of Justice) MOA (memorandum of understanding) for 10 years, until 2009. 75% of the population has mental health needs and 2/3 of that population is on psychotropic medication. All girls in behavior unit, shouting at each other, very dramatic, held in cells, very jumpy over anything that breaks thier routiene. Names on walls are names of juvenile corrections officers. Suicide watch. Guard sits in front with a clipboard, different genders can observe the girl, if the girl has to use the facilities in her cell, they switch to a female officer.
A 15-year-old girl on suicide watch, under constant surveillance. Macon Youth Development Campus, Macon, Georgia.

JONESBORO, Georgia — Leandra Phommavongsay began his speech to the dozen or so teenagers gathered in the back of a Clayton County courtroom by recounting his recent travels.

He had been to California, and before that to Florida and to Texas, all places he hadn’t ever expected to go when he was growing up in small-town Georgia, south of Atlanta.

“I just came from San Francisco. I’m not sure you’ve ever seen San Francisco. But San Francisco is beautiful,” he said.

He had once been like them, Phommavongsay, now 21, told the teens sitting in two rows, a few parents scattered among them. He hung out with the wrong crowd, and got into trouble with the cops for petty, and sometimes not so petty, offenses.

They could go to San Francisco, too, the way he had for a job detailing cars. But only if they made the right choices during their time in the Second Chance Court program, a community-based diversion program that seeks to keep teenagers out of long-term lockup.

“Grow, man. Think, man. Forget the weed. Forget those bums on the block,” he said.

He grinned at them. “Go to Miami and get crazy on the beach.”

Phommavongsay landed in Second Chance five years ago after charges that included robbery and aggravated assault. The program has a long list of requirements, including strict GPS monitoring, regular school attendance, participation in programs such as drug treatment or family therapy and meetings with court officials.

He completed the Second Chance program, went to cosmetology school and works in a print shop. He thinks he would like to open his own business someday.

Without the program, he says his life would look much different: “I’d be dead or in prison.”

Second Chance Court is the kind of program counties across Georgia have deployed as part of an ongoing juvenile justice reform effort than began in 2013. Like states across the country, Georgia wants to keep teens out of prison and in their communities, with better outcomes for families, public safety and the state’s bottom line.

The Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature passed the reforms unanimously in 2013, shortly after making major changes to the criminal justice system. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, a former juvenile court judge, has championed the changes.

The Georgia reforms, rooted in an overhaul of the juvenile justice code, included a move away from locking up status offenders and the creation of a statewide database of juvenile justice referrals and results. The state also launched the Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants program to fund evidence-based programs in the counties that take their cues from programs like Second Chance Court.

Since 2013, the number of youth in secure confinement has dropped by 17 percent and youth awaiting placement has decreased by 51 percent.

Georgia’s reforms hit many of the marks for reforms rooted in evidence about what works, said Mark Lipsey, director of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University. Lipsey has helped the state, and many others, evaluate how well programs are working.

Lipsey pointed to the state’s decision to make the reforms in the statute, emphasize evidence-based practices and assemble strong leadership teams as signs of a very strong effort.

“I think what’s going on there is very much state of the art and quite remarkable,” he said.

Budget proposal

When lawmakers were considering the reforms three years ago, researchers at the Pew Charitable Trust said the state could save $85 million during the next five years, largely from avoiding the costs of building two new secure facilities.

Now, as the number of youth in detention facilities come down, the state has the potential to take money they would have spent on running the facilities and put the funding into additional community programming, said Joe Vignati, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

The latest budget proposal from Gov. Deal calls for closing one long-term Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hubyouth detention facility and moving more than $5 million into community-based alternatives. For example, the budget proposal includes $2.7 million for 40 “step-down” slots that help move kids from secure detention to residential facilities.

The code overhaul is what allowed for the slots, but the money wasn’t there in the first few years for the department to make use of them. Now they can as the savings from reform become tangible.

“We’re basically taking all those funds and moving them from secure facilities into the communities. That’s a big shift,” Vignati said.

The costs of long-term and short-term lock-up still make up more than 60 percent of the state Department of Juvenile Justice’s budget, but the costs are growing more slowly than community services in the governor’s most recent proposal.

BASICS: Metro Regional Youth Detention Center, Atlanta, GA. Rated for 150 Males and 50 females and are frequently near capacity, at time of visit the population was 189. Length of stay varies from several days to several years. The major takeaway from this visit was the discussion that the detention center does not control its front door, and that the schools in the area have a zero-tolerance policy that doesn’t allow for normal teenage behavior. When they have been to “juvie” it demystifies it and makes it less of a deterrent. They have had kids as young as 7.
Metro Regional Youth Detention Center, Atlanta.

From fiscal year 2014 to the fiscal year 2017 proposal, funding for community services grew 17 percent, from $82 million to $95 million in a budget of $334 million. Meanwhile, funding for secure commitment grew 11 percent, from $85 million to $95 million and secure detention grew 12 percent from $107 million to $120 million.

Vignati said the costs of long-term and short-term confinement should continue to come down — and the savings redirected to community programs — as the state gets a handle on just how low the number of juvenile offenders they house can go.

But even as fewer beds are used, the costs of running the existing facilities won’t go away. They require staffing, heating and maintenance. Additional costs also could come from the need to update facilities built decades ago and to ensure they’re equipped to handle the highest-risk teenagers, who aren’t placed in community services, said Vignati.

“We’re going to get tougher kids, they’re going to be more resistant to treatment so it requires more intensive services,” he said.

The state also has steadily increased the amount of funding dedicated to Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants program, from $6 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget to $8.8 million in fiscal year 2016. In the participating counties, 1,666 youth had
access to evidence-based programming in the second year of the program, up from 1,122 in the first. The programs all are ranked “effective” or “promising” on a federal registry to reduce criminogenic behaviors in juveniles and the counties have chosen programs rooted in individual, family or group therapy.

Overall, the counties saw out-of-home placements drop 54 percent in fiscal year 2015, compared with a 2012 baseline.

Steve Teske, the Clayton County juvenile judge who started Second Chance Court and has helped lead the charge for reform statewide, said the grants have been instrumental in his county.

The Second Chance program already was underway and showing significant decreases in secure commitment when the incentive program began.

However, the grant allowed the county to target the needs of youth who still were being committed, often for family dysfunction, Teske said. During fiscal year 2015, out-of-home placements dropped 63 percent in the county.

Mark Ferrante, a senior policy analyst at the Council on State Government’s Justice Center, said Georgia also has been aggressive about pursuing federal funding to support its work.

“They’re very thoughtful and proactive about applying for grants,” he said.

Next wave of reforms

As Georgia enters its third year of reforms, Vignati said the state has shown how to be smarter and more creative about juvenile justice. The key now is to build on the state’s progress.

“We have to keep our eye on what we set out to do and measure the changes and adjust the course as needed,” he said.

The  Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which is charged with making recommendations  to improve both the criminal and juvenile justice systems, called for the next wave of juvenile reforms to focus on schools in its latest annual report.

Schools are one of the largest sources of referrals for the juvenile justice system. The proposed reforms aim to clarify the roles of schools and law enforcement on campuses.

A student who shouts a swear word should be disciplined at school, not accused of disorderly conduct and sent to the juvenile justice system, said Teske, who is a member of the council. Similarly, a schoolyard fight shouldn’t automatically bring assault charges.

“The overall objective is to stop criminalizing kids for what is typical adolescent behavior,” he said.

The report recommended that schools be required to develop and use a system of progressive discipline before a juvenile complaint is filed and that school systems enter into model agreements with law enforcement that clearly delineate how student behaviors will be addressed. The council also recommended measures to improve the procedural fairness of school disciplinary proceedings.

The report also calls for the state to restrict secure detention for anyone age 13 or younger, unless they are charged with a serious crime such as murder. Since the reform, the state has seen a spike in the number of younger children held in secure detention.

“By expanding the detention of younger children and exposing such youth to the trauma correlated with detention, Georgia, is, in effect, voiding the beneficial effects of juvenile reform for this most vulnerable population,” the council said.

The reason the for the spike is because reforms that direct juveniles into community-based programs largely have affected teenagers ages 15 and older, who more likely to commit serious crimes than younger children. That has created a vacuum that has unintentionally sucked younger children into the system, said Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at the Emory University School of Law.

Carter said the state’s commitment to reform means that each round of policy recommendations can jump-start valuable conversations about what should happen next.

For example, a discussion of how the youngest adolescents in Georgia should be treated in the justice system could re-energize a debate about whether to raise the age for when teenagers are automatically treated as adults. Georgia is one of only a few states that treats teenagers as adults beginning at age 17, rather than 18.

Or, when policymakers consider the importance of restoring youth to their communities, it can prompt ideas about how to reintegrate youth who are serving long sentences, Carter said.

“I feel like we’re on solid footing. With every step forward, we start thinking about the next step,” she said.

Phommavongsay said he’s confident he can move forward as well.

He still makes mistakes, the kinds of regular growing-up moments he says feel like bumping his head, but he’s stayed out of trouble — a fact he credits in large part to Second Chance. He intends to keep it that way.

“I’ve come too far. I’ve learned too much,” he said.

Probation Camp Alternatives Work Better for Teens

Beth Caldwell PhotoThe Los Angeles Times reported in February that Los Angeles County spends $233,600 per year for each teenager it incarcerates in its probation camps. This number is alarming, particularly given that these camps are notoriously ineffective and inhumane.

Locking young people up is bad public policy even at more reasonable rates given that detention has consistently been shown to be ineffective at reducing delinquency. However, allocating so much government funding to incarcerating young people crosses the line into being unconscionable given that evidence consistently demonstrates that community-based interventions are far more effective.

There has long been a disconnect between social science research and government budget priorities in the field of juvenile justice. As Peter W. Greenwood so aptly explores in “Changing Lives: Delinquency Prevention as Crime-Control,” we continue to invest resources in popular programs such as Scared Straight, D.A.R.E. and boot camps despite clear and consistent evidence that these programs are ineffective.

hub_arrow_2-01The probation camps Los Angeles funds at the rate of $233,600 per youth have a reputation for fostering abusive and unsafe environments. In 2008, Los Angeles County entered into an agreement with the Department of Justice in response to the DOJ’s findings that “the Probation Camps violated youth’s constitutional and federal rights and subjected them to harm.” Given the inhumane treatment that permeates these facilities, it is even more troubling that the county pours its limited resources into them.

Evidence-based research demonstrates that alternatives to incarceration offering young people support and intervention in their communities are more effective than incarceration at reducing future delinquency.

For example, Functional Family Therapy, where therapists work with young people and their families in their homes to strengthen emotional connections and to support parents in setting limits, has been proven to be quite effective in studies conducted over the past 35 years. Similarly, Multisystemic Therapy, wherein therapists provide 50 hours of counseling to youth and their families over the course of four months, in addition to providing crisis intervention, consistently reduces recidivism.

On the other hand, young people who are incarcerated experience mental health repercussions that “make it more likely that [they] will engage in suicide and self harm,” according to a Justice Policy Institute report. In addition, many “face significant challenges returning to school after they leave detention.”

Further, youth who are detained are more likely to recidivate than those who are not. A recent study found that 65 percent of youth who have been incarcerated in Los Angeles probation camps recidivate, at a rate over double that of youth who are sentenced to probation while residing in their homes.

For $233,600 per year, Los Angeles could hire several full-time employees whose only responsibilities would be to respond to the needs of a young person who would have otherwise been detained. These people could provide constant supervision, counseling, substance abuse treatment, gang intervention counseling, job training and individualized educational assistance. Providing these resources to more youth in their communities would go a long way towards improving people’s lives and towards reducing future criminal activity.

The Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition advocates that Los Angeles County should reallocate just 1 percent of the funds it spends on law enforcement toward funding youth development programs. This proposal makes sense.

We ought to invest our resources into community-based interventions that have the potential to reduce crime and improve lives. Incarcerating our youth is inhumane, ineffective and wastes resources that could be used more effectively by providing resources to young people in their homes, schools and communities.

Beth Caldwell is a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, where much of her research focuses on juvenile justice. She is a former public defender and advocate for youth.

Troubled Teens Blossom in Strength-based Program With Caring Adults

gauthier-PhotoOprah Winfrey’s book, “What I Know For Sure,” comes to my mind often when I look at what life has presented me with and what I face each day. I often ask myself what do I know for sure about girls involved in our juvenile justice system.

What I know is that our girls today are scared and often lack the guidance of a caring adult. It is my experience that many girls who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have experienced some form of trauma, mental health diagnosis, substance abuse and the absence of a caring adult in their lives.

Today’s generation has a culture of allowing social media to guide our youth’s footsteps. They lack the opportunity to interact with a caring neighbor, teacher, church youth group or simply a nonjudgmental person. We have forgotten how to love our young ladies, and they are left to turn to social media such as Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat for approval.

hub_arrow_2-01Our young ladies are exposing themselves in a dangerous and vulnerable way just for a “like,” “view” or “thumbs up.” We have allowed social media to provide temporary relief for their pain and feeling of abandonment way too often. We have fewer and fewer positive venues for our young ladies, so the desire to reach out to their peers for acceptance will repeat whether they get a positive or negative response.

Lead4Life, Inc. in Maryland provides community-based gender-specific programming for girls who are involved with the juvenile justice system or are at risk of being placed out of their homes due to negative behaviors displayed in the community, school and home. Time and time again these girls start the program not having a voice, feeling insufficient, assuming no one will understand what they are going through and, most disturbing, feeling completely alone. Throughout the program, we are able to see these girls blossom.

Lead4Life uses a strength-based, Positive Youth Development (PYD) and restorative practice approach. Besides providing a safe program structure, topics that address daily life practices and a special dinner, we provide the group with caring adults. Through the strength-based model, we make sure that we acknowledge every positive decision, action or response they make. It can be as simple as arriving to school on time, helping a stranger or providing support to a peer.

[Related: Report: Juvenile Justice System Must Substantively Revamp Treatment of Girls]

The PYD model empowers the young ladies to lead the groups. They come up with the topics, community service projects and build their own community support system with peers. The restorative practice approach allows for caring adults to process the decisions the young ladies are making and the impact it is having on them personally, their community and anyone who may have been victimized by their behaviors. It empowers the young ladies to accept responsibility for their decisions and make a commitment to change what they do not like through a supportive environment. Through the three approaches, the young ladies feel empowered, their voices are heard, sharing their story is safe and they are building positive relationships with peers and caring adults.

Many say we, the facilitators of the group, have poor boundaries because we embrace the girls with a hug and tell them they are loved. If we focused on boundaries, we could not get to the core of the issues these young ladies struggle with daily. The challenging issues they face have included sexual abuse, domestic violence, a mental health diagnosis they do not agree with, failing school and, more common than not, substance abuse.

There is an emphasis on each and every strength each girl possesses, brings to the group and to their community. We celebrate each girl and all the assets they contribute. We celebrate birthdays. Many of us take our birthday for granted and think negative thoughts about how we are getting old. Many of these young ladies do not get recognized for their birthday with a card or cake so we make sure that happens in our groups.

We also allow participants who successfully complete the program to apply to become a youth leader for the program. They gain positive workforce development skills, positive communication skills, a stipend and continued support system.

Lead4Life, Inc.’s purpose is to create a culture of love and support for our participants. We are given the gift of learning from these young ladies and their struggle to find a purpose. We are addressing the school-to-prison pipeline in a very nontraditional manner but one that is extremely effective and provides a meaningful experience for most participants.

Lead4Life has been providing gender-specific programming since 2009. Since its conception we have serviced approximately 54 to 62 young ladies per year. Of those participants (annual average), 78 percent are African American, 12 percent Hispanic, 6 percent other and 4 percent Caucasian. One year after participants’ successful completion of the program, Lead4Life tracks how many youth have recidivated in the criminal justice system. On average, 74 to 78 percent of youth did not recidivate (commit a new crime), which speaks volumes to the impact we are having.

Jennifer Gauthier is the CEO of Lead4Life, Inc., an emerging nonprofit serving youth and adults in the criminal justice system. She brings both life experience and professional training to her work of empowering young people and young adults in the criminal justice system.

More related articles:

Girls in Justice System Often Traumatized Victims of Abuse

Sexually Exploited Girls in Need of Services, Not Handcuffs

California Mentorship Program Offers Comfort to Sexually Exploited Young Women


A Celebration of Peace in a Community Touched By Gun Violence

Young girls sit together at the "Children's Day of Peace" event at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.
Young girls sit together at the "Children's Day of Peace" event at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.

NEW YORK — At a children’s summer party last Saturday afternoon at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway, Penny Wrencher made an introduction between two friends.

She knew they would have something in common.

“This is Nene,” Wrencher said to Taylonn Murphy, “She lost her daughter, too.”

Murphy and Vernell “Nene” Britt smiled, shook hands and looked at each other in recognition. They had both lost charismatic, basketball-playing daughters in shooting feuds.

For more information about community-based alternatives visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub

In the summer of 2006, Britt was awakened by a phone call with news that her 18-year-old daughter, Latina “Peanut” Bilbro, had been involved in a shooting. She descended the Redfern tower where she lived and discovered Peanut lying on the pavement with a fatal gunshot wound to her chest.

THE ANONYMOUS PEOPLE SCREENINGFive years later, across the city, Murphy’s daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, also 18, was shot and killed in a hallway of Harlem’s Grant Houses.

The children’s party where Murphy and Britt met was organized by Wrencher and the Far Rockaway Police Athletic League youth summer camp as both a celebration for the community’s youth and a forum for anti-violence education. That the two met at the “Children’s Day of Peace” event wasn’t out of the ordinary. It seemed as though everyone in attendance had, in some way, been touched by gun violence.

Taylonn Murphy, Penny Wrencher, Shenee Johnson and Vernell Britt all lost children to gun violence. They came together at the "Children's Day of Peace" event at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.
Taylonn Murphy, Penny Wrencher, Shenee Johnson and Vernell Britt all lost children to gun violence. They came together at the "Children's Day of Peace" event at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.

“We were all affected by violence in different forms,” said a former Redfern resident and activist known as Queen Esther. “I’ve had family members killed. Boyfriends killed. I used to be part of that dysfunction and I suffered so much.”

Redfern Houses have been quiet lately. There hasn’t been a single shooting in the past year according to crime data from the New York Police Department. But residents remember a time, only years ago, when weekend shooting sprees would claim several teenage victims in the area.

In 2008, an aspiring dancer, Brandon Bethea, 15, was shot and killed in a shootout between rival crews from opposing sides of the Redfern Houses. Bethea’s family had moved her out of Redfern to get her away from the violence that marred the hallways and courtyards of the complex. She was there celebrating a graduation party when she was gunned down in a hail of 30 bullets.

Days later another teen, Tyrese Johnson, was gunned down in the doorway of the Last Stop Deli, just blocks aways from the houses. The 16-year-old was killed in a case of mistaken identity, police said.

They say that they are still healing from those wounds.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logo“We’re just trying to come together as a community,” said Wrencher, who lost her son, Andre Saunders, a 32-year-old MTA bus employee, in a 2009 shooting. “I don’t want to see another mother cry out.”

Party-goers wore matching T-shirts with the likeness and nickname of a lost loved one. “For the Love of Dre” read some, in honor of Wrencher’s son. Some women wore pink T-shirts with the words “Stack’s Divas” on the front, in reference to Rayquan Elliot, also known as Stack Bundles, a Redfern resident and rapper who was gunned down in 2007 and transformed into a symbol of anti-violence in the community.

In some ways, the “Children’s Day for Peace” was a kids’ summer party like any other. Wrencher transformed a seldom-used courtyard, donated to the Redfern Houses in honor of a resident who was murdered while on tenant watch in 2000, into a colorful bash. There were balloons, a DJ, a smoking barbecue station, face painting and dance performances. Homemade posters with inspirational words and anti-violence messages adorned the walls. “Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace” read one.

But according to residents, something so simple as an outdoor gathering for the kids at Redfern is an infrequent indulgence for a community that is starved for resources and constantly concerned about public safety.

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Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about community-based alternatives, including: 


“The kids need it. It’s a free day. Just a party,” said Denese Mars, 48, the center director for the Police Athletic League youth camp.

“It’s good to see them at least have something like this,” said Spud “Sleepy” Josey, 32, a former Redfern resident and father of two. Josey decided to leave Redfern Houses seven years ago when, in the middle of the day, he heard gunshots as he was getting his infant son out of his car.

“I said, ‘you know what? I’m gonna get out of here,”’ said Josey.

Penny Wrencher organized the "Children's Day of Violence" at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway. She lost a son, Andre Saunders, in 2011.
Penny Wrencher organized the "Children's Day of Violence" at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway. She lost a son, Andre Saunders, in 2011.

The rare chance to have an outdoor party for the children of Redfern also carried with it an opportunity for many community members to heal from their losses and reinvest in a safer future in the next generation of youth.

“Just seeing the kids, I get so much out of it. It makes me happy,” said Shenee Johnson, 40, who lost her 17-year-old son, Kedrick Ali Morrow, Jr., when he was shot and killed at a high school party in 2010.

“There are two ways to grieve. One is being bitter and the other is to help other people,” Johnson added.

Taylonn Murphy, the father of Chicken, has also rededicated his life to helping young people so that they don’t share the same fate as his daughter. He would like to keep a piece of her with him, he said.

Under his shirt, Murphy wore a beaded basketball necklace along with a frayed, laminated picture of Chicken in her honor.

“We don’t want to see these young people another face on a laminate,” said Murphy as he looked out at the kids enjoying the party.

See more photos from the "Children's Day of Peace" on JJIE's art blog Here.



Author Nell Bernstein Talks About ‘Burning Down the House’ and Abolishing Juvenile Prisons

Nell Bersntein, author of "Burning Down the House"
Nell Bernstein, author of "Burning Down the House"

Imagine your child — or any child you love — kneeling in a pool of his own urine while handcuffed to other children for two weeks straight, forced to subsist on one daily meal and a few hours of sleep.

Or picture the child confined to a tiny windowless room with a bare cement bunk and a metal toilet — for months.

Or being beaten or sexually assaulted — maybe both — by guards supposedly charged with the child’s rehabilitation.

Award-winning author Nell Bernstein documents such harrowing horrors in her new book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison,” a scathing indictment of state-run juvenile detention facilities in America.

The 365-page book — based on interviews with hundreds of youths and their families and dozens of experts, as well as a review of thousands of pages of documents — should be required reading for anybody working in juvenile justice. In fact, this extraordinary and important exposé should be required reading for anybody who cares about children, period.

Replete with real-life stories of children who have endured what Bernstein at times dubs modern-day “dungeons,” the book serves as a clarion call to abolish juvenile prisons. Bernstein deems them beyond mere reforming and says they should be replaced with community-based alternatives that provide real rehabilitation.

“For as long as we have locked children away in the name of rehabilitating them, the evidence has mounted that this approach is a failure on all fronts,” Bernstein writes.

Indeed, recidivism rates have soared to more than 80 percent in some states. The juvenile prisons — Bernstein quickly dispenses with euphemisms — have driven delinquent children deeper into criminal behavior and increased the likelihood they will end up incarcerated again.

Physical and sexual abuse — most often inflicted by juvenile prison staff — and psychological torture (in the form of solitary confinement) abound.

Most of the children imprisoned — more than 66,000 as of last year — are incarcerated for minor offenses and pose little risk to public safety.

"Burning Down the House" coverThe book traces the origins of the juvenile prison system to the House of Refuge, which opened in New York City in 1825. The ostensible goal was rehabilitating youth, but instead the place evolved into an abusive prison that brutally punished largely children of Irish and German immigrants.

Today, youths in juvenile prisons are disproportionately children of color from poor neighborhoods, and Bernstein says they’re more likely to have been victims of violence than to have committed it. And black teens are locked up at five times the rate of whites.

The cost of incarcerating kids is staggering: Bernstein says the United States spends an average of about $88,000 a year to incarcerate a youth in a juvenile facility. That’s more than eight times the average of $10,652 we spend annually to educate a child.

But there are glimmers of hope: Some states have shut down juvenile prisons, in part due to budget constraints, pressure from advocates, federal findings of civil rights violations and exposés in the media, Bernstein writes. And the rate of juvenile confinement has dropped 41 percent since 1995, when the “super-predator” myth prevailed. This hasn’t led to an increase in crime; in fact, juvenile crime has declined over the same period.

“These cuts [in the number of juveniles incarcerated] are rightly heralded as cause for celebration,” Bernstein writes. “But any change that is inspired in large part by a dip in tax revenues is intrinsically fragile. Buildings that now stand empty may well fill up once again, should an improved economy replenish state coffers and a fresh onslaught of fearmongering shift the political winds.”

Bernstein, who brings more than two decades of experience reporting on and working with young people throughout the country, says rehabilitation of a youth happens in the context of a positive relationship with a caring, trusted adult.

Instead, youths in juvenile prisons endure isolation — and not just in solitary — in an environment that denies those meaningful relationships as a matter of course.

"Viewed through the eyes of children consigned to exile when they most need connection, incarceration seems flat-out monstrous,” Bernstein writes.

And it’s time to get beyond the commonly held belief that only other people’s kids could be snared by this torturous vortex: Confidential surveys show as many as 90 percent of all U.S. teenagers admit they’ve committed illegal acts that could lead to incarceration. Demographers predict one in three schoolchildren will be arrested by age 23, and police arrest almost 2 million juveniles each year.

Bernstein argues convincingly that we need to stop forcing our children to endure torture. She believes strongly that delinquent children can and should be rehabilitated outside the razor wires of a juvenile prison.

“The time has come to move beyond the long battle to reform our juvenile prisons and declare them beyond redemption,” Bernstein writes. “Raze the buildings, free the children, and begin anew.”

JJIE asked Bernstein to talk about “Burning Down the House” and the broken juvenile prison system it portrays. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

(Bernstein — a 49-year-old mother of two who lives in Albany, Calif. — also is the author of the acclaimed 2007 book “All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated.”)

JJIE: What inspired you to write the book?

Bernstein: It had a long genesis. When I graduated [from Yale University] and discovered there wasn’t really much you could do with a comp lit degree, I ended up working in a San Francisco group home for girls who were on probation. And I think that was my first real experience with failure. I was 22, and they were 16 and 17, and from day one, they asked me, “Who the hell are you to tell us what to do?” And I remember thinking that that was a very good question. And I didn’t have an answer. The more I thought about it, the more I had to really question what had they had done (and in most cases, they had just gone through one too many foster homes) that would give me the authority to tell them when and whether they could eat — there was a padlock on the refrigerator — and when and whether they could see their parents. So I think that was what really got me thinking about the relationship between juvenile wrongdoing of whatever kind and the amount of their freedom that we allow ourselves to take [away] as a result. And I don’t think that I lasted a year at that job.

After that, I got a job I liked a lot better as the editor of a youth newspaper in San Francisco and spent a decade there, and there were a lot of reasons I liked it, but the central one was that the kids were there of their own volition. They weren’t working with me under court order. This was the ’90s, which was the height of the “super-predator” era, and there were months when it was hard to get the paper out because so many of my staff had been arrested, and that was really what put the depths of this issue on my radar.

JJIE: You relied heavily on the stories of young people who had endured juvenile prisons. How important were their voices in terms of getting the book’s central message across?

Bernstein:  It was absolutely central. There are plenty of brilliant books out there, many of which I relied on, that offer an incontrovertible argument, a research-based argument against juvenile incarceration. But I don’t think this is a policy that we continue with for logical reasons. I think that often we lock kids up for emotional reasons and for that reason, I felt the need to write a book that spoke to those emotions and also that would allow readers to see the kids as human. I know that sounds like it should go without saying. But when you’ve been inside a lot of these places and see how the kids are treated, you really struggle with the question of how can very decent-seeming individuals do this kind of thing to kids and how can we as the public tolerate it? And I think the only way that we can is to dehumanize them, to see them as some other kind of kid. Their stories were central to combating that.

JJIE: Why are black- and brown-skinned youth treated so much more harshly despite so much ostensible progress in civil rights?

Bernstein: I think it just goes back to the notion of “other people’s children.” There are thousands of statistics on the issue of whatever you want to call it, disproportionate minority contact, and a lot of research showing black youths are locked up about five times the rate of white youths for identical offenses under as close to identical circumstances as you can come up with. So I think the first thing is to just get rid of this notion that it might somehow be an act of God or a result of different levels of criminality. In fact, white kids sell drugs, for instance, at a higher rate than black kids but are locked up for drug crimes at a lower rate.

But that doesn’t answer your question: Why? Somebody else asked me: Do I think it’s intentional? And I think it’s so much more complicated than that. The disparities, if you want to call them that, get worse the deeper you go into the system. There are disparities at arrest but when we get into the deep end, the large state-run facilities, which are what my book focuses on, the disparities are much greater. So what that tells me is that on the road to these large prison-like facilities, there are many decision-making points: Am I going to drive through this kid’s neighborhood? Am I going to arrest this kid? Am I going to release him to his family? Am I going to sentence him to probation or am I going to confine him? So it’s not one person making one decision; it’s a whole series of decisions.

The “super-predator” notion has been discredited. That idea that we were presented in the ’90s by academics with studies that they claimed backed this up was that as the population of youth grows and — particularly and quite explicitly, the population of black youth — rose, we were going to see a crime wave like nothing we had ever seen before. And the language that was used — “remorseless,” “more savage than salvageable,” these kind of blank-eyed, completely emotionless “monsters” really who were coming to get us — was very frightening to people. And when it entered the popular culture, for example, through the large-circulation news magazines, it was almost always with the image of a glowering young black man.

But that fear is longstanding. Using juvenile facilities, whatever you want to call them, to control particular ethnic groups is nothing new. It goes back to the very dawn of the institution like the 1800s when the House of Refuge [in New York] was formed. The explicit motives were benevolent, but the truth is there was a lot of fear around Irish and also German immigration, and this literally contained that fear.

JJIE: You write that juvenile prisons have driven delinquent children deeper into criminal behavior and increased the likelihood they will end up incarcerated again. Could you elaborate on this?

Bernstein: It turns out that the greatest predictor that somebody is going to grow up and end up in an adult prison — more than family formation, more than mental health issues, more than gang involvement, even more than the offenses that that person commits — is juvenile incarceration. I think it about doubles the chance that a kid will go on to adult prison, and that’s controlling for youthful delinquency. So you take the kid who is just left alone to grow up and grow out of it [delinquent behavior], which is generally what happens, if permitted, and compare him to the kid who is incarcerated as a juvenile, and the latter kid is twice as likely to end up in adult prisons. So not only do we have an intervention that’s not working, but it’s really exacerbating the problem that it’s trying to solve.

JJIE: Why do the horrific conditions you write about — physical and sexual abuse, isolation, solitary confinement, for example — persist? Are juvenile prisons out of sight, out of mind to most people?

Bernstein: One thing that is really clear when you walk inside a juvenile facility is the degree to which it functions to dehumanize those who are kept there — taking their clothes and replacing them with a uniform, taking their name and supplanting it with a number, controlling every one of their actions, having them march in formation. It all sort of quells individuality, and that in turn allows us to see the kids as prisoners.

I remember once a young woman who I was close to was in juvenile hall, and I happened to see her file and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. [The file described] this out-of-control, kind of vicious and completely hopeless creature who bore no resemblance to the brilliant, ambitious, warm-hearted girl that I knew. And what I realized was that was the face that she was showing [staffers] under those circumstances. So in some senses, they’re creating their own monsters.

The other function of prisons beyond dehumanizing is hiding from ourselves what we’re doing — just simply the fact of putting a gate around it and often limiting press access. It allows us to not do anything about what’s going on in there because it allows us not to know.

JJIE: What about abusive staff members at these juvenile prisons? How do they live with themselves? How do they sleep at night?

Bernstein: When I would talk to the guards and also administrators, they really understood the trauma, for example, that drove young people into delinquency in a way the public doesn’t because they don’t know them. But knowing that, how can they re-traumatize them? And I remember a young man named Will Roy, who worked as my research associate on the book and did a number of interviews and also really helped refine the thinking and just helped me understand some of this stuff. And he had also spent time in a California facility himself, and I asked him that question, and we were sitting in a coffee shop, and I remember him saying, “You’ve got to realize it’s a job for them and basically we’re the product. So if a kid starts acting up, you know, banging on his door, or even just talking back, that’s basically the equivalent of running out of coffee filters.” (Roy is now on a Ph.D. track at the University of California – Berkeley.)

Another person said to me they [staff] are as institutionalized as we [juvenile prisoners] are. They go home at night, but they do 20, 30 years in these facilities, and the power of an institution is very, very strong.

Vinny Schiraldi [the former director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and now a senior adviser in the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice] talked about cognitive dissonance. And when he talked about cognitive dissonance, what he meant was you’re a young guy, you’re a good guy, you think you might be able to help some kids. You get a job at one of these places, and there’s that first time when maybe you witness a kid getting beaten up or a drug sale, whatever it is that you witness, and you have to make a choice between intervening, reporting it and basically making yourself a pariah in this culture and letting it go. And this is Vinny who I’m paraphrasing: Unless you’re a very brave person, you probably let it go and at that point, as he put it, “a little bit of evil creeps in,” and the next time it’s a little easier to let it go, and a few more times and maybe it’s a little easier to participate. When you think what you believe and what you see clash, that creates cognitive dissonance.

JJIE: You say you no longer believe the juvenile prison system can be reformed and that it needs to be replaced by community-based alternatives. Why?

Bernstein:  I started the book with a reformer’s mentality. And when I say that I’m not a reformer anymore, I don’t mean to denigrate the tremendous work that people are doing to reform [the juvenile prison system]. There is a real sea change happening. The number of kids in these institutions has dropped by about 40 percent [since 1995]. That’s a very significant drop, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that in any way. For those kids who are not locked up, it couldn’t mean more.

There’s two things that stop me from wanting to throw a party quite yet. One is that this is not the first time this has happened. In the 1970s, Jerry Miller [the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services] literally closed every facility in the state, and in a very short period of time moved kids into community placements or, in some cases, just moved them out of the system entirely, with really good results. And in the years that followed, I think 40 other states followed suit and started to cut the population of their juvenile facilities and look to community-based alternatives — all the things that we’re seeing now.

Then the super-predator scare came along. It’s very telling that after this 40 percent drop, the number of kids we have in institutions is about what it was before the super-predator scare. So I don’t think that we can count on seeing a consistent downward trajectory unless a lot us are very vigilant in making sure that happens.

The other concern is that a lot of things have driven this change, but one of them is money. States were broke and couldn’t afford to incarcerate in the numbers that they were. And that was during a time when state budgets overall were going bust, and that may change, and if we don’t have concomitant change in the way we see young people, the way that we understand their humanity and imagine their prospects, then I don’t think that we have a formula for lasting change.

JJIE: What proportion of the youths in juvenile prisons has been adjudicated for serious crimes?

Bernstein: Once that uniform is on the kid, there’s an assumption that he is an ax murderer when the truth is — especially the first time, but across the board — most kids are in for minor offenses that don’t endanger anybody. I think if you look at the state facilities, which are supposed to be for the worst of the worst, 40 percent of the kids are there for really low-level offenses like loitering or public drunkenness, truancy, a probation violation. Only about a quarter are there for what are known as violent crime index offenses, which include murder and rape but also include robbery or aggravated assault. The rest are there for — this is another phrase, it’s not  my own, but it’s used pretty widely right now — that we’re locking up kids we’re mad at, not kids we’re afraid of.

JJIE: How do you the findings in your book square with the ostensible rehabilitation goal of the juvenile justice system?  

Bernstein: Overall, I think a system where the recidivism rate is in many states 70 to 80 percent is not rehabilitating anyone. I mean that is just clear as day. The real question is: Could it? Is rehabilitation even possible in a locked environment? And I ask that because there is a trend toward making juvenile facilities more rehabilitative, or to use the word that is more popular these days, “therapeutic.” So they’re turning some of these facilities into therapeutic milieu.

But the kids will talk about how challenging it is to do the things that are required of them therapeutically like open up in group when the person leading that group might be the person who has the key to their cell. There’s just an intrinsic problem there. Some kids even talked about being told group is a safe place: It’s confidential; you can open up here. But if they either tell their story as they were asked to or if the story they told didn’t mesh with their police report, then they’d get a write-up and that write-up could mean that when they came before their probation hearing, they would end up behind bars longer. So there’s some pretty tricky issues to deal with when trying to perform therapy in a locked setting. And my sense was that it was a losing battle, especially when there are programs that have been extensively tested that are therapeutic and that allow the kid to remain in the community and have shown very positive results, including with young people who have been convicted of pretty serious offenses.

JIJE: You mentioned in the book the importance of a trusted relationship with a caring adult. How essential is that to rehabilitation?

Bernstein: I don’t think you can stress enough the importance of a relationship when it comes to rehabilitation or just growing up. It’s something that is borne out by all the research but also something that we just know as parents or as people or just from basic common sense — that kids turn themselves around and also just grow through a relationship, and I’m speaking about the main developmental tasks of adolescence: forming intimate relationships, learning gradually to take more responsibility for yourself and your life, figuring out who you are and what your place is in the world. These are all things that take place in a relationship. When we isolate kids for those [adolescent] years, we’re really stymieing their development and failing to rehabilitate them.

JJIE: So many of the kids you wrote about said they felt like they had been treated as animals. What does that say about our juvenile prison system?

Bernstein: I think it says everything. I couldn’t believe the number of times I heard that and what I almost always heard was a two-part formulation: “Treated like an animal, I became an animal. Thrown to the savages, I became a savage.” Not only did they feel they were not being rehabilitated, they felt they were being “de-habilitated.” I remember a kid who was 10 years old and he went into the youth authority, which at the time held young men up to 24, and being so scared as this tiny kid among grown men that he immediately got into fights to prove himself so that he, he believed, would be a little bit less in danger. As a result of those fights, he ended up spending months at a time in solitary confinement and as a result of that, he would talk about his main human contact being the nurse who came around with his meds every day, but education was worksheets and crayons slipped through a slot.

JJIE: You write that we as a nation spend an annual average of more than eight times as much to incarcerate a child as we spend to educate him. What message does that send?

Bernstein: I think what it tells kids – and especially kids who go to under-resourced schools in poor neighborhoods, who are also the kids more likely to get locked up — is that we will spent almost anything to contain them but almost nothing to cultivate them, that we fear them but we don’t have any aspirations for them. I think the tragedy comes when they internalize that message. I’d rather see a kid get angry than internalize the message that he is a menace, always will be and shouldn’t aspire to anything more than maybe staying out of trouble and holding down a minimum-wage job.

JJIE: Who do you most hope will read this book, and how do you hope that will change their mindset, maybe policies, hearts and minds?

Bernstein: Of course, I would like policymakers and practitioners and people who can make an immediate difference that way to see it. But I would love for some miracle to happen and for the general public to read it because I think that whatever we do as advocates, until the public begins to see these kids as not only having some value but having the same value as their own kids — that they really are their own kids — that we’re not going to see the kind of tidal shift that I think is necessary.

JJIE: You highlighted the importance of the “my-child test” that Bart Lubow¸ director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, came up with — the idea that we should treat children in the juvenile justice system as we would want our children to be treated if they got into trouble with the law. Do you apply this test to your own children?

Bernstein: Only every second of the day. My first book was about children of parents who are incarcerated. When I started to work on that book, I was pregnant with twins, so my first experience going into prisons was of doing so pregnant and as a new mother. So I think every aspect of my own journey into motherhood has been colored by this other journey I’ve been taking into the world of criminal justice. And my kids are 13 now [twins, a girl and a boy], and we talk about this stuff at the dinner table, and I remember one time we were talking about solitary confinement, and after dinner, my son wanted to try it. He wanted to take everything out of the bathroom and lock himself in and see how long he could last. Well, I don’t know how long he could have lasted because I didn’t make I happen. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the thought of it.

JJIE: How do you stay hopeful, given you’ve seen and written about so much pain and suffering?

Bernstein: Well, sometimes I don’t, for one thing, but there are things that keep me hopeful. There’s the fact that things are changing. I don’t want to dismiss the significance of a 40 percent drop [in youths incarcerated since 1995]. That’s very significant, especially to those kids who are not now incarcerated and to those parents who have not now lost their kids to incarceration, and along with that drop the change in public attitude. It’s not enough, but it’s very important and very promising, and you see it across the board. So there is a real change happening, and I don’t mean to belittle it.

The other thing that keeps me hopeful — cheesy as this may sound — is the kids themselves. I just love teenagers. And I always have, maybe with the exception of those years that I was one. I love their self-righteousness and their inquisitiveness and the way that they’re still thinking about the deep questions of life, and this is true of all teenagers, whether or not they’ve gone through these kinds of struggles.

Easing Drug Laws the Answer to the Nation’s Drug, Prison Problem – Or Precursor to More Crime?

The atmosphere of incarceration might change soon with the deliberation over the Smarter Sentencing Act, which deals with drug sentences.
The atmosphere of incarceration might change soon with the deliberation over the Smarter Sentencing Act, which deals with drug sentences. cropped.

From the Chicago Bureau: 

Alan Mills is not one to make apologies for his beliefs – and one strongly held by the legal director of the Uptown Peoples Law Center is about America’s current drug laws.

“We’re locking up too many people for too long.”

chicago logoMany laws, especially drug laws, have punishment lengths that do not fit the crime, he and other critics explain. In fact, a recent report titled “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” explains that unnecessarily long sentences contribute to America having the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration.

And these laws are harming youth in Chicago and across the country, which ensnare many youth in drug crimes early on, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

“This is a population of our society who have been neglected. We haven’t done right by them, there have been a lot of broken promises,” said David Kelly, the executive director of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. “Too many young people live without possibilities and live for today because they have to live from one day to the next.”

The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation has been reaching out to those effected by violence since 2002. The organization frequently deals with youths in prison. Kelly explains that this day-to-day mindset is very harmful for youth, and many deal with the resulting pain by numbing themselves with drugs or trying to make money by selling drugs.

This can be particularly dangerous, as there is a lot of pressure from politicians and the police to arrest those who violate drug laws.

Alan Mills, a Lawyer with the Uptown People’s Law Center, who states, "we’re locking up too many people for too long.”
Alan Mills, a Lawyer with the Uptown People’s Law Center, who states, "we’re locking up too many people for too long.”

“In Chicago, we don’t have stop and frisk,” Mills said. “We have stop and incarcerate,” Mills said.

And these arrests have the potential to permanently damage a juvenile’s future.

“As soon as a kid gets a record, the pathway to more serious and adult arrests is there, so in a way it sets them up for further incarceration. And incarceration just inflames the problem,” Kelly said. “Kids come out more disconnected from their family and community and are behind in school. So we spend a lot of money incarcerating a kid and they end up worse than they went in.”

But the atmosphere of incarceration might change soon with the deliberation over the Smarter Sentencing Act. The bill, which has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, deals with drug sentences.

Among other things, the bill would allow judges to disregard mandatory minimum sentences if the defendant’s criminal history is not higher than category two and reduce sentences for crack cocaine passed before the Fairer Sentencing Act to be in accordance with that act.

This means that mandatory minimums will not be implemented if the defendant does not have more than one criminal history point and that the sentences for crack will now be in an 18:1 ratio to powder cocaine rather than a 100:1 ratio. The Fairer Sentencing Act also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack.

Crack sentences have persistently been blamed for being discriminatory. Studies have shown that demographically, African Americans are more likely to use crack cocaine while white Americans are more likely to use powder cocaine. Before the Fairer Sentencing Act, the sentencing for crack cocaine was much higher than that for powder cocaine even though they are pharmacologically the same drug.

Illinois’ senior U.S. Senator, Dick Durbin, who is sponsoring legislation to ease drug laws that disproportionately impact minority communities.
Illinois’ senior U.S. Senator, Dick Durbin, who is sponsoring legislation to ease drug laws that disproportionately impact minority communities.

The bill, introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Michael Lee (R-UT), now has 17 Democrat and 12 Republican sponsors in the House of Representatives.

“What we’re talking about here, is doing everything we could do, sensibly, to reduce the level of incarceration,” Durbin said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Our bill focuses on drug cases, and those represent about 50 percent increase in prison incarceration.”

In a statement about the bill, Durbin also explained that the bill could help ease overcrowding in the nation’s prisons and lighten the load on a budget that currently spends roughly $30,000 each year for one inmate.

There are currently 10,520 drug-related inmates in Illinois state prisons today. They make up 21.6 percent of the current Illinois state prison population.

The bill has attracted the support of many civil rights groups, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, they support the bill because it will save billions of dollars typically incurred by incarcerating drug offenders, address over-criminalization and help ameliorate a longstanding racial injustice.

Further, complying with the Fairer Sentencing Act’s elimination of the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine and allowing re-sentencing would shift discretion in drug cases away from the prosecutor and return it to judges.

In the current system, the sentence largely depends on the charge with which the prosecutor charges the defendant. Since the prosecutor has a one-sided agenda in the case, returning discretion to the judge could result in a more appropriate charge and fairer sentences.

However, many other groups, such as the National Sheriffs’ Association, the National Association of Police Organizations and National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition oppose the bill.

“We’re looking right now at historically low crime rates across the nation,” said Bob Bushman, President of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition. “And that’s because of the good work of the police to get repeat offenders off the streets,”

Bushman also fears that reducing the sentence for drugs may send a message to Americans, especially juveniles, that drugs are not dangerous.

Many supporters believe that the bill is a start but does not go far enough in dealing with those struggling with drug problems. Proponents of the bill claim that drug addiction is a medical issue and should be dealt with in a medical fashion, such as replacing prison with rehab when dealing with drug abusers.

“We seem to have a problem grasping that drug addiction is in fact an addiction,” Mills said. “The analogy I use is that it makes no sense to lock somebody up if they have a fever. You have to treat the underlying disease.”

Some suggest the solution could be to destigmatize addiction and provide resources to often poor communities to help combat drug use.

“We need to have community based organizations and resources so the kids can access what they need in their own community and don’t have to be incarcerated at all,” Kelly explained.

Although the Smarter Sentencing Act does not deal with the underlying cause of drug use and its aftermath, the number of cosponsors in the House of Representatives is rising. It seems that this effort to reform drug sentences may be on its way to the White House.

A ‘Second Chance’ for Former Graffiti Vandals

Flowers / JJIE

NEW YORK — The drawings that once were confined to his notebook were eventually found on light poles, sidewalk curbs and storefront gates along Roosevelt Avenue.

Alexis Serrano and his graffiti crew covered one of Queens most targeted commercial strips with their ominous sprayed-painted tags in June and July.

“We would go around 3 in the morning because not many people would be out,” he said. “We would go from the beginning of Roosevelt up to 82nd Street.”

new york logo 01Most of the tags are gone now. Serrano can’t recall how many businesses and abandoned buildings they hit in those two months. But he says he will always remember standing before the judge in Queens Criminal Court awaiting his sentence. It was his third arrest for vandalism charges.

“The judge told me that I would be charged as an adult,” Serrano said.

But instead of time behind bars, Serrano, 17, was placed in a long-term alternative sentencing program often given to young offenders.

“I did not have any other choice,” Serrano said. “I had charges pending and my lawyer told me it was my only opportunity or I would go to Rikers.”

The Queens District Attorney started the Second Chance Program 25 years ago to give first-time, nonviolent offenders a chance to redeem themselves through community service. After finding teens desecrating a cemetery with graffiti, a group of reverends spearheaded the program.

Graffiti vandals have always been the most prevalent cases.

Flowers / JJIE

“We need more programs like these to keep kids out of the criminal justice system for minor offenses,” said Gail Giordano, the assistant district attorney. “Some have a hard time facing what they’ve done and if they can’t do that, chances are they’ll do it again.”

Giordano, who oversees the program, says most defendants with graffiti cases struggle with an addiction.

“It’s almost a scream for help,” she said.

Rick Stanton, a graffiti expert based in California, says tagging accounts for 70 to 95 percent of graffiti vandalism in the U.S.

“The competition is to get your tagging crew’s markers up as many times as possible,” Stanton said. “They want recognition and their primary motivation is for their work to be seen.”

Serrano spent the remainder of his summer cleaning up graffiti with the Woodside Neighborhood Association, a local organization in Queens.

Serrano has tagged what he said were mostly factories, mailboxes and other “easy targets” since the 6th grade.

“Tagging homes is more disrespectful. I like to put emotions, it could be struggle or whatever I’m feeling,” Serrano said. “I try to create a scene and hope someone can understand it.”

Despite growing up in a two-parent household, Serrano said, only one has been present for most of his childhood.

“I've mostly had a feminine influence. My relationship with my dad hasn’t changed since I started the program,” Serrano said. “When I'm in the house, he's not here. I haven't gotten the father side so that's why I'm always mad.”

Nicholai Khan, a graffiti vandal turned notable artist in Bayside Queens, completed Second Chance 13 years ago, but has never left. Now, Khan, 33, teaches art to defendants in the program. He said youth often use graffiti as a tool of rebellion rather than expression.

“They leave their mark in a world that feels hopeless to them,” Khan said. “It is a statement of angst in society and they feel like outcasts, especially in their families.”

Serrano’s case was dismissed in November. Because of his progress, he finished only 70 of his 120 assigned community service hours.

“I’m glad they caught me when they did because I would have ended up doing worse,” Serrano said. “Not a lot of people get their record clean and this program gave me that opportunity.”

Collaboration Seeks to Divert Kids from Juvenile Justice System

Albuquerque Public Schools Police
Albuquerque Public Schools Police

A pilot program in Wayne County, Mich., provides police training on how to recognize and respond to mental health and substance abuse problems with youth and to refer them to community-based programs and services instead of arresting them. Michigan now has the capacity to provide such training to law enforcement officers throughout the state with the help of “crisis-intervention teams” for youth.

In Rochester, N.Y., probation officers – often a youth’s first contact with the juvenile court system in New York state – use formal screening to determine whether youngsters have mental health or substance abuse problems and if they do, refer them to clinicians for an in-depth assessment. The program, aimed at keeping kids from ending up in the juvenile justice system unnecessarily, is now serving as a model for nine other counties in the state.

In 19 school districts in Connecticut, “mobile response teams” respond to school incidents involving youths who may have mental health or substance abuse problems. The teams work to “de-escalate” crises in hopes of diverting from the juvenile justice system youngsters who need treatment, not arrest or incarceration.

The innovations in the three states resulted from an ambitious two-year collaboration between the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The collaboration also brought to five other states efforts to divert from the juvenile justice system kids when they need help for mental illness or substance abuse.

Now, MacArthur and SAMHSA are teaming up again to bring diversion efforts to five other states.

“Many of the kids are acting out and getting into trouble because of their behavioral health issues,” Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s director of justice reform, told “So the programs and services that the kids need are generally not available through the juvenile justice system, and so the kids are better-served if they receive the programs and services without going deeper into the juvenile justice system. So it’s a win-win for the kids and their families.”

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Learn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


Garduque said participating states will be able to tap into the deep knowledge and resources of MacArthur’s 16-state juvenile justice reform effort, Models for Change.

“We’re helping states not to have to reinvent the wheel and sharing with them the best practices that have been field-tested through Models for Change,” Garduque said.

All states except the eight involved in the initial MacArthur-SAMHSA collaboration are eligible to apply for the next round.  Applications, including members of each state’s team, are due Feb. 28, and the five states that are selected will be notified by March 21.

"This innovative public-private collaboration will help promote strategies to ensure that fewer at-risk youth get detained in a juvenile justice system that is very often unable to address their underlying behavioral health problems," SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde said in a news release.

"This initiative focuses on getting these youth to community-based behavioral health services that can actually turn their lives around for the better."

The partnership will also rely on SAMHSA’s Policy Academy, which brings together teams of state leaders to learn about effective interventions and the latest research.

Along with screening youth and diverting those with behavioral health needs to community-based programs and services, the collaboration will seek to reduce the over-representation of youths of color in the juvenile justice system.

The need for treatment among youths in the juvenile justice is readily evident: although estimates vary, some research has shown up to 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system met the criteria for a mental disorder and more than 60 percent met criteria for a substance abuse disorder.

Like the first MacArthur-SAMHSA collaboration, the new effort will be coordinated by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice at Policy Research Associates Inc. and the Technical Assistance Collaborative Inc.

Joseph Cocozza, the director of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, said youths with behavioral health needs often end up in the juvenile justice system unnecessarily.

“The juvenile justice people readily recognize the fact that many of the youth they’re dealing with are inappropriately placed and could be much better served and at a much lower cost with much better outcomes for themselves and the community if we could get those [behavioral health] services for them, particularly if we get those services early on,” Cocozza told

“But as we all know, the juvenile justice system was not built as a therapeutic kind of a program. [Behavioral health] services are not available there.”

MacArthur’s Garduque stressed the importance of early screening to determine the behavioral health needs of a youth.

“If you’re going to identify the right kids at the right times for the right services as you divert them, you need to institute those practices at the front end,” she said. “You need to identify the kids and match them to the right services.”

Initial screening should help determine whether a child is a suicide risk or has a substance abuse or mental health disorder.  Those youths would then receive a more formal assessment, Garduque said.

Editor’s note: The MacArthur Foundation is a supporter of the JJIE.


Obama Administration Calls Out School-to-Prison Pipeline

Graphic showing the tough path facing minors who drop out of school or work and the high racial disparity among those arrested. Courtesy of Project NIA.
Graphic showing the tough path facing minors who drop out of school or work and the high racial disparity among those arrested. Courtesy of Project NIA.

CHICAGO — The White House sent a message to schools across the country Wednesday to abandon severe discipline policies shown to criminalize students for infringements that could be handled without law enforcement.

A series of guidelines issued Wednesday on behalf of the Obama Administration recognized a phenomenon advocates of school discipline reform call the school-to-prison pipeline.

PrintThe theory goes that when schools employ zero-tolerance policies on wide-ranging behavioral infractions including truancy, drug use, fighting and weapons possession, they may choose to suspend students or charge them with criminal offenses rather than mediate the problem in school. These strict sanctions interfere with students’ potential to succeed academically and increase their chances of running afoul of the law.

According to the Department of Education, the school-to-prison pipeline also disproportionally affects minority students, with black children more than three times more likely than their white counterparts to be expelled or suspended.

At the same time, a letter that the Department of Education sent to schools along with the proposed policy changes noted that research has shown minority students do not misbehave more frequently than white students.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Attorney General Eric Holder said, according to a news release.

schoolppipe_seriesThe guidelines for a more progressive discipline policy call for re-educating school officials about how to handle disputes themselves rather than delegating the job to law enforcement. They advise administrators to distinguish the exact responsibilities of school security officers and mark the difference between minor infringements and major security threats. Schools should also supervise law enforcement aggregation of student data, according to the nonbinding recommendations.

After the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999 and more recently the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings last year, schools across the country have heightened their police presence. The Obama Administration’s new guidelines on disciplinary measures seek to relax the punitive power of these security forces.

This story produced by The Chicago Bureau