Child Advocates React To AG Holder’s Juvenile Justice Reform Call

Local child advocates are reacting favorably to United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments about the dire need for major juvenile justice system reform.

In remarks to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder called for the Department of Justice to adopt a new approach that combines evidence-based research and comprehensive community partnerships. Holder also said that it’s time for us to ask some important questions such as; why is it that African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, but comprise more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime?  Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior?   And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance?   Some even plead guilty to criminal offenses without the advice of a lawyer. Read the full speech.
Some of the points Holder made in the March 7 address include:

  • Serving our young people makes good economic sense by keeping them out of “over-stressed and under-funded corrections facilities and saving precious law enforcement resources.”
  • How we treat our children speaks to who we are as a nation.
  • It’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice – and to ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process.
  • We must transition from a prosecution-and-punishment model to a prevention-and-intervention paradigm.
  • We must adopt a comprehensive plan of action – one that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and community leaders.
  • We as a nation must be smart, not just tough, on crime to help generate the positive outcomes we seek for our young people.
  • Juvenile justice reform will also save the nation money in the long run.*The best—and most targeted—solutions will be shared solutions, "created together—after rigorous scientific evaluation and innovative resource levering."
  • Evidence on our nation’s juvenile justice system demonstrates that change is needed because the current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should.
  • Even though many of those who are incarcerated enter the juvenile justice system for non-violent offences, they often emerge violent – or, at the very least – traumatized.
  • Each year too many of the 100,000 young people who exit formal custody have nowhere to go, return to unstable homes or end up in shelters, on the streets, or in other potentially dangerous or violent situations.
  • Many juveniles who leave the system are not welcomed back to their community school and struggle to find educational opportunities.
  • Juvenile justice reform must become a nationwide effort to bring systemic, not incremental, reform to our justice system.

Here’s what some local leaders and child advocates had to say about Holder’s comments.

Sen. Jones

Emanuel D. Jones, State Senator (D-Decatur)

“The attorney general spoke very powerful words regarding our system of Juvenile Justice. I agree with his call to action and we can do better by our kids. The system is broken and too many poor and children of color are being unfairly punished in a system that lacks accountability of their efforts to rehabilitate detained children. Our system of juvenile justice is broken and anytime institutions are allowed to profit off youth detention, justice is compromised. We need to remove this yoke from around lady justice' s neck and allow meaningful reform in our juvenile justice system. Alternatives to incarceration are available and I believe the Departments of Juvenile Justice must be given greater flexibility to rehabilitate children to include the authority to parole children in youth detention centers.“

Tanya Culbreth, Home-School Parent Liaison, B.E.S.T. Academy (an all-male Atlanta public middle and high school)


“We treat our children as sub-standard human beings -- not as human beings who can succeed -- and get sub-standard results. I agree that we need to implement more intervention and prevention methods on the front end and not the back end with prisons and detention centers.  I also agree with the attorney general that it is time for major reform. This system is clearly not working. We need to look at where we are spending our resources. Working at an all black-male Atlanta Public School, his comments really resonate. He’s right about the racial disparities. The answer to this lies in the answer to the question; how do we engage a population that feels so disconnected? These young men come from families that also feel disconnected from mainstream society. They feel like the odds are stacked against them. The school-to-prison-pipeline is real. By cutting education spending and investing into prisons we are grooming our kids to go right into the prison system. Now many schools are merely teaching our kids how to past the standardized test. After that the teachers don’t have time or the energy left to explore, inspire and encourage the students.  No Child Left Behind did just the opposite of the stated intent; No Child Left Behind has left everybody behind!”

Judge Teske

Steve Teske, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge

“This past November I delivered a keynote speech at a conference in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Department of Justice on juvenile justice.  Attorney General Holder made introductory remarks to my keynote speech.  He shared the same information.  My speech supported what he said.  It is time we re-invent the juvenile justice system using evidence-based practices.  However, evidence-based practices must include a system that is multi-disciplinary and supports evidence-based programs that effectively restore youth.  Effective programs are only effective in practice when all stakeholders work together.”

Chara Jackson, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia Legal Director


“I am very pleased with what Attorney General Holder said. His comments speak to exactly what we’re trying to do in Georgia with SB 127, the juvenile code rewrite, led by JUST Georgia and other stakeholder groups. His comments really show people who have been committed to juvenile justice for years that we all really are on the same page. I think with the passage of the code rewrite in Georgia can be at the forefront of change in the juvenile justice system. Hopefully we are close to getting this measure approved in the Georgia Senate.”

Viveca Famber-Powell, Atlanta Defense Attorney

“I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Holder.  I have worked as a defense attorney for almost 30 years with much of that time defending and advocating for children charged with offenses from ungovernable to murder.  At every level, incarceration is a tool that is always used too quickly.  This is especially so in the most serious cases where the imposition of minimum mandatory 10 and 25 year prison sentences for children as young as 13 in cases where there is no loss of life or even injury is a routine occurrence in Georgia.  These expensive prison dollars can be more efficiently, economically and successfully spent on supervision and services for more children. These services are already in place and work and can be shown empirically to be successful on most children, even in serious cases.  The $180,000 it costs to keep a young offender in prison 10 years on an armed robbery can educate 45 boys in the public school for a year.  If there is any way to avoid spending that $180,000 on one child, we should try it.  There is ample research already to show that young offenders here can be rehabilitated, monitored and supervised in the community at a cost far less than the close to $500,000 per child it would cost to imprison that same child for 25 years as current law mandates. Crime and punishment is not what we should aspire to when we talk about children in the criminal justice system.  The better identifier would be mistake and correction.”

Feds Target $37M to Fight Bullying and Other Childhood Violence

About 1 out of 10 kids in 6th – 10th grades are getting bullied, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and they believe that 13 percent of kids in that age group are doing the bullying.

“Bullying can have long-term consequences for the safety of youth, as evidenced by the fact that two-thirds of school shooters reported having been bullied or having bullied others,” Jeff Slowikowski, OJJDP’s acting administrator, points out in his Department of Justice blog.

The Department of Justice has launched the Defending Childhood Initiative, which is a nationwide campaign focusing on children exposed to different forms of violence including bullying. DOJ spent $5.5 million last year and hopes to increase the budget to $37 million in FY 2011.

Sixty Percent of Kids are Exposed to Violence

More than 60 percent of children have been directly or indirectly exposed to violence within the past year, according to a national study by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Nearly one-half of kids surveyed were assaulted at least once in the past year and more than 1 in 10 were injured in an assault.

Conducted between January and May 2008, the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, measured exposure to violence for kids 17 and younger. They looked at conventional crime, sex crimes, school violence and threats, family violence and more.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently unveiled the Defending Childhood Initiative, focused on this issue. So far, the Department of Justice has aware $5.5 million to eight cities (none of them in Georgia) to focus on:

  • Providing appropriate programs and service for families and children
  • Increasing access to quality programs and services
  • Developing new services where gaps exist.

For the Department of Justice’s full press release, click here.

Millions Go to Youth Programs Nationwide

WASHINGTON - The Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs (OJP) today announced $60 million in discretionary awards to leading national organizations to strengthen, expand and implement youth mentoring activities and youth development programming throughout the nation. An additional $37 million in grants to local mentoring organizations will be awarded in Fiscal Year 2010. These grants are administered by OJP's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

"These awards are part of an ongoing commitment by the Department of Justice to give young people an opportunity to participate in activities that will enrich their lives," said Laurie O. Robinson, OJP's Assistant Attorney General. "Through these organizations, youth are provided programs that help keep them in school, out of trouble, and most importantly, put them in direct contact with caring adults who provide crucial support and guidance."

Today's announcement includes awards to the following organizations:

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America - $10 million; Boys & Girls Clubs of America - $40 million; National Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues Inc. - $5 million; 
National 4-H Council Program Operations - $5 million.

For more information about these and other awards visit:


The Office of Justice Programs (OJP), headed by Assistant Attorney General Laurie O. Robinson, provides federal leadership in developing the nation's capacity to prevent and control crime, administer justice, and assist victims. OJP has seven components: the Bureau of Justice Assistance; the Bureau of Justice Statistics; the National Institute of Justice; the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; the Office for Victims of Crime; the Community Capacity Development Office, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART). More information about OJP can be found at

Child Prostitution

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that between 100,000 and 300,000 American children are forced into prostitution every year - sometimes through being kidnapped near their homes.  Some are as young as 12 years old. The Department of Justice says  the average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 13.  About 75% of girls engaged in prostitution work for a pimp

Justice Targets Child Sex Trade

Georgia’s child prostitution problem will get some new attention from the Justice Department. Attorney General Eric Holder spells out the first National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention in a 280 page report. The plan focuses on child prostitution, child pornography, sex tourism and child exploitation in Indian Country.  It’s a multi-agency effort that includes a national database to allow federal, state, local and international law enforcement to work together better and analyze trends.  The Justice Department is adding 38 new Assistant U. S. Attorneys devoted to child exploitation cases.  And the U.S. Marshals Service is targeting the top 500 most dangerous sex offenders in the nation.

The extent of Georgia’s child sex trade came to light last spring, when a study done for A Future Not a Past revealed that an estimated 7,200 men are paying for sex with teenage girls every month in the Atlanta area.  Child prostitution is also a big problem in Connecticut, Washington, DC, Florida, New York and Texas.

Holder lays out the problem with this stark description:

“Children are being recruited and coerced into the world of prostitution in our own cities. Teen runaways - who are often trying to escape abusive homes – may turn to prostitution as a means of survival. They also frequently fall prey to “pimps” who lure them in with an offer of food, clothes, attention, friendship, love, and a seemingly safe place to sleep. Once the pimps gain this control over the children, they often use acts of violence, intimidation, or psychological manipulation to trap the children in a life of prostitution. Pimps will also cause the children to become addicted to drugs or alcohol (or will increase the severity of a pre-existing addiction) in order to ensure complicity. These children are taught to lie about their age and are given fake ID. They are also trained not to trust law enforcement and to lie to protect their pimps. As a result, these victims are often not recognized as victims, and may be arrested and jailed. The dangers faced by these children– from the pimps, from their associates, and from customers—are severe. These children become hardened by the treacherous street environment in which they must learn to survive. As such, they do not always outwardly present as sympathetic victims. These child victims need specialized services that are not widely available given that they often present with illnesses, drug additions, physical and sexual trauma, lack of viable family and community ties, and total dependence – physical and psychological – on their abusers, the pimps.”

Read more:

Atlanta's War on Child Prostitution

Child Prostitution Report Triggers Warning from Craigslist

Most Juvenile Cases Involve Younger Teens

There were 1,666,100 delinquency cases processed across the nation in 2007.  54% involved children younger than 16.   27% involved girls, and 64% involved white youngsters.   For a wealth of data check out  The National Juvenile Court Data Archive and its annual report on  Juvenile Court Statistics 2006-2007

Why More Girls are Getting Arrested

When 16-year old twins Tasmiyah and Jasmiyah Whitehead were arrested earlier this year for murdering their mother, family friends seemed hardly surprised. The mother’s boyfriend, Robert Head, speculated the girls killed their mom for money. A neighbor, Angela Avery, said the mom lived in fear of her daughters.  In police photos the twins look particularly mean. And news reports have, in many ways, already convicted the girls although they have yet to be tried.

Their arrests have raised the question in local and national media of whether girls, particularly teens, are becoming more violent. Ironically, rates of murder by girls are at their lowest levels in forty years -- but lately the number of female juvenile delinquents has exploded.

Between 1980 and 2003, the arrest rate for girls on simple assault charges tripled. Their arrest rate for violent crimes – defined as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, skyrocketed – by 46 percent. The arrest rate for boys for violent crimes decreased over this same time period. By 2008, girls accounted for 30 percent of all juvenile arrests.

A 2008 Department of Justice report concludes “there is no burgeoning national crisis of increasing serious violence among adolescent girls.”  Instead, most experts believe changes in policy and policing standards are sending more girls to court.

“Who’s changing their behavior are the people labeling the behavior,” says Meda Chesney-Lind, a leading expert on girls and violence. She points to zero tolerance policies in schools and a heightened sensitivity to domestic violence, resulting in “mandatory arrest” policies in many states, as two of the main factors leading to higher arrest rates  for girls in recent years.

“When you start paying attention to family violence and criminalizing it, don’t be surprised to have a lot of kids showing up with this as a charge,” says Chesney-Lind.

To date, the juvenile justice system seems unprepared to deal with the swelling number of girls. It remains largely geared to boys – outdoor programs are a staple, for example – and has yet to ramp up female-specific programs that girls need to deal with the underlying issues and ensure they stay out of trouble when they leave the system.

“We are bringing girls into the system, yet we have no idea what to do with them,” says Lisa Pasko, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver. “The juvenile justice system is now left to deal with these really problem girls, but it’s not equipped to be a mental health entity or provide family services.”

Jasmine White of Atlanta is one such “problem girl.” [Her name has been changed for this story] At 16, Jasmine was charged with robbing a middle-aged woman on a MARTA train. She can’t explain what drove her to do it. “I don’t know why,” she says sheepishly – but whether out of boredom or anger or something else, she hatched a plan with her girlfriends to rob the woman – who was two months pregnant at the time – in broad daylight.

It wasn’t Jasmine’s first time acting out. She got in a lot of fights with other kids – “pushing fights” as she calls it. They were over little things like “paper, pencil, basketball.” Once she spent a night in jail after participating in a riot at her school.  “Cause I been through so much stuff, any little thing that someone said would tick me off,” Jasmine explains. “I just got my anger out on them.”

The social worker's report on Jasmine is a heartbreaking read. Her life has been filled with violence, neglect, and emotional trauma. The report describes the various abusive relationships endured by her mother, even going into detail about the night Jasmine’s mom was raped by her boyfriend in front of Jasmine and her siblings.  At 15 years old, Jasmine started dating a man in his 20s. Within months she got pregnant. At nine months pregnant, the “boyfriend” beat her up and a DFACS (Department of Family and Children’s Services) case was opened. The social worker wrote:

“Miraculously, statutory rape charges were never filed against him because he was providing financial support to the household. All adults in Jasmine’s life were aware of the age difference, probably aware of the physical abuse, and perhaps condoned some of it, but there was no intervention.”

When the police came to arrest Jasmine a month and a half after the robbery, her infant daughter was left in the care of her mother. She was charged, booked and sat in jail for a violent crime---a crime she still can’t explain why she committed.

Linda Pace, Chief Assistant Public Defender to the Juvenile Division of DeKalb County, represented Jasmine after her arrest. She describes the girl’s situation as “the extreme end of typical.” Pace explains that for girls who end up in juvenile court, “usually there’s a history of domestic violence. Sometimes you wonder how a child could grow up in that environment at all.”

Meda Chesney-Lind, who is a professor of criminology and women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, found that delinquent girls reported high rates of physical and sexual abuse – between 40 and 70 percent. “One of the things with girls who have problems with violence is that they mimic the male violence that they see in their lives and their families. They see boys and men as powerful because they are capable of violence. [Acting out] is a way of identifying with the aggressor,” says Chesney-Lind.  “It can’t be simply that any girl who has ever been victimized is knocking off a 7-11. But in combination with other problems yeah, you go back there and see domestic violence and physical victimization in the home.”

Girls will often attempt to gain some power – and regain a sense of control – by beating up other girls. According to the Department of Justice report, both boys and girls are more likely to attack their same-sex peers than anyone else.

Chantel Mullen, Dean of Student Discipline and Student Relations Administrator for Atlanta Public Schools, says in her experience, girls who attack each other usually have a history of conflict. The underlying clash between girls tends to involve a “fractured friendship” – often over a boy. A group of friends splits up into opposing factions. A pattern of passive aggressive behavior ensues, wherein the girls follow each other around in a stalking manner, say derogatory statements, name call, and spread rumors. The behavior escalates into a physical fight – usually between groups of girls.

When the fights occur, they can become violent very quickly. “The weapon of choice for young ladies is usually a razor,” says Mullen. “Rarely

haveI seen a young lady bring a gun.” Girls use the razors to attack the faces of their opponents. Their objective is to cause “a disfigurement more than a life threatening injury,” says Pace, the public defender.

Complicating teacher’s efforts to diffuse conflicts before they occur is the advent of ubiquitous cell phones and social networking sites like Facebook. It’s an issue that rose to the spotlight in the wake of 15-year old Phoebe Prince’s suicide in Massachusetts. Prince endured merciless tormenting from fellow students, including an onslaught of derogatory comments posted about her on Facebook, Twitter and Craigslist, among other Websites. Prosecutors have charged nine students – seven girls and two boys– with driving Prince to kill herself.

“Part of our challenge is with the advent of social media, a lot of the conflict that we used to see in the school – the passive aggressive behavior – now takes place somewhere else. They do it in cyber space,” says Mullen. She says while boys also use social media, girls are far more likely to use it as a form of bullying because boys tend to fight spontaneously and often with people they only know tangentially, if at all.

“With the advent of social media and our cell phones, they [students] are in instantaneous contact and they are relaying information to each other at speeds that we have to adapt to,” says Mullen. “Conflict that in previous years had time to dissipate, or anger that had time to dissipate, doesn’t have that cushion any more.”

For now, Mullen heavily relies on parents to alert her to conflicts with their daughters. They will often bring in copies of their daughters’ Facebook pages, filled with vitriolic back and forth with other girls. Mullen similarly monitors her daughter’s computer use, cell phone calls and text messages. For any parent, even the most diligent ones, this is a big job. And parents of kids most apt to fight – girls and boys exposed to physical and sexual violence, often at home – tend to be absent and have their own weighty issues to deal with.

Meanwhile, experts in the field of girls’ violence and juvenile delinquency are only beginning to study the role of technology, says Chesney Lind. She cautions, “The devil will be in the details to see what piece does it explain, and how much does it affect.”

When Jasmine finally made it to her probation hearing, an unexpected witness spoke in her defense: the victim of the robbery. According to Pace, the woman, who was five months pregnant at the time of the hearing, said she had “reflected on what happened. She was initially very upset but decided to let go of her anger. She did not want Jasmine to be punished or spend any more time in detention. She would like her (Jasmine) to get some help.”

Getting help for girls is easier said than done, says Chesney-Lind. Girls’ problems are often a result of their problems as females – sexual abuse, physical violence, and early motherhood.  Most programs are tailored to boys because they comprise the majority of juvenile delinquents. “What we need are programs that help girls with their relationships with their parents, with their friends,” says Chesney-Lind.

The little counseling Jasmine got has helped. She says she wants to be a good mother, get her GED, go to beauty school and avoid spending time in prison. Asked about how she plans to avoid future trouble, Jasmine replies, “I think twice about – like if I think about doing stuff – I think another way so I don’t have to do that stuff.” The judge has placed her on probation and in temporary custody of her older sister.

Jasmine cautions that counseling alone won’t change someone’s behavior -- “Just listening to folks, you’re not going to change if you don’t want to change. It’s only if you want to change.” Still, when asked what she would do if trying to help a troubled girl, her solution is “I would try to talk them out of it and tell them where it will get you in life, and where it will take you.”

A few weeks ago Jasmine she found out she’s pregnant again. She hopes to break the cycle of violence so her children don't repeat her mistakes


Emily Green is a multi-media journalist who reports on legal issues.  Her work has appeared on Georgia Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio and in the Wall Street Journal

Teens and Violent Crime

The percentage of teens committing violent crimes remains steady at 12% nationwide. The proportions of forcible rape, aggravated assaults, murders and robberies have fluctuated only by 1 to 2% over the past decade, according to the Justice Department. These statistics are compiled by the FBI in its annual Crime in the United States.

NY to fix scandal-ridden juvenile prisons

The Department of Justice is threatening a federal takeover of New York state’s juvenile detention centers after a scathing investigation found children got little schooling, some had broken bones from  routine beatings, and young people with mental illness or drug addiction were held with violent offenders.

To avert a takeover, Governor David Paterson has introduced legislation to fix the problems.  As the New York Times reports, the plan would stop judges from sending children to state juvenile prisons unless they are guilty of a violent crime or sex crime, or they are a serious threat to the community.   The bill would also create an independent office to monitor and investigate problems.  The GovMonitor reports the independent investigators would report directly to the Governor and the Legislature.

The New York juvenile prison system currently houses 700 young people in 26 facilities.