Analysis: Holes in the Evidence for Evidence-Based


ebp_dick_mendelFourteen years ago, I authored my first major report on juvenile justice, “Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime, What Works – And What Doesn’t,” marking an exciting milestone in my career.

The report was released at a full-bore press conference at the National Press Club, where I got to present my findings, and it generated a modest swirl of news stories across the country. Better yet, it earned me my first and only interview on national television. Well, kinda sorta national television — MSNBC.

But looking back at the report today, re-reading the first few pages, I feel as much sheepish as proud.

EBPgraphic2-01I feel sheepish because the report opens with what, in the cold sobriety of hindsight, I can only describe as a naïve, hyperbolic tale about the wondrous transformation available to our nation’s juvenile justice systems if only they would adopt the handful of so-called evidence-based treatment models. (Read the opening passages of “Less Hype, More Help.”)

I was reminded of “Less Hype, More Help” this month by the rollout of a JJIE’s new online Resource Hub on evidence-based programs and practices, and by Gary Gately’s feature story JJIE published Wednesday about evidence-based programming. Both are well-written and packed with information — well worth your time.

But reading them only heightened my sense that discussions of evidence-based juvenile justice remain, well, naïve and hyperbolic, just as I was in 2000. I know better now, and in this column I want explain why my unqualified praise for these gold-standard models was misplaced.

Don’t get me wrong. There is an important place in juvenile justice reform for carefully crafted treatment models with hard evidence from randomized trials. And there’s an even more important place for rigorous outcomes measurement and data-driven decision making. But my suggestion that we can revolutionize juvenile justice in this country by replacing the current system with plug-and-play programs was a fantasy back in 2000. And it remains a fantasy today.

This is true for several reasons.

graphic2_EBP-01First, no effort to reform juvenile justice should begin with a treatment program, evidence-based or otherwise. That’s putting the cart before the horse, a loser’s bet. Juvenile justice operates as a system, not a collection of programs. While programs are important, even the best program models will come to no avail if they are embedded within dysfunctional systems prone to making bad decisions in untimely ways about how to serve and sanction court-involved young people.

The second problem is definitional: Who decides what is or isn’t evidence-based, and using what criteria? Lists identifying effective, proven or promising adolescent prevention and treatment models have proliferated rapidly in recent years, but — due to the lack of any consensus in the field on how to define “evidence-based” — they vary widely in their criteria for inclusion. Some set the standards of proof so low that many recommended models lack any reliable evidence of effectiveness.

Third, rules requiring exclusive or heavy reliance on evidence-based models necessarily exclude many home-grown or idiosyncratic strategies that are rooted in communities but lack the pedigree of a rigorous, carefully controlled evaluation study. That kind of research is expensive, beyond the means of many community agencies and grassroots organizations that have a keen interest in — and untapped capacity to support — youth in high poverty neighborhoods where most juvenile court cases arise. Such rules can also stifle innovation, which is critically needed given the still-small array of interventions with powerful evidence of effectiveness and our still-limited scope of knowledge of what work best for youth facing different types of risks and needs.

All of these issues pose vexing challenges to the evidence-based movement in juvenile justice. In this column, I want to focus attention on another, less appreciated problem facing the evidence-based programs movement. That is the seldom discussed fact that the research behind even the most highly-regarded intervention models isn’t nearly as strong as many assume (or allege).

Unconvincing Evidence for Prevention Models

In 2006, the editors of Youth Today (a bi-monthly newspaper on youth development now published by the Center for Sustainable Journalism, the same organization that publishes JJIE) sent me to cover a national conference about evidence-based models for reducing delinquency and adolescent substance abuse. Three years later, Youth Today hired me to write a series of columns featuring new research on what works and doesn’t work in youth development.

These assignments gave me a chance to examine the evidence on model programs more closely, not just on juvenile justice interventions but also delinquency prevention, child welfare and other children and youth programs. The more I looked, the more concerned I grew.

For instance, one of my Youth Today columns in 2010 touted a highly-regarded Australian model called “Positive Parenting Program,” or Triple P, a community-wide strategy for reducing child abuse. Unlike other community-wide approaches to reducing child abuse, which yielded “limited or no evidence of effectiveness,” Triple P showed encouraging results in a host of overseas research studies. And a 2009 evaluation in South Carolina found that counties that implemented Triple P had far better results than non-participating counties in terms of overall maltreatment rates, foster care placements and emergency room visits stemming from child maltreatment.

Swayed by these studies, I informed Youth Today readers that the Triple P model “can make a dramatic and cost-effective difference.”

Not so much, it turns out.

In 2012, an independent review of the available research found “no convincing evidence that Triple P interventions work across the whole population or that any benefits are long-term.” In most cases, the available studies were methodologically weak and involved very small samples. And all but one was authored by personnel affiliated with the Triple P model.

Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubThen this spring, University of Cambridge criminologist Manuel Eisner published a working paper delineating “Seven Reasons to Be Skeptical” about the about Triple P study in South Carolina. In 2007, two years before releasing their results, scholars working on the South Carolina evaluation publicly detailed their study design, including the sample to be studied, research protocols and outcome measures. Yet when their final paper appeared, many of these parameters had changed without explanation: a different age range of children, a different time period for comparison, a different unit of analysis. Worse yet, the final study reported on just three of the 11 outcome measures identified in the research plan, and it added a new measure that wasn’t included in the initial research plan.

These kinds of “post-hoc” changes are telltale warning signs in evaluation research, offering easy opportunity for researchers to cherry-pick the data they choose to report. Meanwhile, the Triple P study did not acknowledge any conflicts of interest, as required, even though the study’s first author was a Triple P consultant and the second author was the founder of Triple P and director of a thriving for-profit business dedicated to replicating the model internationally.

Sadly, problems with post-hoc changes, data cherry-picking and conflicts of interest are not limited to Triple P or to child abuse prevention. Over the past dozen years, serious critiques have also been published questioning the research behind several of the most widely touted school-based models for preventing delinquency, substance abuse and/or smoking.

These critiques find that scholarly papers evaluating model prevention programs — typically written by the developers and promoters of the models — have frequently employed dubious methods and selective reporting to justify positive findings.

Among the models whose research has been subjected to sharp criticism are Life Skills Training, the Seattle Social Development Model, Project Alert and the Midwest Prevention Project, all of which have been touted as proven or effective on lists of evidence-based practices maintained by Blueprints for Violence Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, National Institutes of Drug Abuse,and/or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The model developers have ardently defended their research, of course, and raised some persuasive points. Yet, to an informed lay observer like me, the critics have the better of the argument: Troublesome methodological anomalies do seem pervasive in the research behind a number of prevention models widely recognized as evidence-based. While these kinds of anomalies do not prove intentional misconduct — unconscious bias is far more likely — the result nonetheless is research that tips the scales in favor of the models being studied and presents an unrealistic and inflated portrait of their impact. (Some of the models have since been downgraded or removed from some lists.)

Dennis Gorman, a scholar at Texas A&M who has written many studies critiquing the research on evidence-based prevention models, concludes that “Much of what goes on in the analysis of these school-based prevention programs is simply not consistent with the type of rigorous hypothesis testing that one associates with the term ‘science.’”

In fact, a few years ago, Gorman and a colleague published a paper about Drug Abuse Resistance Education (or DARE), one of the few models that has been found to be ineffective based on evaluation research. The paper found that, using statistical techniques commonly employed in studies supporting many other models, they could show that DARE, too, was evidence-based — even though any objective reading of the evidence finds that the DARE model has little or no effect on participating youth.

Questions About MST Research

Not surprisingly, questions have also been raised about the research into model programs aimed at reducing crime and delinquency among those already involved in lawbreaking behavior.

In 2005, veteran social research scholars Anthony Petrosino and Haluk Soydan examined 300 evaluation studies of intervention programs designed to reduce criminal behavior. They found that studies conducted by the developer of the model being examined showed large reductions in recidivism (average effect size of nearly one-half a standard deviation), while studies conducted by independent evaluators found an average effect size of exactly zero.

As Eisner puts it, “There is evidence of a worrying pattern in criminological evaluation research and that systematic bias is one possible explanation that we can’t afford to ignore.”

To date, there has been less scrutiny of the research behind the two types of models that have produced strong results in reversing delinquency and other problem behaviors among troubled adolescents: cognitive-behavioral therapy, and family-focused treatment approaches such as FFT, MTFC and MST.

So far as I’m aware, the research behind the leading cognitive behavioral therapy models has not been subjected to an exacting review regarding research methodology or potential bias introduced by model developers evaluating their own models. (As with the prevention models, developers have conducted much or most of the experimental research for several of the leading CBT models.) Likewise, I have not seen any serious methodological critiques of Functional Family Therapy or Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care.

However, Multisystemic Therapy (MST) was examined in a 2005 study by a research team lead by Julia Littell, a social work scholar at Bryn Mawr College. Littell identified a number of weaknesses in the MST research, and after employing a statistical technique called meta-analysis to synthesize the results from multiple studies, she characterized the research on MST as “inconclusive.” The available evidence, she found, “does not support the hypothesis that MST is consistently more effective than usual services or other interventions for youth with social, emotional, or behavioral problems.”

MST developer Scott Henggeler and other scholars affiliated with MST authored a sharp rebuttal, questioning Littell’s analysis and citing their own research showing that weak results in MST are typically tied to lack of fidelity to the MST model, rather than weakness in the model itself. Indeed, studies by MST-affiliated researchers consistently show that results are far better in MST programs with high adherence to the MST model than those with lower adherence, and MST’s sponsors have developed elaborate processes to promote adherence in MST replication sites.

However, Littell remained unbowed in her criticism, countering in a follow-up essay that the treatment adherence measure employed by MST researchers to measure fidelity was ill-defined, and that the other criticisms of her study were replete with “logical and factual errors.”

Littell also noted that Henggeler and his colleagues face an enormous conflict of interest as both the promoters and evaluators of their own model. Citing publicly available data, Littell reported that MST had reaped $55 million in research grants through 2004, and that MST Services Inc., the for-profit enterprise established by Henggeler and his team to support MST replication, collected $400 to $550 in licensing, training and consulting fees for each of the 10,000 families then served by MST each year.

Time for Higher Research Standards

Lacking advanced statistical training, I am not qualified to score the debate between Littell and the MST promoters. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that if implemented carefully and targeted to youth fitting the profile for which it is intended, MST is most likely a highly-effective intervention. I’d be less confident to bet that MST would outperform similar interventions without the brand name (or evidence-based) imprimatur.

Indeed, a comprehensive analysis commissioned by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform in 2010 found that MST and Functional Family Therapy "fall well within the range of other family programs” and that “some no-name programs produced effects even larger than those found for the model programs.”

The point is not that we should abandon or turn away from the movement toward evidence-based models like MST. That would be foolhardy. The rapid proliferation of empirical evidence about what works and doesn’t in addressing delinquent behavior has been one of the most important and promising developments in juvenile justice in recent times, and the emergence and spread of carefully crafted intervention models backed by scholarly research is an entirely welcome development. Indeed, several states (like Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana and Ohio) have made achieved impressive results by replicating evidence-based models on a large scale — improving youth outcomes, reducing recidivism and saving taxpayers’ money.

But continuing to ignore the valid empirical questions being raised about the research supporting these models would be equally foolhardy. To employ a baseball analogy, we’ve only reached first base in our research about evidence-based juvenile justice. We need many more models, and we need to develop a much deeper understanding of what works, when, for which youth and under what circumstances.

And, critically, we need higher standards for research. We need more transparency.

Fourteen years ago the emergence of models with any evidence of effectiveness was newsworthy, and the spread of such models was paltry. Today, these program models are household names in our field. Together, they have become a growth industry in the field, and they now consume hundreds of millions of dollars per year in state and local funds.

This isn’t little league any more.

A Love Letter to Evidence-Based Practices for Combating Juvenile Crime

(The opening passage of "Less Hype, More Help")

Today, several of the models touted in “Less Hype, More Help” are widely known, such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST), Functional Family Therapy (FFT) and Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC). But back then few people had heard of these approaches. Hence my temptation to trumpet them so boldly.

Or part of my temptation. I was also seduced, like many others since, by the aura of precision and certainty these evidence-based models inject into discussions of juvenile justice. My opening passage oozed with the smug certitude often bred by the imprimatur of peer-reviewed science.

I started with a question:

“What if we could take a chronic juvenile delinquent, a kid who has been arrested five, six, 10 times, and instead of sending him away for a year to juvenile prison for $40,000 or $50,000 (only to come home with a 50 to 70 percent chance of re-offending) ... what if instead of that we could keep him at home, spend less than $5,000 working with him and his family over four or five months and cut the likelihood that he’ll re-offend in half?”

And then another:

“What if, for a chronic delinquent who is just too unruly to stay with her parents, instead of sending her to a group home or youth prison we could spend just a little more to place her into a specialized foster home for six to nine months, work with the child and coach her parents and reduce the amount of time she can expect to be incarcerated by 75 days over the next two years?”

And then a third:

“What if, for chronically disobedient elementary school children, we could spend just $1,500 for a two-pronged program — video-based parenting skills training and classroom-based social competence training for the child — and reduce problem behaviors dramatically (by 30 percent or better) in 95 percent of all cases, significantly reducing the number who will be arrested later as juveniles?”

Then came the punchline:

“Well, you can stop asking, ‘What if?’ We can. We can. And we can.”

If only it were that simple.



Evidence-Based ‘Gold Standard’: Coveted, Yet Controversial

EBPgraphic2-01It seemed a throwback to the days of the country doctor: Go to the patients instead of having them come to you.

As a young intern in the pediatrics department at the University of Virginia’s medical school in the mid-1970s, Scott Henggeler got that advice from his supervisor, a social worker on staff.

He heeded it, taking the department’s van out for house calls into the natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley in the Charlottesville area and soon had an epiphany about the folly of trying to treat some of the most troubled youngsters in an office setting.

Scott W. Henggeler, Ph.D.
Scott W. Henggeler, Ph.D.

“I visited probably about six, seven homes, and in each case, all it really took was to just set foot inside the door and you realized how goofy your academic treatment plan was,” Henggeler told JJIE. “Doing the home-based stuff just removed the barriers, really removed most of the barriers and helped you better engage with the families, but also very importantly, you got much more accurate assessment data.

“When you understand better, and there’s really nothing better than sitting in someone’s living room for this, when you understand the real-life context of folks – who’s living at the house, what people are like, what their life is like – it helps you develop better and more accurate treatment plans,” he said. “And it also gives you better outcome data because you’re there seeing if the change has actually happened vs. bringing them into a clinic to report what’s happening.”

Henggeler and his colleagues ultimately expanded treatment not only to include juveniles’ homes and families but also their schools, teachers, neighborhoods and peers.

By the early 1990s, the clinicians named their pioneering approach “Multisystemic Therapy” (MST) – focusing on the “systems” in a child’s life, and after numerous trials, MST expanded rapidly. Today, MST – which is affiliated with the for-profit company MST Services, based at the Family Services Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C. – operates in 34 states, the District of Columbia and 14 other countries.

Multisystemic Therapy stands out as one of the best-known and most thoroughly researched among what’s referred to in juvenile justice circles as “evidence-based practices” (EBPs) – programs and practices that have been shown through research to prevent or reduce juvenile crime and help youths make better choices.

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Learn more about community-based alternatives and disproportionate minority contact at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubVisit the Evidence-Based Practices section of the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


But the EBP designation is both coveted and controversial.

Purists maintain only programs subjected to the highest scrutiny should be employed in juvenile justice, viewing them as akin to the gold standard in medicine.

Skeptics acknowledge programs designated EBPs can be very effective, but say limiting funding to such programs cuts off too many promising homegrown and grassroots programs that aren't big brand names in the field.

In juvenile justice, the term evidence-based practices can be traced at least until the mid-1990s, when randomized, controlled trials – modeled after those used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when reviewing applications for new drugs – tested the effectiveness of particular juvenile justice programs.

Being deemed an EBP is no small matter. In requests for proposals, numerous states, counties, the federal government and private foundations specify that a reform effort must be qualified as an EBP to receive funding.

And getting the EBP designation comes with no small price tag. Some experts peg the cost of a randomized, controlled study of a juvenile justice program at anywhere from $300,000 to $5 million.

Seven national registries, three of them federal, bestow the EBP designation, using different labels for it. But the registries vary widely in the quantity and rigor of supporting evidence they require. All told, at least 450 programs addressing youth behaviors including juvenile crime have been given the stamp of approval as being evidence-based by at least one of the registries.

The Gold in Blueprints

By all accounts, the registry with the most stringent review standards in juvenile justice programs (and now, other programs serving youths) is maintained by Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, based at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation funds Blueprints.

The Colorado institute’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence started Blueprints in 1996 (as Blueprints for Violence Prevention) to help identify and replicate violence, delinquency and drug prevention programs that have been proven effective.

Delbert Elliott, a University of Colorado sociology professor emeritus.
Delbert Elliott, a University of Colorado sociology professor emeritus.

Delbert Elliott, a University of Colorado sociology professor emeritus and the founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, said Blueprints grew out of frustration with how Colorado had been making decisions on funding juvenile justice programs in the 1990s.

“They were made on who you know, your political contributions, because the committee that was making these selections were all politicians,” Elliott told JJIE. “What was surprising to me was that nobody was asking the question about what we know about whether this works. Is there some research evidence that this program has proven to be effective, that we know if you put kids in this program you’re going to get some positive effects?”

Each of the 1,300 programs evaluated by Blueprints has been reviewed by an independent panel of evaluation experts, and only nine juvenile justice-related programs have received the “model” program rating, while 23 have been rated “promising.” To qualify as a model program, a program must be evaluated in at least one randomized, controlled trial, positive results must be sustained for at least a year after the intervention ends, and the program must be capable of being replicated elsewhere. (Elliott says programs should be rated model to be implemented statewide or nationally but that the promising rating suffices for use at the local level.)

“You have to be really careful when we’re investing public monies in these kind of programs; you have to be pretty sure that you’re going to get positive effects,” Elliott said.

He noted some juvenile justice programs, like Scared Straight, have been proven not only ineffective, but harmful.

“We don’t have a Hippocratic Oath that we require for the developers of these programs,” Elliott said. “So the whole evidence-based movement is a way of saying we should be investing in …. programs that work.”

Clay Yeager, a senior consultant for the Washington-based Evidence-Based Associates, which helps jurisdictions implement and manage EBPs, applauded the Blueprints registry.

Clay Yeager, a senior consultant for the Washington-based Evidence-Based Associates.
Clay Yeager, a senior consultant for the Washington-based Evidence-Based Associates.

Yeager, who is based in York, Pa., and had served as the director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention from 1997 to 2002, said he advocates randomized, controlled trials as the gold standard for juvenile justice programs.

“If a standard is good enough for us to utilize when prescribing medication, why should we have a lower standard for programs addressing problems in kids and families and communities?” he said.

Not surprisingly, Yeager said he’s wary of the half-dozen registries besides Blueprints. Their EBP designations, he said, have been diluted to the point that they have “lost their meaning and value” in assessing the potential effectiveness of programs.

“It’s created a great deal of confusion among the consumers out there – and by that I mean public policy officials, practitioners, not being able to discern clearly the differences among the standards that qualify each of these 450-plus programs as meeting the test for being evidence-based,” Yeager told JJIE.

“There have been so many iterations and variations on this singular theme of being evidence-based, and it’s minimized the value of what that term was originally intended to mean,” Yeager said. “It’s a disservice to the kids, to the families, to the taxpayers ... to not have more clarity about what constitutes evidence-based programs, what constitutes the definition of the evidence-based.”

Evidence-Based Associates has helped jurisdictions implement and manage MST and other Blueprints model programs, including Functional Family Therapy, which involves intensive work with troubled youths and their families.

Yeager notes the U.S. spends $6 billion to $7 billion a year on locking kids up, an average of $88,000 per youth per year, despite a dearth of evidence it’s effective.

By contrast, MST costs an average of about $5,100 to about $11,950 per family in the U.S. In the course of an average of four months of treatment, therapists make multiple contacts in the family’s home and surrounding community.

MST points to research showing the treatment reduced long-term re-arrest rates by as much as 25 percent to 70 percent and sliced out-of-home placements by as much as 47 percent to 64 percent. The therapy also led to decreased substance abuse, fewer mental health problems for serious juvenile offenders and much better family functioning, according to MST.

FFT Traces Roots to Home Visits in Watts

FFT costs an average of about $3,500 per family, and each family is typically seen both in office and home settings 12 to 15 times over a three- to five-month period

FFT founder James Alexander.
FFT founder James Alexander.

FFT founder James Alexander, a psychologist and adjunct research professor of clinical psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, traces his interest in helping troubled youths and their families to his days of doing home visits as a social worker in the Watts section of Los Angeles just before the 1965 riots.

“I immediately was thrust into issues of race, culture and, of course, a lot of violence, family disruption, all of those kinds of things, so that’s when I started getting the bug to want to do something about it,” Alexander told JJIE.

“We’re trying to help people become adaptive and effective and functional in ways that work for them.”

FFT, based in Seattle, now operates in 45 U.S. states and 10 other countries. FFT has been shown to significantly reduce recidivism and to help youths overcome delinquency, substance abuse and violence.

While EBPs have received considerable support, not everyone views the gold standard of evidence-based approaches as proof programs are likely to be effective.

Worthy Programs Left Out?

Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said though being evidence-based does not guarantee good results, many act as if it does.

Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

“In a perfect world, where everyone was smart and read everything they could and paid attention and were students of the field and took their job seriously, it wouldn’t be a problem because people would realize that there are multiple sources of information,” Butts said in an interview.

“But in a dumb, clumsy and attention-deficit world, it’s a problem because someone says, ‘Hey, I’m on the Appropriations Committee in Indiana or Nebraska or something and we need a community-based program. Which one should we go with?’ And some 22-year-old on the staff of the committee says, ‘I’ll go to this [EBP registry] website and look it up and find you a good program.’

“In that world, it’s a problem because that 22-year-old staffer talking to the insurance salesman who just got elected to the state legislature is not very sophisticated, and they do go for the easy, seemingly simple answer of these programs registries.”

In an e-mail to JJIE, Butts acknowledged brand-name programs like MST and FFT have merit in treating youths they’re designed to treat, but said, “We need a full menu of options, and we need to continue to develop new options by evaluating new models and new intervention concepts.”

Shaena Fazal, the national policy director for the nonprofit, Washington-based Youth Advocate Programs Inc. (YAP), noted it is not deemed an EBP by some registries, but said YAP has a strong evidence base: Its effectiveness has been documented in 10 external studies and recognized by the Casey Foundation, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the National Council on Crime & Delinquency and John Jay’s Research & Evaluation Center.

YAP provides community-based alternatives to out-of-home placements in 17 states, with interventions including intensive support for youths and their families in their homes, communities and schools.

Shaena Fazal, the national policy director for Youth Advocate Programs Inc. (YAP).
Shaena Fazal, the national policy director for Youth Advocate Programs Inc. (YAP).

“We are like probably every other nonprofit not currently in that gold standard of having a randomized, control-group study,” Fazal told JJIE. “In some of our programs, we use specific evidence-based practices even though the YAP model per se has not achieved the gold standard of evidence-based practice with a randomized control group.”

As Fazal wryly noted, no such gold standard exists for the practice of locking up about 160,000 youths a year.

“When people talk about juvenile justice reform and evidence-based practices, we’re very reliant right now on incarceration, which is not at all an evidence-based practice,” she said. “And nobody ever asks for a randomized, control-group study of kids incarcerated, and if they did, they would find that that’s a pretty big barrier.

“That’s one point I like to make because I think it’s worth thinking about. Why is it that we set a standard so high in the community, but we don’t for the harms and dangers of jail?”

YAP, which began in Pennsylvania in 1975, taps into paid advocates “from GEDs to Ph.D.s” who work with youths and their families in the community, Fazal said.

But how can the potential of such generic, community-based programs be evaluated without conducting costly randomized, controlled studies?

A Template to Bridge the Gap?

Mark Lipsey, a research professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., has devised an experimental template for doing so.

Mark Lipsey, a research professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Lipsey, a research professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Lipsey’s “Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol” (SPEP) is based on a meta-analysis conducted by him and his colleagues of more than 500 studies done in the past 20 years.

SPEP scrutinizes recidivism reductions resulting from both brand-name programs like MST, FFT and Aggression Replacement Therapy along with generic programs under the umbrellas such as group therapy, family therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

“If we start asking every program to have a randomized study to show that it works, every real-world program out there, there’s no hope that will ever happen,” Lipsey told JJIE.

He pointed to the divide that sometimes emerges between EBP purists and those who advocate generic programs.

“In my mind, these are not oppositional. These are complementary,” Lipsey said. “There are some people who are really tied closely to the brand-name concept who find it oppositional to think that anything else might be legitimately called evidence-based. I don’t see it that way. I see different ways of using the evidence.”

Lipsey’s SPEP is a key component of the Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington.

Shay Bilchik, founder and Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.
Shay Bilchik, founder and Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.

Shay Bilchik, the founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, praised SPEP, saying: “I think the thing that Dr. Lipsey’s work gives us is the fact that we don’t always need to replace our current program with a Blueprints program … in order to show that in essence you’re delivering what the science tells us is effective practice.

“We can use the Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol that Dr. Lipsey’s developed to take a look at those homegrown programs and see how close they come to the evidence-based, Blueprints-type programs,” added Bilchik, who served as administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention from 1994 to 2000.

SPEP, Bilchik said, can also help identify programs that may not be performing as well as they could be because of poor implementation.

Echoing the sentiments of other observers, Bilchik said, SPEP can reveal programs that fall short of their potential because of a mismatch between the programs and the populations being served.

And whether they’re EBPs or not, programs work best when they target high-risk youths, when they’re tailored to the specific needs of youths (based on results of validated screening tools), and when they focus on treatment and skill-building rather than punishment and deterrence.

James Bell, executive director of the Oakland-based W. Haywood Burns Institute.
James Bell, executive director of the Oakland-based W. Haywood Burns Institute.

James Bell, executive director of the Oakland-based W. Haywood Burns Institute, which strives to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system, said requiring programs to be EBPs can lead to such disparities.

“So many community-based organizations that had been serving young people – and this is certainly true for young people of color – that weren’t evidence-based practices felt tremendously threatened by this new wave of it has to be evidence-based, and the only way you can be evidence-based … is to have a randomized, controlled study,” said Bell, who also founded the institute, named after the late civil rights leader W. Haywood Burns.

Bell said he also has a moral objection to using control groups of children who receive only placebo treatment and thus don’t benefit from the program being tested.

He said it’s time to seek common ground between brand-name EBPs and generic, community-based programs.

“I believe the way forward is to not keep pitting the developers of evidence-based programs against the community people, and we should quit trying to make the community people actually reach the level of evidence-based practices,” Bell said.

“To me, those are formulas for failure. What we should do is everybody should want the best practices for young people.”

Financial supporters of JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

Visit the Evidence-Based Practices section of the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub:


Holder Speaks Out Against Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill Youths

In a video, Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers.
In a video, Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. condemned “excessive” use of solitary confinement of children with mental illness in juvenile facilities.

“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities,” including mental illness, Holder said in a video posted on the Justice Department website.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities, who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects, including self-harm and even suicide,” the attorney general said. “In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.”

lifeintheboxAs JJIE reported in March, thousands of juveniles endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.

Holder noted that in some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows barely the width of their hands.

“This is, to say the least, excessive, and these episodes are all too common,” he said.

“Across the country,” Holder said, “far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular, youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”

He pointed to a study released last year by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) showing 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth up in some form of isolation for more than four hours at a time.

Holder said it may sometimes be necessary to separate a youth from others to protect staff, other inmates or the juvenile from harm.

“However,” he added, “this action should be taken only in a limited way where there is a valid reason to do so – and for a limited amount of time.”

Holder also said juveniles placed in isolation must be closely monitored and detention facilities must make “every attempt” to continue educational and mental health programming while a youth is in isolation.

“We must ensure in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people, that incarceration is used to rehabilitate and not merely to warehouse and to forget,” Holder said.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, praised Holder’s statement.

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Learn more about juvenile justice issues and reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about juvenile justice issues and reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


“The ACLU commends Attorney General Holder for speaking out against the harmful practice of placing vulnerable youth in solitary confinement,” Fettig said in an e-mail to JJIE.  “This action clearly signals that such practices should not be tolerated in our society and that jurisdictions across the country must stop placing children in solitary confinement.

“But,” Fettig added, “the attorney general needs to go further. He must speak out against using the practice on any child – not just children with disabilities.  Thousands of kids in this country are subject to solitary confinement every year, and this practice harms each and every one of them.”

The Justice Department has taken action in recent months in response to what it said was use of solitary confinement of youths with disabilities.

In March, the department said it asked a federal court to prevent the Ohio Department of Youth Services from unlawfully placing boys with mental health disorders in solitary confinement at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. The department alleged in a motion that DYS violated the constitutional rights of boys placed in solitary at all four of the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

In February, the department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest in response to what it called excessive reliance on solitary confinement of disabled youths in Contra Costa County, Calif. The statement alleged youths were held in solitary confinement up to 22 hours a day, often with no human interaction whatsoever.

And a task force commissioned by Holder, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, concluded in its final report in December 2012: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. Robert L. Listenbee Jr., now the OJJDP  administrator, co-chaired the task force.

In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


OP-ED: An Opportunity to Remake Juvenile Justice

New-Timberlake-color-336x504-2It is the legislative season in Illinois and around the country, and that means advocates spend lots of time trying to improve the juvenile justice system and trying to defeat bills that would hinder progress.

These debates in state capitols take place at the same time state agencies, probation departments and not-for-profit service providers struggle to operate their organizations and pay attention to the legislative action.

While keeping track of dozens of small but important debates, it is difficult to remember the big picture. Considering the enormity of effort required to re-write statutes, re-position staff and re-budget an entire state system, the consensus seems to be that it is easier to wire around deficiencies than to attempt to create a more rational structure. With the right guiding principles, the right people in leadership and advocates who are willing to create the right kind of accommodations, the system can function reasonably well.

But sometimes, it is important to step back and ask whether this complicated and costly juvenile justice “system” is really accomplishing what we want it to accomplish. If not, why not? Is the very structure of that system getting in the way? Is this the system we would build if we could start from scratch? Sometimes, it is important to ask these really fundamental questions for the benefit of the young people and communities who rely on the juvenile justice system.

My view of this exercise is colored by more than a law degree and years on the bench. I was fortunate to be educated in a joint JD/MBA program at the University of Illinois. I have never forgotten what some very good professors drilled into me. In particular, I learned about organizational behavior: the study of how people act in concert to achieve a desired result. The academic approach was to determine an organization’s structure and to examine its mission, guiding principles, policy and procedures. The daily results and practices of the enterprise depend upon how staff interact with all of these structural components and with each other.

The best juvenile justice organizations — whether state or local, public or private — begin with essential principles; fairness for victims and offenders, equity among clients, public safety, family inclusion, respect for the individual and many others. As a business enterprise, these organizations must also consider efficiency, achievement of results valued by society and positive cost-benefit ratios.

So, why expend brain time on this thought path? Because our juvenile justice systems may be facing an unprecedented opportunity for clean-sheet thinking, the time is right. Tight budgets, declining crime, adolescent brain science and burgeoning public understanding create a climate for re-structuring the results instead of altering the margins and wiring around problems. The “put good people in leadership” principle is a good approach, but new leadership faces structures that developed as past crises or political changes have whip-sawed its’ staffing and goals. Agency heads inherit union contracts, bricks and mortar and institutional culture are grown by accretion over time. And good people are promoted or are replaced by changing politics or changing board members.

A precipitating event may create an opportunity for structural change: a crisis inside an institution, a lawsuit or fiscal dilemma. In some states, the opportunity for change is imbedded in statute by sunset laws. In Illinois, the 1970 constitution — the first change in 100 years — allows for a constitutional review every 20 years as recognition that needs and goals change over time. No such review has taken place in the 44 years since: at least partially because the status quo is preferred by those who benefit from it.

If a precipitating event or a public appetite for change gives juvenile justice system organizations an opportunity, how should the clean sheet design be created, how should a new organization be formed?

Of course, the essential principles described above are keys to guide both structure and behavior. The mission of the organization must be designed to articulate the results sought by the people who pay the bill. Thereafter, decisions about policy and procedures must be thoughtfully created to fulfill the mission. Staffing, physical plant, contracting, performance review based upon adequate data and effective on-going evaluation and quality assurance must all be created and implemented.

The practices employed by the staff must be directed by evidence of effectiveness, and, perhaps most importantly, the day-to-day organizational behavior must be managed by well-trained and committed personnel who understand all of the above.

Re-visiting the principles that guide an organization’s structure and comparing the results achieved in furtherance of its mission is not time lost. Providing resources for management and support is not money wasted.

Sometime, to make real change — you just have to start over.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, since his appointment by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years prior to his 2006 retirement as Chief Judge of Illinois' Second Circuit, which is comprised of 12 counties in southeastern Illinois. Timberlake also is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board, and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition. A resident of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, Timberlake earned a bachelor's degree and MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law.

To Reduce Juvenile Recidivism at Rikers, New York City Bets on ABLE


NEW YORK — Jafar Abbas knows more than he’d like about recidivism – and its cruel costs. It robbed him of his youth, many prime years, too; more than a quarter century. It started out with skipping school and petty theft. That landed him in a reformatory school; later, a year in county jail. After a robbery gone bad he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in an upstate prison. When he went in it was 1982 and he was 20; when he got out it was 2007 and he was 44.

Explaining how he squandered his youth does not come easily. Although he typically speaks with a natural, unstudied eloquence, he stumbles over unspoken remorse. But his regret now stokes a quietly desperate attempt to balance the scales in his life by trying to save poor teens of color, like he was, from getting sucked into a life of crime and punishment.

As a survivor of the road-better-not-taken, Jafar is an invaluable front-line team member of a new program, Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE), which aims to straighten out New York City juvenile delinquents after their first serious encounter with the law and who find themselves locked up on Rikers Island. More than 175,000 arrests are processed annually at Rikers through the 10 separate jails located on the 413-acre island, just a short swim from runways at La Guardia Airport. “I don’t want these young men to have to travel the same path that I travelled. I let them know that all my 20s, all my 30s and half my 40s was spent inside,” explains Abbas, now 51. Abbas was one of eight kids whose family life deteriorated markedly after his church-going parents split up. His mother was forced to work two jobs and he was looked after by an older sister.

He offers up his life story as a cautionary tale. “There are the things you do when you’re 20: you graduate, you go to college, you meet a girl, you might have a baby, you go out on your own, get an apartment, a car, all this stuff,” he says. “I’m telling [them] that I didn’t do that — that these years was basically lost. ... And if you continue on the [same] path that you’re going to miss out on living. They need to know that if their thinking does not change then they’re going to basically give up life.”

The ABLE program is aimed at helping more NYC youth avoid this all-too-common tragedy and to say it is an overdue effort is an understatement. Juvenile recidivism has long been stubbornly stuck around 50 percent — within three years roughly 70 percent of these kids are back in trouble. More than 95 percent are African-American and Latinos. Among first-time offenders some 80 percent will eventually be released, although that can take many months, if not a year or longer. If out on conditional release, even jumping a subway turnstile can land you back on Rikers, especially if you are too poor to post bail.

It might not be too cynical to say that Rikers has become, in effect, a kind a youth farm league for the “Big House” — as New York’s extensive upstate prison archipelago is known among inmates, who currently number roughly 54,000, down from more than 66,000 in 2003. Other counties in the state hold more than 17,000 additional inmates. Reversing this appalling record — with its huge fiscal and incalculable social costs — should be uppermost in public regard of this undertaking. It is part of  a larger effort known as the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), started by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010 as he entered his third term, to “help at-risk young men build stronger futures for themselves and their families.” The city’s more than a quarter-million young black and brown men are the intended beneficiaries, only about half of whom finish high school, with less than one in five ready for college, according to YMI and Department of Education statistics.

Instead, much of the press coverage has emphasized how ABLE is being financed — through a bank loan with enough unique pay-back features to be classified as that new novelty, often called a “social impact bond,” also known as a form of “pay-for-success” financing. The fact that it is the country’s first SIB also makes it newsworthy, as does the involvement of lender Goldman Sachs (through its Urban Investment Group), whose controversial practices has made it a lightning rod for public antipathy for the finance sector’s excesses. Christened the Vampire Squid by Rolling Stone magazine in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, controversy continues to stalk the investment banking firm. However self-serving, or perhaps even seemingly oxymoronic, Goldman’s involvement may be, it does still deserve credit for being the first, especially if this high-profile experiment succeeds and spurs replication. (There are already numerous subsequent efforts, many aimed at recidivism reduction.)

As it is, far from the paragon it is in many areas of social policy, New York City is still “eating its young.” Alone but for North Carolina, New York treats its 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. They are automatically channeled to the harsher adult court system. And for some crimes this applies to kids as young as 13. Roughly 4,000 teens are handled this way every year, but the self-inflicted damage to our kids is manifold.

Once on Rikers, aside from living in segregated quarters with mandatory education classes, these kids are not treated much differently. They spend more time in solitary confinement than adults, even though they are far less psychologically resilient than adults, according to Growing Up Locked Down, an ACLU/Human Rights Watch report that argues the state is violating its “special responsibilities not to treat young people in ways that can permanently harm their development and rehabilitation, regardless of their culpability.”

“There is a very strong research body that shows that prosecuting kids as adults has worse outcomes in terms of public safety and future recidivism — it increases future violence and recidivism — than kids tried in youth justice system,” notes Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York. “It’s bad for public safety [and] it winds up costing taxpayers a lot of money because of the long term cost of young people being saddled with criminal records for the rest of their lives [complicating educational loans and future employment] — and New York is way behind the country in figuring this out.”


The new ABLE program arguably represents New York City’s most serious effort to choke off the feeder system to the state prison system. The guts of the program, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is hardly new, however. It emerged from drug rehabilitation work during the mid-1980s in the Tennessee correctional system and was codified and trademarked in 1988 as moral reconation therapy (MRT), which seeks to cultivate better decision-making. Since that time more than a million offenders (juveniles and adults, substances abusers and domestic abuse offenders too) have had MRT, according to its progenitors at Correctional Counseling Inc., which claims high success rates in a wide variety of settings, in correctional services in 47 states, and spreading internationally, all with almost no marketing. (The word reconation comes from the psychological terms conative and conation, which refer to the process of making deliberate, conscious moral decisions.)

The brand name reflects the emphasis laid on cultivating moral reasoning and instilling more responsibility. A guided 12-step process, enumerated in the basic textbook, “How to Escape Your Prison,” is worked through in daily 51-minute classes. The class is mandatory like the rest of the school day, and displaces a previously scheduled art class. One writing exercises asks students to reflect on six personal relationships they have harmed and how they can repair them, and when.

Students are provided writing paper, envelopes and stamps and are encouraged to write family members. “You’re dealing with kids who may not even really know how to approach a big topic like apologizing to their mom, or somebody that they really hurt [and] really feel bad about. … You can start helping them find words to express what they want to express,” Abbas said, who effectively dropped out of school in the third-grade, later earned a masters in Sing Sing prison. Reaching certain steps is rewarded with $25 gift certificates, sent back to their families. Other certificates can be brought to court to show judges and prosecutors while ABLE’s service providers, the Osborne Association and Friends of the Island Academy, who do the actual work with the teens, familiarize the court with what progress these certificates signify.

Various community services are also required, including cleaning, making up class flashcards and writing letters to lonely seniors, explained Jafar, who confesses early skepticism. “Even those kids who act like they really don’t want to do no work, or who don’t even open a book, they listen to what’s being said. They listen to the presentations; they listen to the testimonies and a seed has been planted. For the kids who put the additional work in, who do the exercises, you see the growth especially in relationship building,” says Abbas, who has worked there for about a year.

Another marked change is that the kids no longer jump up from their chairs to hurl obscenities out the classroom window to any passers-by. “I see a lot of kids thinking differently, the conversations they have with each other is different, it’s not just fully about everything negative. You start to talk about stuff that’s positive and that’s something that you wasn’t hearing too much when we first started this program,” Abbas says.

JJIE ABLE-Vime Upload 720p from JJIE Multimedia on Vimeo.

Even for kids facing prison time, MRT can help, he says. “If you have to go upstate, basically you want to go with as less time as you possibly can get,” he explains. “But in order to get [that] you have to man up, you have to basically not be going into the courtroom lying to your lawyer and to the district attorney and to the judge. You need to go in there, you need to basically be upfront and be truthful: ‘Yeah, I made a mistake, it was wrong.’ You got to let them know that you are changing. And doing that right there: you go upstate responsible and you go upstate with a plan.”

The city’s past neglect might suggest the ABLE program is well-positioned to harvest some low-hanging fruit, particularly given CCI’s boast of recidivism reduction rates of 50 percent or more. That could be Goldman Sachs’ calculation as well, besides the image burnishing from supporting such as sensible social good. After all, to be deemed successful, and for interest payments to begin, ABLE only has reduce recidivism by 10 percent. Terms of the contract also require that ABLE reaches three-quarters of teens expected to pass through Rikers over four years — about 9,240.

Another attraction is the easy to understand metrics involved, not very dissimilar to analyzing hotels. The program’s performance is measured by its impact on “readmission bed days” (also called “future days in jail”) in Corrections custody during the two years after each young person is released. The central question for the independent evaluator of the program, the Vera Institute of Justice, will be this: “Did the implementation of ABLE lead to a reduction in readmission bed-days (RBDs) in DOC custody as outlined in the payment terms?” — notes a report from MRDC, the social policy research organization overseeing the program for the city, referred to as the intermediary. The report, “Financing Promising Evidence-based Programs:  Early Lessons from New York City Social Impact Bond,” is the most comprehensive report to date on the project.

Answering this key question may be less straightforward than it might at first seem. To begin with, Vera will employ a “quasi-experimental evaluation approach,” according to the report, “in which a cohort of adolescents held in DOC custody at Rikers Island during calendar year 2013 is compared with a historical group that did not receive the program. The evaluation will assess RBDs for both groups at two points: after 12 months in the community following initial release and after 24 months in the community following initial release.”

Then there is the matter of cost savings. The program’s primary aim is to improve the “lives of low-income and at-risk individuals and families,” but clearly the city hopes to do well by doing good, or better. In effect, these are conflated — cost savings are a proxy for this positive social impact. Teens not in trouble — not costing money by taking up a bed on Rikers — means they are out in their communities leading better lives.

Previous incarceration cost calculations suggest New York City’s savings could be quite substantial, although getting a bead on reliable figures is difficult. The Vera Institute has calculated the annual cost in New York State at $60,076 per annum for each inmate. This is twice the national average but in New York City it is nearly three times that amount — $167,731 per inmate, according to the City’s Independent Budget Office, which is about twice what the City’s corrections department has calculated at $85,000 a year per inmate. The Mayor’s Management Report put the average annual detention cost for one bed in secure detention in FY2009 to at $226,320

Whatever the actual cost, there are clearly substantial potential public savings, which the city will largely retain. City negotiators insisted that interest payments to Goldman be capped at $11.7 million, which effectively limits Goldman’s potential upside to a net profit of $2.1 million. That would nearly double the $2.6 million the bank put at risk. That’s based on the initial loan of $9.6 million, which enjoyed a back-stop guarantee of $7.1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which it would pay Goldman if the program were to fail. For Goldman to earn the full amount possible — by reducing recidivism by 20 percent — would mean the City was, at the same time, realizing net savings of $20 million, according to the MDRC study.

Significant economies of scale should incentivize the city, which could save “approximately $4,600 per jail bed for reductions of less than 100 beds, but approximately $28,000 per jail bed for reductions of 100 beds or more.” This is because of the jail’s many fixed costs, particularly staffing. When a whole housing unit can be closed, the Department of Corrections can lower its staffing needs  “by reducing spending on overtime for uniformed staff,” according to the MDRC report. Overall, says David Butler, who is overseeing the program for MRDC, “the city is always doing very, very well here in terms of its net return on the investment compared to what it’s paying out.”

So what are the prospects of ABLE achieving these goals? And does the fact that the recidivism rate has remained stubbornly high for years suggest it is an intractable challenge or simply ripe for improvement? “We obviously thought the latter otherwise we wouldn’t have done it,” Butler says. “This is the first social impact bond and I don’t think anybody wanted to pick something that was really innovative but had a high likelihood of not succeeding. I mean why would you want to do that when you’re testing something there and this is the first time?”

Academic studies of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offer grounds for optimism. One meta-analysis study of various types of CBT found unequivocal improvements in recidivism reduction, with a mean of 25 percent, some with more than 50 percent reduction. “Though generalization to routine practice cannot be assured, the consistency and magnitude of the effects found in the research to date leave little doubt that CBT is capable of producing significant reductions in the recidivism of even high-risk offenders under favorable conditions,” concluded a 2005 study by Nana Landenberger and Mark Lipsey, at Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, which tried to identify factors ensuring effective treatment.

The report studied a number of name brand CBTs — in order of academic literature validation these included Reasoning and Rehabilitation (Ross and Fabiano 1985), Moral Reconation Therapy (Little and Robinson 1986), Aggression Replacement Training (Goldstein and Glick 1987), the Thinking for a Change curriculum (Bush et. al. 1997), and the Cognitive Interventions Program (NIC, 1996) — without endorsing any particular one. The “general CBT approach,” not any specific version, seems responsible for the overall positive effects, it noted. Most successful were those programs ensuring adequate training for CBT providers and implementation monitoring, along with low drop-out rates. More specifically it noted that the inclusion of “distinct anger control” and interpersonal problem solving components seemed to enhance positive results, while including “victim impact” (“activities aimed and getting offenders to consider the impact of their behavior on their victims”) and behavior modification (“behavioral contracts and/or reward and penalty schemes designed to reinforce appropriate behavior”) yielded less effective results.

Importantly, the study noted positive results achieved for juveniles as well as adults without regard for treatment settings, prisons or community-based settings, while on parole, probation or in some transitional aftercare. Particularly encouraging is that the effects of CBT were greater for offenders with higher risk of recidivism than those with lower risk. This may seem counter-intuitive, but adequate exposure to CBT can yield results five times greater than work with less high risk offenders. The contrary finding is consistent, the authors noted, with the principles of effective correctional treatment developed by D.A. Andrews, a Carleton University professor of psychology and criminology and criminal justice, and colleagues, developed in work that goes back to 1990.

“They argue,” noted Lipsey and Landenberger, “that the best results occur when higher-risk offenders receive more intensive services that target criminogenic needs (e.g., criminal thinking patterns) using cognitive behavioral and social learning approaches.” The distillation of this thinking by Andrews, and his main collaborator James Bonta — which brings back the ‘person’ into criminology by focusing on individual differences and the importance of personal, interpersonal and community factors – is found in “The Psychology of Criminal Conduct,” now in its fifth edition as a Google book.

A more recent meta-analysis notes that the success rates have been high enough to earn “Evidence-Based Practice Status” from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the federal government agency advancing behavioral health.

Still, MDRC’s Butler rejects the notion there is any easy picking at the Rikers Island experiment, in large part because the scale of what New York is trying — to reach thousands of kids, not just hundreds — has inherent complications. “I don’t think it’s a slam dunk by any means. I think it’s promising but there is risk here frankly,” says Butler. “We’re in the business of doing social policy research at MDRC — we’ve been doing it for a long, long time — and most of these interventions, when we evaluate them rigorously, even if they’ve been promising based on prior evidence, are not successful when you do them on a large scale. I mean that is the history of policy research in this business. So I think I’m not going to call this a very likely success and frankly it wouldn’t surprise me all that much if it wasn’t successful.”

That would seem to reinforce, perhaps inadvertently, the sound observation offered by Susan Gottesfeld, associate executive director of the Osborne Association that less incarceration is better. “If you have a kid who goes a whole year without somebody holding them, or kissing them, or saying good night or good morning or ‘How was your day?’ — separated from love and nurturance, never mind connection to community, family, school and services — the tougher it is for them to recover or just the more barriers they face when they come out,” she says. “It is important to do really meaningful, proven work with kids when they are in detention or serving sentences but it is also very, very important to bolster opportunities for alternatives for them to shorten their stays or to avoid going to jail, in detention or incarceration altogether.”

The challenges are not deterring Abbas’ mission, which involves a two and half a hour commute each way to and from his home near the Outer Bridge on Staten Island. Those daily journeys convey something of his dedication for these kids, who he likens to jewels in a treasure chest, a metaphor they can all relate to.

“I let them know that for our people, in our community, that you all are that treasure but that somehow you got stolen away and that I’m here to get you all back,” he says. “I try to get them to visualize their value, that they are important and that we need you to build yourself into young men so that you can come out and help us resolve some of the issues that exist in our community.”

He knows that like him, they rarely, if ever, heard anyone while they were growing up talk about their value to their communities’ future. “But I make sure that I tell them and I always let them know that I’m speaking on behalf of the village, that the village needs you and the village wants you — and what [good] condition the village needs you to build yourself up to.”

Financial supporters of The JJIE may be quoted or mentioned in our stories. They may also be the subjects of our stories.

New Study to Focus on Impact of Family Visits for Incarcerated Youth

VeraThe Vera Institute of Justice has announced that it will conduct a two-year study to examine the possible impact of increased family visits on juvenile residents in Indiana.

Recently, the Indiana Department of Correction’s Division of Youth Services (DYS) altered its policies, allowing family visitations as many as six times a week. The study, funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), will assess the links between increased family visits and behavioral and educational outcomes for DYS residents.

“We reached out to Indiana and asked if we could apply for this federal grant to study them, because what they’re doing is very innovative and certainly not the standard practice across the country,” Margaret diZerega, director of Vera’s Family Justice Program, told JJIE.

Two years ago, the state’s DYS was selected as a pilot site for Vera’s “family engagement standards,” which the organization developed alongside the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute. The DYS pinpointed visitation as an area the agency could improve upon, and a subsequent policy update last year resulted in the doubling of facility visitation rates.

“They made some pretty significant policy changes at the beginning of last year, so that families were able to visit almost as often as they wanted,” diZerega said. “So we’re interested in learning what the impact of that policy change is.”

Researchers will look at administrative data and conduct interviews with staffers, incarcerated youths and their families as part of the upcoming project. To measure the possible impact of visitations on recidivism, two cohorts will be studied; youth released from DYS custody between 2010 and 2012, before the visitation policies were updated, and youth released in 2013, after the policy change. Dr. Ryan Shanahan, senior program associate for the Family Justice Program, said an additional one-year-out recidivism study may be conducted once the two-year DYS study concludes.

Shanahan said she is optimistic that the study will provide greater evidence for a link between family visits and improved resident outcomes. “There’s a dearth of this kind of research in the field, and while criminal justice administrators across the country intuitively know that having more family contact can lead to better outcomes for the youth in their care, it would be great to have evidence that backs that up,” she said.

Council of Juvenile Corrections Administrators’ (CJCA) Ned Loughran said that increased family visitations can only be viewed as a positive for young people in the nation’s juvenile justice facilities.

“It has a calming influence on kids,” Loughran said. “They’re not going to act out if they know their parents are going to be there this week, and the next week and the week after.”

Isolating youths from family contacts may constitute a formula for juvenile misbehavior, he said. “I’ve been in juvenile corrections for almost 40 years and this is one of those ideas whose time has come, and it came a lot later than it should have come,” he said. “The facilities must be open to the parents; much more welcoming of them. … They must make them a part of their youth’s rehabilitation.”

Previous Vera research conducted in Ohio indicated a potential connection between expanded family visitations and educational and behavioral outcomes for its DYS residents. Through the study, diZerega believes Indiana is in a position to “set a new tone” for the nation’s juvenile justice agencies.

“We often get asked why family contact matters for youth in facilities, and I think to be able to learn through this study is one way we can answer that question,” she said. “Through what we learn from this study, we can provide some evidence to inform any kind of policy change that other jurisdictions might want to make.”


NCCD Receives Grant to Explore Juvenile Justice Funding Model

The California Endowment awarded the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and Third Sector Capital Partners a $250,000 grant.
The California Endowment awarded the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and Third Sector Capital Partners a $250,000 grant.

The California Endowment on Dec. 16 awarded the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and Third Sector Capital Partners a $250,000 grant to conduct feasibility studies evaluating the viability of the Pay for Success (PFS) model as a funding mechanism in both California’s juvenile justice and foster care systems.

Caroline Whistler, advisory services co-founder and partner for Third Sector, said the PFS model represents a new type of government performance-based contract.

“The general purpose of this grant is, really at a high level, to engage potential government partners at the county-level, and engage and educate them about the Pay for Success opportunities in these two areas,” Whistler said.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]“So rather than putting the kid, the victim and the community through the entire traditional justice system these kids, these youth, have an opportunity to do something different, and as a result, they’re not going to jail, they’re not being placed in custody.” [/module]

PFS programs are outcome-centered, with most of the financing coming from non-foundation or agency streams. Under the model, local governments only pay for services if the programs yield positive outcomes.

“Because governments don’t have to put up the money initially, you’re able to think about innovation and differentiation from what is traditionally being done,” said NCCD President Alex Busansky. “And it helps out with some of the frequently upfront costs of any kind of innovation that might be too onerous for many jurisdictions to take on.”

The traditional juvenile justice system, he said, displaces far too many young people from their homes, schools and neighborhoods. One area the NCCD is focusing on in the feasibility study is the development of restorative justice alternatives.

“So rather than putting the kid, the victim and the community through the entire traditional justice system,” he said, “these kids, these youth, have an opportunity to do something different, and as a result, they’re not going to jail, they’re not being placed in custody.”

Another focal point of the PFS grant is improving outcomes for the state’s foster care youth, primarily through targeting interventions to reduce placement disruptions.

“You’re going to see an average of around seven moves during a typical span of time in foster care,” he said. “For many kids, after the second or third move, they’re not going to another family, they’re going into congregate care.”

The PFS model, he said, may draw new funders and investors into areas like child welfare and juvenile justice, which many are not currently participating in.

“When we look at Pay for Success, I think we’re looking at a space that is ripe to bring new people in,” he said. “And I want to do it in a way that’s replicable and imitable by other jurisdictions across the country, and not just in California.”

The PFS outcome-based contracting model encourages social innovation financing (SIF), whether from philanthropists, impact investors or commercial lenders, Whistler said. Successful PFS-funded pilot programs could encourage county-level governments to make new investments in juvenile detention alternatives and prevention programming. And in areas where governments are already investing, the model could help agencies become more performance-driven, she said.

“It could really encourage governments to sort of take the risk of this pilot,” Whistler said. “And if these programs, through social innovation financing, prove successful, it could actually convince government to reallocate more dollars.”

Working in tandem with the NCCD, she said, allows Third Sector to share child welfare and juvenile justice data. In turn, that information can be used to help construct performance-based contracts.

“The intent of the California Endowment is that we’re going to focus now on two really critical areas for pilots,” Whistler said. “But the hope is that we will create models that can be replicated across counties -- certainly in California, and potentially outside the state as well.”


Island Sands to City Crimes: Pacific Island Youth in Crisis

Duncan Jackson (whose name was changed for this story) was sent from Fiji to Melbourne to live with his uncle when he was 17. Ultimately, drug dealing in the city led him to a suspended three-year jail sentence.

Duncan Jackson (whose name was changed for this story) was sent from Fiji to Melbourne to live with his uncle when he was 17. Ultimately, drug dealing in the city led him to a suspended three-year jail sentence.

Shani Ren Williams / JJIE

Duncan Jackson (whose name was changed for this story) was sent from Fiji to Melbourne to live with his uncle when he was 17. Ultimately, drug dealing in the city led him to a suspended three-year jail sentence.


MELBOURNE, Australia--  At 17, Duncan Jackson* was sent from Fiji to Melbourne to live with his “uncle,” a man he had never met. His parents believed the Australian experience promised their eldest son well-being and economic stability.

Within 12 months, Jackson had been fired from three jobs, and was smoking and selling methamphetamine. The drug dealing led to a suspended three-year jail sentence.

Jackson’s Australian experience hurled him into a whirlpool of illegal substances, violence and altercations with the juvenile justice system. How did the promise of hope and prosperity turn into a story of despair?

His experience is not unique. Pacific Island youths throughout Australia face a destructive struggle to adapt to the Australian way of life. Every year thousands depart their homelands for Australia, leaving behind cultural traditions, tight-knit family units and distinctive social responsibilities.

Click to read more stories from the series.
Click to read more stories from the series.

While many prosper, across the country a shockingly large number end up in the Australian juvenile justice system. For example, in Victoria, the state with the second-largest population, Pacific Islanders make up just 0.1 of the population, but 8.5 percent of young people in youth detention centers.

Traditionally, Pacific Island cultures exemplify mutual respect, harmony and discipline. Why, when placed in the Australian context, do some juveniles of Pacific Island origin develop anti-social and unlawful behavior?

Guy Powles, a senior research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, has practiced law in New Zealand, Australia, Samoa and the Federated States of Micronesia.

“In the Pacific Islands, rigid community structures maintain social cohesion through regulation, guidance and discipline. It is common for Pacific Island youths placed outside of these extended community networks and constraints to develop anti-social behaviors. In Australia, nuclear families are commonly isolated from wider-community surroundings, eroding traditional disciplinary boundaries,” Powles says.

Because of the strong cohesive bonds in Pacific Island communities, public judgment and scrutiny is of paramount concern. Arguably, he says, this dissuades young people from committing prohibited acts.

Joelle Grover, a lawyer for the Australian-based international law firm Minter Ellison, has been the People's Lawyer – the key public defender role – in the small Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]It is common for Pacific Island youths placed outside of these extended community networks and constraints to develop anti-social behaviors.[/module]“In the Pacific Islands, everyone knows everything about everybody. There is no anonymity, and maintaining a good reputation is held in high regard. In addition, after a crime is committed, public apology ceremonies and ritualistic compensations are enforced. The offender’s and his/her entire family’s name will be forever shamed in the community,” Grover says.

Powles says that in contrast with this way of life in the Pacific Islands, Australia’s juvenile justice system is very individualistic. “An offender’s family, community and church is never involved in the legal or punishment process,” he says.

At 16, Xavier Mara’s* parents sent him to Australia from Fiji to get a world-class university education. To their dismay, his involvement in drugs and alcohol-fuelled violence resulted in him spending the next two years in and out of a Victorian youth correction center in Parkville, in central Melbourne.

“I came from such a rigid and strict family and village environment. I arrived in Australia with hardly any supervision and felt like I could do anything that I wanted to do with no consequences. Ultimately, that perceived freedom didn’t lead me down the best path, but I felt as if I had been stripped of all discipline and I found it hard to control myself,” Mara says.

Stephen Earl, now working with the Melbourne firm McCluskys Lawyers, has been the Deputy People’s Lawyer in Kiribati and Crown Counsel – a role equivalent to state prosecutor – in Tuvalu.

“In Australia, drugs are available that are inaccessible in the Pacific Islands. Without any education or knowledge concerning the effects and consequences of drug abuse, Pacific Islanders are more likely to gravitate towards consumption and distribution,” Earl says.

Jackson says hip-hop culture plays a role. “A lot of my Pacific Island friends idolize the African-American hip-hop culture. In the Pacific Islands this just means listening to hip-hop music and learning hip-hop dance styles. However, in Australia there are a lot of opportunities for Pacific Island youths to be exposed to the ‘gangster’ side of it ... drugs, violent gangs and robbery.”

Mara also makes the point that Fiji has no separate detention for youths, so young offenders go to adult jails, and police brutality is common. Australian detention seems much less scary in comparison.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]... "cultural ignorance” shown by Australian law enforcement bodies led to an “antagonistic” relationship between Australian law enforcement groups and Pacific Islanders.[/module]The Youth Access to Justice in South East Melbourne discussion paper, put together by the Springvale Monash Legal Service, found that cultural issues were a key reason young Pacific Islanders were over-represented in the Australian juvenile system. The report says “cultural ignorance” shown by Australian law enforcement bodies led to an “antagonistic” relationship between Australian law enforcement groups and Pacific Islanders.

“Australian law enforcement services are profoundly unaware of Pacific Island culture. There is a dire need for cross-cultural awareness programs for all stakeholders,” the report says.

It found that 30 percent of negative interactions between police officers and Pacific Islanders lead to charges for public order offences, which include public drunkenness, carrying weapons, trespassing and disorderly behavior.

Powles says that much of the negative interaction between Pacific Islanders and the Australian police force is a result of cultural misunderstanding.

In the Pacific Islands, there is a state of withdrawal among young people called “musu.” Musu is the complete refusal to communicate as a response to feeling offended, attacked or embarrassed.

In Australia, police officers simply see it as rude and uncooperative, leading to conflict and further charges, Powles says.

Cultural misunderstandings are not just a problem between Pacific Islanders and police officers.

“Throughout my research, I have interviewed numerous Legal Aid representatives of Pacific Islanders and all acknowledged that a lack of awareness of Pacific Island culture among Legal Aid representatives contributes significantly to bias and the high level of incarceration rates. This was a huge eye-opener,” Powles says.

The youth access report notes that: “Legal Aid representatives estimated that 35 percent of Pacific Island youth jail sentences could have been avoided or shortened with the correct research and Legal Aid representation.”

Powles argues that these deficiencies mean Australian law enforcement bodies should change and adapt. “The current system is not working and something needs to be done about it,” he says.

Social worker Jioji Ravulo is trying to do something about it.

Ravulo is co-ordinator of Mission Australia's Youth Offender Support Programs, which aims to support and help teenagers in contact with the criminal justice system. Ravulo's work has a particular focus on Pacific Islanders. Mission Australia runs 12-week development, education and employment programs for Pacific Island youths who are considered at risk of becoming involved in criminal behavior.

“The program has been very effective. After participating in the program, 70 percent of participants do not reoffend in the short/medium term,” Ravulo says.

“Initiatives like Mission Australia’s are successful and provide a working model. However, there is a significant need to provide such programs in a wider context.”

Ravulo says that the Australian government should provide funding for initiatives that target Pacific Island communities.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]As morale and respect is highly valued in Pacific Island communities, these ‘naughty children’ are virtually shunned and disowned by their whole community. [/module]“Generally, the initiatives that the Australian government fund are aimed at a general audience in low socio-economic areas. These initiatives are generally ineffective in serving all cultural groups. They need to be more specific, so that culturally appropriate initiatives can begin,” he says.

“I do not fault Australia and its support systems. I think that adequate support is there, however, the support is not being communicated or delivered in a culturally appropriate way.”

Ravulo’s 2011 report The Development of Anti-Social Behaviours in Pacific Island Youth found that 55 percent of Pacific Islanders appear in court without legal representation because they are unaware of legal support services.

“Support programs need to focus on educating Pacific Islanders of Australia’s available support services, especially how to deal with Australian police and courts,” Ravulo says.

“This refers to all minority groups within Australia. In general, there is a mutual lack of understanding between ethnic communities and wider Australia.”

Powles says this is a serious issue that needs attention.

“Going to jail is very symbolic for Pacific Islanders. As morale and respect is highly valued in Pacific Island communities, these ‘naughty children’ are virtually shunned and disowned by their whole community. It is devastating,” he says.

Jackson is still suffering the consequences of his early troubles.

“The decisions that I made when I moved to Australia really disappointed my family and I will never forgive myself for how I made my family feel. It has been nearly five years since I got into the trouble that I did, and until this day I have extremely limited contact with my family as a result of my actions. Sometimes I get really lonely,” he says.

 *Not their real names


Shani Williams is a third-year journalism student at Monash University, with a particular interest in politics and international studies. She aspires to work as a political reporter or Asia/Pacific foreign correspondent.

Series Editor: Corinna Hente, editor of Monash University's journalism website, mojo.























Mental Health, Other Experts Weigh in on Illinois DJJ

Next step in consent decree reached after ACLU lawsuit lays out ambitious agenda

Youths inside their confinement rooms at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Center on Tuesday, August 1, 2006, in Joliet, Ill.
Youths inside their confinement rooms at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Center on Tuesday, August 1, 2006, in Joliet, Ill.

CHICAGO -- The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union have four months to review expert reports on the IDJJ’s psychological and mental health, educational, and safety and welfare services, and then draw up plans to address numerous systemic deficiencies identified by the experts in those areas.

The reports, released on Sept. 23 and reviewed briefly during a federal court status hearing before Judge Matthew Kennelly here three days later, cover complaints raised in a September 2012 ACLU lawsuit against IDJJ, RJ vs. Bishop, which quickly led to a consent decree last December.

Read more from the series: Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System: Progress, Problems and Paradoxes.
Read more from the series: Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System: Progress, Problems and Paradoxes.

The psychiatric and mental health report prepared by Dr. Louis J. Kraus of Northbrook, Ill., notes that the consent decree requires the preparation of a remedial plan that ensures provision of adequate mental health services for all IDJJ youth.

This plan needs to include “but not [be] limited to” screening and assessment, ongoing monitoring, appropriate treatment planning, individualized provision of services, timely and confidential access to appropriate professionals, appropriate suicide prevention, prescription and monitoring of psychotropic medications, prompt hospitalization when needed, substance diagnosis and treatment, juvenile sex offender treatment, and aftercare and discharge planning.

In preparing his report, Kraus visited at all six Illinois Youth Center facilities, where he conducted visual inspections and confidential interviews with “scores” of a cross-section of youth, reviewed “scores” of mental health files, interviewed top mental health and other administrators as well as IDJJ leadership and reviewed thousands of pages of documents.

Overall, Kraus’ report finds bright spots but mostly sees areas in need of improvement. “It is difficult to fully assess the workings of mental health treatment at the IDJJ, because 1) they do not have a full complement of services, and 2) even with the groups they have right now, a number of the facilities cannot function because of the paucity of security,” Kraus wrote. “No matter how many groups are described as evidence-based, and no matter how much support is being described for these groups, they are not actually functioning, consistently.

“The reality is that many of these youth are not getting the mental health support they need,” he continued. “In my opinion, unless there is stronger support from the state to get the staff which is needed, these youth’s basic mental health needs are not going to be met.”

Kraus notes that both the youth and the department itself are “complicated” and that IDJJ has taken some positive steps led by Dr. Jennifer Jaworski, behavioral health service administrator. “I was quite impressed by the attempts by superintendents to balance some of the complexities of security and mental health, as well as some of the significant problems they have had with the education system,” he wrote. “The majority of these youth can be helped. However, if comprehensive programming is not put into place, they are going to be at much higher risk for recidivistic behavior.” (See sidebar for details on his recommendations.)

The IDJJ, which has talked at length with JJIE about the lawsuit and consent decree on two previous occasions (See here and here), declined to be interviewed for this article. “DJJ is continuing to review the reports in detail and working with our counsel to develop a proposed plan of correction with the Plaintiffs’ counsel as set forth in the Consent Decree,” wrote department spokeswoman Jennifer Florent in an e-mailed statement. “We would welcome a discussion after a plan of correction has been approved by the court.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“Our complaint alleged systemic problems in mental health care and other areas, and the experts found systemic problems in those areas.”[/module]ACLU lead attorney Adam Schwartz says the plaintiff’s side of the case was saddened but not surprised by the conclusions of the reports. “We think it’s all on target,” he said. “Our complaint alleged systemic problems in mental health care and other areas, and the experts found systemic problems in those areas.”

Schwartz expressed confidence that the ACLU and IDJJ “are on the road to reform. These reports are the beginning of the process and not the end of the process. We are going to spend the next four months preparing the remedial plan to submit to Judge Kennelly, and after that we’re going to spend years implementing and monitoring. We are optimistic that this process is going to work, and we look forward to working with the department to create systemic solutions to the systemic problems.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about mental health and substance use disorders, including:

Asked about the potential budgetary implications of Kraus’ battery of recommendations, Schwartz says it was premature to think about that issue and added that he hopes IDJJ will reduce the number of youth confined in its facilities from the current 900.

“Obviously they need to be spending more money per kid than they are now, if they’re going to give a full day of school, and they’re going to give the high-need mental health kids the treatment they need,” he said. “Mathematically, there’s two ways they can do that: reduce the number of kids on the inside, or increase the staffing. There’s a lot of moving pieces here, and we’re hoping some kids get out.”

During the federal court status hearing on Sept. 26, Kennelly suggested that IDJJ and the ACLU follow up on a recommendation to solicit feedback from the chief judge of juvenile court in Cook County, by far the state’s largest. “It wouldn’t hurt to think about that,” said Kennelly, who will conduct another status hearing in December. “I just throw that out there.” The plaintiff’s side would be supportive “of bringing in other stakeholders at the appropriate time,” Schwartz responded. “Point well taken. We appreciate that.”

Visit the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub

OP-ED: Why Zero Tolerance Means More Kids in Jail

From Youth Communication

63614The United States imprisons more people than any other country — and a staggering number are juveniles. In fact, about half a million juveniles a year enter detention centers, not including those tried as adults, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports alternatives to incarceration. Sadly, our school system is contributing to the problem. Too many children are denied their right to a quality education and instead set on a path toward failure and incarceration.

Our educational institutions are supposed to help us gain the skills we need to succeed in society and make the sometimes tough transition from child to adult. But for many young people, that’s not happening. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a term often used to describe the bewilderingly high number of students who are directed — almost as if on an assembly line — toward prison rather than a successful future. The problem has become so serious that the U.S. Senate held hearings last December to try to put an end to the pipeline.

Zero Tolerance = Zero Common Sense


Schools are not intentionally trying to make kids end up in jail, of course. It’s a lot more complicated than that. But some school policies designed to protect students — so-called “zero tolerance” policies that became popular in the 1990s in reaction to rising rates of gun violence and drugs in schools — have ended up contributing to the problem. The idea was that zero-tolerance policies would help schools respond quickly to acts of serious violence with detentions, suspensions, and expulsions for students believed to be a safety threat. But after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, many less serious infractions like fighting and disrupting class were added to zero-tolerance lists.

Punishments became much harsher, and schools were more likely to get police involved, sometimes for small things. In some schools, talking in class became ‘disorderly conduct,’ and writing on a desk became ‘vandalism,’ according to Senate testimony by Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group. Studies show that zero-tolerance policies resulted in rising school arrest rates. That means more kids were being sent from school into the juvenile justice system: that’s the school-to-prison pipeline.

Discriminatory Policies

Everyone wants safe schools and safe communities. But surprisingly, zero-tolerance policies have not necessarily resulted in better school safety. This is because, in part, so much energy has been going into harshly punishing what used to be considered minor disciplinary cases. It’s probably also because zero-tolerance policies don’t address the root causes of youth violence.

Zero-tolerance policies have resulted in the neglect of troubled students, who often suffer from mental illness and need support more than anyone. Such students are too often shipped off to police, courts, and jail without adequate support to get them back on track. Studies have found that detention makes mental illness worse, not better, according to a Justice Policy Institute report. Not only that, but students with far less severe behavioral problems are increasingly being referred to the juvenile justice system rather than receiving help within the school.

Just getting suspended or expelled can put a young person on the path to incarceration. Students who get suspended or expelled are denied their right to an equal education: A 2011 study that followed a million Texas students for at least six years found that 31 percent of those who had been suspended or expelled repeated a grade at least once. (Among those kids who hadn’t been suspended or expelled, only 5 percent repeated a grade.) Falling behind in school leaves them even more susceptible to becoming involved in real crime. The research found almost half of the students who were disciplined by suspension or expulsion 11 or more times were in contact with the juvenile justice system.

Not only are these strict measures counterproductive and overused, but students of color tend to be disciplined more harshly and regularly than white students. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended, and four times as likely to be expelled as white students, according to expert testimony presented at the U.S. Senate hearings.

Building Strong Children

I believe the money used to fund all of these punitive security measures could be put toward preventive programs that are more compassionate, fair, and ultimately more effective. These include more counseling, training for teachers in how to handle difficult or troubled students, and programs to improve school and peer relations. Many such programs do exist and have been proven effective. But public schools face serious budget cuts that have already eliminated many such programs, as well as teachers and other staff who often support at-risk students.

Cutting or failing to implement more supportive discipline programs is short-sighted because it costs society more money in the long run to incarcerate people than to educate them. Once in the prison pipeline, it isn’t easy to escape. Research by the National Institute of Justice shows that exposure to inmates who have committed serious crimes may increase criminal behavior or reinforce antisocial behavior. Overcrowding, violence and rape are common in prisons, making them no place for rehabilitation.

While watching the Senate hearings on the school-to-prison-pipeline, I was struck by a reference to Frederick Douglass, a prominent 19th century abolitionist who was born into slavery. Douglass once said that it is much easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. Today, it feels like our society is reluctant to build strong children. It is easier to put troubled students out of sight and out of mind. Instead of protecting our nation’s youth from crime, we are generating more and more criminals each year.


This story originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by New York City teens. YCteen is published by Youth Communication, a non-profit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.