It’s More Than Time to Raise the Age in Michigan

In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.

That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.  

The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.

Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.

It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.

Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.

So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.

Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.

During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.

Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.

This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.

These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.

Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.

In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.

The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.

Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”

Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.

It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.

There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.

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

Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.

Book Review: The Art of Holistic Security

We live in a world of best practices. Some call themselves evidence-based best practices (EBP), some are simply promising practices based on evidence from somewhere, and a few are practices grounded in evidence-based research (EBR).

Confusing, eh? Part of the confusion stems from the difficulty and complexity of achieving successful outcomes with youth in custody. In part, the striking effectiveness of recent juvenile detention reforms, particularly JDAI, has removed from secure custody those youth who can thrive in nonsecure alternatives, leaving behind the most at-risk and troubled youth. Confusing has now jumped to complicated and challenging.

Evidence-based practices with their concerns about model fidelity sometimes sound too formulaic for practitioners. The flipside of evidence-based practice is case law-driven practice. Here, author D.L. Reed does a good job of using case law and juvenile rights as justification for certain practices, especially grievances.

If evidence-based practice and case law tell us what to do, the ongoing challenge is how to do those things. The realities of daily life in secure custody settings rarely lend themselves to precise problem-solving, and the reactions of youth never seem to follow the script from staff training handouts.

We continue to search for some field guide that acknowledges that what we tell new detention workers to expect rarely happens, so, in Boy Scouting parlance, we need to be prepared — prepared to respond quickly and effectively to fluid circumstances and changing situations that more accurately characterize secure custody. So, trial and error moves the field slowly in the direction of progress despite the frequent disconnects between new models and their outcomes with youth.

Successful secure custody practices are more an art than a science, and the scarcity of effective, safe and humane conditions of confinement serves as evidence that the art still needs substantial help. In that regard, this book is a basic primer of understandable and useful insights that are helpful to practitioners in implementing effective programs and services.

Reed uses long-standing and straightforward concepts to connect what and why with how questions. Information and explanations follow essential theories of human behavior to support his positive approach to physical and emotional security. While many of the references are to anecdotal research and secondary sources, the utility of the book is just that: The content starts with the assumption that the reader knows very little about the theory and practice underlying Reed’s model. Juvenile care workers sometimes have formal education, sometimes in related fields, and sometimes beyond a year or two of full-time study. For these individuals, the book is a constructive resource.

One example of its utility is the description of a behavior management system. Reed provides a basic introduction of behavioral principles that serves as a refresher for new and veteran staff members. More importantly, he presents the information using multiple adult learning styles. The graduated rewards/privileges continuum is a visual representation of a comprehensive and expansive system that serves as a workable tool for immediate adaptation in a variety of different facilities.

The same applies to the discussions about de-escalation and safety. Appropriately, the book also contains a section on reentry. Without the need to know the intricacies of evidence-based research and references, direct-care staff still have a great affinity for strategies that make sense, are understandable and are effective; and these are precise descriptions of Reed’s book.

Other sample forms and data-collecting materials are also excellent, and the uncomplicated explanations of them raise questions as to why the reader would not implement them immediately. The topics left uncovered suggest the need for a volume 2, and experienced practitioners can generate their own list of deficiencies.

But that is not the point. This book is positive, encouraging, hopeful and above all else relevant. It moves the field forward, emphasizing how to apply Edward P. Mulvey and Carol A. Schubert's concepts of content and process (see Pathways to Desistance research). Employing the wisdom and techniques in this book will improve any secure custody practice regardless of its current status. To the juvenile detention practitioner, you will do better after reading it.

David Roush, Ph.D., has been active in juvenile detention and corrections for more than 45 years. As a facility superintendent, he earned four national awards for innovation and excellence, two from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. A specialist on conditions of confinement, he conducted compliance monitoring for the U.S. Department of Justice. While at Michigan State University, he taught classes on juvenile detention, conducted research and coordinated federally funded training and technical assistance to juvenile justice agencies.

How a New York Police Official Targets Thoughts to Fight Crime

Watch WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show to learn more and meet videographer Micah Danney and Risco Mention-Lewis

NEW YORK — When Carlos Jennings got out of prison in 2014, he wanted to kill the person who helped put him there.

“I wasn’t home seven days after doing 10 years in jail, and I’m in the car with somebody else, with a gun in my hand, trying to do something to somebody,” he said.

He was 22 and deep in the narcotics business in Queens, New York, when he fatally shot a man who had previously shot him in a failed paid hit, according to Jennings. He eventually served 10 years for the murder. When he got out at 35, he wanted revenge against the person who gave him up to police. It was logical to him then, tit for tat.

“My normal thing was to get a gun and kill,” Jennings said.

But before he found his target, he met someone who changed his mind, and then his life.

Jennings was paroled to Long Island, where he had family. His parole officer advised that he go to meetings led by Risco Mention-Lewis, the Suffolk County deputy police commissioner. A small group, mostly men with criminal records, gathered each week to talk about what was going on in their lives.

Mention-Lewis called it the Council of Thought and Action. People who became members had astoundingly low recidivism rates.

Jennings remembers feeling that something was off with his thinking when he was released. He hadn’t seen his grandmother yet but he was already armed and ready to kill.

Mention-Lewis exploited the crack that had formed in his perception.

“She told me I had crazy house rules,” Jennings said. “The stuff I think is normal, people look at it as crazy.”

He listened. He kept going to the meetings. He was open with her — she asked him to promise that he wouldn’t kill again, and he said he couldn’t promise that. But he kept going to the meetings.

Jennings credits Mention-Lewis with saving his life and that of the person he was looking for. Now, two years later, he’s training to facilitate meetings. And he promised never to kill again.

“Coming to COTA and doing things positive, I can see now, like, above the cliff,” he said. “Like people hang on the cliff — I can see over the cliff, like yo, it’s a nice neighborhood here. So I’m just learning that and adjusting to it.”

“The idea is to build a new social moral network within the community,” Mention-Lewis said. “You want to reset the moral standard. You want the moral people to organize together so they can become more vocal than the criminals — people who are very visible in these neighborhoods. The very few criminals are more visible than the good and righteous. The work I do is trying to make the good and righteous more visible, which brings hope to the ones who are in the criminal world.”

Mention-Lewis was a prosecutor in Nassau County for nearly two decades until 2012, when she left in a crisis of conscience. Jailing people was failing to address what was driving them to commit crime, she said, and she didn’t want to keep contributing to the cycle.

She had founded COTA in 2008 as a grassroots movement — not a program, she’s quick to state — that she designed to rewire the thinking of the people whose behavior her office was supposed to punish. When she left the prosecutor’s office, she was offered a job as deputy police commissioner of neighboring Suffolk County. It felt like divine intervention, she said.

Mention-Lewis’ style is unique. She spends time in the streets, driving up to corners where trouble happens and getting to know the people who spend their time there. She visits the homes of young men who she knows are involved in criminal activity, sometimes intervening when a beef is brewing and could turn deadly. And every Wednesday she leads a COTA meeting in Wyandanch, a hamlet with the highest crime rate in the county.

She started working in Wyandanch in 2012. Since then, 150 people have attended at least three meetings, the only requirement to become a COTA member. Mention-Lewis checks for new arrests every six months. Among those with records, the recidivism rate is 10 percent, she said — a fraction of the 77 percent of people who are arrested nationally within five years of release from state prisons.

Crime decreased countywide in Suffolk over the past four years, but the drop has been most dramatic in Wyandanch. There were 15 percent fewer violent crimes last year than in 2012, and 31 percent less crime overall, according to the Suffolk County Police Department.

Despite this, Mention-Lewis insists that the crime rate is a flawed way to judge a community’s progress, in the same way that a person’s growth shouldn’t be measured by their lack of offenses. “It’s about individuals and groups of people changing their social networks, changing the way they think about life, and paying bills and raising productive children,” she said.

The meetings also act as networking events. Members share information about job training programs, openings with local unions and resources for developing hobbies like clothing design into small businesses. Just as personal hook-ups drew many into illegal money-making, they draw many away from it.

Suffolk County Deputy Police Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis leads weekly meetings of the Council of Thought and Action in Wyandanch, New York.

Mention-Lewis often goes into matchmaker mode, excitedly sharing names and numbers when an interest is proclaimed. Homeless COTA members have become homeowners and high school dropouts have graduated from colleges with honors.

While she rebuilds the community and its image of itself, she also tries to inspire new ways of thinking in her department. “They see how I can relate to people, and they see that there’s no harm in relating to some of these people that you never would have thought that you could even relate to,” Mention-Lewis said.

“... I guess what I’m trying to say to people is just because you lock them up doesn’t mean it goes along with treating them like a scumbag. I can lock you up for your behavior knowing that 90 percent of the time you’re not committing crimes,” she said. “And so I think building a new vision of communities and people — people of color in particular — makes for better policing, and I think that the precincts that have been working with me do see the value of the work.”

Inspector Mathew Lewis commands the precinct that covers Wyandanch. He agreed that a more intervention-based approach, which includes the meetings, is having success there. He noted the determination he said Mention-Lewis brings to her work. “She’s passionate about what she does, and you’ve got to respect somebody who’s passionate about something,” he said. “And I do enjoy working with her because of that.”

Mention-Lewis spent her early childhood in Boston’s predominantly African-American Roxbury neighborhood, then moved to the mostly white town of Hanson, Massachusetts when she was 11. “I was tough when I was in the other neighborhood, and when I moved to Hanson I had to learn that fighting was unacceptable,” she said. “So I learned that there were two cultures.”

Bridging them helped prepare her for the two worlds she now straddles. Mention-Lewis is the first black woman to have her job in Suffolk. The rest of the department’s top brass are white men.

Chief Stuart Cameron and his colleagues had to adjust to their new superior getting personally acquainted with local troublemakers. “It’s very unusual to have a deputy commissioner that’s out amongst the people like she is,” he said. “I mean, she’s really out — she’s out on the street corner, she’s out talking to people all the time. And a lot of the people she’s talking with are people that we have dealt with in the past and maybe even arrested. At first you’re like, why is this going on, why’s she doing this? But then when you understand what she’s doing and you see that it reaps results, it’s hard not to accept it.”

Mention-Lewis once explained criminals in a way that was a revelation to Cameron. “Their lives are lives of fear,” he said. “And I never even gave that any thought, what criminals think. You know, I just saw my role in the police department as: Someone commits a crime, you identify them, you arrest them and you try and put them in jail. So if a criminal’s afraid, they would definitely potentially be receptive to another law-abiding lifestyle where they don’t have to live in fear.”

Mention-Lewis describes crime as a flawed solution to valid problems, and describes herself as a problem-solver.

Meetings are open to anyone. Participants share how their week is going, what problems they face and what their successes have been. The meetings have elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, professional networking and community building.

“Sometimes people see crime as a reflection of a person’s true self, but I see crime as a system that we use because we’re poor problem-solvers,” she said. “So if you have a person in your life who’s a good problem-solver, you’re much less likely to rely on crimes to solve your problems.”

Police Commissioner Timothy Sini called his deputy “a weapon” who uses her charisma to advance cutting-edge intervention strategies. He said many in the department value an approach that isn’t all cat and mouse.

“In some ways, they’ve been doing this, just not as formalized and not as deliberate,” Sini said. “The notion of sort of approaching someone because you think they may be the victim of or associated with crime, that’s not unique. Just the way that Commissioner Lewis has set up the structure and used evidence-based practices, there’s just always so much more utility to it.”

One strategy is custom notifications. A shooting victim or their friends or relatives might be primed for revenge. Sometimes enough is known about a situation but there isn’t enough evidence to make an arrest. Mention-Lewis shows up at the home of the person or people in question. She is accompanied by a small team, typically two officers, two supervisors and someone from the community who has respect and credibility. They bring an official letter from Sini spelling out the consequences of any further criminal activity.

“Basically saying you’re not anonymous, we know who you are, we know what you’re up to,” Sini said. “You’re going to end up in jail or worse, hurt or killed, and there’s a better way. And she tries to connect them to resources to get their lives back on track, and sometimes that will be COTA.”

That’s one of the ways Mention-Lewis compels young men who live on the edges of society into her discussion forums. She also visits inmates.

“They can’t say, ‘Hey, I never got a chance, I never got a shot,’” she said. “How many deputy police commissioners come visit you in jail?”

In the meetings, she chips away at systems of perception and reaction that people have built for themselves. She uses the existing motivators in most people who engage in illegal enterprises to introduce new concepts:

  • The individual as a corporation, their own chief executive officer, who should have a board of advisers for wise counsel.
  • The imposter, or the misrepresentation of oneself by aggression, deceit or otherwise, which has outlived any purpose it evolved to deal with and now causes self-destruction.
  • The rocks in the backpack — emotional traumas, often inflicted at an early age, that emanate from a reservoir of pain and play a false and negative tape in their host’s mind.

Mention-Lewis has a propensity for one-liner wisdom. “The strongest man you know is a woman,” she often says.

“The universe is always conspiring for your success,” she repeats at every meeting.

Meetings are attended by regulars, newcomers and some who check in every so often. Local politicians, social workers, uniformed police officers, professionals of many stripes — people hear about the meetings and drop in, sometimes at Mention-Lewis’ invitation and often by word of mouth. Sini has sat in.

“I found it extremely empowering, and relevant,” he said. “It’s for anyone. Certainly we’re targeting people who are at risk, because that’s the whole idea, but I benefited from it, you know? You’re talking about your feelings and thoughts and where you want to be in life and how to get there. There’s the famous saying that Commissioner Lewis is always saying: your rocks in the backpack. So it’s incredibly helpful for professionals, and it’s particularly helpful for folks who need that guidance.”

Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, knows Mention-Lewis and has sat in on a COTA meeting. Jacobs recognized in COTA aspects of workshops she’s taken to improve her own personal habits, “and was always curious where Risco had kind of figured this out, and how she had kind of made it available to people,” she said.

Jacobs added that any ongoing supportive community that is owned by the people it supports is powerful. “And the kinds of concepts, or precepts, that underlie COTA are — I mean, in my own life, I’ve kind of discovered — are the secrets of the universe,” she said.

She praised its focus on participants’ strengths and ambitions rather than their deficiencies. “Like, ‘Those people need something,’” she said. “A lot of us have problems with that and balk at that.”

A trap with such things is what Buddhists call spiritual materialism, she said, “where you take something that can be a really powerful practice, but you make it into ‘a thing’ — a thing that makes you right because you do it and somebody else wrong because they don’t,” Jacobs said. “Anything can devolve into a thing if you let it, and that would be a hazard in this too.”

It is to avoid the pitfalls that programs fall into that Mention-Lewis calls COTA a movement. If a newcomer utters the word program in a meeting, Mention-Lewis calls out, “Are we a program?” to which the room responds in unison with a resounding, “Movement!”

Meetings end with the credo, "Our thoughts become our actions, our actions become our habits, our habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny."

The movement’s biggest challenge is how it will grow. Jacobs said COTA shares elements of other initiatives that have had success, usually because of a charismatic leader or a treatment program that is carefully designed and applied. But both models are limited in scale by what makes them successful — a leader can’t teach their charisma and a good program loses its potency if it isn’t administered properly. The uniqueness that makes a phenomenon special is what makes it difficult to replicate.

“How do you share it in other settings when Risco isn’t going to be the one convening the meeting and modeling the behavior of leadership?” Jacobs said.

But COTA has spread since Jacobs visited, to three more communities on Long Island. The facilitators who run them are group members who volunteered, and are trained continuously by Mention-Lewis. She sustains the network on $60,000 a year from the state, which is divided between a case manager and an outreach worker. There are also five sites in Chicago, started in 2014: three in high schools and two adult sites, one of them inside a detention center. The city spends $400,000 annually to fund them; $80,000 for each site.

That kind of expansion means Mention-Lewis is figuring out how to make it work, Jacobs said, adding that COTA seems to be a hybrid between the fraught extremes of charismatic leader and strict program adherence. She has decoded cognitive behavioral therapy for people of any education level, Jacobs said, and is teaching others to do the same.

Another potential problem is the toxicity of participants who don’t want to be there. COTA isn’t mandated and it has no rules that can get a person kicked out, which helps ensure that its participants are motivated.

A motivational structure is key, according to Richard Gray, a psychologist and former federal probation officer who developed a celebrated treatment program for offenders with substance abuse disorders. “It seems that there are many participants who run with the opportunity and take advantage of the counseling provided,” he said. “So there is a behavior distinction made to separate the unmotivated from the motivated. Good call.”

Members tend to have home groups, but will travel to others. Malik Roberts, 20, met Mention-Lewis seven years ago in Hempstead, New York, where she founded the first group. He was in and out of trouble, and once served eight months in the county jail for burglary and assault charges. He now has a steady job and mentors teens. “Before COTA, I was ripping and running,” he said, “but now I just be chilling and getting my life back on track.”

Jacob Key, 20, of Wyandanch, got involved four years ago when Mention-Lewis enlisted him to help bring in other young people. “You can go there and be comfortable,” he said.

After leaving his first meeting in April, Kion Carter, 23, said he would go back. “Obviously, nobody likes cops. You’re standing in the middle of a known town that’s known for drugs and guns, you know?” he said. “Me personally — she’s a strong lady. She took it further than just being a cop. She looks at it as other people are in trouble and nobody else is putting their neck out there to help.”

Mention-Lewis focuses her energies on transforming Wyandanch by an evolution of consciousness, and looks for people who can steer the groups the way she can. “I think you have to have an innate wisdom to do this,” she said.

She entrusted the Chicago chapter to Charles Perry, 51. They met at a workshop organized by the National Network for Safe Communities. Perry served 19 years of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell cocaine. He got a college degree in federal prison and started rethinking his life. He did volunteer work when he got out and landed a job doing reentry work with released prisoners.

Perry said he found in COTA what he always felt was missing in the work he was doing. “What struck me was the language. The first part was that we should see ourselves as a corporation. That’s something that I had always thought about,” he said. “It meant that you were in charge of something larger than yourself. So when I started reading over COTA and listening to Ms. Risco, I said, ‘This is it.’”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle visited a meeting once and told Perry she could only stay 45 minutes. “She stayed the whole two hours,” Perry said, “and then stayed another 30 minutes engaging the participants.”

And new adult participants react no differently, he said: “They come in and they’re just there because it’s part of the reentry process that they’re going through, but by the time they reach eight to 10 weeks, they’re telling you how this has impacted their lives — how they’re making better decisions, how they’re understanding that the way they react in certain situations really wasn’t them, but it was the imposter that was inside of them, and now they’re learning to control the imposter and be the president of their own corporation.”

Perry added that the verdict is still out on how young people will take to it. They’re not tired of consequences yet, he said.

Mention-Lewis said she’s undaunted by youthful folly. They require more intensity and communication, but it’s still a matter of pursuing them by helping them pursue their dreams. “This knowledge can change the world,” she said.

It has already changed the world for Carlos Jennings. “What I’ve learned is you have a choice,” he said, then paused. “The most valuable thing, I think, is love. I’m gonna be honest with you. True, unconditional love.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story has been updated.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Evidence against probation’s effectiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to implement reform

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

How should the juvenile justice field correct this imbalance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story has been updated.

Poll Shows Americans Support Rehabilitation Focus for Juvenile Justice Systems

white girls to all2
Custody rates are calculated per 100,000 juveniles ages 10 through the upper age of original juvenile court jurisdiction in each state. Map shows breakdowns of incarcerated youth by race, ethnicity and gender as compared to the general youth population in that state. The lightest blue represents a ratio of 1:1 or less; the darkest blue represents 1:10 or more.


WASHINGTON — More than half of Americans support closing youth prisons and redirecting the savings to community-based programs, data that gives momentum to efforts to close facilities around the country, advocates say.

The Youth First Initiative, a national campaign to close youth prisons, released today polling data that delves into Americans’ attitudes about incarceration, punishment and rehabilitation.

“We’re very encouraged by the results and we think this matches with the political will we’re seeing,” said Liz Ryan, CEO of Youth First.

A bipartisan group of governors — from Connecticut, Illinois and Virginia — have recently said they would like to close some of their states’ largest and oldest prisons.

hub_arrow_2-01Youth First supports state-based advocates who are pushing to close youth prisons and overhaul juvenile justice systems. The group aims to work with partners in 15 states during the next five years to cut youth incarceration by 50 percent.

“It’s a tough issue and state advocates are going right at it. We’re really encouraged and we want to support them any way possible,” Ryan said.

Youth First also released a data visualization tool that maps the nation’s 80 oldest and largest youth prisons, along with data on racial and ethnic disparities.

Ryan said it’s critical that reforms narrow the gaps in incarceration rates among racial groups, as well as bringing down overall numbers.

white boys to all2

Polling data

The poll showed that 92 percent of Americans think the top priority of the juvenile system should be to help young offenders get back on track and be less likely to commit another offense.

Very large majorities supported efforts to include juveniles’ families when designing treatment and rehabilitation plans and to provide financial incentives to states and municipalities to invest in alternatives to incarceration — at 89 percent and 83 percent, respectively.

The poll also found broad support for requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and increase funding to hire more public defenders for youth — at 70 percent and 69 percent, respectively.

[Related: Restorative Justice Can Help Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline, NY Panel Says]

Support for closing youth prisons and redirecting savings to community-based programs came in at 54 percent. While lower than support for many of the other proposals, Ryan said the finding is encouraging, particularly because the question specifically referenced alternatives for youth who pose a serious threat to public safety.

She said that indicates support for youth who have committed serious offenses, not only youth who commit status offenses such as running away or breaking curfew, or low-level crimes.

The poll was conducted in January 2016 by GBA Strategies and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.


State campaigns

The Youth First Initiative is already working with campaigns in Virginia, West Virginia, Kansas, New Jersey and Connecticut.

In Virginia, the RISE for Youth campaign is working to close the two remaining youth prisons in the state and redirect the money to community-based alternatives to incarceration.

The campaign has focused on making sure youth and families who have experienced the system are part of the conversation about how to reform it.

Personal experiences can help make the issue real for stakeholders who don’t understand the day-to-day life of juveniles, said Da'Quon Beaver, a community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center who was incarcerated in the past. The center is part of the RISE campaign.

“I’ve seen first-hand what goes on in these facilities — the good and the bad. I know what worked for me and what didn’t and what worked for other youth,” he said.

More related articles:

The Importance of Evidenced-Based Research in Establishing Juvenile Justice Policy

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

An Open Letter to Our Next President

Restorative Justice Can Help Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline, NY Panel Says

Hip-hop artist Youngmichael (holding mic) attributes his success to an alternative discipline program that allowed him to avoid incarceration and finish school. He spoke as a panelist at an event about the school-to-prison pipeline.
Hip-hop artist Youngmichael (holding mic) attributes his success to an alternative discipline program that allowed him to avoid incarceration and finish school. He spoke as a panelist at an event about the school-to-prison pipeline.

NEW YORK — He knew instantly he’d made a mistake. At the last minute, he tried to protect the woman, but that only angered her assailant, who hit her harder, knocking her to the ground.

That assailant was someone Daryl Mensah-Bonsu, then 15, had considered a friend, a more popular teen who invited him along to visit some girls in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay neighborhood. He says he had never been in trouble before and was pressured into stealing the woman’s pocketbook along the way.

“If not for alternative justice, I don’t think I would have survived,” said Mensah-Bonsu, an entertainer who goes by the name Youngmichael.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoHe was a panelist Sunday in Brooklyn, at an event the New Black Arts Movement organized to highlight programs and individuals working to stop the school-to-prison pipeline. About 40 parents, teachers, students and community members attended. It coincided with #ReclaimMLK activities being held across the country this weekend to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by focusing on systems that work.

Although he was charged as an adult and could have been sentenced to seven years in prison, Youngmichael was given an opportunity to participate in an alternative program that allowed him to avoid incarceration, use his musical talent to serve his community and finish school.

But he knows most are not so lucky.

New York is one of only two states where 16-year-olds are automatically charged as adults. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed raising the age to be charged as an adult, but legislation has stalled.

Raising the age will help, says educator David Levine, but keeping kids in school is key.

“We need to show students that by showing up, we have something to offer them,” he said. “Students need to see their school as a place of value, not as a place they’re stuck in.”

Left to right: Ismael Rashad, David Levine and Rukia Lumumba speak about how to stop the school-to-prison pipeline
Left to right: Ismael Rashad, David Levine and Rukia Lumumba speak about how to stop the school-to-prison pipeline

Levine said alternative discipline is an opportunity to keep kids in school and reduce the number of days missed due to suspension. Restorative justice programs avoid suspensions by allowing participants to acknowledge the harm created, work together to make amends and build relationships in order to prevent future incidents.

Data reported by the New York City Department of Education and compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) shows nearly 45,000 student suspensions were issued in 2014-15.

[Related article: The Case That Got Me Hooked on Restorative Justice]

While that number is down from nearly 53,000 the year before and a high of nearly 74,000 in the 2008-09 school year, black students and students with special needs are still over-represented. While black students make up only 26 percent of the student population, they receive more than 53 percent of the suspensions. Special education students receive more than 36 percent of the suspensions although they make up only 13 percent of all students.

hub_arrow_2-01Rukia Lumumba, director of youth programs at the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES) says that’s still too high. Inequitable discipline and the trauma associated with witnessing school brutality affects all students, not just the victim, she said.

“I saw several of my friends carried out in handcuffs, brutally dealt with,” said Lumumba who lived in Detroit and New York before attending high school in Jackson, Mississippi.

“At that time I had three friends — one 14, one 15 and one 16 — that got life sentences,” Lumumba said. “That for me was the moment I decided this was going to be my life’s work.”

She also said she saw first-hand the lifelong damage school-based brutality and other abuses left on the Jackson community.

“When I was growing up, my family was very vocal,” said Lumumba. Her late father was human rights attorney Chokwe Lumumba, who died shortly after being elected mayor of Jackson in 2014.

“But people around us, because they had such a traumatic history of brutality, of family members being in prison or being killed, having their livelihoods threatened, they didn’t speak out,” she said.

Lumumba stressed the importance of healing as a community in order to participate in creating better educational and other opportunities for future generations.

Youngmichael agrees and says for him, an important step has been forgiveness.

“Of course, it’s about making it right with whoever has been harmed,” he said. “But it’s more than that, it’s about realizing that a mistake doesn’t have to be an end and learning to forgive ourselves so we can become stronger.”

Panelists included Lumumba, multimedia hip-hop artist Nejma Shea, former public defender Cynthia Pong, youth advocate Ismael Rashad, Levine and Youngmichael.

More related articles:

You Don’t Have to Be a Judge to Champion Change for Kids

Government Should Not Expel, Charge Students for Tasteless Speech

Schools Need Restorative Justice to Keep Kids Safe, Out of Trouble

Termaine and Elijah: Two Troubled Teens and the Promise of Intensive, At-Home Family-Focused Treatment

Youth Villages-Inner Harbour Campus is on 1,200 wooded acres in Douglasville, near Atlanta, Georgia.
Youth Villages-Inner Harbour Campus is on 1,200 wooded acres in Douglasville, near Atlanta, Georgia.

Over the past three decades, adolescent development scholars, criminologists and mental health practitioners have achieved a breakthrough – or rather two breakthroughs. They have developed two different approaches to the care and supervision of troubled and delinquent children that consistently work better and cost less than correctional confinement and other commonplace services.


One approach, which involves intensive and highly-regimented family therapy delivered to young people in their own homes, has been rigorously tested in scientific evaluations and repeatedly yielded substantial and statistically significant reductions in recidivism and treatment/confinement costs. The second – known as wraparound – targets youth with serious emotional disturbances, and it assembles a team of caring adults to devise an appropriate mix of community-based services in lieu of placing the child into a residential facility. Numerous studies show that wraparound, too, improves behavioral health and reduces involvement in the justice system – and does so at a fraction of the cost of confinement or residential treatment.

This spring, JJIE interviewed two young men who recently participated in these types of programs, as well as their caregivers and service providers. Following are their stories.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: To protect the privacy of the youth and their families, all names in the story are fictitious.]

A Turnaround for Termaine

Before Termaine came to Youth Villages, a Tennessee-based agency that specializes in serving delinquent and emotionally disturbed youth, his aunt and guardian, Bernice, would get a phone call “almost every day” from his school telling her that Termaine was “flipping desks over, throwing books, yelling, cursing, not paying attention, not being cooperative,” she remembered.

On the day of his most recent arrest, Termaine recalled, “I came to school angry because I didn’t take my medication” for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. “So I just walked in the classroom … and I decided to hit one of my [fellow] students because I was angry and I was going through a lot at the time.”

As with his previous arrests, Termaine was quickly whisked away and locked up in the Gwinnett Regional Youth Detention Center in Lawrenceville, Ga., repeating what had become a recurring cycle.

Mental health and the juvenile justice system
Click to read more articles on Mental Health and Juvenile Justice System. 

Though he was sometimes prescribed psychotropic medications such as Ritalin or AMBLIFY, Termaine had never received intensive counseling to address his mental health conditions. No one had ever been assigned to help him or his aunt figure out what was wrong and what could be done to keep Termaine under control and engaged in school.

When he acted up – a frequent and entirely predictable occurrence given his mental health status – Termaine was first detained and then placed on routine probation supervision, only to return to detention a few weeks or months later, the next time he got off his medications and/or suffered a triggering event.

[module align="center" width="full" type="aside"]For more information about evidence-based treatment practices visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]

This time, Termaine was given a choice: remain in detention, or enroll in an entirely different kind of program operated by Youth Villages, which employed an intensive family-focused counseling and treatment program. After choosing Youth Villages, Termaine spent four months at the agency’s residential campus in Douglasville, Ga., west of Atlanta, then went home to begin working with one of the Youth Village’s specially trained family counselors.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]Youth Village counselors are trained to reach out and engage young people and their families.[/module]At first he wasn’t thrilled, Termaine said. “I wanted to be home and to spend time with my family. I didn’t feel like going to no program,” he said. When he first met with a counselor, “I felt uncomfortable because I was told that I had to share my feelings and tell them exactly about my life and what I’ve been through.”

Unlike conventional psychotherapists who wait for patients to show up for office visits, however, the Youth Village counselors are trained to reach out and engage young people and their families, and to form a therapeutic alliance.

“These are not necessarily mandated services. The family has a right to refuse,” said Kate Cantrell, who directs Youth Villages’ programs in Georgia and Alabama. “It’s our job to help them see the benefit of participating in the program, and we really work to partner with the families to help them achieve their goals.” Once the therapy begins, Cantrell added, “We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is driving a youth’s negative behaviors.” Specialists draw up treatment plans for their cases every week, and they develop safety plans patterned around high-risk behaviors like aggressiveness, running away or any suicidal thoughts.

Over time, Termaine and his aunt came to embrace the program. They met with Leenessa Landor, a Youth Villages Intervention Specialist, roughly three times a week, usually at home or Termaine’s school, and frequently focused on helping Termaine control his verbal and physical aggression, and to improve his attendance and behavior at school.

“Naturally, when you’re coming into someone’s home, on a consistent basis like that, there’s always questions,” Landor said. “But the family was very receptive.” Landor also connected Termaine with a new psychologist to manage his medications, and they conducted new psychosocial and sexual health assessments, after which Termaine’s earlier schizophrenia diagnosis was discarded.

During the treatment, Termaine’s behavior improved steadily. He hasn’t been arrested since the fall of 2011. He stopped skipping school and was soon able to transfer out of an alternative school for special-education students and into a regular high school. Termaine is on track to earn his high school diploma in 2014.

Termaine, who wants to major in criminal justice in college and become a police officer, said that without the Youth Villages program, “I would’ve been incarcerated. There wouldn’t have been no change in my behavior. I would have kept on fighting. I would have kept on not listening. I would’ve kept on doing bad in school. And I definitely wouldn’t have been on track to graduate like I am now.”

“He’s gotten past that hump,” added Termaine’s aunt. “That mountain, I should say.”

Second Time’s a Charm For Elijah in Wraparound

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“One of them would say it’s ADHD, one would say that he’s bipolar, it was just kind of up and down, it was like a rollercoaster. … He was just a number in the system, they just herded him through.”[/module]Elijah C. has benefited from “wraparound” care offered by Lookout Mountain Care Management Organization, which puts together a team of parents, teachers, coaches and others engaged in a youth’s life to help control their behavior problems and get them on the right track.

Elijah’s father said his son’s behavioral problems have been severe since the second or third grade. He was prone to outbursts at elementary school, after which he would frequently flee the school and run out dangerously into the street, jumping in front of cars. “They had to restrain him, hold him down,” his father recalled.

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

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Elijah was seen by local mental health specialists, but “we didn’t have real good results,” his father recalled. “One of them would say it’s ADHD, one would say that he’s bipolar, it was just kind of up and down, it was like a rollercoaster. … He was just a number in the system, they just herded him through.”

Meanwhile, Elijah’s behavior problems escalated, and he continued to have frequent confrontations with authority figures at school, after which he often bolted and disappeared. He was also kicked out of after school programs.

This inattention to Elijah’s mental health needs finally changed in 2010, when the family was first referred to Lookout Mountain’s wraparound program by child welfare authorities, following an incident in which his father lost his temper and beat Elijah with a hickory stick, leaving strike marks on his leg.

“[Elijah’s father] accepted the services,” recalled Monty Davis, the Lookout Mountain Care Coordinator who worked with the family. “We come out and do an initial face-to-face, we explain to him what we’re about, and what wraparound is, and we proceed with what we call a plan of care, which includes needs, outcomes, strategies that help the youth and the family remain in the community.”

Getting to know Lookout Specialists was kind of fun and interesting, Elijah’s father recalled. “They become a part of the family,” he said. “There was a couple of times they came in, and they brought little things for Elijah, and we invited them to come out to our house and eat dinner,” he said. “We just become friends, and I told them ‘this means a lot.’ They can come out anytime they want, I don’t care what time it is.”

Both father and son received training in anger management, which included simple techniques such as counting to 10 when something upsetting occurs. At first, “We both thought it was stupid,” said Elijah’s father. They also met with a counselor weekly, where they focused on sociability. “I ain’t one to be out in public,” Elijah’s father said. To overcome the family’s isolation, Lookout Mountain began providing meal tickets for the family, so they could go out to dinner occasionally. “They done a lot,” he said. “We still go out quite a bit, sometimes.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“I’m telling you, he’s come a long way in his behaviors,” said Monte Davis, Elijah’s Lookout Mountain care coordinator.[/module]Although Elijah made progress in wraparound, he was arrested and detained for fighting in the spring of 2011. After that, Elijah’s behavior improved for several months, but once again spiraled out of control in the fall of 2011 when he was arrested, detained, and placed into a residential treatment facility. Elijah didn’t take to the facility, got into an altercation and fled. After he was caught, detained, and sent to a second facility, Elijah again had a blow-up and ran. This time Elijah, who had turned 17, was sent to the county jail.

In November 2012, after 80 days, Elijah was transferred back to the juvenile court system and placed in custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice. That’s when Elijah’s probation/parole officer, Wade Thomison, offered Elijah and his family the chance to re-enroll in wraparound.

Ever since, Elijah and his family have been thriving. Elijah began taking classes toward his GED in May. Although Elijah doesn’t know what career he wants to pursue, he said he’s interested in mechanics.

“I’m telling you, he’s come a long way in his behaviors,” said Monte Davis, Elijah’s Lookout Mountain care coordinator. “He used to be so hyper you couldn’t control him.”

“He’s kind of matured a little bit,” his father said. “He’s kind of figured out, ‘Hey, my freedom can be [taken] at any time.’ And he’s learned to control himself better.”

Recently, when the two were working on a car together, putting in a transmission, his father suggested that Elijah move his fingers, which were in a dangerous spot. “He got really mad,” Elijah’s father recalled. “You could see it on him.” But Elijah controlled his anger and said, “All right, dad, my fingers are in a bad position, and I’m sorry. Now what can I do?’”

“A year ago, he wouldn’t have done that,” his father said. “He would’ve took off to the house and left me.”


This series is part of an ongoing collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity.

The Importance of Evidenced-Based Research in Establishing Juvenile Justice Policy

John Last 1Over the last few decades politicians have advocated for stricter sentencing guidelines and for trying more juveniles as adults. These decisions have been largely driven by public fear and a desire by elected officials to be seen as “tough on crime.”

They do not rely on evidence-based research, one of the least used methods for determining juvenile justice policy.

Some of these attitudes seem to be changing though. Over the last few years, research has generated data that are beginning to be acknowledged by policy makers. One such study is Pathways to Desistance, sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in partnership with many other groups interested in effective juvenile justice practices. The study followed 1,354 serious juvenile offenders between the ages of 14 and 18 for seven years following their conviction.

Several interesting conclusions have been drawn from the study, as outlined in an OJJDP fact sheet prepared by Edward P. Mulvey, the lead researcher. According to the fact sheet, “Most youth who commit felonies greatly reduce their offending over time, regardless of the intervention.” This seems to point to the idea that as people mature they tend to make better decisions. This applies even to those who commit terrible crimes.

Another conclusion of the study is that longer stays in juvenile facilities do not lower the risk of reoffending when compared to placing the youths on probation. In fact, the group with the lowest level of offending actually tended to increase their criminality the longer they were kept in confinement. A better approach was community based supervision, which increased participation in school and work, and which led to lower rates of involvement with the juvenile system. Increasing the time that the juvenile spent in community based supervision led to even lower rates of reoffending.

The study also supports the efficacy of substance-abuse treatment. Even when taking into account the types of offenses, race and socioeconomic status, treatment that included strong family involvement led to a decrease in criminal behavior. One finding of the study is that the prevalence of drug use among juvenile offenders is three to four times higher than in the general population. Thirty seven percent of the males had been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Dr. Mulvey suggests that joining substance abuse treatment with community-based supervision may lead to greater reduction in offending over the short and long term.

The OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book says that in 2007 (the last year listed) 86,927 juveniles were in detention. According to Models for Change, a website devoted to juvenile justice reform, seventy percent of these are held in state-run facilities, at an average cost of $240.99 a day to house. States are looking for ways to save money, and evidenced-based policies can help meet that goal. They are certainly a better choice than programs that are ineffective and that may actually increase crime.

I hope that studies like this will be taken into account when new policies are being decided. Juvenile life without parole, automatically trying juveniles as adults, and imposition of mandatory minimums on young offenders should all be revisited in light of studies such as Pathways to Desistance. Along with the latest research in adolescent brain development these real world studies point to a new way of approaching juvenile crime. Perhaps we can begin to salvage these kids instead of throwing them away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.  Summit on Youth Violence

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

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

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