Pondering the Limits of Criminal Justice Reform

John LashOn Monday I spoke via Skype with a group of students enrolled at Georgetown University. Some friends of mine teach a class on social justice and conflict studies. Twice I have joined the class to discuss my own experiences with the criminal justice system, restorative justice, my current work, and any other insightful (and difficult) questions they come up with.

Several wondered how prison could be changed to address issues of safety and violence, and whether or not restorative responses still allowed for incarceration. These are interesting topics to me, and I am able to talk about them with ease, but a few questions left me pondering the limits of criminal justice reform. These were questions that addressed what I think of as structural issues.

For instance, why does the average prisoner have an elementary school reading level? Is he in prison because of that, or are people with that level of education more likely to be incarcerated? Why are African Americans disproportionately incarcerated? It is not because they are more likely to commit crimes. Even when the circumstances of a given crime and background are accounted for, they are more likely to be sent to prison and to receive longer sentences. The same is true for Latinos, poor people, Native Americans, and other traditionally disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

One of the greatest writers in the field of conflict studies, Johan Galtung, introduced the concept of structural violence in a 1969 article for the Journal of Peace Research. For Galtung, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of human needs.” This definition includes a lot of “isms” including racism, classism, sexism, and others. It doesn't take a lot of investigation to see how these phenomena can be connected to the current system of justice.

Even if we were somehow able to create the perfect prison, with programs that are effective, safe living conditions, supports for maintaining family connection, and relevant educational classes, it still would not address the issues that lead to incarceration in the first place.

I don’t wish to ignore personal responsibility, but I also recognize that environment and other factors outside of the individuals control have an impact on their perception of choices and ability to transcend hardships. Consider a November 4th article in the New York Times entitled "After the Violence, The Rest of Their Lives".

The article tells the story of The Chicago Project, led by Northwestern University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Linda A. Teplin, a study of 1,800 youth who entered the juvenile justice system at an early age. The youth, interviewed between 1995 and 1998, have been tracked ever since.

Consider a few statistics from the study. Over 80 percent of the juveniles who enter the system early are gang members, 70 percent of the males have used a firearm (starting at an average age of 14), 20 percent of the participants on a given day are incarcerated, and 71 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women are unemployed. The youth surveyed in the study die, usually violently, at a rate three to five times as high as comparable residents of the county.

All of these statistics do not flow from personal choice, and to ignore that fact is to hide from reality. Do some individuals rise above the circumstances? Of course, but these exceptions to the rule, while admirable, do not excuse the rest of us from considering the realities of stark contrasts in equality, opportunity, and risk that exist between most Americans and those that live in the worst areas of the nation. Until these structural issues are fully faced and dealt with we will always have injustice, no matter how much we “improve” the criminal justice system.

Wealth of Research from Center for Juvenile Justice Reform

Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, led by Director Shay Bilchik, has published a number of research studies that tackle a wide variety of juvenile justice issues.  We've highlighted a few of the best below.  Be sure to check out the Center's website for many more resources.

Judge Steve Teske: The Silent Majority

A young boy is ripped from his family.  As he is placed in the back of a stranger’s car, he looks out the back window and sees his mom crying and his dad in the back of a police car.  He doesn’t understand. He is scared. He can’t stop crying. 

A young teenager is running the streets and getting into trouble.  He is stealing and getting into fights to survive.  He knows he is ready to kill if he has to.

A young man was neglected and sexually abused as a child.  He sees no purpose in life. Death, at times, seems more inviting than life.

These are the faces of just a few I heard from at the recent CHRIStal Ball, an annual event to raise funds for CHRIS Kids.  Now take these three stories and multiply them by at least 933,333 other children and youth in this country that are reported abused and neglected; and this nearly 3 million does not include those not reported. During these recent difficult times in our nation, these numbers are increasing.

Children suffering at the hands of abusing and neglecting caretakers are at high risk of suffering from reactive attachment disorder. Children suffering from this disorder may have an aversion to physical affection, become disobedient, defiant, and argumentative, display manipulative and aggressive behavior, and lack remorse or guilt when they behave badly. As they grow older, into adolescence, they develop either inhibited or disinhibited symptoms of reactive attachment disorder.  Youth with inhibited symptoms are withdrawn and emotionally detached. They push others away, ignore them, and may act out aggressively toward others. Those with disinhibited symptoms prefer strangers over their parents, and often behave immaturely.

For those of us in juvenile justice, working with troubled adolescents, are you getting the picture yet? Consider the connection between these symptoms and the six researched based causes of delinquent youth:

  • Cognition (attitudes and values)
  • Peers (anti-social friends)
  • Family Function (abuse, neglect, lack of supervision and nurturing)
  • School Connectedness
  • Substance Abuse
  • Weak Problem-Solving Skills. 

Thanks to the Zero-to-Three research and the work of Casey Family Programs and the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, we are recognizing this connection between early childhood abuse and neglect and how it manifests into delinquent conduct in adolescent years. We now call this population “cross-over” youth, and they present symptoms most difficult for the average foster parent or adoptive parent.  Consequently, judges and other juvenile justice and child welfare practitioners often confront “cross-over” youth no one wants because they are difficult to handle; because they are hard to get close to; and because they are afraid to get close to others.

 Judges, you know these youth. These are the ones who find their way into your court because they have committed a delinquent act and now DFCS, in many instances, wants them out of their foster care system because they are labeled “disruptive” and they can’t find a placement.  The adoptive parent who wanted that adorable child at age three or four, now calls him a “monster” at thirteen. And many times it is just as well they don’t remain in a foster home that is ill-equipped to handle the distresses of these symptoms.  It requires an organization that specializes in these “cross-over” youth.  Those three youth described above are now adults.  They were residents of CHRIS Kids.  They are high school graduates either in college or serving in the military and returned Saturday evening to share their stories of how CHRIS Kids nurtured them back to emotional well-being to become productive pro-social adults helping others.  In fact, one is now on the board of directors of CHRIS Kids. 

But this would not be possible without the support of the community, from both business and private citizens.  I was impressed and humbled by the community support for these kids.  I could not help but think how those of us on the bureaucratic side of juvenile justice complain about the lack of money in the state budget, when so much is done in the private sector to support homes for these very troubled kids.  Do we truly understand what the cost would be to the taxpayer if DJJ or DFCS had to pay the full cost for housing and caring for - and I mean really caring for these youth - and steering them toward a productive adulthood?  But for the business community and the caring and concerned private citizens, those of us in the courtroom and in the field would have no viable options to save these troubled youth.  They are the silent majority.  They give and seek no recognition.

I sat at my table Saturday night and considered the connection between me, as a judge, and the community.  How can I be effective if I am not aware of what is going on in my community with programs; if I don’t know who is giving to help these kids that I see in my court every day? Furthermore, should I get to know what programs are working, and what I can do to make sure the system is getting those kids to caring and effective programs?  I speak only for myself.  I need to get off the bench from time to time to time visit that silent majority to say thanks, and give as they do.


The Hon. Steven Teske has been a judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. Judge Teske also chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice.  He's a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.