A New Strategy for Juvenile Justice Reform: Local Leadership, Incremental Change

Marie WilliamsAfter Nov. 8, the juvenile justice field has had to make a few adjustments. Undoubtedly, juvenile justice reformers will still — as they should — prepare their transition memoranda and talking points. They will dig, though perhaps now a little deeper, to find areas of potential leverage with the incoming administration.

But even the most optimistic of observers must consider that juvenile justice reform might not be among the top priorities for the new president or Congress. Our hope that the federal government will assume leadership in moving the needle on the past decade’s reform objectives may not come to pass.

So what does the field do now? Although there may be a momentary sense of disorientation, there are a few points to remember.

First, reform has always been local. Apart from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act itself, true groundbreaking reform in juvenile justice has almost always originated at the state level. And even that legislation was driven by observations, information and energy from practitioners and advocates who were well-positioned to see how poorly we were serving young people who came into conflict with the law and how we might address it.

The results of this election won’t change that. Reform can happen — and even thrive — no matter the national political climate, and successes in one community can often be replicated in another.

Second, reform has always depended largely on committed and capable leadership. Whether driven by the advocacy community or others, durable reform rarely occurs simply because a vocal minority decides to rage against the machine. Finding and supporting strong, credible and dedicated leadership has always been essential for reform to flourish. And, when well-connected and knowledgeable about the local context, that leadership is likely to succeed.

Third, the resources for juvenile justice have always come overwhelmingly from state coffers. Without exception, more than 90 percent of states’ juvenile justice funding is appropriated not by Congress but by state legislatures. This knowledge should help debunk the myth that the strong arm of the feds is the best, or only, avenue to change.

And finally, though many of us are loath to acknowledge as much at this early stage, we really don’t know what a Trump presidency will look like for juvenile justice. The void of clear policy positions may seem like a drawback, but it is also an extraordinary opportunity to build partnerships and try to foster a collaborative spirit with an administration getting its bearings on a multitude of complex issues.

Before the election, the juvenile justice community was paying close attention to the forecasts of the political intelligentsia and primed to make their case to a longtime advocate for children and families, a former staffer at the Children’s Defense Fund who has spoken often about the challenges facing juvenile justice reformers.

Now, as the nation prepares for a Trump administration, there are more questions than answers about how juvenile justice reform will fare under the incoming president. What we do know is that President-Elect Trump has made many statements that lean in the direction of the now discredited tough-on-crime policies of the ’90s, and that some of his rhetoric seems to evince a limited understanding of the communities most affected by much of current juvenile justice practice and policy. Still, this will not be the first time the cause of reforming our nation’s juvenile justice systems has faced a potentially challenging political environment.

For more than a decade, juvenile justice was such a low priority — even in a so-called “friendly” administration — that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention remained leaderless and rudderless, only recently benefiting from the visionary leadership of former Philadelphia Chief Juvenile Defender Robert Listenbee.

And in Congress, funding for juvenile justice programs has declined steadily, reaching a nadir in 2014 and 2015 when some of the resource streams (Title V and the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant program) were zeroed out altogether. Nevertheless, there were significant gains in juvenile justice led largely by well-funded philanthropic endeavors, like the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), now reforming systems in 40 states and 300 counties nationwide; and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative, which since 2004 poured more than $100 million into creating a network of juvenile justice reform innovators in 35 states and at the federal level.

Other foundations like the Public Welfare Foundation and Open Society Institute turned their attention to thorny issues like improving racial and ethnic fairness, ending juvenile life without parole and keeping nondelinquent youth out of confinement.

At the same time, a tenacious group of organizations at the national level, the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC), quietly but doggedly worked at keeping a key group of senators and national policymakers informed and engaged on juvenile justice. And just recently, the NJJDPC scored a few notable successes: They helped get the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act out of the Judiciary Committee and into the Senate, and more recently, out of the Committee on Education and the Workforce on the House side as well.

In both cases, the bill had Republican and Democratic champions and seemed poised to move. In the Senate, the bill’s progress was interrupted by an ideologue; in the House, it was halted by the tyranny of the congressional calendar and a presidential election season no one could have anticipated.

For the past decade, the Stoneleigh Foundation in Philadelphia, where I am pleased to be a member of the staff, has invested in a new model of juvenile justice reform, which adapts the models and adopts some of the lessons learned from many larger, more heavily resourced national foundations. Drawing from the Models for Change example, it is clear that reformers are most effective when they have an insider perspective, even when they are not themselves insiders; and from JDAI we learned the importance of having collaborative relationships with systems, and leadership steeped in (or drawn from) the local context.

Through our fellowships, the Stoneleigh Foundation invests in local leaders to create a cadre of system reformers embedded in the very systems they hope to change — be they public agencies, community-based organizations or advocacy groups working on seemingly intractable issues. The theory behind the Stoneleigh approach is that while the fiscal climate and political parties may change, creating and nurturing political will and policy know-how are the best paths to sustainable change.

Though the Stoneleigh Foundation’s approach is largely focused on creating change in the Philadelphia region, it has produced significant thought leadership in the field by seeding the work of exceptional individuals.

For example, our current group of Fellows includes Nicole Pittman, whose groundbreaking work to remove juveniles from sex-offender registries has achieved significant national attention; to former Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, whose school diversion program has produced enviable results in dismantling Philadelphia’s school-to-prison pipeline; and Naomi Goldstein, who is rigorously applying data to build and implement a developmentally appropriate approach to juvenile probation.

As the juvenile justice field as a whole — and not just the philanthropic community that supports it — confronts the new and uncertain reality of an incoming Trump presidency, we would do well to consider the next four to eight years an opportunity to further broaden our view of what it means to invest in reform.

Though it is too early to predict, we may not get the hoped-for commitment from the federal government. Despite the best efforts of national advocacy groups — which should continue unabated — the era of large-scale national reform may well be at an end.

But that doesn’t have to mean a halt, or even a slowing of the wave of reform. There are now unprecedented Left-Right-and-Center coalitions at the state and local levels all around the country that agree on the fundamentals: Our nation’s juvenile justice systems can and should be safe, fair and effective.

So let’s get back to work.

Marie Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice  and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

What Will a Science-hostile President Mean for Justice Reform?

billkellyThis column was written for The Crime Report.

Concern about how the next administration will deal with criminal justice reform is well-justified. But possibly the most troubling clue to the policies of a Trump administration is contained in the attitudes of the president-elect to science.

Donald Trump does not appear to have much regard for scientific evidence. He believes, for example, that climate change is a hoax.

If he applies that know-nothing mindset to the evidence-based practices that have begun to inform new thinking about incarceration and sentencing policies, reformers are going to be in for a bumpy ride.

So far, we have been given bits and pieces of Trump’s positions, but little in terms of explicit policy statements. And what we do know of his thinking is rife with contradictions.

Trump branded himself as the “law and order” candidate during the GOP convention last summer. Earlier, in a November 2015 interview on MSNBC, he called himself “a believer in tough on crime,” and compared urban neighborhoods afflicted with violence to “the Wild West.”

He criticized the Obama administration’s decision to approve the early release of approximately 600 low-level drug offenders from federal prison. Not letting the facts get in his way, Trump declared that “Obama is even releasing violent criminals from the jails, including drug dealers, and those with gun crimes. And they’re being let go by the thousands. By the thousands. …”

And he went further: “Obama pushed for changes to sentencing laws that released thousands of dangerous, drug-trafficking felons and gang members who prey on civilians.”

Commentators have pointed out that Trump has changed many of his beliefs over the course of the campaign. While he once appeared to defend a woman’s right to choose, he has since become a staunch pro-lifer. But his “tough on crime” beliefs have been largely unchanged.

His 2000 book “The America We Deserve” rejected arguments made by social scientists and criminologists that suggested strong links between criminal offending and poverty or childhood maltreatment, insisting that such explanations are “soft on crime.”

As his campaign ratcheted up this fall, he strengthened the point.

“Tough on crime policies are the most important form of national defense,” he has claimed. ”Aggressive anticrime policies are the best social program.”

Advocates of reducing America’s overcrowded prisons are, similarly, unlikely to get a warm reception in the Trump White House or Justice Department. Trump is an avid advocate of imprisonment, apparently showing no concern for current levels of incarceration and a clear disdain for the recent, ever-so-modest reform efforts made at the state level.

Moreover, legislation supported by a bipartisan coalition that proposed modest changes to federal sentencing has been languishing in Congress for over two years. One of its most vocal opponents has been Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions — a key Trump ally who has been touted as a possible cabinet member.

It’s probably safe to conclude that the prospects of such legislation being resurrected under President Trump are bleak.

Most of the criminologists and policymakers who have examined the current research in criminal justice policy are aware that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports reducing punitive policies, and of implementing comprehensive, evidence-based clinical intervention and rehabilitation programs.

But this growing intellectual consensus is not likely to persuade a Trump administration committed to the law-and-order, tough-on-crime rhetoric that excited crowds during the recent campaign.

The early speculation is that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is Trump’s first choice for attorney general. Giuliani remains one of the foremost defenders of the stop-and-frisk policing strategies which he instituted in New York — and which have since come under both legal and scholarly attack.

Trump, a native New Yorker who often refers to the city’s high-crime era of the 1990s, has long been a Giuliani fan. While his justice views have undoubtedly been influenced by the ex-mayor, he also appears willing to go even further in denying the validity of scientific research — or even evidence.

He argues for instance that the so-called Central Park Five — five young men imprisoned for a notorious attack on a jogger and eventually released when DNA evidence proved their innocence — are guilty. The fact that someone else actually confessed to the crime appears to have eluded him.

Evidence-based strategies are already influencing policies at the state level. There have been some state- level rollbacks of tough-on-crime policies, especially in terms of sentencing laws and prison populations. Fiscal pressures may keep some states headed in that direction; but to reiterate, this is very modest change.

The bigger challenge of criminal justice reform is much more extensive and comprehensive than what has transpired or been considered to date. For example, the recidivism rate of mentally ill prisoners is 80 percent. That screams revolving-door and should serve as a clue about diverting to clinical treatment many of the 40 percent of prison inmates with mental health issues.

So, too, for the vast majority who have a substance-use disorder, as well as those with neurocognitive and intellectual impairment and deficits.

But such evidence-based strategies may come to a dead stop in a Trump administration.

While much of criminal justice policymaking is local, the federal government has a huge impact on setting priorities through its funding power.

I fear a federal tough-on-crime agenda will increase the political risk associated with current reform efforts, in turn keeping any surviving reform efforts piecemeal and modest. And when it comes to extensive, comprehensive criminal justice reform, the prospects are even bleaker.

Reform requires effective leadership. From the evidence available to us so far, that’s not likely to come from a science-hostile Trump White House.

William R. Kelly is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of three recent books on criminal justice reform, Criminal Justice at the Crossroads: Transforming Crime and Punishment, The Future of Crime and Punishment: Smart Policies for Reducing Crime and Saving Money and From Retribution to Public Safety: Disruptive Innovation of American Criminal Justice.

This column originally appeared in The Crime Report.

The Lessons of California for Juvenile Justice Reform

daniel-macallair2-771x953Those who equate juvenile justice reform with better institutions should consider the California lesson. For the past 13 years, the state’s youth correctional system operated under court monitoring due to its failure to provide rehabilitative services or a safe environment.

The “Farrell lawsuit,” brought by the Prison Law Office, cited a list of institutional abuses that have plagued the American juvenile justice system since the 19th century. Rather than places of rehabilitation, California youth correctional facilities were institutions of rampant violence, abuse and mismanagement. The lawsuit demanded that the state make changes to eliminate the violence and promote a rehabilitative environment.

This past February, the Farrell lawsuit came to an end, with both sides declaring success and promising a new era in California youth corrections. Almost immediately, the state’s youth corrections system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), dispatched staff to California juvenile courts and county departments to urge increased commitments.

Since the state institutions had long been used as a convenient dumping ground for challenging, high-needs youth by many county juvenile justice systems, the impact was almost immediate. With DJJ collaborating with district attorneys and probation staff to convince judges that the facilities were truly reformed, our agency, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), began receiving alarming reports from juvenile defenders throughout the state about unprecedented increases in DJJ recommendations and commitments.

The tendency for juvenile courts to increase institutional commitments after a period of reform is a common pattern in state history. During the 1950s and ’60s, when California’s youth corrections system conveyed a similar image of progressive reform, juvenile courts responded with a flood of new commitments. The system was soon overwhelmed, and the image of well-run institutions that had been assiduously fostered by state corrections leaders proved false and unachievable.

A fundamental reality often forgotten by juvenile justice reformers is that institutional changes are short-lived and staff quickly slide back into conventional, disciplinary practices. This fact is again revealing itself in California, as youth recently released from DJJ tell all too familiar stories of gang warfare, rampant violence, staff brutality and administrative indifference.

To counter this bleak reality, DJJ aggressively promotes itself through juvenile court testimony, presentations to county officials and carefully orchestrated tours designed to foster an image of progressive treatment. DJJ facility visitors are greeted by a team of senior management and professional staff who employ therapeutic language and a polished demeanor to convey confidence and reassurance. They are then escorted to the living units and invited to speak with selected youth under the watch of facility staff. Youth describe how, prior to these tours, they are instructed to respond positively whenever questioned. Failure to properly respond can result in consequences later.

The resilience of institutions to resist change should never be underestimated. California offers a lesson on the limitations of lawsuits to permanently alter institutional realities. By focusing on a narrow range of institutional deficits, the Farrell lawsuit actually served to legitimize the existing system and laid the foundation for its regeneration.

Under conditions lawsuits, success is measured by marginal improvements in institutional functioning. The Farrell lawsuit achieved important objectives, such as reducing the number of youth denied access to education, but left the larger system intact. During the period that the institutions were subject to court oversight, normal routines and practices were temporarily disrupted, but are now quickly re-emerging as the scrutiny is lifted — a pattern very common in California youth corrections history.

Ultimately, the Farrell lawsuit pitted proponents of conditions reform against advocates for institutional closure. With declining youth crime rates, a shrinking pool of DJJ-eligible youth and an oversupply of county institutional beds, California policy experts called for the closure of the three remaining DJJ facilities. Those experts included the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission and the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which issued reports in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

These proposals were vigorously opposed by institutional advocates who sought to define reform in the context of improved institutional conditions. With support from the corrections establishment, institutional supporters prevailed, and the stage is now set for a resurgence of the state system. A recent proposal by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to rebuild DJJ institutions is now being promoted as reform.

California’s lesson to juvenile justice reformers is that correctional institutions are impervious to change and that the best reforms are those that keep youth out of institutions. Despite years of efforts to inject new treatment strategies, improve education and broaden vocational training, violence in California institutions remains as pervasive as ever, and numerous anecdotal accounts from youth reflect DJJ’s systemic failures across all aspects of daily institutional life.

The continued reliance on old, institutional structures simply ensures that the mistakes of the past will be the failures of the future. The best insurance against repeating history is to bring an end to the bankrupt system of state correctional institutions and place responsibility and resources for treating youth in the hands of their local communities.

Daniel Macallair is the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and a Practitioner in Residence in the Criminal Justice Studies program at San Francisco State University. He is the author of a new book, “After the Doors Were Locked: A History of Youth Corrections in California and the Origins of 21st Century Reform.”

Analysis: What’s the Matter With Arkansas?

Hard work.The person rolls the rock on mountain

A dozen years ago, former Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank wrote an unlikely best-seller, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” It examined why that state’s once moderate voters had swung hard right in their political leanings, and why less affluent Kansans were consistently voting for ultraconservatives advocating sweeping policy changes that conflicted with these voters’ economic interests.

Frank’s book did not focus on juvenile justice. But while Kansas politics have continued to lurch ever rightward, the state has made encouraging strides in reforming its juvenile justice system. In April, Kansas enacted an ambitious new law sharply restricting the use of incarceration for youth, shortening lengths of stay, limiting confinement for violations of probation and expanding evidence-based community treatment programs.

And it’s not just Kansas. Many other states, including several in the South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia), have also embraced the evidence showing that family-focused and community-based interventions work better than confinement to combat delinquency — and have implemented sweeping reforms to put these ideas into practice.

But then there’s Arkansas.

Over the last two years, Arkansas’ juvenile justice system has burst onto the scene repeatedly … and for all the wrong reasons. In August 2014, the Disability Rights Center released a report documenting alarming conditions in the state’s largest juvenile correctional facility. While juvenile incarceration rates nationwide have been plummeting, Arkansas has actually increased the number of commitments in each of the past two years despite a continuing drop in juvenile arrests statewide.

Arkansas has also been in the national news spotlight because one of its U.S. senators, Tom Cotton, has single-handedly derailed reauthorization of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. His stance reflects the position of numerous juvenile judges in Arkansas who, despite an overwhelming consensus in the field, oppose plans to close a longstanding loophole in the federal government’s prohibition on confining status offenders.

In 2015, a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a series of investigative stories documenting the state’s continuing penchant for jailing children brought to court for skipping school, running away from home, disobeying their parents, drinking alcohol or breaking other rules aimed only at children. The reporter, Chad Day, told of a 10-year-old girl who spent a week behind bars for violating a judge’s order, and a 12-year-old boy who likewise committed no crime, but was nonetheless locked up for a month in detention alongside older boys accused of rape, first-degree battery and other felonies.

Then this April, the state’s juvenile corrections director abruptly resigned just days after getting blasted in the press for suggesting the state should limit commitments to youth adjudicated for felonies, as they do in Texas, California, Virginia, Ohio and other states. The details on this resignation are murky — the official reportedly owed a vast sum in back taxes, and he was not highly regarded by many in the juvenile justice community. But his departure — the latest in the longstanding revolving door at the top of Arkansas’ Division of Youth Services — has left the state’s already troubled youth corrections agency more rudderless than ever.

The flurry of negative news is all the more striking because, just a few years ago, Arkansas seemed on the road to reforming its system. The state published a strategic plan in 2009 committing itself to a fundamental shift away from excessive confinement and toward greater use of effective community-based services for court-involved youth. For several years the state was implementing that plan and was reportedly making tangible progress — enough to convince a JJIE reporter to write an article in April 2012 asking the question: “Arkansas Juvenile Justice Reform: A Blueprint for National Success?

Not so much, it turns out.

But what lies behind all the recent bad news in Arkansas? And what does the state’s predicament suggest for the national movement to discard jingoistic get-tough orthodoxy, adapt practices in light of brain science and other new evidence, and embrace new and more humane approaches to adolescent misbehavior?

Dick Mendel

Recently I set out to study those questions. I read everything I could find about the Arkansas juvenile justice system, and I reached out to several juvenile justice officials and advocates in Arkansas — and to outside experts with close ties to the state. No simple answers emerged from my inquiry. But I walked away with five conclusions.


  1. First, Arkansas’ backsliding on juvenile justice wasn’t inevitable: In fact, the state really was making impressive strides toward reform for several years.
  2. This reform movement ran aground in 2013, thwarted by an idiosyncratic feature of Arkansas’ system — a politically powerful cabal of nonprofit service providers that has acquired monopoly over juvenile services statewide.
  3. This cabal has also helped perpetuate two signature weaknesses in the state’s juvenile system — a striking dearth of data collection and analysis, and an ongoing leadership gap at the state’s juvenile corrections agency.
  4. Despite these deep and continuing problems, momentum toward reform is once again mounting in Arkansas — much of it coming from the bottom up.
  5. As best as I can tell, the irresistible logic of reform and the good will of hardworking leaders in the state — especially judges — are likely to begin winning the day sometime in the not too distant future.

An overdue period of progress 2007-13

As incoming Gov. Mike Beebe assumed office in 2007, the Arkansas Division of Youth Services, the state’s youth corrections agency, could only be described as a train wreck.

Nine years earlier, the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette ran a five-part series revealing that youth in the state’s juvenile facilities were “routinely degraded; verbally, physically and sexually abused; hogtied; forced to sleep outside in freezing weather.” In 2002, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Arkansas’s largest youth prison, the Alexander Youth Services Center, found that while violent abuses had abated, the facility still failed to provide constitutionally required safety and rehabilitative care, mental health and educational services, suicide prevention, fire safety or religious freedom.

In 2006, the state’s Health and Human Services Department revealed that staff at Alexander “were drugging youths to control unruly behavior — in many cases without doctors’ orders.” Then in 2007, Arkansas’ Disability Rights Center and the National Center for Youth Law reported that facility staff were placing youth in solitary confinement arbitrarily, without protecting their due process rights or ensuring their safety.

Doubly troubling was the fact that the vast majority of youth confined in Arkansas facilities and subjected to these abusive conditions were not serious or violent offenders. In 2007, just 15 percent of the youth committed to state custody had committed a serious violent felony, while 42 percent had committed only misdemeanors.

Patricia Arthur
Patricia Arthur

Patricia Arthur, then an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, was preparing a lawsuit to challenge the persistent unconstitutional conditions at Alexander. The lawsuit threatened to embroil the state in years of costly and cumbersome litigation.

After 20 years in the Arkansas legislature and four years as attorney general, Beebe understood the juvenile justice challenge, and he decided quickly to improve the state’s youth corrections system rather than fight a legal battle. The governor invited Arthur to work with his administration to develop a comprehensive statewide juvenile justice reform plan.

Beebe’s choice to lead the Division of Youth Services (DYS), Ron Angel, brought no academic training or experience in juvenile justice or youth development. He had spent his entire career working for the Veterans Administration. But Angel proved to be a skilled administrator and a determined reformer. He quickly took charge of a 50-member reform task force and forged a close partnership with Arthur. In June 2009, Angel released a five-year strategic plan designed to “revolutionize the juvenile justice system in Arkansas.”

In addition to overhauling the education program and improving conditions inside the Alexander facility, the plan’s main goals were to reduce the number of low-risk youth committed to state-funded residential facilities and expand the scope and quality of community programs.

So DYS began releasing data showing the commitment numbers for each judicial district, which Angel says sparked conversations among judges and even a little bit of competition among judges. He set a goal for each judicial district to reduce commitments by 20 percent per year. DYS revamped its contracts with private provider agencies and created an incentive fund to reward providers that worked with judges in their districts and met the commitment reduction goals.

hub_arrow_2-01DYS also began funding local providers to begin delivering best-practice treatment models like the Youth Advocate Program and Multisystemic Therapy. It began tapping the state’s database to conduct meaningful data analysis and determine characteristics and treatment needs of its client population. Angel convinced the Annie E. Casey Foundation to bring the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) to two pilot counties in Arkansas, Finally, despite considerable resistance, Angel asked provider agencies to begin submitting detailed records on their clients and services.

These efforts made a difference. From 2007 to 2012, the number of youth committed to state custody fell from 622 to 496, a drop of 20 percent.

A provider buzzsaw

Improvements were also recorded on other key indicators, but the pace of progress was modest: Compared with fiscal year 2007, five years later the average population in state youth facilities was down — but only by 12 percent. The share of committed youth adjudicated for misdemeanor offenses was down, but still comprised 35 percent of all commitments. Angel had closed 43 beds at the state’s Alexander facility (a 30 percent drop), but had not been able to close or reduce capacity at any of the seven smaller youth corrections facilities funded by DYS around the state.

Eager to accelerate progress, Angel and his allies crafted a new reform bill before the 2013 session of the state legislature. Called the Close to Home Act, the bill sought to engage entire communities, not just the service providers, in determining the right mix of programs and services for court-involved youth. Specifically, the bill called for the creation of local Community Youth Services Boards that would be responsible for cataloguing currently available services, identifying additional services to address unmet needs and allocating state funds to optimize services and minimize correctional placements.

Angel expected the legislation to pass. First, because he considered the proposal quite modest: The legislation called for community boards to be created in only five pilot jurisdictions. So if the new approach didn’t work, it could easily be scrapped before going statewide. Second, because Angel had the support of most juvenile judges in the state and the governor, whose party controlled a majority in both chambers of the state legislature.

But Angel’s optimism proved unfounded. Within weeks, the plan lay stillborn on the statehouse floor, throttled by a key sector of the system — its network of local private provider agencies.

Most of these provider agencies were created in the 1970s, sparked by the passage of the Runaway Youth Act in 1974 , which began making federal funds available for programs to assist homeless and runaway youth. Initially, these organizations struggled. But that began to change in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when the providers got training on how their organizations could band together to expand their influence with state government.

In retrospect, the training worked too well. The provider agencies built strong boards, populating them with politically connected leaders in their communities, and they branched out to serve youth in the delinquency system in addition to homeless and runaway youth. The providers formed a new organization, the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association, through which they gradually secured stable funding.

Rather than fight each other for contracts, the 13 participating providers agreed to carve up the state. Over time, each became the sole recipient of contracts with DYS to work with court-involved youth in its given territory. Through their association, the providers negotiated standard contracts with DYS to pay them for community-based services they provided. Some of the providers received multimillion-dollar contracts to operate residential corrections facilities as well.

Paul Kelly

Though no one I spoke with accused the provider group of corruption, or even bad will, several observers noted that the provider group has become a major impediment roadblock to reform in Arkansas. “The providers have become very entrenched in their position in the state,” explained Paul Kelly, who once ran a provider agency and served as the first director of the providers association. They very seldom have anyone competing with them for contracts, he added.

“They’ve learned to use their political influence and their relationships with community leaders to exert pressure on DYS to fix things they want fixed,” added Kelly, who now works at the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. The providers grew to fiercely oppose “any really meaningful accountability for the impact of their services,” he said.

Mickey Yeager, who spent five years as a data analyst at DYS before leaving in 2014, put it even more starkly: “The providers in Arkansas are very powerful. They basically do what they want.”

And in 2013, the providers wanted badly to kill Angel’s Close to Home Act. So they did. They worked their contacts in the legislature, mounted a fierce lobbying campaign and vanquished the bill.

The director of one provider organization, John Furness of Comprehensive Juvenile Services in Fort Smith, is unapologetic about the 2013 legislative battle. “I saw that as a complete dismantling of the very established provider network that has been in place for many years and does good work,” Furness told me. “I thought it was a bad bill, and we spoke out against it. And it didn’t pass.”

Within weeks, the 66-year-old Angel tendered his resignation and retired.

Perpetuating problems


The providers’ role in killing the 2013 reform legislation was exceptional — a high-stakes, in-your-face power struggle. But as several observers pointed out to me, the outsized influence of the provider association also shows up in more subtle ways, with pernicious and lasting effects.

When you look closely at the long arc of juvenile justice in Arkansas, two weaknesses emerge front and center: a striking dearth of accurate data and meaningful data analysis; and continuing turnover in the leadership of DYS. In both cases, the providers’ fingerprints are hard to miss.

Probably the most glaring illustration of such data deficiencies comes from Chad Day, the reporter. DYS data indicated that 1,078 status offenders were detained in Arkansas in 2014, among the highest totals in the nation.

But when Day began interviewing local officials, he discovered this figure was wildly off-base. Even after personally examining the logs of all 14 detention centers statewide, he could not say precisely how many status offenders were detained — concluding only that “status offenders entered youth lockups more than 500 times” during the year.

When Judge Leigh Zuerker took over as Sebastian County’s juvenile court judge in early 2015, she said DYS figures that indicated status offenders were detained 449 times during 2014 were bogus. She personally reviewed the county’s detention records, she said, and found that the true number of status offenders detained in 2014 was 78 — less than one-fifth the reported total.

DYS’ failure to compile reliable detention data is perhaps understandable given its lack of direct authority over the detention centers, which are county-run. But the agency also lacks information about and analysis of its own programs. Here, the providers have played a decisive role.

Prior to 2007, DYS made little effort to analyze its population, assess their needs, determine what worked and what didn’t, measure recidivism in any meaningful way or identify the factors that led some youth to succeed in rehabilitation while others failed. The state did collect data on young people’s backgrounds, Angel told me, and the information was available in the state’s computer database.

“I had two staff members who did nothing but mine that data.” he said. But historically, he explained, “there’s hasn’t been enough mining into the data internally to pull those numbers out to use on behalf of improvement in the state.”

Angel had tried to expand the available data by requiring service providers to start reporting details on the services they provided, and their results during his tenure. “We tried to implement performance [measures],” he recalled, “and you would have thought we had asked for their first-born child.


“They said they didn’t have time, they didn’t get paid enough. There were a lot of reasons why they didn’t want to do it,” Angel said. “How can you base your treatment if you don’t have standards where you can measure what’s being successful and what’s not?”

Mickey Yeager, the data and quality assurance specialist, told me that “Before I came in, no one was looking at the data. The data was there, you just had to pull it. But no one was digging through it.” As Angel began pushing for more data, Yeager said, the providers “fought us every step of the way.”

And they had powerful friends in the legislature, Yeager recalled: “Ron was called to the capital several times ... because he was trying to track the performance of the providers, and they really didn’t like that.”

This dynamic is anything but new, said Paul Kelly, the first provider association director, and it helps explain the almost continuous turnover at DYS over the past two decades. “I have sat back and watched [the providers] make life miserable for one DYS director after another, just because they propose a different way of doing things or make life in any way uncomfortable,” he said.

Indeed, looking back on Angel’s tenure, perhaps his most striking accomplishment is that he lasted six years. When Angel was hired, he came as the agency’s ninth new director in 12 years. In the three years since his retirement, DYS has cycled through two more directors, with a third — an interim hire — named in mid-July.

“[The providers] have been in large part responsible for the turnover in DYS directors,” Kelly said. “They have that capacity.”

Renewed momentum

Despite these continuing problems, a scan of the state today reveals that momentum for reform seems to be building once again. This time, however, it is not being led by a singular leader like Ron Angel and it does not involve any coordinated statewide plan. Rather, the momentum represents the confluence of several promising developments, many of them taking place at the local level.

For instance, both of the state’s two pilot JDAI sites — Benton County and Washington County — reduced detention admissions by 30 percent in their first year, and both reduced total detention days by a similar margin. As part of JDAI, both counties introduced risk assessment instruments to guide detention admissions, and both expanded alternative to detention programs. In addition, Washington County embraced new probation practices to better engage with young people’s families and to reduce unnecessary confinement due to probation violations.

Gina Vincent
Gina Vincent

Meanwhile, four other counties have joined an initiative to introduce and make use of state-of-the-art risk and needs assessments for court-involved youth. Gina Vincent, the University of Massachusetts expert who directs the project, reports that the counties are making progress, and that “there’s been very good buy-in” from judges. As part of the effort, Vincent and her team are helping the counties develop a continuum of services to address needs identified in the assessment, relying on resources throughout the participating jurisdictions — not just the designated DYS service providers. The state’s Administrative Office of the Courts is playing a central role in the project, and has identified eight additional counties that will join the project later in 2016, with plans for even more counties next year.

Helping fill the leadership void at DYS, the Administrative Office of the Courts is also taking a lead role in efforts to improve data collection in the juvenile system, and is participating in an active new juvenile justice reform subcommittee sponsored by the Arkansas Supreme Court.  That committee has also reached agreement with the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice to review the probation systems in two urban counties and a rural judicial district.

Meanwhile, a youth justice reform board appointed last year by Gov. Asa Hutchison has been deliberating, and it appears ready to advocate a multimillion-dollar confinement reduction fund, reviving Ron Angel’s reform strategy, as well as an expansion of JDAI, consistent use of objective risk and needs assessments, and stronger data collection and dissemination.

But maybe the most encouraging trend can be seen among the state’s juvenile judges. Historically, many judges have maintained an old-school, law-and-order approach toward youth in the justice system — clinging to their prerogatives to jail low-risk youth, even status offenders, who defy their orders. Arkansas judges have also retained the right to place court-involved youth into detention for up to 90 days — even status offenders. And some Arkansas juvenile judges still believe they should retain these rights.

Yet, more and more judges are shifting away from this orthodoxy, embracing more therapeutic and targeted intervention strategies. For instance, when he first came to the bench, Judge Wiley Branton in Pulaski County (Little Rock) regularly sent low-level youth offenders to detention. But Branton last year told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he hadn’t detained a status offender in at least five years. “I’ve gotten over myself as a judge, which is a hard thing to do sometimes,” he said. “So I can now accept the fact that a kid might willfully disobey my order, and it won’t necessarily get me bent out of shape. If it’s [a status offender], I’m not going to open up my detention facility.”

Judge Stacey Zimmerman
Judge Stacey Zimmerman

Judge Stacey Zimmerman has spent nearly two decades on the juvenile bench in Washington County, and until recently she didn’t hesitate to throw young people into detention for defying her authority. Chad Day reported that Zimmerman detained 51 status offenders in 2014, but only six during the first six months of 2015. In a phone call, she described having a “light bulb moment” while visiting a model JDAI site in Santa Cruz, California.

“When I went to those programs, and talked with the people in the trenches, I really bought in,” the judge recalled. “I am still all for consequences, it’s just that I’m learning to be more creative and finding ways to give consequences without putting Junior into lock-up.”

Before he retired at the end of 2014 after nearly 30 years as the juvenile judge in Sebastian County, Chad Day reported, Judge Mark Hewett “used his contempt power to detain hundreds of children for not following his orders to attend school.” Hewett was succeeded last year by former public defender Leigh Zuerker.

In a phone interview, Zuerker declined to criticize Hewett, but she did say she has worked to reduce status offender detentions, and reported that she had in fact cut the number of status offenders detained in the county from 78 in 2014 to 38 in 2015. Under Zuerker, Sebastian County has also introduced a new trauma-informed counseling program to assist court-involved youth and their families.

Zuerker also reported that she is not alone in seeking to cut the number of status offenders locked in detention. She has spoken several times with judges in two other counties where status offenders are reportedly still detained in high numbers. “I know they are doing everything they can to bring those numbers down,” she said. “We’ve talked about it and brainstormed.”

An optimistic forecast

During our recent phone call, Angel recalled the very clear message he received at the outset of his tenure at DYS in conversations with the provider group. “They told me: They have been here for 30 years, the same provider group, and they knew what was needed, and there was nothing that could be brought in that would work any better than what they were doing at the time.”

The providers stuck to that sentiment throughout Angel’s tenure, and ultimately managed to defeat him.

Yet, it is difficult to imagine this line will hold much longer in Arkansas, given the breadth of reform efforts now underway in the state’s juvenile court system and the noticeable shift in judicial philosophy taking root across the state.

The juvenile justice field has made dramatic advances in recent times, both in research and practice, and a wealth of data has emerged demonstrating that research-informed community-based programming yields far better results than the confinement-heavy, seat-of-the-pants approach of yesteryear.

Across the state, judges and other local leaders are growing more and more familiar with, more and more comfortable with, more and more eager to embrace what works — as their peers have done in states throughout the nation.

In the face of this groundswell, the providers will face increasing pressure to adapt new practices, to begin collecting and reporting data, and measuring their impact. If they continue to resist — if providers maintain their insistence on standing still, and that that they know best, and that the old ways are still best — they will likely squander their remaining credibility and lose their cherished place at the heart of the Arkansas system.

The pull of progress is simply too strong.

This story has been updated.

The Secret Behind Youth Justice Reform: Youth

IMG_9731It’s a bright and sunny Tuesday morning in bustling Washington, D.C., and I’m headed to jail.

The roads are bumpy, the ride is jerky, and I’m nervous. I didn’t expect to travel to a juvenile detention center when I woke up this morning. I’m 17 years old, no longer a kid but not yet an adult, the prime age to suffer the consequences of the ongoing conflict between my developing adolescent brain and desire to finally be a “grownup.” If I were a black male from a struggling neighborhood in inner-city D.C., I might be on my way to an orange jumpsuit and a yearlong stay here. But I’m not. I’m a white girl from an affluent suburb in Maryland, so I’m just at New Beginnings Youth Development Center for a two-hour visit.

I’m incredibly privileged to be born into a society where I am guaranteed rights because of characteristics of my identity that are beyond my control. But this privilege also promotes naivete: Because I live in a safe place where police would likely treat me fairly, I have never had to be aware of the justice system the way that many teenagers around the country need to be every day.

Let me give you a little bit of background. For three weeks, I’ve been a high school intern at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP), a nonprofit organization that works to reform the juvenile justice system. I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot, but the most important thing I’ve done is re-evaluate my perspective on juvenile justice.

I am a person who abhors naivete. I consistently make efforts to get out of my comfort zone, to expose myself to new things and to learn about perspectives different from my own. Over the last few weeks, however, I’ve slowly been able to recognize the narrowness of my view of the world — and of juvenile justice in particular.

I often hear news coverage of juvenile justice and police brutality issues, and because of this, I considered myself to be sufficiently informed on these topics. However, the sliver of truth broadcast in the media is just one part of a vast number of heartbreaking juvenile justice issues. I’ve known for a long time about the disparity between black and white kids in the system, but I didn’t understand its full extent.

[Related: Documentary Aims Spotlight on Broken Juvenile Justice System]

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 300,000 youth are locked up pretrial each year. As of 2011, 71 percent were kids of color — even though youth of color make up only 45 percent of the United State’s total youth population.

This statistic is shocking and disturbing, and the disparity it reveals has not left my mind since my first day in the office. It should be stuck in the heads of all teenagers as well, not just mine.

Additionally, my peers (and friends) sometimes skip class, talk back to teachers and experiment with marijuana. During my first few days at CCLP, I was shocked to learn that in some areas of the United States teens are arrested and detained for these minor offenses.

Teenagers are young, inexperienced and reckless. We don’t always make the right decisions or do what we’re told. But there are a lot of us — 41 million — and we can make a difference.

Juvenile justice reform organizations fail to recognize the power of empathy between kids. I am now empowered to make a change because I recognize that I could pretty easily be in the shoes of a kid serving time at New Beginnings Youth Development Center. My peers might feel the same — and even come together to take action — if organizations engaged us in conversation about unfair disparities and harsh treatment of youth in the system.

Back to my morning in jail. After the two-hour tour ends, I climb into the car, buckle my seatbelt and head back to CCLP’s office. But I know the youth locked behind bars can’t leave.

Not every teenager can have the experience I did, but a stronger effort can be made to widen the perspectives of kids around the country. Knowledge is power, and 15 years from now, my generation will be adults.

So, tell us about juvenile justice reform. Make an effort to inform youths about issues that impact them, and I guarantee the number of juvenile justice advocates will increase exponentially.

Emma Soler is a high school senior and features editor of the student-run newspaper at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland.

More related articles:

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Should We Close All Youth Prisons and Is Now the Right Time?

A Dog Locked in a Cage

Putting a Face on Reform

John Last 1In his 1961 farewell address President Dwight Eisenhower warned the American people of the dangers inherent in an alliance of the military, arms makers and politicians. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex” The term has since become common parlance, and his warning, while not unheeded, has done little to stop the continuing accumulation of power into a few hands.

It’s such an effective description that it has been adopted by people interested in a range of issues. We can see medical, nonprofit, educational and even wedding industrial complexes referred by those opposed to the way things are done in the respective sectors.

The comparison I am most familiar with is the prison industrial complex. It appears to have originated with Angela Davis, the well known activist and former prisoner, who in 1997 delivered a speech by the same name. A few months later, Eric Schlosser wrote about the subject in The Atlantic. Since then the phrase has become common.

It is easy to think of a complex like this as a soulless monstrosity, or overseen by shadowy forces engaged in conspiracy. In fact, there is some truth to this view. Especially in the sector of for -profit incarceration, the connection between provider corporations and the government is disturbing. There is another piece of the puzzle too though, and I came face to face with it a few weeks ago.

In the morning I met with a long-time advocate for juvenile justice reform. We live in Georgia and were excitedly discussing the upcoming bill to overhaul the juvenile justice system here. It has gained a lot of momentum and is expected to pass, getting a boost from a similar reform of the adult system last year. It would mean fewer kids would be incarcerated, while providing more treatment for for them. It also calls on having more community-based programs and would rely on evidence-based practices. It seemed that things were headed in a good direction.

The next day, I was visiting a college class near Atlanta and was asked to describe my work. I spoke about restorative justice for youth, and how my organization hoped to get a boost from the upcoming changes to the system. Afterwards, I was approached by someone who works at a youth detention facility. She was worried about the upcoming changes.

To her they seemed careless and short sighted, and she believed that the changes were based on money. If the changes happen her agency could lose a lot of bed space, and some facilities will be shut down. She predicted that dangerous kids, many with gang ties, would be unleashed on communities that are unprepared and ill equipped to deal with them.

Contrasting the two conversations reminded me that systems are made up of people. This woman and her coworkers have a view of detained youth that is informed by their experiences, a view that is different than my own. They also rely on youth detention facilities for work.

I was reminded of two things. First, if the reforms I am in favor of go through there will be young people who are released that will pose a threat to society. This will happen no matter what protocols are put in place for protection. I believe that in the larger picture this number will be smaller than the current number of young people who are made worse by being incarcerated.

Second, the reduction in incarceration will lead to job loses, most likely through closed facilities as bed space is consolidated. Real people, not a faceless prison industrial complex, will be out of work. It is no surprise that those who will be impacted by such changes, as well as their political representatives, will oppose the efforts of reformers.

I remain in favor of the legislation, but it has ceased to be an abstraction to me. Suddenly the “complex” has a face, and as much as I might resist listening, its voices need to be heard and addressed.

Supreme Court Forbids Mandatory Life Sentences Without Parole for Juveniles

UPDATED Tuesday, 9:23 a.m.: WASHINGTON - Advocates for juvenile justice reform applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 5-to-4 ruling yesterday that children under 18 could not be handed life imprisonment sentences without hope of release – even if convicted of murder – without taking into account their age and other extenuating circumstances at the time of the crime.

“Held: The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders,” read the majority opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, which combined the court’s ruling on two cases, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, sharply disagreeing that such sentences constituted cruel and unusual punishment for what were “heinous” crimes to society.

“Put simply, if a 17-year-old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not ‘unusual’ for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” Roberts wrote. Kagan responded in a footnote to her opinion that she finds it ironic that the dissenters are holding a 14-year-old’s actions to the same standard as a 17-year-old’s, given that the main finding of the majority is that courts must take individual circumstances into account before deciding on a sentence.

Bryan Stevenson of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative, who separately argued both petitions in front of the Supreme Court in March, said he was delighted by the ruling. “We think the court has made an incredibly important step forward in what I regard as one of the incredibly large tragedies in the American criminal justice system,” he said. “Some of the people affected by this decision have been in prison for over 40 years.”

The vast majority of the 2,500 people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed while they were less than 18 years old are in states with mandatory sentencing laws, Stevenson said. When judges are provided discretion by the law, he said, they usually choose a less harsh punishment.

Both Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs dealt with 14-year-old boys who had been handed life sentences without parole under Arkansas and Alabama laws that mandated the sentence regardless of the defendant’s unique situation.

Jackson v. Hobbs concerned 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson, who decided to rob a video store with friends but who entered the store just shortly before his friend fatally shot the video store clerk. Jackson was sentenced to life without parole because of his involvement in the crime, even though he said he did not know his friend had a gun and intended to use it.

Miller v. Alabama involved another 14-year-old, Evan Miller, who along with a friend robbed and beat a neighbor with a baseball bat after a night of drinking, then set his trailer on fire, killing him.

A 2005 ruling by the court, in Simmons v. Roper, banned the death penalty for minors, and another, for Graham v. Florida in 2010, banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who committed crimes other than homicide. Yesterday’s ruling extended that ban to mandatory life-without-parole sentences even for those minors who are convicted of homicide-related crimes. However, the ruling does not explicitly void the sentences for Jackson and Miller, but instead sends their cases back to a lower trial court for a rehearing.

Both Roper and Graham had acknowledged that children lacked the maturity and judgment of adults, that children were capable of reform, and that children could not be given an adult punishment without consideration of their minor status, Stevenson said in his oral arguments for Jackson v. Hobbs in front of the court.

“They're not thinking three steps ahead; they're not thinking about consequences; they're not actually experienced enough with the world to understand how they deal with their frustrations in the same way that an adult is,” Stevenson said. “And so, their judgments about what they intend to do, their declarations, mean something very, very different.”

As children’s brain development is not “crime-specific,” he said, using language that Justice Kagan echoed in her own opinion, those juveniles convicted of homicides should be given the same consideration as those convicted of non-homicide crimes.

For the hundreds of other individuals in jail who believe they are now eligible for a reduced sentence, Stevenson said, the next step will vary from state to state: Some states offer remedies and others even deny such inmates the right to a lawyer.

Although the court did not bar juveniles from ever receiving a life sentence without parole, Justice Kagan’s opinion made clear that the court expected “this harshest possible penalty” to be rarely applied, given that children’s brains were different from adults’ and given the difficulty in deciding whether a youth’s crimes stemmed from “unfortunate but transient immaturity” or from “irreparable corruption.”

Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national network of citizen advisers who work with state agencies on preventing delinquency and juvenile crime, praised the ruling, saying it allowed juveniles to be held accountable for their actions while leaving room for compassion and rehabilitation.

The decision to extend the ban to mandatory sentencing for all youth under 18 surprised some court-watchers, who had expected the court to extend the ban only to youth who had not actually committed the murder themselves, or to those who committed the crime when they were as young as 14.

The sticking point, as justice after justice questioned Stevenson during oral arguments earlier this year, was at which age the court should draw the line at a ban on life without parole, and how that line could be justified.

“It actually makes more sense that they did not pick a random age,” said Nadia Seeratan, a senior staff attorney and policy advocate at the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Given the court’s past findings about children’s brain development, she said, “They’ve followed and stayed consistent with those decisions.”

Check out more of JJIE’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s JLWOP decision:

Louisiana ‘Strayed’ from Commitment to Juvenile Justice Reform, Report Contends

Louisiana juvenile justice Nearly a decade after Louisiana committed to sweeping changes to the state’s struggling juvenile justice system, some advocates contend the governor and leaders in the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice are “backsliding” on their commitments to reform.

Louisiana juvenile justiceAdvocates gathered on the steps of the state Capitol last week to unveil a report, “What’s Really Up Doc?: A Call for Reform of the Office of Juvenile Justice.” The 43-page document calls for the state’s recommitment to adopting a more therapeutic approach to juvenile justice based on the Missouri model as well as commitments to increase funding for community-based programs and replace some of OJJ’s top brass, among other goals.

“In 2003, the state of Louisiana recognized that juvenile justice reform produced better outcomes for its citizens, youth and families, and made a commitment to this path,” the report said. “A decade later, the state has unfortunately strayed from this commitment, with facility and OJJ practices that are contradictory to the goals of reform.”

The state adopted reform legislation in 2003, also known as Act 1225, on the heels of highly publicized violence within youth detention facilities and litigation with the Department of Justice that found conditions of confinement for some youth in the system unconstitutional. Modeled after Missouri’s system that places an emphasis on rehabilitation and community-based programs rather than detention for troubled youth, Louisiana’s program was dubbed LAMOD – or the Louisiana Model.

Since then, the number of juveniles in detention has been reduced by more than half, largely due to the diversion of non-violent offenders to community-based programs and increased funding for those programs. Yet, like most states, budget constraints in recent years have left a shortfall of funding for the OJJ.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, the department faces a $24.3 million reduction in funding for the next fiscal year, bringing its annual budget to just under $119 million to run a system serving about 5,000 kids annually.

In March, the OJJ’s plan to do away with a $4.3 million contract that provides community-based treatment and education for teen offenders came under the scrutiny of the state’s Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJIC). The program, run by Florida-based non-profit AMIkids, is the only one in the state offering so-called day treatment programs that allow juveniles to live at home while attending programs during the day.

Deputy Secretary Mary Livers, who runs the OJJ, told New Orleans’ Times-Picayune in March that the agency no longer needed the program that boasts an 85 percent success rate for the roughly 900 kids it serves each year.

“I think Dr. Livers is well qualified and a good person who is doing the best she can in a tough budget situation,” said Frank Neuner, attorney and JJIC member who helps oversee the OJJ’s transition from a detention model to a more rehabilitative, community-based one.

The advocacy groups that prepared the report – the Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) and the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) – raised specific concerns about Livers’ performance while heading the department, citing her “minimal experience in juvenile rehabilitation.”

Any Most* stakeholder[s] in Louisiana will tell you that Dr. Livers needs to be fired for true reform to take place,” said Shaena Johnson, JJPL youth advocate. “You can’t implement reform without having reform-minded people to implement it.”

Among their top concerns, the report said Livers’ management style, along with her appointment of inexperienced personnel to top leadership positions specifically to manage the state’s three secure-care facilities for boys, has contributed to an increase of violence and unsafe conditions within the detention facilities.

“The biggest issue I think we’ve had is the staffing issue,” Neuner said. “What we need to do is up the qualifications and requirements to be a staff person in OJJ facilities, so we have people that that’s their vocation, to help youth.”

Unlike Missouri, Neuner said the majority of employees working in OJJ facilities hold a high school diploma or GED, and haven’t undergone specialized training in dealing with youth. He said it was “pennywise and tom-foolish” not to invest in adequate staffing.

“Each youth that we lose to life imprisonment costs the state over a million dollars in future incarceration costs,” he said. “So if we can save one person by spending a little more now on rehabilitation, we save money in the long run.”

According the report, the facility directors appointed by Livers “seem more like placeholders than long-term leaders” and contribute to both unsafe conditions and high turnover among staff.

“The high turnover rate for the director position in each of the secure-care facilities for boys is of significant concern, and can be potentially attributed to Dr. Livers’ inability to appoint directors that understand and can implement the therapeutic and rehabilitation model that LAMOD and the Missouri Model envision [sic],” the report continued, calling for Gov. Bobby Jindal to remove Livers’ from the position.

When the OJJ was established as a separate entity from the Department of Corrections in 2008, Gov. Jindal tapped Livers to head the new office.

“So it’s inherently his fault,” said Johnson, who co-authored the report. “She was basically appointed because she was in the right place at the right time.”

Livers joined the OJJ in 2007, then called the Office of Youth Development, as the Deputy Assistant Secretary and later moved up to Chief of Operations before taking the helm as Deputy Secretary in 2008.

Responses from the Governor’s Office and the OJJ were not available at the time of publication.

Photo via

*A quote in this article has been edited for increased clarity.

Juvenile Justice, Criminal Justice Reform On Governor Deal’s Radar, Policy Staffers Say

Criminal justice reform – including juvenile justice – is among Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s top priorities during his tenure, according to a key member of his policy staff.

“As a former juvenile judge this is certainly one of his passions,” said Public Safety Policy Advisor David Werner during the “A Conversation with the Governor's Policy Staff” event hosted Wednesday by the non-profit Voices for Georgia’s Children. “His son is also a juvenile court judge in Hall County.”

The governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Erin Hames and Health Policy Advisor Blake Fulenwider also participated in the forum attended by about 85 representatives from child advocacy organizations at the Georgia Freight Depot building.

Werner said the bi-partisan commission Gov. Deal assembled earlier this year to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by January will likely step up its efforts starting next month. The effort is being led by the Pew Research Center.

“There has been talk of breaking down into committees and juvenile justice could be one of them,” he said. “We haven’t defined it all yet.”

The commission is charged with providing solutions to Georgia’s high incarceration rate, the fourth highest in the country. Alternatives to incarceration and a review of Georgia’s mandatory sentencing are among the topics the group will review.

“I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal told shortly after announcing the initiative at the state capitol in February. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.”

During the event, Werner also mentioned that the governor’s staff “looks forward to working with” the Barton Child Law and Policy Center of the Emory School of Law and other child-focused organizations on Georgia’s longstanding juvenile code rewrite.

In March, representatives from the Barton Center and Voices confirmed that the rewrite, Senate Bill 127, a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law, has received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.”

“The time has come for us to rethink how our state is responding to children who have found themselves in trouble with the law,” said Gov. Deal in a news release on the measure.  “I applaud the careful thinking and inclusive engagement that has gone into developing the Child Protection and Public Safety Act.”

Werner echoed a similar sentiment when asked about Georgia’s reform effort.

“We need to change the way we look at criminal justice,” he said. “We need to look at making some changes in regard to sentencing and rehabilitation.”

Many attendees at the Voices forum, including Barton’s Policy Director, Kirsten Widner, applauded the governor’s policy staff for participating in the event.

“It’s great to have a governor who has made his office so accessible,” she said. “I was glad to hear them speak specifically about the juvenile code rewrite.”

Jeanetta Alexander, with the Parent Training Information Center, which trains parents on issues including bullying and educational opportunities, said she wanted to hear more specifics on some of the governor’s policies, but she was pleased overall with the event.

“I’m glad that governor Deal has given this opportunity for us to hear from his staff,” she said. This was a great opportunity. It was really good."

Crossover Day Update

Crossover Day – the second longest work day on the Georgia General Assembly calendar – has wrapped up leaving some key juvenile justice and child-focused bills dead for the 2011 session.

SB 127, also known as the Juvenile Code Rewrite and HB 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, that would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children, are among the measures that didn’t meet the crucial deadline. VIEW SOME OF THE KEY JUVENILE JUSTICE AND CHILD-FOCUSED LEGISLATION.

“It had not made it out of [the] Rules [Committee] in time and that’s very disappointing,” says HB 185 sponsor Tom Weldon (R – Ringgold). “It looked like it was going to progress.”

HB 265, which supports Governor Nathan Deal’s recent effort to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee, was overwhelmingly approved by the House, 169-1. Governor Deal has told that he hopes juvenile justice will be a part of that review due out next year.

SB 80, which would require any person, including a juvenile arrested for a felony offense, to submit a DNA sample for analysis in a Georgia Bureau of Investigation database, did make it in time. The grueling 11-hour workday included its passage in the Senate. If approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the governor, the measure would help solidify convictions on felony charges and identify suspects in other crimes. Twenty-four states and the federal government have similar programs in place. Supporters, including sponsor Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), tout it as an effective way to close cold cases and free people wrongly convicted of crimes.

A House vote on Sunday liquor sales, meantime, is stirring up debate about underage drinking. Religious conservatives on the Republican side joined some black Democrats in opposing SB 10 in a 32-22 vote. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) is among the vocal opponents of the measure now headed to the House.

“Young people drink on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, so this is going to increase underage drinking,” says Sen. Fort, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “There are going to be more [car] crashes due to this.”

Sen. Fort says supporters should consider the many unintended consequences. “This will contribute to more violence against women and children; that’s why I voted against it,” he says.

Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) disagrees with his fellow Black Caucus member. “This bill is about local control; empowering people to make choices in their community,” he says. “If their local jurisdiction puts it on ballot they will have the opportunity to vote on it; if their jurisdiction doesn’t then they won’t. This is not about promoting underage drinking. Creating a choice is what we passed today.”

Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) says assertions that SB 10 will contribute to more minors drinking are “absurd.”  He too contends the measure is about choice.

“Right now there are those who choose to drive to a bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on Sundays and consume alcohol and can drink to their heart’s content; this is about giving the very same right to their counterpart who wants to drive pass that same bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on a Sunday and instead buy some alcohol from a package store and consume it at home. ”

Sen. Fort

Cobb Alcohol Taskforce spokeswoman Alisa Bennett-Hart shares Sen. Fort’s concerns.

“The trends do support that young people drink more on weekends, so adding an extra day of access to it definitely will have an impact,” she says. “If adults did not provide alcohol to them, this would not be a problem.”

Bennett-Hart say the non-profit, which combats underage drinking in Cobb County primarily by targeting the actions of adults, is not a “prohibitionist group” opposed to all alcohol consumption.

“We believe it is the right and privilege of anyone over the age of 21,” she says. “We have a problem with adults who provide alcohol to underage children who do not have the right and privilege to consume alcohol.”

Rep. Mitchell says issues, such as the ones raised by Bennett-Hart are better addressed in other ways. “We have laws in place for that,” he says.

Sen. Jones echoes a similar sentiment. He says it is unfair to place so many concerns on one bill. “This doesn’t address underage drinking, alcoholism or kids being able to buy alcohol,” he says. “Those are issues that still impact and affect our community. We are the ones who have to protect our kids from that. We have to ensure that businesses are not selling alcohol to underage kids. Those laws are already on the books and should be enforced.”

Bennett-Hart predicts that “adding another day” of alcohol sales will be problematic for already overextended agencies charged with cracking down on underage drinking and sales. The Taskforce, she says, will be using next month’s “Alcohol Awareness Month” designation to educate Cobb County leaders and residents about the organization’s concerns.

Going up against the powerful alcohol lobby ultimately will be an uphill battle, Sen. Fort predicts.

“We already know what’s going to happen,” he says if and when the measure ever goes before voters. “These liquor folks are going to put a lot of money into a referendum. The opposition’s not going to have that kind of money to pump into TV commercials and ads like they will.”


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and People, Essence and Atlanta magazines.