Juvenile Justice System Should Morph Into Surrogate Grandparent, Not Parent

Sarah%20WalkerThe creation of the juvenile court was a spectacular triumph of the progressive movement in the late 19th century. Advocating for a separate legal process was a bold statement about the developmental differences between adult and adolescents and, consequently, the mitigated culpability of youth who commit crimes.

To sell this iconoclastic idea at the time, progressive reformers leaned heavily on the message that inadequate parenting was to blame for youthful indiscretion. While acknowledging the impact that crowded urban conditions, poverty and strained social cohesion had on juvenile crime, reformers laid most of the responsibility for adolescent behavior on the shoulders of their, often poor, immigrant, cultural minority families. Juvenile courts thus began under the legal precedent of parens patriae (parent of the nation); the same precedent that allows the state to remove abused and neglected children from their homes.

The legal underpinnings of the juvenile justice system have since shifted and now almost completely mimic adult criminal proceedings. However, the early marketing of the juvenile court idea as a “child saving” endeavor has persisted in a process that provides no clear path for parental and community participation or input. The impact of this is felt by thousands of parents, millions over the years, who are routinely stigmatized, terrified and ill-served by a system purporting to rehabilitate youth.

Fortunately, this seems to be slowly changing. The recent confluence of research on adolescent development and brain science, the consumer movement in mental health and the crisis of mass incarceration have all contributed to an epoch in which the philosophies of juvenile justice practice are being closely questioned. As this new wave of progressive reformers searches for guiding principles, perhaps shifting the original metaphor of the court as a surrogate parent to one of a supportive grandparent (as often played in traditional Western culture) could provide this map:

1: Grandparents offer a safety net and support, but parents have primary responsibility. In the justice system, the most well-supported programs and interventions for improving youth well-being involve parents and families. New research is demonstrating the benefits of informing, involving and ensuring parent contact through all phases of the justice process.

Despite this, most justice courts operate as adversarial systems with youth as the only identified defendant. It is common, if not routine, for parents to leave a court hearing with little idea of what happened while getting a bill for services rendered. Juvenile courts need to reorient themselves to the family, and the broader community, as the client. In the absence of willing or able participating guardians, every effort ought to be made to identify natural supports who can stand and support youth in developing intervention plans.

2: Grandparents know that a treat can go a long way. The traditional court model operates off threat of incarceration as its primary behavioral motivator. This is the basis of the probation system and why completing probation is often time-based rather than performance-based. Historically and traditionally, probation is technically an alternative to the “real” court sanction of incarceration.

This underexamined assumption about how justice is served is, in practice, very inefficient and ineffective behavior management. Adolescent brains, in particular, are much more attuned to reward than punishment. To align with science on adolescent development and behavior modification, courts need to move to reward-based systems with the primary “punishment” being the suspension of rewards and a completion of probation based on performance, not time.

3: Grandparents provide parents needed breaks. While possibly a controversial idea during this important and exciting era of drastically reducing incarceration, research and practical wisdom suggest that short- and long-term placement will remain a need for a subset of youth who come into contact with the justice system. Wealthier families already pay large sums to have their children stay in private group homes and hospitals when these youth have significant behavior issues.

For poor kids with significant behavior problems, the justice system ends up being a de facto treatment facility. In instances where youth do not have safe or stable homes or have gotten beyond parental control, the justice system can provide or collaborate with other systems to provide developmentally appropriate, therapeutic settings to work toward longer-term placement goals. At the same time, the entry criteria for placements should be specific and based on need rather than crime alone, and every effort to first work with the youth within the family setting should be exhausted.

4: Grandparents know that it is important to say you’re sorry, shake hands and then move on. Current innovations are wrestling with the balance of offender treatment and victim rights. One of the guiding principles of the present system is the recognition that juvenile offenders are the most vulnerable youth in our society. Justice-involved youth are significantly more likely to have experienced or witnessed violence and abuse and are more likely to have diagnosable mental health needs.

As a corrective to past policies that ignored the holistic needs of youthful offenders, current practices increasingly focus on providing treatment and development opportunities. This is exciting and needed. At the same time, the justice system risks going too far in either direction, either through extended legal jurisdiction to “make” youth comply with treatment over months or years, or by not requiring any restorative act in cases where there is an injured party.

The system can continue to meet treatment needs while instilling civic responsibility (when relevant) by legally requiring only a restoration of the harm to the victim and then offering treatment services outside of court orders. Compliance with voluntarily referred services would then be encouraged through rewards, youth development activities and family supports rather than detention time for violating orders.

Each era of public policy since the origins of juvenile justice has added its own corrective to perceived omissions and sins of the past. We are in a position today, with access to decades of research on youth development, to continue and improve on the original progressive ideal of a humane, effective and developmentally appropriate juvenile justice system. Just like Grandma would want.

Sarah Cusworth Walker, Ph.D., is a research associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Washington School of Medicine. She has more than a decade of research and policy work in juvenile justice and is the co-director of a newly formed university-community collaborative with the Administrative Office of the Courts in Washington state.  

What Is a ‘Trauma-Informed’ Juvenile Justice System? A TARGETed Approach

Ford, Julian (2) 2012Adolescence is a time of great opportunity, but also turmoil. As many as two-thirds of all teens face the additional challenge of coping with traumatic events such as life-threatening accidents, injuries, illness, disaster, or violence or sexual or emotional abuse and exploitation. That figure rises to closer to 100 percent for those who live in families or communities in which violence, poverty, neglect, racism or discrimination based on gender, gender identity or disability are prevalent.

Not surprisingly, 90-plus percent of youths involved in juvenile justice have experienced at least one (and typically several) of these traumatic stressors, and as many as 25 to 33 percent of these youth (compared to 5 percent in community samples) have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Youth in the juvenile justice system often have been exposed not only to multiple types of interpersonal victimization — polyvictimization  — but also to other childhood adversities (such as separation from or impaired relationships with biological parents and family). In total, this more than doubles the number of traumatized youth in juvenile justice programs (i.e., 67 to 75 percent) who need effective services in order to recover from not only PTSD but also for a wide range of related emotional, developmental, academic and behavioral problems (such as substance use, attention deficit, oppositional-defiant, affective, anxiety, dissociative, sexual, sleep and eating disorders, suicidality self-harm and exploitation [e.g., sexual trafficking]).

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

These stark facts have led to a national (and international) call to action in the past decade for juvenile justice systems to become “trauma-informed.” The 2012 report of the U.S. Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence identified nine practical steps based on the experience of experts in law enforcement, the judiciary, juvenile justice services, child protective services, racial and ethnic disparities, and traumatic stress. This was done under the leadership of Robert Listenbee, the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:

  1. Make trauma-informed screening, assessment and care the standard in juvenile justice services.
  2. Abandon juvenile justice correctional practices that traumatize children and further reduce their opportunities to become productive members of society.
  3. Provide juvenile justice services appropriate to children’s ethnocultural background that are based on an assessment of each violence-exposed child’s individual needs.
  4. Provide care and services to address the special circumstances and needs of girls.
  5. Provide care and services to address the special circumstances and needs of LGBTQ (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual/questioning) youth.
  6. Develop and implement policies in every school system across the country that aim to keep children in school rather than relying on policies that lead to suspension and expulsion and ultimately drive children into the juvenile justice system.
  7. Guarantee that all violence-exposed children accused of a crime have legal representation.
  8. Help, do not punish, child victims of sex trafficking.
  9. Whenever possible, prosecute young offenders in the juvenile justice system instead of transferring their cases to adult courts.

The first recommendation speaks to the goal of not letting traumatized youth fall between cracks, instead identifying them and then providing them with services that actually help them to recover from chronic post-traumatic stress problems. Rather than treating traumatized youth as either irredeemably antisocial (and therefore warranting more restrictive sentences and confinement) or mentally deformed (and thus requiring psychiatric behavior management-oriented treatment), a less stigmatizing and potentially more effective approach is to provide evidence-based treatment or services designed to help them to overcome traumatic stress reactions.

That is the goal of TARGET (Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy), a multisession gender-specific ethnoculturally adapted intervention for traumatized youth (and adults) that can be done as a one-to-one, group, family or milieu therapy, and/or as a training on emotion regulation skills for juvenile justice staff to use on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis in community or congregate justice programs.

TARGET begins with psychoeducation that explains PTSD as a survival adaptation by the brain’s stress response system that makes sense but becomes a problem when the brain’s amygdala (the “alarm”) becomes stuck in survival mode and hijacks the hippocampus (the “memory filing center”) and the prefrontal cortex (“thinking center”) and body.

Overcoming traumatic stress reactions therefore means learning how to reset the brain’s alarm so that it provides helpful alerts but isn’t stuck in survival mode. TARGET then teaches a seven-step sequence of emotion and behavioral self-regulation skills that accomplish the goal of resetting the alarm, summarized by an acronym, FREEDOM.

[Related: Juvenile Jails Adopting ACE- and Trauma-Informed Practices]

Two skills, Focusing and Recognizing triggers, enable the youth (or adult) to activate the brain’s thinking and filing centers in order to think before reacting. The next four skills differentiate Emotions, Evaluative cognitions, Deliberate goals and Options for action, based on whether they are simply alarm messages or a team effort of the thinking, filing and alarm centers. A final skill, Making a contribution, helps youths (and adults) recognize that being able to handle stress reactions in a self-regulated manner makes them more effective in achieving their personal goals.

By providing practical knowledge that is interesting and useful for adolescents (and for adult staff, administrators, advocates and family members) TARGET provides a basis for truly collaborative and trauma-informed juvenile justice supervisory, rehabilitative and therapeutic services. With TARGET, everyone teams up to take on the challenge of thinking clearly and making choices that reflect their goals and values rather than impulsive or expedient reactions to stress.

This is a crucial paradigm shift that honors both youth’s and adult/system’s perspectives while calling upon all participants to take responsibility for mindfully handling stress reactions. In so doing, it enables the adults to demonstrate good faith by walking the walk (i.e., managing their own stress reactions just as they want the youths to manage theirs) without stigmatizing anyone (youth or adults) for having expectable (albeit not always adaptive) stress reactions.

TARGET is not a panacea, nor a replacement for other empirically supported approaches to traumatic stress treatment (and cognitive and behavioral rehabilitation) for traumatized youth in the juvenile justice system. It is an evidence-based clinical therapy and also a template for making traumatic stress understandable, transparent and manageable for youth and adults. As such it fosters communication and collaboration among law enforcement officers, program staff and administrators, treatment providers and the youth and family.

TARGET’s goal is to enable youth and adults to recognize and responsibly handle stress reactions that may be due to trauma (for youths, and for adults who have trauma histories of their own) or to the expectable challenges of working in correctional/justice programs with youth who are dysregulated and in some cases capable of posing a threat to the adults’ safety. This is the core goal of trauma-informed systems/services, to enable everyone — traumatized youth, their families, adults responsible for public safety and entire communities — to become safer and more effective.

The second recommendation speaks to the credo for all healing professions and services, “first do no harm.” It, and the more specific recommendations that follow, are a call to stop or radically limit correctional practices that further traumatize youth, such as physical restraints, isolation and shackling.

Even when done in a manner that protects the youth’s physical safety, these practices can activate post-traumatic survival fears and reactions that are psychologically harmful to the youth. They may also actually compromise the safety of law enforcement and juvenile program staff when the youth’s survival reactions include fighting back against perceived victimizers. They also undermine the rehabilitative mission (pages 31-49) that has been at the core of Juvenile Courts since their origins more than a century ago.

However, balancing the goal of protecting youth and enhancing their productive participation in society with the other core juvenile justice goal of maintaining public safety and order is exceptionally difficult with youth who tend to be alienated, distrustful and prone to act either impulsively or strategically without due regard for the law and the values underlying the social contract (such as justice, fairness, respect for individual differences), as well as their own or others’ safety.

Further complicating the picture, these youths often are reacting to current challenges based on alarm reactions and survival tactics learned from coping with traumatic violence or victimization in their own lives, and historically, as a result of their race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, and problems with learning and discipline in school and family.

Therefore, it is essential that trauma-informed reforms go beyond simply acknowledging that many justice-involved youth have been traumatized, and provide practical skills that adults and youths together can use to prevent further traumatization of youths and of the adults who work with or supervise them, as is done by the TARGET program.

Within the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, I am privileged to direct the Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice, which has partnered with several national organizations to champion the cause of trauma-informed reforms in juvenile justice. These organizations include the Center for Children’s Law and Poverty, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, Equal Justice Initiative, Futures without Violence, the Juvenile Law Center, the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, the National Center for Youth Law, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the National Juvenile Defender Center and the National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center.

Our ongoing partnerships have resulted in several resources for those who seek to achieve trauma-informed juvenile justice systems, including the Essential Elements of a Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice System, fact sheets on evidence-based practices and tools for identifying and treating traumatized youth, including girls and youth and families of ethnoracial minority backgrounds in the juvenile justice system, and webinars describing practical goals and guidelines.

Julian Ford is a clinical psychologist, professor of psychiatry and law at the University of Connecticut, director of the Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network  and co-founder and co-owner of Advanced Trauma Solutions, Inc., the sole licensed distributor of the TARGET intervention by the copyright holder, the University of Connecticut. He has been working for more than a decade with juvenile courts, diversion, probation, detention, and secure facilities to empower staff and administrators, and to assist youth and families with trauma-informed approaches to adjudication and services.

More related articles:

Pilot Program Giving Dual Status Youth the Trauma-Informed Care, Connections They Need

OP-ED: ‘Trauma-Informed Care’ is More Than a Mantra

Juvenile Detention Centers: On the Other Side of ‘Lock ‘Em Up,’ but Not Quite Trauma-Informed

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.

The Juvenile Justice System Is Not a Hammer and Kids Are Not Nails

Johnny was arraigned for probation violation. He is 15 and of small stature. He was originally placed on probation for residential burglary -- the party to a crime kind where misery likes company. His violations were technical -- not a new crime. He is simply not complying with the rules of probation -- specifically curfew, marijuana and failing to follow directions at the evening reporting center -- our afterschool program designed to break-up the anti-social peer network.

It's important to know this is not Johnny's first act of defiance on probation. Our court has a well-oiled graduated response system in place that since it's inception has reduced the filings of violations by over 80 percent by giving probation officers tools to quickly respond to technical violations. Without a response system the probation officer is likely to use the judge as a default and that can be problematic.

Bringing out the judge is like using a hammer to kill a fly -- the hammer may be powerful, but it's too heavy to hit its mark.

It also assumes that the kid always requires the hammer. A heavy-handed default system will make the kid worse -- it's like performing a lobotomy to cure a migraine.

It also doesn't make sense to place a judge in the position of directing a probation officer to take action that he or she could have done in the first place. So the kid starts to think -- "Really, you (probation officer) filed all this paperwork and brought me to court only to have the judge tell me to do something you could have directed -- and much sooner!"

Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Not every violation is a nail -- and not every kid should be pounded. Improper use of tools -- like a hammer -- causes injury and likely makes the kid worse.

Johnny is a case in point. In all fairness to the probation officer, she employed several graduated responses that would improve Johnny's behavior for a short period and soon thereafter would relapse. This time she brought the matter before me saying that all graduated responses have been exhausted and requested weekend detention as a consequence.

When I inquired with the mother, probation officer, prosecutor, and even defense counsel their opinion why Johnny is non-responsive, the answer was quick and simple -- he needs a greater punisher to get his attention. Now bear in mind as they were talking to me, I was culling through his file, which is over three inches thick -- mostly petitions and orders involving parental neglect. I saw where this was going and I asked my bailiff to accompany Johnny outside the courtroom with his attorney's permission. He didn't need to hear what I was about to say about his mother.

When they finished exposing their united opinion that Johnny has a bad disposition toward authority, I asked them if they had read the first petition filed in this court -- and they had not.

He was 19 months old when the first petition was filed. There was a pregnant pause followed by a slow turn of their heads looking at each other with a "where is this going?" type of look. The allegations in the petition, later proven true, described mom's drug addiction and constant trips to drug houses for quick fixes. She was not alone -- she brought Johnny.

Johnny was taken from his mom, was raised by his grandparents with mom in and out of his life until finally she got sober -- and stayed sober -- but the damage was done.

Research is clear that children who experience maltreatment before age 12 are more likely to engage in delinquent acts during adolescence. Children -- like Johnny -- victimized by those they trust are at risk to enter adolescence resorting to "survival coping" behaviors that come across to the rest of us as callous and defiant but are self-protective in a world they perceive themselves as alone and powerless.

I will confess - -I didn’t know exactly what to do with Johnny at that moment. I knew he needed a consequence -- but locking him up for the weekend was not the answer -- not even as a punisher. Here's the rub: Johnny does know the difference between right and wrong. His survival coping behaviors translate into a defiant attitude because he doesn't trust adults and he is angry. The irony is that he wants to right the wrongs against him -- he wants justice!

As long as he is non-violent, jail is an inappropriate tool to modify behavior, especially since he is a trauma victim. I am the fool to think that bringing out the hammer and pounding on Johnny will change an attitude that is grounded in his head like a tattoo on an arm. Like removing a tattoo, Johnny's cognition won't change without some pain -- and I mean on our part too.

It’s time to get tough -- and I mean on ourselves as practitioners. The Johnnys in our system need our patience and our skill to discern the right from the wrong when it comes to effective interventions.

Johnny wants to feel safe in this world. Our job is to take his hand and guide him to that safe place.

A painful reminder -- Johnny will trip and fall several times and we will go down with him -- if we are holding his hand. Just keep holding his hand -- he never had that growing up.

DOJ Quiet on Mississippi Ultimatum to Respond to School-to-Jailhouse Pipeline Allegations

Meridian courthouseA key deadline has passed in the federal investigation of an alleged “school-to-prison” pipeline in Meridian, Miss., without the U.S. Department of Justice taking any visible action.

The DOJ threatened a federal lawsuit “unless there are meaningful negotiations … within 60 days” of an Aug. 10 public letter. That letter accused the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County and state agencies of running a shoddy juvenile justice system. African-American students and students who have disabilities, according to the letter, are disproportionately caught in the net.

The DOJ, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case or deadline.

No changes have happened at Meridian city schools in the interim.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


On Oct. 10, Meridian schools spokeswoman Elizabeth McDonald said, “since we weren't named in the letter, we have not been involved with any aspect of the letter or with the city and county related to the letter. Given that the letter was not directed to the Meridian Public School District, the schools haven't been impacted by it.”

Meridian’s school board is named by the city mayor and confirmed by city council, but was not a recipient of the DOJ’s complaint.

"I'm not surprised by the ‘no comment’ by the DOJ,” said Lauderdale County NAACP Education Chair Randle Jennings. He said clearly the city and county are aware of the charges leveled against them, but accuses them of failing to communicate with constituents. “There has not been one comment coming from any city, county, or state representative official since the story broke.  All these are signs of pure guilt,” he charged.

schoolppipe_seriesThe original DOJ letter describes practices that channel Meridian city schoolchildren into a “cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution,” such as the right to speedy trial and an attorney. The. DOJ said it amounts to a school-to-prison pipeline.

But Lauderdale and Meridian called the findings “one-sided” and based on an investigation that was unprofessional and undertaken by inexperienced staff, according to a letter from their official attorneys to the DOJ. They said the DOJ had received unreliable information, had interviewed only “a few” families and made their conclusions on unsubstantiated claims.

The Meridian city attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.

Photo by Bill Herndon. 

Girls Poorly Served by Juvenile Justice System, Say Authors

A pair of new scholarly articles say nominally neutral rules in the juvenile justice system can actually fail girls, especially, emphasizes one author, young women of color.

Discrimination is sort of hidden, said Professor Francine Sherman, director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School and author of the paper “Justice for Girls: Are We Making Progress?

“If there were laws on the books that said we’re going to do one thing for girls and another thing for boys, that would be challengeable” in court, she said.  Instead, the discrimination is in practice, where “we do one thing for girls and one thing for boys.”

For example, in some states minors are still subject to criminal prostitution charges, a charge that disproportionately falls on females, and can make them less likely to run away from their exploiters.

Both Sherman and a colleague point out that girls are more likely than boys to be locked up for the status violation of running away.

“Most of the girls are running away from abuse,” said Jyoti Nanda, author of “Blind Discretion: Girls of Color and Delinquency in the Juvenile Justice System” and core faculty member in both the David J. Epstein Public Interest Law Program and the Critical Race Studies Program at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law. “Most of the homeless girls are victims of violence,” she said.  “They’re less likely to run away just for the purpose of leaving,” and if they leave, it is a sign of something deeply wrong.

“There doesn’t seem to be an awareness on the part of any of the players [in the juvenile justice system] on what uniquely impacts the girls,” said Nanda.  Girls’ brains develop earlier than boys’ do. So do their bodies, which can bring unwanted attention.

The key difficulty for Nanda is discretion—judges and law enforcement officers have great power over the fate of girls they encounter. The system was designed with good intentions, she said, recalling a time when wayward youths would be sent to parents with only a warning. But it doesn’t work like that, she said. Instead, a few people have unchecked power over each juvenile.

And in that wide space of discretion stereotypes are at work against females, Nanda argued — widespread cultural beliefs about women of various races.

“Why would juvenile justice system actors be immune from the same stereotypes we have?” she asked.

There’s data on distorted treatment of both black boys in the juvenile justice system and women of color in the adult system, but the combination of young, female and black is not well documented. Nanda said there is no discussion, no place to talk, write or think about girls of color in the system.

Yet her paper does cite studies that found examples of young women of color receiving harsher punishment for the same crime as white girls; and of probation officers perceiving white, Hispanic and black girls differently.

Jurisdictions would be eager to study gender distortions and incorporate them into their work, Sherman said, but it would mean looking critically at lots of decision data over time.  “That’s a hard thing to do in the every day hustle and bustle,” she said.

There are resource and time constraints as well as a perception that there are more pressing things to focus on, Sherman argued, and called on the federal government to provide leadership and technical assistance to jurisdictions so they can gather and analyze their data.

But Sherman emphasized that she is optimistic. “We’re in a much better place now for young women in the system than we were a decade ago,” she said, pointing out that some jurisdictions have reduced overall detention of all youth and that decision-makers are making allowances for youths’ still-in-progress cognitive development and the effects of trauma on youth behavior.  “But,” she continued, “this is the time to really push forward simply because we have a much better foundation with which to make these improvements.”

Nanda is not so optimistic. Because juvenile justice officials have so much discretion, she believes “leadership probably has to come from the juvenile court.” But she also pointed out that judges and lawyers of the future are unlikely to see law school offerings on race, juvenile criminal law and gender; much less the intersection of those.

The papers were presented for the UCLA Law Review’s 2012 symposium, Overpoliced and Underprotected: Women, Race, and Criminalization.

Photo from the UCLA Law Review.

Juvenile Justice in New Orleans: LGBT issues, School-to-Prison Pipeline and More

On March 22nd, 2012, The Lens welcomed five panelists and over 100 attendees to its third salon at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, which focused on the status of the juvenile justice system in the New Orleans area.

Panelists were queried by the moderator on issues surrounding the new French Quarter youth curfew, LGBTQ youth issues in juvenile facilities, the rebuilding of the Youth Studies Center, the school to prison pipeline, and the New Orleans Parish Prison. Audience members were then invited to pose their own questions to the panel.


Dana Kaplan - Executive Director of Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana
Wes Ware - Founder & Director of BreakOUT!
Michael Bradley - Deputy Chief District Defender at Orleans Public Defenders
Eden Heilman - Senior Staff Attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center
Alison McCrary - Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow at Safe Streets/Strong Communities

This panel was one in a series of events held by The Lens to engage readers and New Orleans stakeholders on current issues.

Thanks to all of our panelists for lending their time and insight, the Ashe Cultural Arts Center for the use of their space, Il Posto and Dorignac’s for their contributions, and to everyone who attended.

The post above is reprinted with permission from The Lens and Reclaiming Futures.