Queer Youth Must Get Sexual Health Care While Incarcerated

As “bathroom bills,” military transgender bans and elimination of protections for LGBTQ federal employees demonstrate, we are a long way from a society in which coming out is a realistic option for all. The truth of this likely hits youth the hardest, who still risk family rejection, bullying, even homelessness for coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

The least we can do is demand that LGBTQ youth’s needs are concretely recognized in the agencies and systems created to serve young people. Does your local school district include LGBTQ-supportive sexual health literacy? If not, press your local schools to get sexual health literacy out of the closet and into a regular curriculum. By doing this, you not only increase understanding among all youth about a vital aspect of being human, but you will increase health and decrease bullying of LGBTQ youth.

It is intolerable that such programs largely don’t exist in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems where queer youth are represented at more than twice the rate of their numbers nationwide, and where they rely on system officials for their most basic needs, including sexual health care. How do young people in these facilities thrive when their very existence is denied or treated as aberrant?

October is national Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM). If awareness leads to action, we will see increased advocacy to decrease the number of young people caught up in the so-called justice system. In recognition of the reality that that number is sadly substantial, the Center for HIV Law and Policy’s focus for YJAM is on policy changes that would make future National Coming Out Days (Oct. 11) a safe option for all the young people in detention facilities across the country.

Access to scientifically sound sexual health care would be a very good start. What’s more, it’s part of the essential care detention facilities are obligated to provide to young people in custody. When youth detention facilities fail to provide a basic part of essential health care, we should hold them accountable.

Comprehensive, LGBTQ-affirming sexual health care includes sexually transmitted infection diagnosis, treatment and prevention, including access to condoms and other forms of birth control, pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and sexual health literacy programming that promotes understanding of the full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. It includes guided instruction on healthy sexual attitudes, relationships and behaviors. It includes addressing mental health substance abuse. And it includes services that address the violence based on discriminatory views and stereotypes of various sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

Professional standards and expert consensus support provision of these health services for all youth. In view of the ballooning rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly among young people, sexual health care is also smart public health policy.

To learn more about what you can do to uphold the sexual health rights of youth in detention, check out Teen SENSE, a project of The Center for HIV Law and Policy.

Pepis Rodriguez is a staff attorney for The Center for HIV Law and Policy.

Youth-Serving Leaders Really Need the Value Add of Good Coaching

In the early fall, I will complete my 11th year at Jobs for the Future and my 46th year working in the youth-serving field. It’s fair to say I’ve played a lot of roles and worn many hats.

I’ve directed projects, written grants, managed complex partnerships, worked with foundation partners, facilitated professional development for teachers and youth program staff, and mediated conflict-ridden meetings. I’ve received some coaching — perhaps more of which might have benefitted me — and have coached and supported many colleagues and partners.

Nearing the end of my career, I enjoy coaching above all. Currently, I coach West Coast sites that are creating education-to-career pathways for opportunity youth (including those who are or have been in the foster care or juvenile justice systems) through receipt of Social Innovation Fund grants. I work primarily with intermediary organization leaders who are responsible for system work — bringing together multiple institutional partners (K-12, postsecondary, community-based agencies, local state agency offices and employers) to build richer and more connected pathways and address policies that pose barriers.

I also work with community-based agency leads who are designing new programs. They often want help with provision of on-the-ground technical assistance (program design, instructional support, advice on recruitment and so on). At Jobs for the Future, our team of coaches works closely to support and learn from each other, and ensure we deliver just-in-time assistance and resources to our communities, whether they are changing systems or launching programs.

Why coaching?

An old article from the Harvard Business Review always comes to mind when thinking about the value of coaching. The article, “A Survival Guide for Leaders” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, talks about the tumult involved in managing complex change efforts.

In our field, so many leaders at the system or program level are involved in this difficult work. Partners must adopt different attitudes and beliefs, be willing to work together in new ways, change outdated practices and challenge long-standing policies. The leaders I see are often ensnarled in hostile, resistant or seemingly immovable environments in which change happens slowly, and many setbacks are encountered along the way.

At the heart of “A Survival Guide for Leaders” is the notion that effective leaders need to operate both “in and above the fray,” keeping their heads as they move between action and objective reflection. The metaphor from the article that most strikes home is one in which leaders need a kitchen table (a safe haven to plan and adjust tasks) and a balcony (a perch to dispassionately view the action) in order to stay grounded and effective.

That is where the value of a coach comes in. In a nutshell, a good coach helps leaders carve out dedicated time and space for both kitchen table conversations (learning, action planning and task priorities) and balcony discussions (reflection and strategic planning). What I hear most from Jobs for the Future’s clients is that without coaching, this kind of reflection time is lost in the midst of pressing day-to-day action. Too often leaders get lost in the fray.

What makes a good coach?

Of course, for coaching to be valuable, the coach must be skilled. In my experience, a coach must have expertise and knowledge in the field, yet be willing to take the time necessary to understand local conditions. Without this, advice lacks context and nuance. Above all, a coach must be good at establishing trust and should have unconditional positive regard for the client(s).

The coach needs to have good communication and facilitation skills, along with the ability to deeply listen without judgment. Good coaches are usually skilled strategic thinkers, and know when to provide support as well as when to push and challenge. Coaches with a sense of humor delight me.

Personally, I love coaches who tell stories, as they help me see situations differently. I also love metaphors that help me constructively (re)frame or normalize difficult situations. Further, I always feel blessed when an interaction with a coach helps me validate that the work is truly hard, that I’m not alone and that despite my limitations, I am capable and up to the task at hand.

Effective use of the coach

As a coach, I notice the difference between leaders who use coaches well and those who don’t. Those who do are willing to be vulnerable and are eager to learn. They are confident in their abilities but grounded enough to know that they can and want to grow and learn. Leaders who use coaches well are curious, honest and transparent. They are always looking for ways to use the coach as an ally to whom they can admit that they don’t have all the answers — or, alternatively, announce that everything is going swimmingly.

Leaders who benefit from coaching use the coach’s on-site time effectively by bringing the expertise and knowledge of the coach to partners who need to come into the fold in terms of influencing, technical knowledge or in ramping up their commitments to the project. Leaders who value coaching make good decisions about when they need the kitchen table or the balcony, and use the coach to keep focused and refreshed. And, of course, when the relationship really hums, both local leaders and coaches grow professionally from their interactions.

Lifelong learning/Lifelong coaching

Perhaps by now I’ve sold you on the value of coaching (or confirmed what you already knew). The problem is that coaches come and go. They usually show up at your doorstep when you receive a grant, supporting you in achieving the aims of that specific project.

Once the project is finished, so is the coach. He or she moves on and you do too. If you have been in this field long, however, you know that championing change is lifelong work. The work doesn’t stop because a grant ends. You will still be doing the work even if you change jobs, just from a different vantage point. Wherever you find yourself, you will encounter issues and still have need for that kitchen table … and a balcony.

Good coaches are out there and ready to be summoned. The key is not to let coaching languish in the press of day-to-day tasks or troubles. Once a leader has experienced the value of coaching, he or she must decide if it’s worth the effort to ensure that this function is a continued priority. If it is, the leader might seek a single coach who plays the roles of both confidant and strategic thinker.

Or one might try to identify multiple coaches who address differing needs across time — champion, strategic thinker, constructive critic or knowledgeable, good-humored jester. A leader may gravitate toward trusted friends, work colleagues, senior or retired professionals, or even wise acquaintances in unrelated fields. If asked, they are likely to be glad to contribute, give back or share in this way. It’s important to be clear about the assistance, time commitment and specific goals you want help to achieve.

In the youth-serving field — dynamic and complex, yet fragmented and underfunded — we all need reminders that our work is both vital and difficult, and that change can feel like a long and lonely road. We need to know and feel connected to a national community with history and movement; one that has been, and continues to be, committed to the health and wellbeing of some of our most vulnerable, yet promising young people.

We need to celebrate our successes and not allow them to be obscured by all that is broken and needs to be fixed. To make a difference as leaders, it is important to stay healthy, awake and grounded. And while our commitments and our assets buoy us, good coaching can really help.

Terry Grobe is the director of youth pathways at Jobs for the Future’s Oakland, California, office. The focus of her long career has been devoted to improving education and career outcomes for low-income youth and youth of color. She has worked on or led many state and national initiatives. Currently, she coaches West Coast sites that have received Social Innovation Fund grants through Jobs for the Future/Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Navigating the Path to a Successful Career: New Opportunities for Youth With Disabilities

Juvenile Law Center

As any high schooler can tell you, finding paid work experience in today’s economy can be a real challenge. But youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice and foster care systems face a particularly difficult road. In addition to the challenges of system involvement, youth with disabilities often encounter discriminatory attitudes or hiring practices when searching for a job, and they may need additional supports, workplace accommodations or specialized training to secure and maintain employment.

These added hurdles dramatically hinder these young people’s chance of success; research shows that youth and young adults with disabilities are employed at less than half the rate of their nondisabled peers.

The good news is that there is now a federal policy that could help remove some of these impediments. Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), each state’s vocational rehabilitation agency must set aside at least 15 percent of its federal funds to provide “pre-employment transition services” to students with disabilities. The services required under the statute include:

  • Job exploration counseling;
  • Work-based learning experiences;
  • Counseling on post-secondary programs;
  • Workplace readiness training; and
  • Instruction in self-advocacy.

But what do these legal requirements mean for youth in practice?

“Now, vocational rehabilitation agencies have to provide actual work experience and activities while a kid is still in school,” explained Joe Cipolla, director of employer services at JEVS Human Services. JEVS is one of the first providers in Philadelphia to begin a pre-employment transition services program under WIOA. We spoke with Joe and his colleague Sarah Hollister about their experiences designing and launching the program. They explained that JEVS is using WIOA funding to offer three key services to youth in several Philadelphia schools:

  • Group training in work readiness and self-advocacy skills;
  • Job shadowing, where students observe workers doing jobs during the school day; and
  • Paid internships in one to three work areas of interest to the student.

These services function as a package, Joe explained, “taking a youth from ‘here’s how to think about work,’ to ‘let’s look at some things you’re interested in,’ and finally to ‘let’s get you a position doing that.’”

Joe and Sarah identified several innovative approaches they have been able to take because of the new WIOA funding. “One of the exciting things about the program is that the paid work experiences are so customizable,” Sarah explained, describing how, through the JEVS program, a student who had an interest in event planning was able to get paid for her work helping to plan the prom for the JEVS E3 Center.

Joe also emphasized the potential power of the collaboration between the school district, private providers and the vocational rehabilitation agency. It takes a new level of coordination among these entities to ensure program success, which “really expands the options available to students,” he explained. By combining the school district’s educational expertise with providers’ connections to employers and community resources, students can receive more integrated and holistic career and academic services.

Although the pre-employment transition services opportunities made possible under WIOA are not specific to youth in foster care or the juvenile justice system, programs could be designed to target those groups. A majority of system-involved youth have some sort of disability and are likely eligible for the services. WIOA also incentivizes states to design workforce programs that reach high-risk youth, including those in the child welfare or juvenile justice system.

Here are some recommendations from our report for how pre-employment transition services programs could better reach system-involved youth:

  • Create a clear, written process for identification, referral and service provision for youth in foster care or the juvenile justice system.
  • Develop a pre-employment transition services program in a juvenile justice or child welfare facility.
  • Incorporate referrals to the vocational rehabilitation agency into the transition planning and reentry processes.

The passage of WIOA won’t mean the end of every struggle that a student with a disability in foster care or the juvenile justice system ever faces. But with the grit these youth so often exhibit, and these new resources for programs who assist them, this new policy can take one hurdle out of their way.

Elisa Egonu is a legal intern and Karen U. Lindell a staff attorney for the Juvenile Law Center.

This is one in a series of blog posts from the Juvenile Law Center on career pathways and barriers for system-involved youth. It is reposted with permission. See the original and full series here.

Book Review: The Future of Juvenile Justice

51UxSlLokeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While juvenile justice system reformers and practitioners in the United States often focus on the nation’s diverse range of practice to identify ideas for system change, we less frequently examine other nations’ juvenile justice systems to ascertain best (or worst) practices.

Though this is partly attributable to cultural differences and the variance in legal systems (e.g. adversarial versus inquisitorial), there is much to learn from colleagues across the globe as we strive to become more creative and effective advocates for young people.

“The Future of Juvenile Justice: Procedure and Practice From a Comparative Perspective” provides an accessible introduction to international viewpoints on contemporary juvenile justice. The book, a compilation of articles in which legal experts discuss varying juvenile justice issues, contains ample examples of common struggles in system implementation and reform.

These themes include: the difficulty of translating promising new legislation into actual practice on the ground, the complexities associated with standardizing juvenile justice strategies both within countries and across borders, and the overarching understanding that the system has a disproportionate and unfair impact on youth from disadvantaged economic situations and marginalized racial/ethnic groups. Though it is hardly heartening to know these challenges exist almost uniformly, it is helpful to read about how legislators and advocates in several countries have attempted to address each issue.

The book covers subjects ranging from general examinations of countries’ juvenile justice systems to specific critiques on solitary confinement and human trafficking law. Other than a brief look at India’s justice system, the articles focus on North American and European procedure and practice.

All the articles devote some time to solutions or at least specific suggestions for reform. However, it would be more helpful for readers, at least those reform-minded, if more of the authors emphasized the analysis of these strategies, rather than providing extensive descriptions of the country’s practice.

A few articles are particularly helpful to the American reader. Sayali Himanshu Bapat and Barbara Bennett Woodhouse present a piece comparing developments in the American, Indian and Italian juvenile justice systems. Following succinct sections contrasting the historical and present features of each country’s system, the authors persuasively posit that the United States requires a more coherent juvenile justice philosophy that crosses state lines in order to best serve youth in the system.

However, the authors are hardly suggesting that the Indian and Italian systems are sufficient. Ultimately, they propose that all three countries should regularly employ the Child Rights Based Transnational Framework of Justice to analyze whether the countries’ systems are truly treating youth who are within them, or at risk of entering them, with fairness and justice.

Tamar Birckhead provides a similarly instructive comparative analysis in her article on the solitary confinement of youth. Birckhead includes a thorough analysis of practices across the world, coming to the devastating yet mobilizing conclusion that solitary confinement of youth — a practice that has a debilitating, irreversible mental and physical impact — is permitted to some degree in all but two countries in the world. After surveying legal challenges that advocates have attempted in the United States and other countries, Birckhead offers practical yet powerful next steps that legislators, advocates and system practitioners must take to minimize, if not eradicate, the use of solitary confinement to punish youth.

Other countries’ practices may not always be helpful in addressing juvenile justice system practice and reform needs in the United States. But ignorance of international trends and solutions can detract from our ability to be effective advocates and dream up novel solutions. “The Future of Juvenile Justice” is a welcome addition to the bookshelf of any juvenile justice professional who embraces this spirit of curiosity and continual innovation.

Atasi Uppal is a staff attorney for the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL). Part of NCYL's Juvenile Justice and FosterEd teams, she leads program development and policy reform aimed at closing the achievement gap for young people in the juvenile justice system.

The Unlikely Reason Arkansas’ Juvenile Justice System Is Behind the Times


Over the past two years, Arkansas’ juvenile justice system has burst into the news repeatedly — and for all the wrong reasons. In August 2014, the Disability Rights Center documented alarming conditions in the state’s largest juvenile correctional facility. In 2015, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette documented the state’s continuing penchant for jailing children brought to court for status offenses — misbehaviors like skipping school or running away from home that are not illegal for adults — contradicting an overwhelming consensus in the field.

This year, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has made news by single-handedly derailing reauthorization of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in protest against legislative language that would tighten the federal government’s prohibition on confining status offenders.

Meanwhile, even as juvenile incarceration has been plummeting nationwide, Arkansas has increased the number of youth committed to state custody for two straight years despite a continuing drop in their arrests.

Why is Arkansas apparently moving backwards when many of its peers, including several deep red Southern states, have turned a corner by embracing more humane and evidence-based approaches to juvenile justice?

The problem stems largely from the outsized influence of Arkansas’ unique network of service provider agencies, experts and advocates told me.

These agencies are not the kinds of scandal-plagued for-profit prison corporations often (and rightfully) pilloried in the press. Rather, they are nonprofit, community-based and widely respected, with a long history of caring for troubled children.

Most were created in the 1970s after passage of the Runaway Youth Act made federal funds available for programs to assist wayward youth. Initially, the organizations struggled. But that began changing in the late 1970s and early ‘80s after they undertook training on how they could band together and expand their influence.

In later years, the providers put politically connected leaders on their boards and branched out to serve youth in the delinquency system. After forming the Arkansas Youth Service Providers Association, they negotiated standard contracts with the Division of Youth Services (DYS) to pay them for community-based services, and some opened residential facilities as well. Rather than fight each other for funding, the 13 providers agreed to carve the state into pieces, and each became the sole recipient of DYS contracts in its given territory.

Though no one I spoke with accused the providers of corruption, or even bad will, several observers described them as obstacles to reform. “The providers have become very entrenched,” 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,” said Kelly, who now works at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. The providers have fought “any really meaningful accountability for the impact of their services,” he added.

Mickey Yeager, a data analyst at DYS from 2009 to 2014, was more blunt: “The providers in Arkansas are very powerful. They basically do what they want.”

Ron Angel, who served as DYS director from 2007 to 2013, recalls his first meeting with the providers. “They told me: They have been here for 30 years … 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 message was jarring, because DYS was then facing a lawsuit over abusive conditions in its main juvenile facility, and because just 15 percent of the youth committed to state custody in 2007 had committed a serious violent felony, while 42 percent had committed only misdemeanors.

At DYS, Angel overhauled the state’s largest facility, and sought to reduce the number of low-risk youth in residential custody while expanding and improving community programs. He set a goal for each judicial district in the state to reduce commitments by at least 10 percent per year, and he created an incentive fund to support new programming in the districts where commitments declined 20 percent.

The changes made a difference. From 2007 to 2012, the number of youth committed to state custody fell. So did the average population in state youth facilities and the share of committed youth who had been adjudicated for misdemeanors. But the improvements were modest.

In early 2013, Angel and his allies crafted a legislative proposal to create local Community Youth Services Boards and engage entire communities, not just service providers, in determining the right mix of programs for court-involved youth.

The bill was throttled, however, when providers worked their contacts in the Legislature and mounted a lobbying campaign against it.

John Furness, executive director of Comprehensive Juvenile Services in Fort Smith, Arkansas, is unapologetic about killing Angel’s proposal. “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.”

Within weeks, Angel tendered his resignation and retired.

The provider association’s fingerprints can also be seen in the dearth of meaningful data analysis in Arkansas’ juvenile system and the frequent leadership turnover at DYS.

Before 2007, DYS made little effort to analyze its population, or determine what worked and didn’t work. “The data was there. You just had to pull it,” recalled Yeager, the data specialist. “But no one was digging through it.”

When Angel tried to make service providers report details on the services they offered and their results, “you would have thought we had asked for their firstborn child,” Angel recalled. “How can you base your treatment if you don’t have standards where you can measure what’s being successful and what’s not?”

The providers “fought us every step of the way,” Yeager added. “Ron was called to the capital several times …  because he was trying to track the performance of the providers.”

That dynamic wasn’t new, Kelly said: “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.”

Angel’s greatest accomplishment at DYS may have been simply lasting for six years. He arrived as the agency’s ninth new director in 12 years. Since his retirement, DYS has cycled through two more directors. In April, the latest one abruptly resigned and the agency is now led by an interim appointee.

Despite these impediments, momentum for reform is once again building in Arkansas. Promising models for enhanced risk and need assessments, detention reform and improved juvenile probation practice are being tested around the state. The state’s court system is improving juvenile data collection and has established an active juvenile justice reform subcommittee.

Plus, a youth justice reform board appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchison appears ready to support a multimillion-dollar incentive fund to reduce the number of kids sentenced to state custody, reviving Angel’s strategy. Meanwhile, many of the state’s juvenile judges are abandoning old-school, law-and-order orthodoxy and embracing more therapeutic and targeted approaches.

Across Arkansas, judges and other local leaders are growing more and more familiar with the dramatic advances the juvenile justice field has made in recent years, more and more eager to embrace what works — as their peers have done in other states.

Amid this groundswell, providers will face increasing pressure to adapt new practices, collect better data and measure performance. If they continue to resist, the providers will likely squander their credibility and lose their cherished place at the heart of the Arkansas system.

The pull of progress is simply too strong.

Dick Mendel is an independent writer and editor on juvenile justice and other youth, poverty and community development issues. He has written nationally disseminated reports for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others and has also written articles for The Atlantic, Washington Monthly, Legal Times, Raleigh News and Observer and Baltimore Sun.

Campaign Says Juveniles Need Better Access to Quality Legal Counsel

OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee talks about the importance of strong juvenile defense at the launch of Gault at 50, a campaign by the National Juvenile Defense Center on May 16, 2016.
OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee talks about the importance of strong juvenile defense at the launch of Gault at 50, a campaign by the National Juvenile Defense Center on May 16, 2016.

WASHINGTON — The National Juvenile Defender Center on Monday launched a campaign to improve access to quality legal counsel for juveniles in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

During the next year, the center will urge individuals and organization to sign on to a statement of principles that supporters say will help fulfill the promise of the high court’s 1967 In re Gault decision.

The principles include making every child eligible for a publicly-funded defense and improving training for attorneys.

In Gault, the Supreme Court said young people in juvenile court have many of the same rights as adults in criminal court, including the right to counsel. But juveniles do not always have access to a lawyer, let alone quality representation in the nation’s 1 million annual juvenile delinquency cases, say the campaign’s supporters.

Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the National Juvenile Defense Center, moderates a panel discussion at the launch of Gault at 50, an NJDC campaign to improve juvenile defense on May 16, 2016.
Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the National Juvenile Defense Center, moderates a panel discussion at the launch of Gault at 50, an NJDC campaign to improve juvenile defense.

Juveniles too often are questioned by police and enter guilty pleas in court without a lawyer and have no one to investigate their case or understand whether a plea disposition is appropriate, said Kim Dvorchak, executive director of NJDC.

“That’s not justice and it’s certainly not representation. It’s an assembly line process taking place across this country,” she said.

She added that there’s too little data about how many juveniles are getting quality representation, a fact that obscures the problem for policymakers and the public.

The campaign also will release social media toolkits and “Know Your Rights” materials to help local communities build support for better representation. The goal is to spread awareness that can be a platform for policy change that ensures quality representation for every juvenile, said Dvorchak.

[Related: Los Angeles Board Votes to End Solitary for Juveniles]

Dozens of groups have signed onto the statement of principles, such as the Juvenile Law Center, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association and the Sentencing Project.

Robert L. Listenbee, administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, applauded the initiative. He said only 42 percent of youth in custody reported having a lawyer, according to a 2003 OJJDP survey.

“The message for us is clear: We have a lot more to do before we can truly fulfill the promise of Gault,” he said. Listenbee stressed the importance of involving all of the juvenile justice system’s players, including prosecutors, to improve youth’s access to quality defense.

Jim St. Germain, board member at the National Juvenile Defender Center, talks about the role juvenile defenders played in his life at the launch of Gault at 50, a campaign by the NJDC on May 16, 2016.
Jim St. Germain, board member at the National Juvenile Defender Center, talks about the role juvenile defenders played in his life at the launch of Gault at 50, a campaign by the NJDC.

Jim St. Germain, a board member at NJDC and co-founder of the mentoring group Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow Inc., said juvenile defenders were critical for him when he had run-ins with the juvenile justice system as a teenager. Their support helped put him on a path toward a successful adulthood.

When he talks to other young people, he said they often say they felt like they had no voice in the justice system. Defense attorneys can help change that for young people, he said.

“I was very fortunate and part of my fortune came from having that legal representation we’ve been talking about, having attorneys who really were invested in me and my well-being, not just the docket number I had,” he said.

This story has been updated.

More related articles:

White America Needs a Good Long Hangover

For People of Faith, Youth Justice Must Be a Priority

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

Los Angeles Board Votes to End Solitary for Juveniles

Solitary juvenile cell
Solitary juvenile cell

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion Tuesday that bans the use of solitary confinement — in all but the most exceptional circumstances — in all the county’s juvenile detention facilities.

Solitary confinement “doesn’t improve behavior,” said Board Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “It doesn’t promote rehabilitation. … And [nationally] 50 percent of our young people who commit suicide were in room confinement at the time of their suicide.”

Los Angeles County oversees the largest juvenile justice system in the nation, housing approximately 1,200 youth. This decision could potentially have a contagious effect on other counties and their juvenile justice systems, in California and beyond, observers say. The change is to be made by the end of September.

Last year, a similar bill for the entire state was killed in committee. A revamped version has been reintroduced by state Sen. Mark Leno again this year.

Two juvenile camps of LA’s 13 and one of three juvenile halls will do away with solitary by the end of May. Those three facilities will serve as models for the rest of system, said interim Probation Chief Cal Remington.

Remington cautioned that kids “may be separated as a short-term response when their behavior poses a serious risk to themselves and others.”

He also said the environments in which a young person might be placed for such a cool down would be very different than the current cell-like rooms. “We want the situation to be a calming experience,” he said, listing changes in furniture, lighting, window treatment and wall colors. ... We’re talking about cultural change.”

Staff training will be very important, he said: “The staff have to feel safe.”

A panel of experts spoke about the motion at the hearing before the vote.

“Study after study has shown that solitary confinement can have devastating mental-health effects on adults,” said juvenile advocate Kirn Kim, who as a teenager spent 15 months in solitary, from 16 to 18. “So I ask, how can its use ever be justified for juveniles? The teenage brain is still developing. Youth have a lesser capacity to cope with stress than adults. To force that level of stress on a young person, especially those who have already been traumatized, only leads to further problems ... As any parent can attest, children act out. These kids have been traumatized, they are put in solitary confinement, and they act out further.”

Attorney Jo Kaplan, who is a member of the Probation Commission and a longtime child advocate, made clear that getting rid of juvenile solitary was overdue. “For close to two decades we’ve had the Department of Justice monitoring probation,” she said. “This solitary confinement motion is symbolic of [a department] that, in the past, was stuck on stupid.”

Several young people in the audience talked about their own experiences in solitary. “It was horrible,” said Francisco Martinez, who was from the Youth Justice Coalition. “An animal in a cage.”

This story originally appeared on WitnessLA.

White America Needs a Good Long Hangover

TimberlakeOver the decades of a long career, I’ve attended countless professional conferences, and more often than not, I’ve come away reinvigorated with a briefcase filled with new research and business cards of experts I will contact later.

The recent annual Coalition for Juvenile Justice Conference in Washington, District of Columbia, did not disappoint and, in fact, had the added joy of seeing Rob Vickery, a friend and one of the new generation of rising stars, win the National Juvenile Justice Specialist Award. It is especially encouraging to see Rob and so many other young professionals bringing change and achieving results.

Occasionally, these conferences surprise. And for me, this year’s surprise came from some even younger voices.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

Robert Listenbee, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, introduced three young artists of the spoken and written word. They represented Split this Rock, a group of poets who represent the diversity of American poetry today.

All three, two males and a female, had written excellent poems, in formal structure and meter and each had a compelling content and tone. The audience was moved. They knew the role of gifted poets — to describe and speak of events and feelings that evoke strong emotional response from the reader and listener. They all succeeded.

The youth with a James Earl Jones voice was angry — with an understandable rage at being labeled a black teenager who was likely headed to prison, labeled without knowing who he really is. He recognized that most black teens are often seen in stereotypical terms — poor, uneducated, out of step with acceptable society perhaps because of his clothes, his music, his friends, his hair, his color.

The second young man had a softer edge but told of similar experiences of being stopped by police without cause, treated roughly for no reason. He described feeling both feared as a young black man and fearful of what his life might become in a dominant white society. The young woman’s voice and words kept the audience in rapt silence as she related the facts and feelings of being young, black and female — a different stereotype than the males — but no less moving.

I can neither repeat nor explain the truth in these young voices — you need to read or, better yet, to hear their poems yourselves — but I can tell you that they all felt victimized by living in a society that must change in order — to borrow a current phrase — to “Make America Great.” After the presentation, someone said that it was “sobering.” That seems accurate if we consider both the drunkenness and the hangover that follows.

White America can be seen as drunk on power, privilege and money, things that too many people of color do not have. Being drunk brings a certain blindness to what goes on around you, an inability to see the reality of racism and institutionalized poverty and the hopelessness that results.

Drunkenness makes us stumble — to trip over matters of public policy and legislation like the War on Drugs that contributed to the appearance of a War on African Americans and to the siege state of mind brought on by a neighborhood police state.

What this country needs is a hangover — a post-party opportunity for reflection, a quiet time for sober thought about what we have done right and what we have done wrong. Feelings of guilt and shame usually accompany the search for an antidote to the headache. During such an interlude, we need to learn, think and feel what it is like to be a person of color in America — to be poor, to have fewer opportunities because of a lack of power, privilege and money.

Hangovers often lead to resolutions — to drink less, to do better, to be kind — to use our heads to make a better life. In public policy, we need to step back from the loud crowd in politics and the media and to listen to the good in us all. Our resolutions must be to improve the experience of people of color in our country.

Step one: Listen to those young poets about their experience in our nation. Their message is about much more than teen angst. It is the truth about being young and black in America. That is the sort of youth engagement needed for juvenile justice reform.

For People of Faith, Youth Justice Must Be a Priority

Rabbi-Rev2During this season marked by the observation of Easter and Passover, as Christians honor Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of their sins, and Jews celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt, we join in seeking the liberation of all who may be enslaved.

During this time, in the juvenile justice arena, we joined together to observe the much lesser-known Month of Faith and Healing. As faith leaders and members of national human rights organizations Tru’ah and the National Juvenile Justice Network, we paused to take stock of our current system for dealing with youth in trouble with the law and call on others to do the same.

What we saw in our examination was deeply disturbing. Rather than a system grounded in ideas of forgiveness and redemption — a system in which the liberation of former slaves was apparent in the fair treatment of all youth — we saw a system that still bears the mark of our deepest national injustice and that perpetuates the historic inequities we so urgently need to shed. What we saw was undeniable disparities in treatment for youth of color at every stage of the system from arrest to referrals to juvenile court to detention to youth waived to adult court. The impact of these disparities destroys our children’s lives and demands action from all of us as moral citizens.

And while our home state of New Jersey has taken steps at rectifying this injustice through participation in Annie E. Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, we have clearly not yet finished wandering the desert to achieve true liberty. Our own New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission’s report from Easter week (March 24) reported that 91.4 percent of youth detained are youth of color. We must ask ourselves how we can celebrate the sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins or the deliverance of our ancestors while incarcerating our youth of color for sins for which we grant others redemption.

Many of these youth end up in the justice system because other systems fail them. They end up there because zero-tolerance policies in schools push kids into the streets for minor misbehavior; because an overburdened child welfare system can’t help their families; and often because schools and our behavioral health system do a very poor job of identifying and treating mental health issues and complex trauma in young people. This is a sign of a broken system, forcing us to ask ourselves, “Is this fair? Just? Moral?”

[Related: Case Now Strong for Ending Probation’s Place As Default Disposition in Juvenile Justice]

We are wandering in the desert. We have not yet been liberated. We must do better by our youth. Our youth deserve our forgiveness and a chance at redemption. New Jersey deserves liberation. Together, we can unite across denominations to support common-sense policies that call us to question the effect of our policies on youth of color and assess the impact on disparities.

We can ensure that youth are not unfairly criminalized by punitive school discipline policies and make sure that all youth in trouble with the law have competent legal counsel to shepherd them through the system. We can eliminate the unnecessary transfer of so many youth (in New Jersey, 90 percent of them youth of color, according to a study by the New Jersey Parents’ Caucus) to adult court and the adult prison system.

As we celebrate these holy days, we call for healing. Just as the pope washed the feet of young people at a youth detention center, we must be willing to display humility if we hope to cleanse injustice and heal communities. We open our arms to other faith leaders and congregations to join us in calling attention to the plight of youth in our justice system and pursue solutions based in redemption, not retaliation. And we ask our congregations to stand up and speak out for a moral system that treats our children justly.

There are also immediate practical steps we can take. Those of us in New Jersey can support the adoption of Senate Bill 677, sponsored by Sen. Ronald L. Rice, which would require our legislature to issue racial impact statements to assess whether proposed legislation will have a disproportionate racial impact.

Nationwide, we can all support the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which includes new provisions requiring states to make meaningful progress on racial disparities.

But this is only the beginning. We must ensure that our society begins to see youth in the justice system as children who we have failed, as children capable of redemption, as children who can and will make positive contributions to our community.

Rabbi David C. Levy is the rabbi of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey, a member of Tru’ah and served as the Jewish chaplain for Marion Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.

The Rev. Charles F. Boyer, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury, New Jersey, and coordinator of the Covenant Project to Eradicate Mass Incarceration.

More related articles:

Alternatives for Justice-Involved Youth with Mental Health Needs Finally Start to Appear

Rep. Kennedy Calls Juvenile Justice the Next Civil Rights Issue

Advocates Cheer Probe of Racial Bias in Mississippi School Discipline

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


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

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

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

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

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

Evidence against probation’s effectiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to implement reform

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

How should the juvenile justice field correct this imbalance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story has been updated.