Legislation follows Center investigation of harsh punishments directed at even middle-schoolers
Virginia legislators are debating bills this week that would limit the role of school cops and prohibit charging K-12 students with “disorderly conduct” — a reaction to Center stories on unusually aggressive school policing there.
Among the reform proposals: a measure that would release school administrators from state code requirements that they report a range of incidents to police, including potential misdemeanors. Another bill under debate would strengthen the rights of students with disabilities if they’re charged with disorderly behavior and face prosecution in court.
Last April, the Center for Public Integrity published an investigation identifying Virginia as having the top rate of public school referrals of students to law enforcement agencies. Based on an analysis of 2011-2012 data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, Virginia’s rate of referring students to cops or courts was about three times the national rate of six referrals for every 1,000 students. Black students and those with disabilities were referred at even higher rates.
Criminal charges against Virginia students arrested at schools often fell heavily on middle-school kids and black students, the Center also found after examining local arrest records in some jurisdictions.
Among these students was Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth-grade student who was charged in the fall of 2014 with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can after he became upset at his school in Lynchburg. The 11-year-old was also handcuffed, arrested and charged with felony assault on a police officer when he tried to break free from an officer’s grasp.
Kayleb’s story and other examples of the criminalization of young students were also featured in a report the Center produced in collaboration withReveal, an investigative public radio program.
JustChildren’s attorneys represent special-needs students in disputes over appropriate educational services at their schools. The lawyers have grown increasingly concerned that students are getting arrested and prosecuted for behavior at school that’s not uncommon for children their age, or conduct that stems from a disability. A number of conservative organizations in Virginia have also urged reforms to school policing, including doing away with disorderly conduct charges against students.
On Monday, three bills backed by JustChildren were referred to the full House Education Committee from the House Elementary and Secondary Subcommittee. The measures are scheduled to be heard in the full committee later this week.
One proposal, HB1061, sponsored by Henrico County Democrat Lamont Bagby, would require schools to consider “feasible alternatives” before referring students to law enforcement or expelling them. The proposed requirement would not apply to students accused of having firearms or certain other kinds of weapons at school.
LaRock’s HB 1132 would strike language from state code that some administrators interpret as a mandate that they report any possible misdemeanor to law enforcement. The other LaRock bill, HB 1134, would eliminate the option to charge elementary and secondary students with committing disorderly conduct at school or school events.
Another House bill that would also scale back the role of school police has already passed out of the House of Delegates with overwhelming bipartisan support. HB 487, which was approved on a 95-to-2 votes in the House, is sponsored by Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat.
McClellan’s bill amends language in state legislation that authorizes state grants to pay for school resource officers; the legislation currently requires such grant-funded officers—who are a minority of the state’s school cops—to enforce “school board rules and codes of school conduct.”
Striking this language, McClellan said, will provide more discretion to school administrators and officers so they don’t have to feel compelled to involve police in relatively minor violations of school rules.
“That’s not really the officers’ job,” McClellan said.
McClellan said she thinks another bill she is co-sponsoring—LaRock’s proposal to end disorderly conduct charges against students—could likely face amendments if it is to move on.
Legislators, she said, have discussed the idea of applying a prohibition on disorderly conduct charges to younger students only, or limiting the prohibition to cover only students enrolled at schools where an incident takes place. That way, she said, school officials could have some flexibility to react to a disruption created by minors who aren’t enrolled at a school but cause a disruption.
McClellan is co-sponsoring another bill related to school policing —HB 1213—along with David Albo, a Republican delegate from Fairfax Station.
Focused on special-needs students, that measure would require that students charged with “willfully disrupting” school be afforded the opportunity to submit special educational plans or behavior assessments as part of their defense in court. The minor, at least 10 days before trial, would have to inform prosecutors of the intent to use the documents as evidence and provide prosecutors with copies.
McClellan acknowledged that a number of her colleagues in Virginia legislature support a hard “law-and-order” line and are reluctant to embrace some of the proposals. “But this is an area I know has bipartisan support,” she said, referring to calls to reform school-policing policies.
After the Center report was published and aired last April, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, appointed a cabinet-level task force to come up with ideas for how to reform school policing. Last October, members of the task force said they were launching a “Classrooms, not Courtrooms” initiative to retrain all school police in the state and help schools embrace the use of alternative discipline methods.
It’s been 2½ years since Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a landmark overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice system into law. The measure has resulted in a sharp drop in commitments to the state’s youth correctional system and is expected to save tens of millions of dollars by replacing incarceration with community supervision.
It’s too early for comprehensive recidivism numbers. But the state Department of Juvenile Justice says commitments to state facilities are down 20 percent since the law took effect — and it won’t need to build two new facilities that had been projected before the reforms.
JJIE recently caught up with Deal to talk about how things are going so far, whether he plans to revisit some of Georgia’s more controversial practices and why he sees education as the next piece of the puzzle to be solved.
NOTE: Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You’re getting good reviews for your juvenile justice reforms. How do you think it’s going so far?
A. I think it’s a remarkable success. Quite honestly, we’ve seen the success in a shorter time frame than I had originally anticipated.
We started on the adult side, focused on adults that were coming into our prison system but were being classified as nonviolent. We decided we could divert many of those nonviolent offenders into accountability courts — the drug courts, DUI courts, increasingly mental health courts and more recently veterans’ courts. And that’s been a huge success. In excess of 4,000 individuals in the first quarter of last year were in accountability courts across our state, and the number of those courts continue to grow, and we’re glad to see that. ...
The second year was juvenile justice reform. It was modeled after the adult program, but by the very distinction of being juveniles, it had to be done a little differently.
We approached it by identifying the counties that were sending the largest number of juveniles into our juvenile justice system, and we did it on a grant program. Those counties became eligible for the first round of grants to put in place local alternative diversion programs, and since that time, in the budget, we have expanded the money, and we have continued to expand that across the state. It’s more difficult to do in our more rural, outlying areas of Georgia, but nevertheless the problems are there just as they are elsewhere.
We think that has been very successful ... Participating counties have seen felony commitments and placements in short-term programs drop 62 percent over a nine-month period. As a result, we’ve been able to close two juvenile detention centers. So that is a money-saving aspect of it, but we’re plowing that money into creating more of these local alternatives.
Q. The original projections were this program could save up to $85 million. How are actual results tracking with those projections?
A. I don’t have the dollar numbers on that, but when you see a 62 percent drop in incarceration — and when you consider that for a juvenile, the cost of one year of incarceration is in excess of $90,000 — it doesn’t take long for that to add up to a substantial sum of money. We’ll have more accurate figures by the end of next year. I would think that because the very nature of juvenile detention is sometimes short-term, it’s fluctuating. We’ll have a better feel for it next year.
Q. What’s been the biggest obstacle to implementation? Is there any part of the system you need to give a swift kick to get it turning?
A. Quite honestly, we’ve had very good response from the local communities, because it does require the local communities to be willing to participate in these alternative diversion programs. No matter what you do in criminal justice reform, when you are talking about alternatives to incarceration, you have to overcome the potential fear of the local community that their safety is being jeopardized. I think we have shown that is not the case in the local arena, and I believe these numbers that we’re seeing are also demonstrating that you are just as safe if not safer to have alternative programs in the juvenile arena as well.
Two other things have happened, and these are somewhat new. One is called the Georgia Preparatory Academy. They are focused on trying to award GEDs and technical certificates to juveniles who will be in our youth development centers. Back in May of this year, they had a graduation ceremony. They had 53 diplomas and GEDs and technical college certificates that were awarded to young people who were in pretty much all of our youth development centers across the state. That’s something I think we have to continue to focus on. Education is the one ingredient that is not only the most common denominator in the adult population, it‘s also the most common denominator in our juvenile population. Many if not most of the juveniles have either been kicked out of school, they’ve been suspended — some of them suspended indefinitely — or they were of the age where they just simply dropped out. The lack of education, the lack of skills, is the common denominator.
Another thing is the Annie E. Casey Foundation has awarded grants to our state. These work on a county-by-county basis, and it’s to try to encourage alternatives for low-risk juvenile offenders as we do in the adult population. We have two counties now that participate in it, and that’s Clayton and Rockdale counties ... Because Clayton County was involved in the program earlier, they adopted the initiative in 2003, and we’re told it resulted in an 80 percent decrease in the average daily population and less than 1 percent of county’s youth felony offenders were rearrested on a felony charge. Those are rather remarkable statistics. If we can replicate that with the use of the Annie E. Casey Foundation around the state, that will truly be phenomenal.
Q. Are there any counties or particular regions that have taken to these reforms more aggressively than others?
A. As far as I can tell most all of them have taken on the approach very successfully. As I said, the first year, because we didn’t have sufficient funds to do it all across the state, we identified the counties that were sending us the largest number of juveniles into the system. As you can imagine, those are the metro areas of state — the greater Atlanta area, Columbus, Augusta, Savannah, et cetera. In the more recent year, we have spread those grants out across the state, so we’re gradually moving them out to try to cover our entire state.
Q. How much money are we talking about going to things like raises? Are you having to hire more probation officers to handle more community supervision? Can you give me some way of quantifying that?
A. We put a slight pay raise in last year’s budget. Most of the time, pay raises, because they are across the board, are reflected in general budgets. That will be something we hope we can address in the upcoming budget in the next session of the General Assembly. But it will be an across-the-board type approach.
Q. So out of that projected $85 million, you don’t have a number for how much has been put back into the system so far?
A. I don’t at this point, because it’s an ongoing thing.
Q. You were a juvenile judge at one point. How has that experience influenced this process for you? Is there any one case or set of kids that informed your thinking as you went ahead?
A. The most frustrating thing as a juvenile court judge was I pretty much had only two options for a young person that was in trouble that came before the court. One was to simply send them into the juvenile system, which was generally not a good alternative except in the most extreme cases. The other was to send them home, to the environment where they got in trouble in the first place, with very little assistance in terms of additional personnel other than a probation officer. That’s what we’ve tried to remedy on the reform side. We’ve given the juvenile judges more options. They’re not put in a posture of either something that may be considered too extreme or something that may be inappropriate. They have more options in their arsenal for dealing with these young people. I suppose that was the biggest thing. It was not a specific case, it was the overall context in which juvenile judges were having to operate.
Q. Recidivism is the big number that everybody looks at, but is there any other metric you look to as an indicator of success?
A. I would say it is the programs I’ve talked about here of improving their skill levels, their educational levels. That’s something that is very difficult to do, because most of them come into the system, I’ve been told, as much as three to four years behind where they should be, agewise, in terms of their skills. So it’s a very intensive, almost one-on-one type of approach to improve their educational skills. And by the very nature of the short term of duration in facilities, it has to be very concentrated. We’re trying to improve the ability to have those educational opportunities extended to the juveniles after they leave maybe a detention facility and move back into supervised probation. We have some programs that we’re working on that we think will allow us to do that, but it’s very difficult ... We have to work on ways in which we can accommodate them in which we can further their educational opportunities. That’s why these quasi-educational approaches, I think, are so important.
Q. Recently, the Casey Foundation came out with a call to phase out the last of the large, secure youth facilities. Is that something your administration is willing to take on that this point?
A. That’s a tough question. We have to always remember that any reform we have to put in place must have as its first priority keeping the public safe. We have juveniles now who are committing very serious crimes, and they may or may not, depending on the prosecuting attorneys, be treated as an adult for purposes of prosecution. And our law requires that if they are not of age, even if they’re convicted of the adult offense, they are still incarcerated in our juvenile facilities. We have to have facilities to handle that population group, because you’ve got everything from murderers right on down the line, even though by age they’re still classified as juveniles.
I don’t think you could ever totally do away with those kind of detention facilities. But can we provide better alternatives for those who do not have offenses of that high a caliber? Yes, and that is our goal That’s what we are continually working on.
Q. You just had a situation here where the state just had to pay out about $4 million in settlements to kids who were beaten up by one kid held at Eastman [Regional Youth Detention Center]. If you want to keep those facilities open, what do have you do to improve safety and avoid those kind of payouts?
A. That is an isolated incident, but it is a serious isolated incident. My personal thought is someone who is that dangerous is not appropriately housed in a juvenile facility. We don’t have the same kind of constraint alternatives for someone who’s classified as a juvenile. But if he’s a threat to the general population, which this individual has indicated on multiple occasions that he is, we have to be able to separate that person away from the general population. That sounds more like an adult situation, where you can confine them in solitary. We don’t have the same degree of latitude with the detention of juveniles.
That is an area which, in light of this case, that we’re going to have to take a serious look at. How do we balance the safety of the other young people who are in the system with the requirement to confine someone who’s classified as a juvenile, but who’s much more dangerous than the average population? That’s not an easy answer to come by.
Q. There have been periodic calls to revisit Senate Bill 440, the “Seven Deadly Sins” law that prosecutes kids as adults. You’ve got situations where people are doing long stretches in adult prisons for crimes they committed when they were 15 or 16. As you go forward, any plans to revisit that?
A. That may be an area that the Criminal Justice Reform commission may decide to look at. We hope we can keep them as an ongoing reviewing body. We‘ve already made some modifications, as you know, to revisit eligibility for adult offenders, to reclassify some of them in terms of parole eligibility. This is probably an area of that is of a similar nature. I don’t know whether the reform commission is currently looking at that, but it may be something they choose to look at.
Q. But it’s not a priority for you at this point?
A. Not at this point, because those that fit that definition are some of the most violent offenders we have, even though they may be of a young age.
Q. You’ve said your plan for opportunity schools is going to be the next piece of this. Louisiana’s model, which a lot of this is drawn from, has had its successes, but it’s also had its drawbacks. A lot of people have said they’ve played with the numbers to hit the marks they have. In your plan, how do you insulate it from that kind of criticism? What kind of steps do you have to keep that from happening?
A. In Louisiana, you had the hurricane, and the hurricane virtually demolished the entire school system in New Orleans, so they were able to start from scratch. Arguably, the New Orleans school system before the hurricane was one of the worst school systems in the entire country ... so their successes and their failures should be measured in light of where they were before they came in with what they call their Recovery School District. I think by that kind of measurement, they have been successful. I have personally visited there. We took a group of legislators and other interested people there last year. What we saw and what we heard was, ‘Yes, we’ve had some difficulties, but overall we’re making significant progress.’ When you take the worst of the worst, progress is sometimes very slow. But I was impressed with the attitude we saw from the administrators, from the teachers, and it appeared that they were much better than they were before the reforms. And I think that’s what we always look for.
Why is the Opportunity School District so important for Georgia? With almost seven out of 10 adults in our prison system having dropped out of school, the likelihood that a child going to chronically failing school is going to likewise fail and drop out are significantly increased from the regular school population. There is a direct linkage between lack of education and presence in a prison, and the crimes that go on between those points in time in a person’s life have many victims and cost everybody a lot of money, grief and heartache. The reason I call it the ultimate criminal justice reform is if you can get at the root, the most common denominator in criminal conduct — the lack of an education, the lack of a marketable skill — and you can remove those elements, then the likelihood of reducing your juvenile detention population and your adult criminal population are significantly enhanced.
Q. But you don’t have to look far. Atlanta had its own cheating scandal. There have been questions raised about how many kids really transfer or drop out. You have seen some of the same questions raised in New Orleans. Is there any extra effort in there to ensure the integrity of the numbers you’re using to base the system on?
A. I don’t think many people are arguing the accuracy of the numbers as to whether or not the schools are failing. That’s not in dispute ... I can’t take on reform of the education community in terms of the adults. I can only try to reform the processes under which they work. If somebody’s going to cheat, whether they be a student or they be a teacher, there’s very little that you can legislatively do to prevent that.
A bipartisan group of senators earlier this month introduced the legislation, which has won broad support from both conservative and liberal groups. The Judiciary Committee approved the bill with some technical changes by a vote of 15-5.
During the committee hearing, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, also said he would work on an amendment to limit courtroom shackling of juveniles as the bill makes its way to the Senate floor.
Coons said after the markup that shackling is too broadly used in ways that harm juveniles psychologically and affect their outcomes in court.
“When used inappropriately, shackling has significant negative impacts,” he said.
As of June, 21 states had a law, court rule, court opinion or statewide policy that limits the shackling of juveniles in the courtroom at some stage of court proceedings. The other 29 had no written guidance, nor did the federal government, according to the Campaign Against Indiscriminate Juvenile Shackling.
The bill also would limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison. In addition, it would permit nonviolent offenders who are tried as juveniles in federal court to seek to seal or expunge their records in some circumstances.
Another provision of the bill would allow juveniles convicted as adults in the federal system to seek resentencing before a judge after they have served 20 years of their sentence. The provision would apply retroactively to all juveniles charged as adults, including those given life sentences.
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers have introduced legislation that is similar to the Senate bill, although it does not include the provisions for juveniles. House Judiciary Committee leaders have said they intended to introduce additional legislation that could deal with juvenile reforms.
The committee “has an opportunity to improve upon an historical and strategic Act of Congress that has assisted states like mine to keep our communities safe and put youth on a better path,” said Steven C. Teske, chief judge of the Clayton County Juvenile Court in Georgia.
Teske pointed to programs in Georgia that have reduced arrests, detention rates and lengths of stay for juveniles, which he said were seeded by JJDPA funding.
The Senate Judiciary Committee this summer approved a JJDPA reauthorization bill, but House lawmakers have yet to consider a similar measure. The full Senate could vote on the legislation as early as this fall.
Teske and Derek Cohen, deputy director at the the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, both stressed the need to end detention for youth who commit status offenses, such as running away or missing curfew, by closing the valid court order exemption in any reauthorization.
Teske also recommended strengthening the provisions of the law that aim to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the system. In addition, he called for enhanced judicial training for judges so they can best apply federal requirements.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., ranking member of the committee, said JJDPA needs to be reauthorized to implement new policies, but also to ensure juvenile justice programs receive funding.
A House appropriations bill would zero out funding for several provisions under the law.
“We’re still likely to have the same problem year after year until we have a reauthorization of this program,” he said.
Scott, a long-time supporter of juvenile justice reform, said he hopes to work on a bipartisan bill that could reach the president’s desk before the end of this session of Congress.
Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., didn’t offer a timeline for action during the hearing.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. condemned “excessive” use of solitary confinement of children with mental illness in juvenile facilities.
“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities,” including mental illness, Holder said in a video posted on the Justice Department website.
“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities, who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects, including self-harm and even suicide,” the attorney general said. “In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.”
As JJIE reported in March, thousands of juveniles endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.
Holder noted that in some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows barely the width of their hands.
“This is, to say the least, excessive, and these episodes are all too common,” he said.
“Across the country,” Holder said, “far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular, youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”
He pointed to a study released last year by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) showing 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth up in some form of isolation for more than four hours at a time.
Holder said it may sometimes be necessary to separate a youth from others to protect staff, other inmates or the juvenile from harm.
“However,” he added, “this action should be taken only in a limited way where there is a valid reason to do so – and for a limited amount of time.”
Holder also said juveniles placed in isolation must be closely monitored and detention facilities must make “every attempt” to continue educational and mental health programming while a youth is in isolation.
“We must ensure in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people, that incarceration is used to rehabilitate and not merely to warehouse and to forget,” Holder said.
“The ACLU commends Attorney General Holder for speaking out against the harmful practice of placing vulnerable youth in solitary confinement,” Fettig said in an e-mail to JJIE. “This action clearly signals that such practices should not be tolerated in our society and that jurisdictions across the country must stop placing children in solitary confinement.
“But,” Fettig added, “the attorney general needs to go further. He must speak out against using the practice on any child – not just children with disabilities. Thousands of kids in this country are subject to solitary confinement every year, and this practice harms each and every one of them.”
The Justice Department has taken action in recent months in response to what it said was use of solitary confinement of youths with disabilities.
In March, the department said it asked a federal court to prevent the Ohio Department of Youth Services from unlawfully placing boys with mental health disorders in solitary confinement at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. The department alleged in a motion that DYS violated the constitutional rights of boys placed in solitary at all four of the state’s juvenile detention facilities.
In February, the department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest in response to what it called excessive reliance on solitary confinement of disabled youths in Contra Costa County, Calif. The statement alleged youths were held in solitary confinement up to 22 hours a day, often with no human interaction whatsoever.
And a task force commissioned by Holder, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, concluded in its final report in December 2012: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. Robert L. Listenbee Jr., now the OJJDP administrator, co-chaired the task force.
In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It is the legislative season in Illinois and around the country, and that means advocates spend lots of time trying to improve the juvenile justice system and trying to defeat bills that would hinder progress.
These debates in state capitols take place at the same time state agencies, probation departments and not-for-profit service providers struggle to operate their organizations and pay attention to the legislative action.
While keeping track of dozens of small but important debates, it is difficult to remember the big picture. Considering the enormity of effort required to re-write statutes, re-position staff and re-budget an entire state system, the consensus seems to be that it is easier to wire around deficiencies than to attempt to create a more rational structure. With the right guiding principles, the right people in leadership and advocates who are willing to create the right kind of accommodations, the system can function reasonably well.
But sometimes, it is important to step back and ask whether this complicated and costly juvenile justice “system” is really accomplishing what we want it to accomplish. If not, why not? Is the very structure of that system getting in the way? Is this the system we would build if we could start from scratch? Sometimes, it is important to ask these really fundamental questions for the benefit of the young people and communities who rely on the juvenile justice system.
My view of this exercise is colored by more than a law degree and years on the bench. I was fortunate to be educated in a joint JD/MBA program at the University of Illinois. I have never forgotten what some very good professors drilled into me. In particular, I learned about organizational behavior: the study of how people act in concert to achieve a desired result. The academic approach was to determine an organization’s structure and to examine its mission, guiding principles, policy and procedures. The daily results and practices of the enterprise depend upon how staff interact with all of these structural components and with each other.
The best juvenile justice organizations — whether state or local, public or private — begin with essential principles; fairness for victims and offenders, equity among clients, public safety, family inclusion, respect for the individual and many others. As a business enterprise, these organizations must also consider efficiency, achievement of results valued by society and positive cost-benefit ratios.
So, why expend brain time on this thought path? Because our juvenile justice systems may be facing an unprecedented opportunity for clean-sheet thinking, the time is right. Tight budgets, declining crime, adolescent brain science and burgeoning public understanding create a climate for re-structuring the results instead of altering the margins and wiring around problems. The “put good people in leadership” principle is a good approach, but new leadership faces structures that developed as past crises or political changes have whip-sawed its’ staffing and goals. Agency heads inherit union contracts, bricks and mortar and institutional culture are grown by accretion over time. And good people are promoted or are replaced by changing politics or changing board members.
A precipitating event may create an opportunity for structural change: a crisis inside an institution, a lawsuit or fiscal dilemma. In some states, the opportunity for change is imbedded in statute by sunset laws. In Illinois, the 1970 constitution — the first change in 100 years — allows for a constitutional review every 20 years as recognition that needs and goals change over time. No such review has taken place in the 44 years since: at least partially because the status quo is preferred by those who benefit from it.
If a precipitating event or a public appetite for change gives juvenile justice system organizations an opportunity, how should the clean sheet design be created, how should a new organization be formed?
Of course, the essential principles described above are keys to guide both structure and behavior. The mission of the organization must be designed to articulate the results sought by the people who pay the bill. Thereafter, decisions about policy and procedures must be thoughtfully created to fulfill the mission. Staffing, physical plant, contracting, performance review based upon adequate data and effective on-going evaluation and quality assurance must all be created and implemented.
The practices employed by the staff must be directed by evidence of effectiveness, and, perhaps most importantly, the day-to-day organizational behavior must be managed by well-trained and committed personnel who understand all of the above.
Re-visiting the principles that guide an organization’s structure and comparing the results achieved in furtherance of its mission is not time lost. Providing resources for management and support is not money wasted.
Sometime, to make real change — you just have to start over.
Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, since his appointment by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years prior to his 2006 retirement as Chief Judge of Illinois' Second Circuit, which is comprised of 12 counties in southeastern Illinois. Timberlake also is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board, and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition. A resident of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, Timberlake earned a bachelor's degree and MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law.
TALLAHASSEE -- In the wake of a bloody year for Florida youngsters, lawmakers have pledged to repair the state’s frayed safety net for abused and neglected children.
But as the state’s annual legislative session winds toward the final gavel, many children’s advocates say legislative leaders have failed to match their words with action and fear some proposals may create new problems.
Gov. Rick Scott has proposed spending $39 million to hire 400 “boots on the ground,” or child abuse investigators who will respond to hotline reports and identify at-risk kids. But investigators typically work with a family for 60 days or less, and then families in need of follow-up help are sent to privately run local agencies.
Those agencies, the governor says, don’t need new money. The agencies counter that if the governor’s plan goes through, their already-backlogged caseloads will swell and families will compete for the services they need to keep children safe. They are asking for $25.4 million more.
“If we get the words right on paper but not do the funding for services, we may actually do some damage,” said Kurt Kelly, president of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the state’s community-based-care providers. “There will be such an influx of children in need of services, and we will not have the resources to serve them.”
Florida lawmakers will devote the next two weeks to making choices about how to spend $1.3 billion in new revenue as they craft a record $75 billion state budget. The first drafts show that legislators’ pet projects account for more new money than at-risk kids.
After the Miami Herald’s Innocents Lost series documented the deaths of 477 children in the past six years whose families were known previously to the Department of Children & Families, Florida legislators vowed to make repairs to the state’s system.
“Oftentimes, you get what you pay for, and I think in child welfare we have gone on the cheap, and I think that’s been a mistake,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “It’s about money, and we need to spend more money.”
But how much more is still an open question. Neither the governor nor the Senate have embraced the Coalition for Children’s request. The House budget, which has adopted the governor’s plan to spend $39 million on new investigators, includes $4.6 million in new money for family support services.
The Herald investigation found that two-thirds of the 477 child deaths involved drug abuse or mental illness. Neither the governor nor legislators have proposed any significant increases in funding for a host of services designed to help unfit parents, such as drug treatment, mental-health counseling, domestic-violence services or anger-management classes.
Kelly laments that this comes after $7.9 million was cut from the budgets of the local community-based-care organizations in recent years. “We have less money today than we had in 2007, and now we’re talking about putting more kids in the system,” he said.
The House and Senate priorities include $500 million in tax and fee reductions, as well as hundreds of millions earmarked for optional hometown projects sought by individual legislators.
The projects are in dozens of counties, all of them home to a child who died because of abuse or neglect in the past six years, according to the Herald investigation.
In Miami Dade County, for example, where the Herald found 25 children previously known to DCF who had died from abuse and neglect, legislators are proposing at least $35 million in discretionary local projects. Among the proposals: $10 million for the SkyRise observation tower in downtown Miami and $1 million for the South Florida Military Museum.
In Pinellas County, where the Herald found that 15 children had died in the past six years, legislators have included $24 million worth of one-time projects, such as a $4 million marine aquarium in Clearwater. And in Hillsborough County, where 34 children died, lawmakers are proposing $5.4 million in new projects, such as $2 million for the Tampa Jewish Community Center.
“Every expenditure in the budget is important to the legislator who champions it,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But when it comes to budget choices, child advocates say the decision not to fund child-safety programs today will have long-term consequences later.
According to DCF, the state spends $72,709 per year for every abused and neglected child — to pay for child welfare, hospitalization, special education and juvenile justice services. The cost of investigating abuse complaints in 2012 alone was more than $312 million. And the cost of incarcerating a parent convicted of manslaughter or murder of a child: $17,333 a year, according to the Department of Corrections.
The deadly toll
Then, there is the human cost. Of the 477 child deaths investigated by the Herald, many were from families waiting for services.
In the winter of 2009, Rosemary Rodriguez was a parent in one of those families. She came to DCF’s attention when her 11-month-old, Angeliah Duncan, sustained the first of two head injuries. Rodriguez said the baby rolled off the bed in the first case, and that she accidentally hit the baby’s head on the dresser in the second.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office, which conducts child-abuse investigations under contract with DCF, referred Rodriguez to parenting classes and counseling. Rodriguez was just clearing a waiting list when, on June 15, 2009, her boyfriend shook Angeliah so violently her brain bled. She died less than three weeks before her first birthday.
“Just stop [bleeping] crying,” the boyfriend, Cecil Weekes, screamed as the infant kept him from sleeping. Weekes, who was convicted of second-degree murder, told police the “baby was immediately lifeless, and he thought her neck was broken.”
Broward County was home to 50 other children who died of abuse and neglect in the past six years. This year, legislators found $2.2 million to pay for half a dozen discretionary projects for Broward residents, ranging from $75,000 for a medical simulator for Barry University’s College of Health Sciences to $500,000 for the Performing Arts Center Authority.
In Palm Beach County, where 22 children died in the past six years, legislators have proposed spending $3.5 million on local and discretionary projects.
It’s the same county where, in 2012, the mother of 1-month-old Emma Morrison was on a waiting list for parenting classes and family support when her daughter died.
Lisa Lamoureaux, the newborn’s mom, had been the subject of 11 child-abuse or neglect investigations over the past decade. She had a history of drug abuse and had been arrested nine times, including on charges of larceny, exploitation of the elderly, drug possession, DUI and prostitution.
Lamoureaux had lost custody of her four older children, and a report said the youngsters “thrived” outside her care, but when Emma was born on Nov. 29, 2012, DCF chose to allow Lamoureaux to raise the girl.
Investigators said they believed they could mitigate the risk to Emma by offering Lamoureaux services, including parenting classes. Lamoureaux was on a waiting list at Boys Town and had been referred to a second program, but she refused to participate.
Lamoureaux had been warned by her pediatrician not to share the same bed with her newborn, but an autopsy concluded Emma died on Jan. 17, 2013, from “probable positional asphyxia” after being accidentally smothered in an adult bed with Lamoureaux. Although a report described Lamoureaux’s home as “not extraordinarily hazardous,” it added that police found two crack pipes when they arrived to investigate Emma’s death.
Plans on paper
Negron said that he and the Senate president are determined to find a way to improve the system to keep children safe, but he is not interested in bailing out the abusers.
“The responsibility for these acts perpetrated against children rests 100 percent with the perpetrator,” he said. “I don’t believe in corporate or community guilt for individual or horrific acts, especially done against children. So, while we want to do everything we can to prevent children from being in these situations and we’re committed to it, let’s be clear where the responsibility lies: Somebody who turns on boiling-hot water over a child’s legs — they’re responsible for that.”
Kelly says nearly $18 million of the $25.4 million they are requesting would help cover services to increase child safety, reduce the risk of future harm and stabilize at-risk families. Another $7.6 million would go to hiring new staff to reduce the caseload from 20 per caseworker to 12, and gradually increase the base pay from $30,000.
The governor’s goal is to cut caseloads for child protective investigators from an average of one investigator for every 20 kids to one for every 10, said Pete Digre, assistant secretary at DCF. The plan also calls for investigators to double-team in cases that involve children who are most at risk.
At a visit to the Opa-locka DCF office last week, Scott was asked why he has not sought additional funding for the community-based services for families. His answer: There is no immediate need.
“Once you find the solution, you can go back and work with the Legislature to get the funding,” he said, suggesting that any action will wait another year. “That’s what we’ll do.”
This is not the first time Scott has proposed increasing the number of child protective investigators. In 2012, when former DCF Secretary David Wilkins wanted to slow the turnover among child-abuse investigators whose workloads were rising, lawmakers found a way to do it by cutting corners.
The Legislature gave DCF millions of dollars to hire 124 additional investigators, raise their salaries $4,700 to $39,600, and upgrade their promotional opportunities by establishing a “career path.”
But rather than hire them as full-time employees and defy conservative principles of increasing government, the legislation allowed them to hire the new investigators as temporary, short-term workers, known in state government parlance as OPS for “other personnel services.”
These employees were hired at an hourly wage, but they were given no retirement benefits, no paid vacation or sick time. They are eligible for health insurance coverage and workers compensation pay.
Sen. Negron, who headed the budget committee that funded the program, said he was not aware the investigators had been hired without full benefits.
“The legislative intent was, regardless of their status, they were to be considered full-time state employees with benefits,” he said. "If someone is working for the state of Florida as a CPI, they should be a state employee — with benefits."
Alexis Lambert, DCF spokeswoman, said the policy has worked to reduce turnover as OPS employees transition to career service jobs when vacancies occur. Turnover rates for CPIs, which had been 35.3 percent in 2011, were down to 21.6 percent in 2013, she said.
But Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, a union that does not represent DCF workers, believes this was not only an attempt to save money on a critical government job, but is part of a trend by the governor and Legislature to diminish career service jobs and abuse the temporary worker status.
“That is really the type of position that career service was set up for,” he said. "It was designed to help them do the job as they saw fit without any political pressure, but this is not a good scene — having so many OPS workers being responsible for at-risk kids. How can the state keep them with no benefits and no time off?"
This year, the governor’s proposal for the 400 new investigators includes having them be full-time career service employees with full benefits, Lambert said.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Pete Digre, DCF’s assistant secretary, speaking to a Miami Herald town hall meeting last week. He is optimistic that the policy will reduce investigator caseloads and improve the quality of investigations.
“We’ve got people in this town tonight that are trying to keep up with the well-being of 60 children. It is humanly impossible.”
States would be forbidden to lock up juveniles who violate a court order by committing a status offense like truancy, running away from home or failing to abide by a curfew, under a bill pending in Congress.
The measure, introduced by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), would restore a provision of the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that prohibited states from allowing judges to incarcerate juveniles when they commit a status offense in violation of a court order.
The number of status offenders detained had dropped off sharply after the JJDPA stipulated states could forfeit some juvenile justice money if they allowed youths to be detained for committing a status offense in violation of a court order.
But in reauthorizing the JJDPA in 1980, Congress allowed incarceration of juveniles under what is known as the “valid court order” (VCO) exception in which judges can detain a youth if a status offense violates a court order.
“I think if most of America understood what a status offense was and if they realized that some children are being incarcerated over status offenses, they would be first of all, surprised and secondly, they would not agree that that is a proper way of handling … a status offense,” Cardenas told JJIE.
The national organizations, joined by state and local groups, signed a letter to members of Congress urging them to support the status offenders bill (HR-4123).
“Too many young kids are still finding their way into the juvenile justice system unnecessarily,” the letter states.
“We know that detention of status offenders is more costly and less effective than home and community-based responses. It interrupts education, increases the chances the youth will go ‘deeper’ into the [juvenile justice] system, and leads to higher recidivism rates.”
The letter notes girls are much more likely to be arrested for status offenses and to receive more severe punishment.
“Many girls who act out as a result of abuse or trauma are simply re-traumatized by violent and abusive experiences in the juvenile justice system,” the letter said.
Under Cardenas’ bill, states would be required to stop using the VCO exception within one year of passage, or risk losing some OJJDP funds. But the bill would allow an additional year to comply if states show it would be a hardship to meet the initial deadline.
Lisa Pilnik, deputy executive director of the nonprofit CJJ, a coalition of juvenile justice advocacy groups, said detaining status offenders can expose them to youths who have committed much more serious crimes.
“[Status offenders] can learn bad behaviors from those youths,” Pilnik said.
And a 118-page report released by CJJ in December said detained status offenders are often held in overcrowded, understaffed facilities where they can be exposed to violence. Indeed, almost 20 percent of status offenders and other youths held for non-delinquent offenses are housed with youth who have committed murder or manslaughter and 25 percent are placed in units with felony sex offenders, the report said.
Pilnik said status offenders — and taxpayers — would be better served by effective community-based programs, which cost less and work better than incarceration.
“There’s a lot of support [for Cardenas’ bill] because to us and to all these other groups that have signed on this is kind of an obvious thing,” she said. “Why would you lock up youth who’ve done nothing worse than run away from home or skip school or do all these behaviors that we know are at the very least typical teenage behavior and at the very worst symptoms of youth who need services and help and whose families may need some sort of an intervention?
“But these aren’t kids who’ve committed any sort of crime, much less a serious crime, so why are we locking them up?”
In providing community-based services to youths, Pilnik said, it’s important to assess what’s behind their behavior.
“So if the behavior is running away, is there conflict in the home that they’re running away from?” she said.
“If the behavior is skipping school, is there something going on at school? Is there an unmet special education need? Is the child being bullied at school? What’s happening at school that’s causing the child to not want to go and to not feel like school is a safe place for them or a place that they’re getting anything out of?”
Pilnik said the 1980 VCO exception came in part as a result of pressure from judges who wanted authority to detain juveniles whose status offenses violated court orders.
Cardenas, a first-term congressman, said lawmakers had eliminated the VCO exception as part of a politically expedient bid to get tough on juvenile crime.
The CJJ report concluded that detaining youths who have committed status offenses may increase the likelihood they will become more entangled with the juvenile justice system later and even with the criminal justice system when they become adults.
The report provided detailed recommendations on dealing with status offenses for those working with status offenders and their families.
The nonprofit CJJ developed the recommendations in partnership with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and a team that included child welfare workers, juvenile defense attorneys, juvenile corrections and detention administrators, and community-based service providers.
“Fear of Florida the latest phobia: State officials are as worried as the tourists”
“State of terror: Florida killing spoils Disney World dream for a million holiday Brits”
That was 1993. Nine tourists visiting the Sunshine State had died violently in the span of a year, several at the hands of gun-wielding teenagers.
Florida’s multibillion-dollar tourist industry was near panic. The Florida legislature called an emergency session.
“Law enforcement, whether it was city police or sheriff’s offices, were screaming to have something done,” said former Florida Rep. Buzz Ritchie “They would pick up a teenager, a child if you will, for doing something that was obviously a felony, but they’re back on the street the next morning.”
What they did was give state attorneys incredible power over the fate of juveniles in the judicial system.
The Times-Union reported Sunday that Public Defender Matt Shirk and private lawyers say State Attorney Angela Corey, whose circuit includes Jacksonville, has used that power to unfairly threaten juveniles with being sent to adult court if they don’t accept record-staining direct commitments to juvenile-incarceration facilities.
Corey’s office said juvenile cases are handled no differently than adult cases, according to a statement released Friday.
Shirk said state law needs to be changed to provide checks and balances.
Confronting Teenage Crime
Direct commitments — the power given to prosecutors in 1994 — are usually plea deals. When juveniles agree to plea deals, they are often incarcerated without the chance to hear the evidence against them, examine police work or interview witnesses. Also, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) typically is not given the chance to evaluate the juvenile’s background and needs.
Shirk’s office estimates that more than 800 juveniles in the past five years were first threatened with adult charges before accepting pleas. The Times-Union’s analysis also found a disproportionate number of low-risk youth from the Jacksonville area are being incarcerated, compared to other Florida judicial circuits.
Before 1994, judges would hold a special hearing, much like a small trial, where both sides would argue their case to decide which court would be best for each contested case.
After this law was changed, state attorneys could send children directly to adult court without that hearing and without a juvenile judge’s go-ahead.
Former state Rep. Elvin Martinez, one of the Democrat sponsors of the bill that gave state attorneys power over direct filing, said lawmakers were forced to act to get juvenile crime under control.
Ritchie, another Democrat co-sponsor of that bill, said juveniles would come in for committing felonies, would get released from juvenile court and, like “a revolving door,” would be back in court days later for another felony.
“We were seeing patterns of behavior from certain juveniles,” said Ritchie, now president of the Gulf Coast Community Bank in Pensacola. “There was some evidence that certain judges would not incarcerate. Certain judges would just turn loose.”
“Some of the prosecutors weren’t acting serious enough, in my opinion,” said Martinez, who is also a retired criminal judge.
But the true driving force was the public perception that crime was out of control in Florida, especially crimes committed by kids.
No Votes Against
In 1993, German tourists Jorg and Sonya Schell had just gotten to their motel after a dinner out in Homestead when a group of teenagers tried to rob them, the Miami Herald reported. Two 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old came up to them, and one grabbed Sonya Schell’s purse. She screamed. As her husband rushed toward her, one of the teens shot him fatally in the neck. One teen was sentenced to life in prison, one to 25 years and another to 20 years, the Herald reported.
That fall, British tourist Gary Colley was sleeping in his car at a rest stop on Interstate 10 near Monticello, the Ocala Star-Banner reported. Several youth told him to get out of the car, and Colley threw the vehicle in reverse. Someone shot Colley in the neck through the window, killing him. One of the attackers, who was 16 at the time of the shooting, was sentenced to life in prison, and other teens were given shorter prison sentences, the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times reported.
State lawmakers passed the bill unanimously, along with various others reforming Florida’s juvenile justice system.
A "Baby Step" May Be First
Sending children to adult court is a practice that’s been around for about a century, but it stuck as a legal practice in the 1960s. Questions about which crimes merited adult court were settled when the U.S. Supreme Court decided children as young as 16 could be sent to adult court if they’d committed a felony.
The typical process at that time included a special hearing, called a judicial waiver. Prosecutors would ask the judge for the hearing, both sides would convene and present their cases and the judge would decide whether juvenile or adult court was best.
The Florida legislation then allowed state attorneys to bypass that hearing by sending the juvenile’s case directly to adult court — the process called direct file — starting July 1, 1994.
That law change also let prosecutors send children as young as 14 to adult court if they met a certain criminal threshold, which included committing felonies with guns.
Florida isn’t the only state that allows prosecutors, rather than judges, to make the decision to charge a juvenile as an adult.
Fifteen states give prosecutors that authority, according to the most recent tally from the U.S. Department of Justice. Of those, 11 states allow a juvenile filed in adult court ask a judge to review that decision, a process called a reverse waiver.
Asking for a reverse waiver isn’t an option in Florida.
Marie Osborne, the head of the juvenile division in Miami-Dade’s Public Defender’s Office, said juveniles would be better served with a judicial waiver, where the juvenile judge would make the decision on whether to charge a juvenile as an adult.
Under that structure the state would make arguments for adult court and the defense would make arguments for juvenile sanctions.
“Now that’s due process,” Osborne said.
Osborne said the juvenile system’s caseloads are significantly slimmer than decades ago, providing more time for judges to make the decisions. And now there’s more research and evidence on how juveniles’ brains work.
Rob Mason, the head of the juvenile division for the Public Defender’s Office in Jacksonville, agreed with Osborne because juvenile judges are more familiar with juvenile services and research. But he also said the defense community may have to live with a “baby step” in the form of the reverse waiver.
“We’re hoping for reverse waiver just because we’re trying to get something going that helps us,” Mason said.
"Most powerful office holders"
Lawmakers said they knew the power they were handing state attorneys. That power isn’t a problem as long as it is used properly, they said.
“The prosecutors are the most powerful office holders known to man,” Martinez said. “That’s why it’s so important you have a state attorney who is not ambitious and just follows the law.”
Ritchie said the legislation certainly strengthened state attorneys, and he said he felt they would use this power wisely.
“We strengthened them measurably,” Ritchie said. “We did intend for them to have that discretion.”
When told by a reporter about how Corey’s office is accused of leveraging the threat of direct filing against juveniles, Ritchie said he wasn’t familiar with how Corey runs her office, but couldn’t imagine Corey’s office would be using the threat of direct filing unless prosecutors feel juvenile court won’t give these children the help they need.
“You might have a good percentage of prosecutors that have lost confidence that the juvenile justice system is going to do anything,” he said.
Having the ability to send a child directly to adult court was — and still is — a valuable resource, said Bill Cervone, state attorney for the Gainesville area.
Sending a child to adult court takes consideration, he said, but sometimes it’s the best option for the child. If a teen has a drug problem, sometimes they can get better care from an adult program than a juvenile one. Sending a toughened youth to a juvenile facility where he would be a bad influence on younger, less hardened kids is also a bad idea.
Cervone, who has worked for the state attorney’s office since 1973, said “the basic criteria that motivates [his office] to put a child into adult court really did not change” after state attorneys’ power was expanded.
“Certainly, in those cases that we deemed appropriate, it made the process much simpler,” he said. “I think it is an appropriate use of discretion for us to have so long as you have some guidance, which the legislation has given us.”
When asked about Corey’s specific practices, Cervone said it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment on the operations of another state attorney.
A Change by Law or Ballot
After state law changed in 1994, state attorneys across Florida each had their own way of using the new sovereignty. Some stuck to their old standards and only sent children to adult court when there were no other options, said Frank Orlando, former juvenile and circuit court judge. Some pushed forward with their new power, much like the way Angela Corey’s office currently handles cases.
“Some state attorneys have an automatic list. You do this; you go to adult court,” said Orlando, who is now the director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at Nova Southeastern University in the Fort Lauderdale area. “Any child who was involved with those crimes, no matter what his crime or her crime was, they were just direct filed automatically.”
Changing this power would take nothing less than a change in state law, something current lawmakers say is unlikely. Rather, they said, it’s important that the public voices their opinion by voting for state attorneys whom they trust to use all powers — including direct filing — appropriately.
Shirk, the Jacksonville-area public defender, said the laws on charging juveniles as adults should to be changed to allow for review of these cases, the Times-Union reported Sunday.
“You change the law, then you don’t have those problems. You don’t have those threats,” he said.
Corey said during a November debate on juvenile issues that the state’s laws do not need changing.
“What you have to do is appreciate the laws that our legislators have given us where in Florida we have the ability to put a juvenile into adult court and still give them juvenile sanctions if it’s appropriate,” she said. “It’s a good law; it’s worked for all these years and there’s no reason to change it.”
Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat who represents parts of Jacksonville, said she isn’t surprised to hear complaints that Corey uses coercive tactics to get juveniles to accept plea deals.
“She has always said if there was a gun involved, there would be no mercy, period,” Gibson said. “That doesn’t mean people should be threatened.”
She said she’s displeased with Corey’s methods but said a law change is unlikely.
“Even though I wasn’t in the Legislature when (it) changed the law, I am more than certain that that could not have been the intent of the legislation and it certainly is not proper due process at all,” she said. “I think the state attorney can do better than that. I think they can do better by a young person than that.”
Florida Sen. John Thrasher, a Republican whose district includes St. Johns County, said giving state attorneys the ability to control direct filing gives them an essential tool to do their jobs.
“It’s worked for 20 years. I think it’s always been used in a consistent manner with the law,” he said. “They should have that right. I think it’s appropriate for their job.”
Thrasher voted in 1993 to change state law to give state attorneys authority over direct filing. He noted he was part of a Republican minority, and the bill was supported heavily by the Democratic majority.
Thrasher said it would be inappropriate to comment on the actions of an elected official outside of his district.
“If people feel like they’re not doing their job or they’re doing it inappropriately,” Thrasher said, “then they certainly have the right and they should make that known at the ballot box.”
“Our children” are routinely trotted out (sometimes with sincerity) as public relations tools to sell various agendas politicians and interest groups push. Nothing brings out transparent exploitation like drugs. The semi-legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington spawned moralizing by both sides so cynical it bordered on callous.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo listed the administration’s first concern as the prevention of marijuana’s availability and appeal to youth. What charlatanism. An administration truly concerned about drug policies’ effects on youths would be urgently reassessing its own War on Drugs.
The Drug War’s mass arrest and imprisonment regime has been accompanied by unprecedented explosions in drug abuse, violence, and crime—the predictable result of the National Drug Control Strategy’s emphasis on punishing users while neglecting addiction. Illicit-drug abuse deaths now top 40,000 per year, led by middle-agers (2,000 among ages 40-64 in 1980; 21,500 in 2010). Teens show fewer but also increased drug fatalities (250 in 1980, 900 in 2010).
Rhetoric by marijuana legalization advocates also has been bizarrely exploitative. The NAACP’s Benjamin Jealous recited a common myth concocted by legalizers: if marijuana is regulated “like beer,” teens will find marijuana “harder to get.”
That’s both immaterial and false. Surveys for 40 years consistently show teens find legal drugs easier to get and actually use than illicit drugs. The 2013 Monitoring the Future survey is typical: 39% of 8th graders find marijuana “easy or very easy to get,” compared to 56% for alcohol; nearly twice as many drink alcohol as smoke pot.
American alcohol regulation is a deadly disaster, not a model. Federal fatality data show that every year, drunken, over-21 adults kill 800 teenagers and children and injure 80,000 more in a quarter-million traffic crashes. Adults’ drinking is the fifth leading cause of death to teens.
Perpetuating America’s tradition of leniency toward privileged groups and their drugs, Washington’s initiative allows adults to drive with marijuana levels more than twice the recognized safety limit. Washington’s first year of legalization brought increased marijuana-related traffic crashes, led by a 48-year-old driver who admitted to “smoking a bowl” before killing a pedestrian.
Both sides, deploying expedient non-science, ignore and rationalize adult excesses while dispensing useless propaganda haranguing teens to abstain. Strangely, they omit the best strategy: adults (especially parents) pushing teenage abstinence should abstain from drinking and drugs themselves, which sharply reduces the odds of their teens indulging. We grownups don’t care that much.
Meanwhile, draconian underage drinking laws arrest 300,000 teens every year. Marijuana legalizers rightly lament the harsh effects marijuana arrests inflict on young people. Then, their “reforms” continue to harshly criminalize marijuana use by those under 21, half of all marijuana possession arrestees. If marijuana is legalized for adults like alcohol, one in four total arrests of Americans under age 21 will be simply for possessing otherwise legal substances.
American drug policy largely consists of cyclical crusades demonizing whatever out-group—Chinese, Catholic immigrants, Mexicans, urban minorities, gay men, African Americans, teenagers—is most feared and safest to attack at any moment. Children and teens have always been pawns to subsidize drug-war interests on one side and adult partying on the other. The young are being forced to pay an unacceptable price for grownups’ selfish indulgences.
Decades of planned failure underlie Americans’ singular inability to handle drugs whatever their status—legal (alcohol), semi-legal (pharmaceuticals), or illegal (street drugs). World Health Organization tabulations indicate Americans’ rate of drug and alcohol overdose fatality is six times higher than other Western nations’. Our drug crises create global perils.
Obscured by all the bad policy schemes is California’s distinctly constructive 2011 reform reducing marijuana use by all ages to a rarely enforced infraction. Did teens afforded de facto legal marijuana go crazy? Hardly. Crime, hard drug arrests, school dropout rates, and related ills plunged to record lows among California youth in 2011 and 2012.
America can build on California’s success. Drug policy should focus on promoting responsibility toward alcohol and marijuana for adults and teenagers alike, not criminalizing mere use. That’s how to “care about children.”